Like a Boss: The Harem Trope

By: Jo Weldon

“To live in a culture in which women are routinely naked where men aren’t is to learn inequality in little ways all day long. So even if we agree that sexual imagery is in fact a language, it is clearly one that is already heavily edited to protect men’s sexual–and hence social–confidence while undermining that of women.”

― Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women

Burlesque, of all the performing arts, seems to have the widest range of opportunities for both sexism and feminism in the ways it can be executed and represented. I’ll expand on that idea another time; I’m mentioning it briefly to clarify that the following non-feminist thing I see happening in burlesque is not what I perceive as a defining element, but as a growing concern that needs to be addressed as soon as possible, before it does become a defining element.

I recently took some time to really remember what it was like to be a naked woman surrounded on all sides by men in suits. In the 1980s/90s I worked in high-end strip joints where the customers were required to wear suits. In fact, we often called the customers “suits.” (Women were allowed in the club, but it was understood that “customers” meant “men.”) These clubs sought a clientele of conventioneers and businessmen, with a sprinkling of celebrities (for whom the clothing rules were somewhat lax, particularly when the celebrities were Vince Neil or Dennis Rodman.) The club owners were always in suits, always the boss. I associated men in suits with the more upscale clubs where I was closely monitored, in an industry where I originally went intending to work under fairly anarchic conditions. The atmosphere of “luxury,” “sophistication,” and “elegance” included women who were pre-approved (by management for the customers) to have a tasteful, well-groomed appearance and demeanor. The clubs were supposed to be classy. “Classy” meant “appropriate.” “Classy” meant “controlled.” “Classy” meant “consumably pretty.” “Classy” meant (shudder) “ladylike,” a term of oppression if ever there was one.

Generally speaking, the customers in commercial strip clubs didn’t want to see feather fans or corsets or slow peels from us, so when I got to do burlesque I felt super rebellious. Mainstream dudes in suits didn’t relate to false eyelashes and feather boas, and they definitely didn’t want to carry glitter home on their lapels. Burlesque has a different appeal. Beginning in burlesque in NYC in the late 1990s I felt like a post-feminist stripper, and when I participated in a photo shoot of scantily-clad dancers posing around a man in a suit at that time, it felt ironic. We were doing it specifically to celebrate the fact that it was now unlikely that a man in a suit would ever tell us what to do.

Bombshell Burlesque strip joint sendup, 2003. (Photo: Mario Pagano) Right to left: Lady Ace, Julie Atlas Muz, Amber Ray, (seated) Ms. Tickle. (Yes, I was in this show.)
Bombshell Burlesque strip joint sendup, 2003. (Photo: Mario Pagano) Right to left: Lady Ace, Julie Atlas Muz, Amber Ray, (seated) Ms. Tickle. (Yes, I was in this show.)

Now the image of scantily clad or nude women around the man in a suit has gotten more common in burlesque advertising, to the extent that I’ve started calling it “The Harem Trope,” and I’ve participated or been asked to participate in it often enough that it no longer seems to be an ironic tableau. Last year as I was walking away from one of these shoots I asked one of the other female performers who’d stood around the guy in the suit why it felt so off to me.

“We’re being used as accessories,” she said.

And at that point it dawned on me that whether ten men in suits surrounded one naked lady (as in the upscale strip joints where I used to work), or ten naked ladies surrounding one man in a suit, it felt the same to me.

Historically, a “harem” has been a place where a group of women are sequestered, “kept safe,” isolated, etc., as the property of one man. The history is complicated and varied, but there is always one man whose interests are served by many women.

WEB-hef with bunnies

In many of these kinds of promotional shots, the women are not acknowledged as accomplished, creative performers in any way. They are holding props such as fans that appear to be ornamental, or they refer to the men in the center instead of to the camera, or they are nude or in lingerie in such a fashion that there is no sign whatsoever that they are entertainers with developed careers. Their sole accomplishment appears to be getting to be associated with this man. And if a producer is selective and accomplished himself, it may BE an accomplishment–but then why wouldn’t he show why he is proud to be associated with them by showing them in their carefully created costumes and personas, instead of as mere accessories to his aesthetic?

Think about it–that person in the suit might use it as a promotional photo of himself as a solo artist, but would you, as one of the bunnies, use it to promote you as a solo artist? Do you look more like part of an ensemble, or an accessory? While this is true of any group photo, isn’t the potential meaning in the type of photo to which I’m referring pretty specific? Man in suit boss of naked ladies. Man irreplaceable, women interchangeable. Right?

I’m not saying I’ll never do one of these photos again. But if I was going to play the bunny quite so often, I wanted to add something to the pantheon of pictures that come up when I’m googled. I wanted a reverse Hugh Hefner. Last year I was voted “Most Likely to Start a Harem” at the NY Burlesque Festival, but I don’t think of myself as a gatekeeper–I think of myself as an enabler. So to play with the idea of The Harem Trope I had this picture taken, Like A Boss:

Photo: Maggie Saniewska of PlayMe Burlesque
Photo: Maggie Saniewska of PlayMe Burlesque

And also this one, The Photoshoot Afterparty, in which everyone looks like we’re having a blast together instead of waiting for me to give directives:

Photo: Maggie Saniewska PlayMe Burlesque
Photo: Maggie Saniewska PlayMe Burlesque

My guidelines to evoke The Harem Trope:  you can’t wear a costume, just lingerie. You can’t do any of your signature moves. The woman has to be in the middle, dressed, and you have to look like an accessory. And the men totally dug it. Many animated discussions ensued in the weeks before the shoot, about The Harem Trope and whether or not mere gender reversal could address the problem. (It can’t, but it’s a great way to shed some light and start a conversation.) It certainly wasn’t the first time a woman in a suit has been photographed with naked men, but it was the first time that I, a burlesque performer who has usually been in the naked position, have done it.

Interestingly, we also did a shot in which I directed everyone to have the same expressions as models in American Apparel ads, but it was too boring, and I didn’t really want to equate “feminizing” with “minimizing.”

Some comments from the men in the shoot on how they feel having seen the photos:

“It’s great to have this shot show lots of naked men surrounding a woman, as opposed to the traditional patriarchal imagery of the clothed man of power with the naked women, an image that used to represent all the traditions that our (neo-burlesque) work seeks to confront. It became ironic presumably because we all accepted that we were past that, but now seems to be creeping back with another generation who have apparently lost the irony (and the politics too?), rendering it for me no better than the bad old days. So way to go CFNM!!” —Mat Fraser

“I’m just happy to see such a straightforward role reversal happen in a picture. I very much wish I could see the reaction from the average male. I already know women will be cheering the image on and I’m curious if men will be confused, if they’ll find it ridiculous, or if they’ll find an uncomfortable irony in frame. The shoot itself was a blast. There were so many great people that you only get to see once or twice a year there and having such a great excuse to shed our clothes was a god-send. It’s possible for this photo to have more impact than a live performance ever could and it’s great to be a part of it.” —The Trojan Original

And, big bonus! Three of the men from my suit shoot—The Luminous Pariah, The Trojan Original, and Paris Original—are featured, as their troupe Mod Carousel, in this video that plays with Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video.  Mod Carousel said they produced the video because “It’s our opinion that most attempts to show female objectification in the media by swapping the genders serve more to ridicule the male body than to highlight the extent to which women get objectified, and does everyone a disservice. We made this video specifically to show a spectrum of sexuality as well as present both women and men in a positive light, one where objectifying men is more than alright and where women can be strong and sexy without negative repercussions.”

Within the burlesque community, these Men In Suits, these “bosses” may appear laughable. However, these photos aren’t only happening inside the burlesque community. These photos are happening on the internet, which is the whole wide world. The people hiring us and coming to our shows may or may not get the “joke”. From a Facebook conversation about The Harem Trope in The Fringe Forum, a moderated discussion group for burlesque performers:

Annie Cherry Of the Kansas City Society of Burlesque: “Damian and I actively avoid that scenario. Often, when he was the only person presenting as male in our troupe of eight, people automatically assumed he was the emcee.”

Damian Blake: “People also automatically assumed it was ‘my’ troupe, or ‘my girls’ if I was a guy in a suit with scantily clad women. It made me uncomfortable.”

Many men in the burlesque community are interested in seeing The Harem Trope become less accepted. Schaffer the Darklord, nerdcore rapper and burlesque emcee, frequently points out the sexism in the gaming community, and often takes issue with The Harem Trope. He posted a status on Facebook that read, “Well, how about that? A photo of a naked woman standing next to a fully-clothed man. You know, like an accessory. What a completely original & non-problematic idea you had there, dude.” When a commenter on the post called him out for the way gender was presented in a promotional video he had produced several years ago, Schaffer responded, “There’s a lot of problematic shit in that video that doesn’t exactly sit right with me anymore. In fact, it’s even addressed in lyrics in a song on my new record. Thankfully, people’s attitudes and perspective CAN change over time.”

Bastard Keith, a popular burlesque emcee who produces a show called The Sophisticates with his spouse, Madame Rosebud, told me about some changes he wants to make in show promotion: “I feel slightly ill looking at photos of men in suits smugly presiding over a bunch of scantily-clad showgirls. It reeks of privilege, of women as property, of a sort of unapologetic entitlement. Rosebud and I previously took some shots for The Sophisticates that somewhat fit the paradigm, and while I don’t regret them necessarily (we were both very happy with them) we’ve decided that the best way to move forward is to flip it. In future promotion, we’re going to move me further out of the center of the image. And that idea pleases me immensely.”

One male producer told me that the trope wasn’t doing any harm, and he needed it to get butts into seats at the shows. I don’t think it does get butts into seats; I don’t see any reason why it would, even if you like the harem motif. Performer/producer Jonny Porkpie explains how he came to be at the center of one of these photos: “It was at the end of a much longer photoshoot featuring 9 people, male and female, all in various stages of undress. After finishing the shots we needed to promote the show, I decreed ‘I want one of those pictures of me in a tux surrounded by scantily-clad women.’ The men were dismissed, and the women instructed to look adoringly at me, while I alone made eye contact with the camera. It seemed, at the time—over a half-decade ago now—an amusing lark, a winking throwback to the sexist yet swingin’ sixties; certainly this could accompany my Playboy interview circa 1967.

“Looking at it now, it is (through no fault of our fabulous photog, Don Spiro) the worst of that shoot. The rest of the photos are engaging, vibrant images, balanced in nudity regardless of gender, depicting characters in costumes interacting with each other and/or the viewer in a salacious manner. Even at the time, I didn’t include that particular photo in the press packet for the show, though I did put it on my own promo page. Perhaps I knew instinctively; even surrounded by scantily clad women, the central figure of a fully-dressed man made a lousy selling point for a burlesque show; an objectification antithetical to both the spirit and appeal of neo-burlesque.”

But even if it did gets butts in seats, I don’t think it’s worth it to do so at the expense of making women look more like property, in a world plagued by beauty insecurity, street harassment, and rape.

Someone asked me why I didn’t interview women for this article. I think that’s worth doing, but first I wanted to get a few men who’d been in that position of privilege to talk about it. Also, this is a third of what I wrote before we edited it, and it could be three times as long as it was before it was edited down. And — this is of course part of the larger problem — people listen to men differently than they listen to women.

To be clear: I’m not referring to A Particular Producer. I don’t have a bug up my ass about male producers. Producing is a fuckton of hard work.  Since in the 1990s, I’ve worked with producers like Dick Zigun and James Habacker, who have provided progressive venues and artistic opportunities, and they deserve kudos, and have every right to be photographed as relevant to a group of performers to whose careers they have contributed.  I believe in supporting such producers, both as an individual and as part of a group that has benefited from their hard work. And I have seen many photos of male producers surrounded by performers in their costumes or in attitudes that make the show look like it’s a whole lot more than a panty parade. A producer looks more amazing to me if he is surrounded by folks in brilliant costuming and performative poses than if he’s simply surrounded by pretty girls in a harem or Playboy Mansion party setting. It looks like a Real Show, a show people will want to see.

It’s not that hard. Gender roles can be disregarded even in situations where a woman’s breasts might be assumed to be essential, as in this tassel-twirling instructional I did for L Magazine.

I’d like to challenge performers, producers, and photographers to come up with something more exciting and less predictable, something that doesn’t contribute to an environment in which women are thought of as consumables, as naked bait, as requiring the endorsement of a guy in a suit to create their art.

The Woman in a Suit photo owes special thanks to Jen Gapay and The New York Boylesque Festival of April 2013 for bringing the boys to town and helping coordinate!

Thank you to photographer Maggie Saniewska of PlayMe Burlesque for donating her time and talent, and to Duane Park NYC for contributing space for the shoot.

Models in the first suit photo:

Bobby Barnaby

Brewster McCall

Dew Lily

El Toro

James and the Giant Pastie

Mark Bokquist

Matt Knife

Paris Original

The Luminous Pariah

The Trojan Original

Waxie Moon


Models in the laughing photo:

Brewster McCall

El Toro

Jonny Porkpie

Julie Atlas Muz

Mat Fraser

Paris Original

Scarey Ben

The Evil Hate Monkey

The Luminous Pariah


Waxie moon


“I’m not tweeting to say what we need and what we don’t… I just wanted to think out loud with you guys today… #THEWORDBITCH.” –Kanye West on Twitter, September 2012


For more of Jo’s work in Pin Curl, check out her Burlesque Etiquette Columns: Teacher/Student Dos and Don’ts, These Children That You Spit On: Established Performer to New Performer Etiquette, Stage Kitten Etiquette, Making Introductions: Emcee Etiquette,  Photos & Pasties, How to Annoy Producers, How to Annoy Performers,  I’m Just Saying, Headliner Etiquette – Part 1, Social Media Etiquette for Nearly Naked People

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