Nerdlesque: A Multilayered Interactive Fan Experience
By: Alexis Meuche
Audiences and performers alike are drawn to nerdlesque at an increasing rate due to the art form's convergent nature. As the media focused subgenre of burlesque, nerdlesque builds upon the feminist theatre structure of burlesque through the physical embodiment of fannish production found in fan fiction and cosplay. In doing so, nerdlesque creates an immersive, layered spatio-temporal connection between the audience and performer through the shared language of pop culture. By capitalizing on pre-established pop culture symbols, nerdlesque creates a uniquely transformative space for performers and audience members to explore sexuality, gender, and inclusion through the lens of a shared fan language. Nerdlesque is a multifandom experience. It is accessible to both non-nerd patrons while also simultaneously servicing hyper-niche audience members. Both the Star Trek novice and the ride-or-die Trekkie can translate it and, hopefully, enjoy it.
Shared Fan Language and Fan Production
One of the most striking consequences of a hyperconnected world is the ubiquitous nature of pop culture and the consumption of previously limited "nerd" media. Nerdlesque actively engages with that hyperconnected audience by casting a wide marketing net simply with the use of the word “nerd.” Similarly, media producers in television and film capitalize on this connectivity and nerd fever by intentionally creating material that can be consumed across platforms, encouraging active audience participation. Producer devised "transmedia strategies assume that the gradual dispersal of material can sustain...various types of audience conversations, rewarding and building particularly strong ties with a property's most ardent fans while inspiring others to be even more active in seeking and sharing new information" (Jenkins et al., 2018, pp. 143). Both the goal of the nerdlesque performer and the Hollywood media producer is to service fans that possess varying levels of participation and knowledge. This wide net creates a baseline shared fan language that is widely accessible. One could argue that it is easier to find a person who knows who Black Panther is than it is to find someone who has never heard of this once-obscure comic book hero. Nerd is no longer a dirty word - it's a badge of honor.
As nerd culture has become more ubiquitous and accessible, so too have the creative energies of fandom. When "fans need less energy to acquire and experience fan objects, they have more energy to spend on finding new ways to express their love for them" (Fraade-Blanar & Glazer, 2017, pp. 11). While fan-created content has a long and varied history, the level of accessibility and reach has never been greater. No longer is it necessary to organize collating parties like those hosted by famed Star Trek fan historian Jacqueline Lichtenberg or zine stapling potlucks to create with other fans (Jamison, 2013). The internet allows for quick connection and therefore, quick consumption. Tumblr is awash in fan-centric blogs that while coded in heavy fan language, are accessible to new fans and old fans alike. Twitter makes it possible to connect with your favorite celebrities and producers. YouTube allows for the quick circulation of fanvids and reaction videos, and Archive of Our Own has made the creation and consumption of fanfiction a one-stop-shop. If you want to talk about it, the internet will provide a platform for you to connect with like minded people. If you want to consume it, the internet will provide a place to find it. If you want to create it, the internet will provide a platform for you to post it.
Fans do not create as a solitary practice. They engage with previously established meanings found in canon with the goal of sharing their personal interpretations with their fan communities; it is "the cultural equivalent of collective storytelling" (Hellekson & Busse, 2014, pp. 21). While the actual creation is still done by and large by self identified fans, the consumption and participation with these objects are now accessible in ways that were once strictly regulated. You don’t have to have a dedicated Marvel blog, or even consider yourself a nerd, to find fan-created content based on properties you enjoy; consumption also acts as an interactive event. "A fan object that builds on its audience needs its audience...without the audience's participation in the story, there may be very little story" (Fraade-Blanar & Glazer, 2017, pp. 18). The most successful (if we think of "successful" in terms of enabling accessibility), fan-created content will simultaneously appeal to a multitude of fans.
In many ways, a successful nerdlesque act mirrors the blockbuster comic book movie approach. To be successful, a blockbuster movie based on previously beloved source material must appeal to new audiences unfamiliar with the canon while simultaneously appealing to the knowledgeable fan base. Just like the media producers behind pop culture properties, nerdlesque capitalizes on the idea of consumption as a transmedia event and seeks to draw in audiences particularly primed for fan-produced content.
The Layers of Burlesque
While the reach of nerdlesque has grown exponentially in large part due to the ubiquitous consumption of pop culture, that growth is also intrinsically tied to the rapid expansion of burlesque. Since the mid-1990s, burlesque has experienced an amazing revolution. Through the combined elements of nostalgia for a by-gone era and the sexual liberation focus of several feminist movements, modern-day burlesque (frequently called neo-burlesque) has become a popular form of low-brow, political entertainment. Additionally, the majority of burlesque shows are accessible in ways that traditional theatre is not. While some burlesque shows are large-scale productions (like those produced by Dita Von Teese), most productions happen in small theatres, bars, and DIY spaces. Not only is the cost of admission generally lower than theatre tickets, but the social stigma attached to other productions that deal with nudity (like strip bars) is reduced because the shows happen in more "acceptable" arenas. Like “nerd”, “burlesque” is no longer a dirty word. It is shockingly mainstream.
A common aspect of the burlesque tradition is to "burlesquify" cultural symbols of either feminine or masculine gender performativity (like a blushing bride on her wedding day or a salacious lothario on the prowl). By physically embodying these easily recognizable symbols in an exaggerated, sexually promiscuous way, the performer magnifies and dismantles hegemonic standards. This performance is what burlesque historian Robert C. Allen refers to as "awarishness" (1991, pp. 129). Awarishness is the "wink and nod" from the performer to the audience and is essential in a burlesque performance. It creates a unique spatio-temporal connection where the audience is a key component in the performance's actualization. The performer knowingly perverts culturally prescribed symbols and challenges the audience to engage with them. A live audience is essential to any theatrical performance, but "burlesque is thus distinguished from other forms of spectacle...because of the practitioner's 'awarishness.' It is this self-conscious performance of gender which can offer a political commentary" (Nally, 2009, p. 639). The aforementioned "wink and nod" has been a defining trait of burlesque since the beginning with "many nineteenth-century cultural commentators...scandalized by the woman who refused to keep her eyes demurely lowered" (Nally, 2009, p. 639). While burlesque is not total immersion theatre where the audience's choices directly affect the performance's action, the burlesque dancer relies on the audience's awareness and engagement with their performer intent.
Burlesque is an art form composed of layers that actively engages with topics found in feminist and queer theory, mainly embodiment, language, and temporality. The performer embodies aspects found in shared cultural language and interacts in real-time with the identity of the spectator. There is no fourth wall in burlesque; the audience is the missing piece in the completeness of the act.
The first layer of a burlesque act is the striptease, during which a burlesque performer takes off their clothes in a provocative way to entice the audience and steal their attention for five minutes. The act of publicly undressing, simple though it may be, can be considered a radical act. The performer actively subverts the male gaze, widely prevalent in media portrayals of feminine sexuality, by positioning their bodies in a controlled environment where they are the arbiters of their sexuality. The agency they exhibit is more important than the clothing they take off. "In this way, the scopic focus ultimately shifts to the audience itself, and there is a genuine resistance to objectification in a burlesque performance. The performer returns 'the gaze' through gesture (winks, glances, expressions directed at particular audience members), and thus confounds an audience-driven scopic drive" (Nally, 2009, p. 639). The audience is told where, when, and how to look by the performer's specific machinations. The performer is guiding the lens.
A fundamental tenet of burlesque is the encouragement of body diversity and the glamourization of non-idealized bodies. Burlesque actively seeks to put bodies found outside of the critical male gaze on display to be celebrated. Therefore, the second layer of burlesque is the resistive reading of idealized bodies. "A multitude of physiques occupy the neo-burlesque stage, and while the overt display of "imperfections," such as sagging breasts and wobbly bellies, is embraced and applauded, the idealized and unattainable bodies of consumer capitalism are a rarity. The desire to re-choreograph normative representations of the female body is clear” (Dodds, 2013, p. 78). Performers control their own narrative while asking the audience to confront socially acceptable ideals of what is worth sexualizing, making the erotic empowering.
The third layer is the radicalization and politicization of gendered symbols. "The word 'burlesque' comes from the Italian burlare, meaning 'to laugh;' and was originally applied to a type of theatrical performance in which troupes of women would perform parodies of classical dramas through which they satirized the politics of the day" (Costa, 2015, p. 110-111). Burlesque (much like it's sister performance style drag) is an exaggeration of gendered stereotypes. In both drag and burlesque, the "female impersonators absorb and displace a female aesthetic; they mimic the dress and behavior codes of femininity" (Robertson, 1996, pp. 34). Through the exaggerated impersonation of feminine symbols, the performer lampoons the very idea of a "feminine aesthetic." "Burlesque created an upside-down world in which women dominated men with their charismatic sexual power" (Robertson, 1996, pp. 29). The overt sexual nature of both art forms shines a light on the absurd sexual stereotypes that are attached to such symbols. It challenges the idea of gender being a prescribed, unchangeable entity, allowing a male performer to be a woman, a female performer to interrogate the notion of an ideal woman, and a nerdlesque performer to genderbend figures from pop culture.
While burlesque performances need not be hyper-feminized, burlesque at its core is about exaggerating symbols. Performances can be transformative or they can reaffirm previously held cultural beliefs. "The refiguring of woman that occur[s] on the burlesque stage represents the establishment of a model that [proves] to be extremely powerful, influential, and, [regarding] sexual politics, problematic...at the same time, burlesque also presents a model for the sexual objectification of women in popular entertainment" (Allen, 1991, pp. 27). Therefore, the contradictory nature of burlesque makes the performer intent and the execution of the commentary all the more vital. While burlesque is absurd in its gender performance, it's important to remember that at its heart, it's a parody. It's camp.
Camp, defined by Susan Sontag (as cited in Robertson, 1996, pp. 3), is "a failed seriousness, a love of exaggeration and artifice, the privilege of style over content, and a being alive to the double sense in which some things can be taken." The importance of this "double sense" highlights why burlesque, as a performative art, is more dependent on specific audience interaction than that of traditional theatre. "Camp necessarily entails a description of the relationship between the textually constructed spectator and her empirical counterparts...camp is a reading/viewing practice which, by definition, is not available to all readers; for there to be a genuinely camp spectator, there must be another hypothetical spectator who views the object 'normally'" (Robertson, 1996, pp. 17). For burlesque to successfully lampoon a symbol, the symbol must have well established accepted meanings attached to it. There is the audience member/reader that only knows the socially accepted definition, and there are the audience members/readers who are in on the joke. Without these previously established definitions, a performer cannot challenge them.
While all live performances rely on the audience's feedback and energy, burlesque relies directly on their reactions. The specific choreography or outcome of the performance may remain the same regardless, but the "hooting and hollering" from the audience is an essential part of the performance. "Neo-burlesque performance produces an accumulative spatio-temporal exchange, whereby spectators are encouraged to offer aural and kinetic feedback, which then prompt further revelations within the striptease act, only to create more intense and enthusiastic audience affirmation" (Dodds, 2013, p. 79). On a basic level, it lets the performer know that the audience is connecting with them, but it also welcomes the audience inside the performance. Burlesque is also a reaffirmation of the conversation between the performer, the symbol, and the audience. It lets the performer know that they understand their intended message. "The performance is constantly drawing attention to its own artifice" (Nally, 2009, p. 626) and therefore challenges the audience to continually engage. The audience is not merely watching; they are participating.
Nerdlesque performers create acts infused with their personal knowledge and passion for their chosen fandom while constantly remaining aware that they are creating for an audience with various levels of pop culture knowledge. The ultimate goal of a nerdlesque performer is to entertain regardless of a patrons knowledge of fandom. By appropriating symbology found in pop culture, like Wonder Woman's costume, and transmogrifying it onto a burlesque stage, the performer engages with content familiar to broad audiences while potentially introducing them to new ways of viewing it through their physical embodiment of said symbols. While there still may be tassels and boas involved in the performance, the intent of the nerdlesque performance is to tell "stories about popular culture through the art of striptease" (Costa, 2015, p. 109). A burlesque act might lampoon the suppressed sexual life of a nun, but a nerdlesque act may use the same theatrical devices to parody the suppressed sexual life of a Vulcan.
The layers that exist in burlesque are inherent in nerdlesque, but nerdlesque further incorporates pop culture symbols by highlighting a well-known image while simultaneously playing up elements only a self identified fan would know — thereby creating a product that is both accessible to a broad audience and a hyper-niche consumer. For example, a Wonder Woman act draws in a viewer that is tangentially familiar with the character by wearing her easily recognizable costume. Nothing else has to happen necessarily for the audience to understand that the performer on stage is, for all intents and purposes, Wonder Woman. Once the audience is there, the performer can engage more directly with more knowledgeable audience members by peppering in "easter eggs" and fandom specific references. For instance, a Wonder Woman act that features the use of shibari (Japanese rope bondage) gives a wink to the audience members familiar with the history of bondage and fetishism inherent in the creation of the popular heroine. These layered elements create a live "crossover" audience where the nerdlesque act unites spectators with various degrees of familiarity. It's a sexy balancing act for the performer; entertainment for all with a knowing wink to those audience members who are similarly obsessed.
Theatrical Embodiment and The Female Gaze
A common occurrence in nerdlesque is the genderbending of popular characters by either portraying them as female by purposefully reimagining the character as female or by simply embodying them with a female form. This occurs partially out of necessity as nerdlesque is overwhelmingly performed and curated by women while many of the most popular franchises found in pop culture today tell the stories from a male perspective. While the number of female film directors is on the rise, the overwhelming majority of directors are still male. According to the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, "of [the] 113 directors who were attached to the 100 top movies of 2019, a full 89.4 percent were male and 10.6 percent were female" (Erbland, 2020). Male creators overwhelmingly tell stories from a male perspective which means that some of the most popular and recognizable figures in pop culture are men.
Casting a female body in place of a male is a common practice in feminist theatre. "In order for a feminist perspective to emerge, women themselves must be heard, must put their bodies and their words on the stage and on the page" (Austin, 1990, pp. 40). This recasting of a male body with a female body repositions the story and frames it with a feminine lens. This recasting achieves two things. It highlights the universality of the human condition, and it challenges the hegemonic grip of patriarchal storytelling and mythology. Additionally, genderbending a male character allows the performer to explore their own identity in relation to the character and give the character a chance to explore their feminine side. Even when a nerdlesque performer embodies a female character, burlesque as mode of production resituates the character from an object of the patriarchy into a character with agency and intention.
In both cosplay and nerdlesque, the character relies on the physical body of the performer to exist. Each body tells a different story, just as each costume transforms each body. "Costuming is a form of fan appropriation that transforms, performs, and actualizes an existing story in close connection to the fan's own identity" (Lamerichs, pg. 2). Nerdlesque, like cosplay, centers the performer in tandem with the character. The body, however, isn't the defining act of character embodiment as the totemic qualities of the character often outweigh the realities of the body. In other words, Captain America's spirit is more important than his six-pack. "Through the acts of constructing and wearing a costume, the fan constructs his or her identity in relation to fiction and enacts it" (Lamerichs, 2010, p. 7). The performer's identity is reflected through their chosen character; they are embodying someone whose traits they either already see in themselves or whose traits they wish to have. There is a "feeling of empowerment, one that often [comes] from the physical strength and personal fortitude associated with superheroes or even supervillains. So while cosplay may be outwardly similar to masquerades, it also signals an inward as well as an outward transformation for the participant" (Backe, 2016). But while capturing the character's spirit may be the main objective, it is also a transformative act to assign the character with a new body. Having different people embody famous characters gives both the performer and the spectator a chance to see the character's universality outside of social constructs like gender, race, and sex. Nerdlesque at once turns non-idealized bodies into superheroes while simultaneously interrogating the importance of the specific body currently inhabiting said character.
Additionally, by centering divergent bodies inside a character, it allows for different aspects of the character to be interrogated, expanded upon, and analyzed. When a female body is dressed up as Spock there is immediately a more malleable interpretation of his identity outside of his physical coding. It is no longer important if he is skinny, white, tall, or male; his character-defining personality traits and how the performer interprets them become more important. Spock is canonically Jewish, as is his human mother, Amanda Grayson, and many aspects of Vulcan culture were inspired by Jewish culture and Hebrew mythology. What would it mean then for a Jewish person to embody Spock? Spock is also half human and half Vulcan, always living his life caught between two worlds. What would it mean then for a biracial person to embody Spock? Performers combine elements taken from their own identities and those found within the characters they perform to tell new stories. "Fans possess not simply borrowed remnants snatched from mass culture, but their own culture built from the semiotic raw materials the media provides" (Jenkins, 2012, pp. 49). Even an old story is new when a different body tells it.
Costume Coding, Conception & Construction
In both nerdlesque and cosplay, the performer's objective is to quickly and accurately portray the character. Matthew Hale refers to cosplay as a “citational act” that spectators see “as a conventionalized, repeatable configuration of signs” (2014, p. 8). Meaning, in cosplay generally you want your costume to be instantly recognizable. Quick character identification is paramount because the spectators are likely fellow con-goers passing by or social media followers quickly swiping. This does not imply that screen accuracy in cosplay is mandated, as creative reworkings like mashups, crossplay, and steampunked versions are abundantly common, but that the costume elements have to be clear, distinct, and direct in order to connect with the spectator quickly. Conversely in nerdlesque, while there is not an infinite amount of time to tell a story (generally five min or less), the medium does follow a more traditional theatre format where an act has a beginning, middle, and end (the end being the partial nudity of the performer). Therefore a performer can rely more heavily on character mannerisms, song choice, and engagement with canon in addition to the costume to accurately portray the character.
Nerdlesque also "burlesquifies" the costume with screen accuracy becoming even less important. Before a costume can be created for burlesque, the performer has to decide which character elements are imperative to include and which can be finagled or left out. In other words, what are the costume pieces that must be included for an audience to recognize the character with minimal introduction? For example, if a performer were to portray the demon Crowley from the Good Omens miniseries, they would at minimum need to have red hair, be dressed all in black, have a small snake tattoo on the side of their face, and a pair of dark glasses. Those are the basics, anything else is either character interpretation and elaboration or the performers desire to be more screen accurate than is required. A nerdlesque performer also has to factor in how the costume is physically removed (the reveals), where to add rhinestones, glitter, and other exaggerated gendered elements, and choose the character's undergarments. These costume choices are not reliant on the screen accuracy but on character insight as most characters don't walk around coated in glitter and hardly ever show off their panties. A performer embodying the angel Aziraphale from Good Omens may choose to dress in a white leather harness complete with leather bows, frilly panties, and flaming sword pasties to signify his soft, albeit dominant and secretly deviant behavior. These choices can help to add more fan-centric layers to a nerdlesque performance. A person unfamiliar with the source material may derive joy from the undergarment reveal (because really, who doesn't love a butt?), but a person who participates in the Good Omens fandom would more easily recognize the significance of those specific costume choices. Outside of the costume elements that are imperative, the performer has a lot opportunity to make choices about the character’s personality as told through undergarments and other burlesque centric costume elements, allowing for each interpretation to be unique to the individual performer.
Embodied Sexuality and Performer Commodification
Critics of nerdlesque and cosplay as mediums of sexual exploration often characterize the participants as deviant and use it as proof of "fake geek girl" status. For these critics, the canon is sacred; the sexuality of the characters - or the people embodying them - is not to be challenged or explored. As notable nerdlesque performer and cosplayer, Maki Roll put it when interviewed by The Geek Anthropologist (Backe, 2018),
We are still kind of outsiders within the community, despite the fact that....there are women who are in these kick-ass roles as different characters. We are literally part of the foundation of the geek community, but we are so shunned, especially if you are in any form of sex work...Taking this character and thinking about how they would be sexually, for some reason men hate that. It becomes a problem when they're not allowed to objectify us on their own terms. When we take ourselves and we make ourselves into a commodity and we decide who gets to see what and at what price, that's where it becomes a problem.
Both cosplay and nerdlesque allow the performer to interrogate their identity through the lens of the character they embody, which naturally includes the performer’s (and the character’s) sexuality. However, the nerdlesque performer is purposefully positioning the character (and themselves) in a sexual situation by performing an act of striptease for a live audience. The nerdlesque performer chooses nerdlesque over (or in addition to) other fan-productions like fanfiction or cosplay because it puts them in charge of their own commodification and purposefully redirects the audience's objectification. "Performers craft new interpretations of their chosen nerdy source texts with their bodies, making nerdlesque narratives an embodied feminist practice that has the potential to radically transform characters and concepts in ways that can either reify the source texts or critique them (and sometimes do both at once)" (Costa, 2015, p. 110). Nerdlesque allows the performer, through the act of physical embodiment, to situate familiar characters in an explicitly sexual manner in front of a live audience. Directly challenging the audience to engage with them (and the character) as a sexual being. The body is the medium, and that medium is powerful.
Nerdlesque as a Kink Meme
The exploration of sex and sexuality found in nerdlesque is also a key component in many fanfiction stories, specifically that of the slash genre (romantic homosexual fanfiction pairing). Both fanfiction and nerdlesque utilize fandom's shared language to "skip" the exposition and focus more directly on the character's sexuality and sex life. Essayist Jane Mortimer put it perfectly when she said, "Fanfiction, faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive. Able to get two characters panting over the bedsprings in a single bound. Because the baseline is established; the audience knows the characters; they've walked that mile in their shoes, they are primed" (1997). This pre-exposure to character exposition is particularly crucial in nerdlesque as five minutes is not a lot of time to tell a complete story. Therefore, the performer can quickly place the character in a compromising situation and not waste time on unnecessary background. This does not mean that the performer does not engage with the text or relies solely on the audience's knowledge of the source, but it allows for the performer to make choices heavily influenced by the source material without having to worry about world-building or establishing the foundations of the character. Because the performer doesn't have to establish a comprehensive backstory, they can focus on how to strip in character-specific ways that will resonate with the audience. "The best fic writers [and nerdlesque performers] are fantastically close readers, and they write layered stories for layered audiences. If not, there's still the brothel story. That's the game" (Jamison, 2013, pp. 9). The performer relies on the audience to recognize the character before they tell their version of the story, but even if the audience has limited knowledge of the source material, the entertainment value of the striptease acts to bridge potential knowledge gaps.
While the parallels between fan fiction and nerdlesque are vast, the argument can be made that nerdlesque acts more as an extension of fanfiction rather than a mere parallel to it. Nerdlesque takes fanfiction off the page, into the embodied world, and centers the performer. Therefore, the performer's presence is just as important as the character - "performance is predicated on the idea of bodies, rather than words, as the storytelling medium" (Coppa, 2014, p. 222). Without the performer, the character doesn't exist. In her article, "Writing Bodies in Space: Media Fan Fiction as Theatrical Performance," Francesca Coppa argues that fanfiction should be read as dramatic literature. She posits that fan fiction follows a dramatic structure because it's focused on the emotional growth and individual interaction between characters and less focused on the actual plot. "The decontextualizing of behavior echoes the appropriation and use of existing characters in most fanfiction; in fact one could define fan fiction as a textual attempt to make certain characters 'perform' according to different behavior strips" (Coppa, 2014, p. 223). Nerdlesque takes that idea and actualizes it utilizing many tropes found in fanfiction to further direct the action.
The power of repetitive storytelling is a defining trait in dramatic literature that can also be found in both fanfiction and nerdlesque. Not only are audiences drawn to the same classic stories time and again - think the longevity of Shakespeare - but they are particularly interested in seeing new versions of the same play. "From a literary perspective, fan fiction's unusual emphasis on the body seems like a thematic obsession or stylistic tic, but in theatre, bodies are the storytelling medium, the carriers of symbolic action...Moreover, there's no assumption that the first production will be the definitive; in theatre, we want to see your Hamlet, his Hamlet, and her Hamlet; to embody the role is to reinvent it" (Coppa, 2014, p. 229). The words don't change, the plot doesn't change, but the actors do; with each new production, different bodies inhabit the roles and bring new life and identities. With every new performance, “each spectator takes in particular facets of the...moment to moment [action] and also has a particular sense of how the performance unfolds in time. Thus, no two spectators see the exact same play” (Fortier, 2016, pp. 112). In nerdlesque, different performers may have acts inspired by the same character or property, but their acts are unique. But while each Harley Quinn act is performed to a different song, has a slightly different costume, and features a different performer embodying her, the acts are still engaging with previously established character traits and text. And those previously established foundations draw audiences in; they want to see your Harley, his Harley, and her Harley.
Similarly, one of fanfiction's common features is for authors to write stories based on the same idea. Sometimes that happens naturally; for instance, fanfic authors extending a specific scene from the source material like Crowley from Good Omens inviting Aziraphale back to his place after the apocalypse-that-wasn't. In the show, that's the end of the scene, but in the world of fanfiction, that's just a writing prompt. Other times, there are community-driven writing prompts called kink memes. When a kink meme forum is opened, it begins when an original poster (OP) requests sexually explicit fics involving specific kinks and/or tropes featuring specific characters. The prompt is fulfilled when members of the community, specifically fic writers, but sometimes other fan artists, respond and post. A kink meme, therefore, is an interactive community event.
If a kink meme's objective is to prompt an artist to create with the explicit purpose of sharing with the community, then nerdlesque functions as a dramatically embodied kink meme. The kink meme prompt is, "Why would X character strip?" and the execution of the prompt is the performer answering the question by performing a nerdlesque act for a live audience. By pairing a character with a common fanfiction trope or commonly utilized kink (sex compulsion, BDSM, enemies to lovers, hurt/comfort), the performer uses fanfiction as a script for their nerdlesque act. Additionally, if we think of nerdlesque as a kink meme, the live audience occupies the other side of the slash. The audience is as much a part of the performance as the performer. Therefore when a nerdlesque act happens, it's a performer/audience narrative. I am X character, performing X trope for the entertainment and sexual titillation of the audience.
The act of centering oneself in a fan-created project has not historically been viewed as a positive thing, however, especially if it's a woman centering herself and her sexuality within the fandom. The mythos of the ever-dreaded Mary Sue (a female character that is unrealistically competent and widely considered to be an author self-insert) and the lowest rung found on Geek Hierarchy ("People Who Write Erotic Versions of Star Trek Where All the Characters Are Furries, Like Kirk is an Ocelot or Something, and They Put a Furry Version of Themselves as the Star of the Story") are both ways to not only mock fanfic writers, but also are direct attacks aimed at female authors. Kristina Busse, explains that the Geek Hierarchy exists is not only to “prove to oneself that there are more intense geeks out there” but that the hierarchy “is gendered” and that the act of embodiment (seen primarily as a female trait) is the least desirable way for a fan to interact with their fandom (2013, p. 79). Francesca Coppa elaborates,
The hierarchy supports traditional values that privilege the written word over the spoken one and mind over body. The move down the hierarchy therefore represents a shift from literary values (the mind, the word, the ‘original statement’) to what I would claim are theatrical ones (repetition, performance, embodied action). As we descend, we move further away from ‘text’ and more toward ‘body’, and, at least on the media fandom side of the diagram, toward the female body (because fan writers are likely to be women). (2014, p. 225)
The fanfic writers who literally put herself into their work are to be shamed. The author then is "sitting too close" and, according to Jenkins (2012, pp. 60), they lose their ability to critically engage with the text. Stevie Costa, in her article "Accio Burlesque: Performing Potter Fandom through 'Nerdlesque'" argues, however, that sitting too close "actually creates another kind of critical distance through proximity" (2015, p. 109). Distance is not desirable when creating a compelling nerdlesque act. To effectively bring in a broad audience but keep the hyper-specific fan engaged, the performer must demonstrate intimate knowledge of the character with their body as the medium.
Though the body is an important element in cosplay, and the narrative is an important element in fanfiction, it is the unique combination of body and story present in nerdlesque that allows burlesquers the ability to achieve total incorporation with their chosen texts. Cosplay and fanfiction do not, therefore, sit quite as closely to their source texts as nerdlesque can, and thus burlesque becomes a unique medium through which performers effectively 'strip down' their fandoms to expose not only themselves but their engagements with their source texts (Costa, 2015, p. 110).
Nerdlesque then becomes an acceptable, even encouraged, Mary Sue. The author insert is the point of the performance, as is the performer's identity as told through the character they are embodying. Furthermore, if one reframes fanfiction as dramatic literature focused on character embodiment, "sitting too close" becomes essential in the medium's actualization.
Nerdlesque as an art form engages in what feminist theatre critic Annette Kolodny dubs "playful pluralism" (1980, p. 19). In true feminist theatre form, nerdlesque combines multiple art forms and methodologies, making it an amalgamation of burlesque, feminist theatre, cosplay, and fanfiction. Additionally, Nerdlesque capitalizes on the transmedia business model that media producers engage in to create properties (and performances) that appeal to a broad audience. By engaging with source material found in canon and fanon, like fan fiction and cosplay, nerdlesque both appeals to the spectator with passing pop culture familiarity and fans with hyper specific knowledge. A nerdlesque show is composed of several different acts from several different performers. Even if the show has a more rigid property theme like a Star Wars versus something more broad like science fiction, an audience member might understand all the references in one act, but miss the layers in another. The nerdlesque audience (and therefore the nerdlesque performer) are what Jenkins refers to as “nomadic media fans” that “take pleasure in making intertextual connections across a broad range of media texts...and their participation within fandom extends beyond an interest in any single text.” (2012, pp. 33). There is something for everyone and, hopefully, the audience walks away with a new understanding of a beloved character or a new media property to check out.
Through the act of embodiment, the nerdlesque performer is able to critically engage with their fandom through their personal, physical connection. This allows the audience spectator to not only view a familiar pop culture from a different perspective but helps to bridge the gap between performer and spectator through the shared knowledge fandom. Nerd culture is no longer a subculture, there is something for everyone, and, to paraphrase Anne Jamison, if not there's still nudity, something everyone can get behind. That's the game.
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