It was widely reported that Bristol City Council agreed to host a striptease performance by Dita von Teese on 14th May 2010, as entertainment for attenders at a private party to mark the launch of the exhibition, "Art from the New World".

In common with many other astounded citizens and equality groups (among them Equality South West, Bristol Women's Forum, Bristol Feminist Network, ISR and others) Bristol Fawcett objected strongly.

Our members wrote a statement, the text of which is reproduced below.  Our statement was fully endorsed and supported by Bristol Women's Forum and Wish for a Brighter Future.  Bristol Feminists also wrote a statement - download it here.  Download the statement from S.W.A.P. here.  

Locally and nationally, people reacted with amazement, fury and disbelief.  The Council - who have a duty to promote gender equality - managed, instead, to nonchalantly help perpetuate tired and limiting - and directly damaging - ideas about women and their role in society.

What have Bristol women said?

Here is a selection of some of the commentary.
  • Anonymous bloggers circulated a "Cautionary Tale" of hubris based on the story of the "Emperor's New Clothes".
  • "People seem to be misinterpreting this issue as something to do with the strange stereotype that feminists are anti-sex.  Most feminists I  know are sexually confident and empowered people - perhaps that's because they know that sexiness comes from the heart and is not a commodity and is not defined for us by anybody except ourselves.  It can be pretty difficult for women to feel sexually empowered when they are surrounded everywhere by messages that we should be aiming for some kind of boring, narrow, peekaboo version of how we should look or behave."
  • "O,  BCMAG, surely you can do better than this?  Why bring in this audience if all you do is replicate stereotypes that so much research has  demonstrated is deeply damaging to our culture; damaging to women (who are sexually harassed in disturbing numbers) and also the psyches of young men; damaging to the possibility of genuinely equal and mutual sexual relationships (Have you seen the publically funded posters around town, trying to counter the frightening rise in abusive relationships among young people?).  Bristol feminists are not anti sex (why on earth would a liberational movement want to exclude women from those very real pleasures?). “Trilogy”, showing the day after the opening party as part of Mayfest,  featuring hundreds of naked women (of all ages, sizes, shapes and colours) is an example of  a positive, truly celebratory, feminist take that throws a quite different light on affairs.  Because these issues really matter, in the lived experience of all Bristolians, surely the Bristol Council and the gallery should re-evaluate the meanings that, in pursuit of an easy  popularity, employing Dita will inevitably reinforce."
  • “Public representatives and public buildings should not endorse such events and should instead be working to counter stereotypes and discrimination” (Green Party press release)
  • "As to women's real sexuality - we're so far from allowing any expression of that in Western society, that plenty of women and men don't even know what it is. Which is saddest of all.  It can change.  But it won't change on its own."
  • "It seems we are routinely bombarded with objectified images of women. I would have expected Bristol City Council to take its Gender Equality Duty much more seriously. I also expect Bristol City Council to act in a much more socially responsible manner."
  • "The Council is ignoring its duty to promote gender equality by hosting a striptease in a public building, and I feel like they are also ignoring all the men and women in this city who have been campaigning so hard to combat sex object culture. Activists in Bristol are battling to address sexual objectification in popular culture, we'd expect the Council to be on our side.  Just for clarity: I don't have a problem with Dita von Teese, sex, sexual empowerment or the informed, consensual decisions people make about sex and sex work. I do have a problem with striptease in a public museum."
  • "What we want - and expect for the City Museum and Art Gallery - is a measured, thoughtful engagement with the work - not a gung-ho isn't it fun to take your clothes off framing of serious issues..."

Why we say it is inappropriate for Bristol City Council to host Dita von Teese’s striptease in the Museum

A joint statement issued on 28 April 2024 by the members of Bristol Fawcett in response to the planned striptease at Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery on 14th May 2010.

Our society is sexist – this is not a contestable claim, but a statement of fact borne out by all the depressing statistics about inequality in women’s and girls’ lives. 

Bristol City Council has a responsibility to stand up against sexism and to educate people about sexism.   In fact, the law requires it to do this.  Meanwhile the one thing we’re not short of in our society is the message that women are ‘all about’ sex.  Representations of women engaged in the business of being sexually alluring are everywhere, all around us, on magazines in every newsagent and supermarket as well as in films and on TV.  These representations can even outnumber representations of women engaging in anything other than the business of being sexually alluring.  At the same time, men are represented in ways that point us to their work.  For example, while the art world has made great strides towards gender equality and there are many women artists whose work is respected and exhibited, in the forthcoming exhibition the work of majority male artists is headlined.  This is a well-known pattern.  Meanwhile, we are told that girls and young women, fed on a diet of celebrity reportage, are saying that when they grow up their ambition is to be a glamour model or a Footballer’s WAG.

As far as we are aware, there is no rule that says if girls or women take qualifications and train for a job that is unrelated to sex, they will be unable to be sexually liberated and celebrate their sexuality.  While some women are enormously successful and become wealthy and empowered through choosing a career path in glamour modelling or striptease, the number of women for whom this will ever be true is small.  However the number of women working in the sex trade who are far from wealthy, feel far from empowered and report feeling miserable, depressed, demeaned and desperate to get out, is significant and very troubling – yet this message is not being communicated to girls and young women.  What is equally troubling is the number of women who report being treated as sex objects while trying to get on with their daily lives - or while at work, and hoping to be judged on the merits of their ability to do their work rather than on their gender or their appearance.

These are really serious issues that demand really serious attention.  These issues are trivialized when a striptease artist is booked to perform for entertainment (not to give a lecture about what she does!) in a publicly owned building that is in the stewardship of a local authority charged with tackling sexism.  Whether we like it or not, striptease has inescapable associations that invite the sexual objectification of women.

We also want to point out that burlesque – when it is of a sexual nature, which not all burlesque is – is upheld to celebrate the notion that women should be confident and completely comfortable with their bodies, whatever their shape or size.  This can be very hard for women to do when they are constantly confronted in the media by narrow representations of what women’s bodies should look like (for example that they should be young, white-skinned, with large breasts, slim waists, etc etc).  Many women feel that there is some kind of socially agreed ‘ideal’ body (which women in the media spotlight often work very hard on, and sometimes have surgery, to achieve) and they feel that if they don’t make the grade or match up to that ‘ideal’ in their own lives they are somehow unworthy or unsexy.  It is important to be clear that Dita von Teese is recognised for being an extremely gifted performer, and there is no reason for there to be any ill will towards her personally, although some commentators may try to suggest otherwise.  But in offering the opportunity to celebrate her act it is unfortunately also true that the Council is reinforcing the message that her body represents a socially agreed ‘ideal’ body.  This would not be the case if there were a number of diverse performers – men and women, of all shapes and sizes - being showcased at the launch, but there are not. 

We do not think that a local authority would attempt to shrug off its responsibilities so lightly, or embrace controversy so willingly, in respect of other serious issues that impact on inequality in the city.  This has the effect of communicating some familiar – and, we would like to think, inaccurate – messages about the priority given to gender inequality and the vigour with which it is addressed.

  • Some of the statistics about inequality: around half of women in England and Wales experience domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking in their lifetime (British Crime Survey 2008). 19% of MPs were women when parliament dissolved. Women working full-time earn on average 17% less per hour than men working full-time. For ethnic minority women, the gap is even higher at 20%. For women working part-time compared to men working full-time the gap is 36% per hour – rising to 45% in London.
  • Since it has been pointed out in the public domain that the headline promotional material for the exhibition failed to mention women artists, new material has been issued to replace the original material, and the new material now mentions women artists.
  • While sexualised images have featured in advertising and communications since mass media first emerged, according to a Home Office study published in 2010, there is an "unprecedented rise in the volume and extent to which these images impinge on everyday life" (Home Office 2010). Daily sexualised messages in the media and the Internet create conducive contexts for violence, reinforce gender inequalities and undermine information campaigns about healthy sexual relationships (Home Office VAWG Consultation, 2009). Mainstream media are pushing a set of norms that undermine women's control over their own sexuality whilst purporting to represent a liberalisation of sex and women's sexual expression. Such representations serve to value females primarily for their ‘sex appeal’ rather than creative or intellectual abilities, and in doing so reinforce gender inequality. There is a clear link between the consumption of sexualised images and the acceptance of aggressive attitudes and behaviours as the norm (Home Office, 2010)
  • "The eating disorder charity BEAT estimates that 1.6 million people in the UK have an eating disorder. The vast majority of these – some 1.4 million – are female.  And now we’re starting to see what happens when you tweak the message – young women need to be not only thin, but also sexually desirable.   As anorexia increases so now does the number of young women having breast implants at an increasingly younger age.” (Home Office, 2010)
  • "Exposure to the sexualised female ideal is linked with lower self-esteem, negative moods and depression in young women and girls.  Adolescent girls exposed to adverts featuring idealised women have significantly higher State Depression scores; and frequent exposure to films, TV and music videos featuring idealised images is linked to lower self-esteem (particularly among Black and Latino young people), stress, guilt, shame and insecurity.” (Home Office, 2010) 
  • A considerable proportion of young women’s aspirations have been reduced to being glamour models and lap dancers (EVAW 2008); Women in Journalism (2007); Girls' Schools Association (2010).