Maybe it’s an Australian custom

I’ve been asked if this is a common occurrence at scientific conferences: at an Australian conference on climate change, the entertainment at a social dinner was a burlesque show. And the answer is…no. Every meeting dinner I’ve attended has had some white-maned elder statesperson of the discipline do the ‘entertainment’, which is usually thin on the bare flesh and the humor, thick with jargon and historical detail. It can be fun—I recall one talk by JZ Young that was full of squid and voltages that I really enjoyed—but I don’t think it would have been improved if he’d been up on the podium wearing nothing but balloons.

It’s an odd story. The cabaret was cut short after 10 minutes, so I think it’s clear that a significant number of attendees must have expressed their disapproval immediately, and that this was a bit beyond the pale, even for wild ol’ Australia. Some organizer somewhere made a very, very bad decision, I think.


  1. says

    Oh, the dinner speeches at the meetings of the Society for Research on Biological Rhythms are always fun and funny. There was an opera one year – very sciency-nerdy, mostly libreto but also a litle singing (fortunately – the guy who did this CAN sing). There was a slide-show once with pictures of the society notables caught doing goofy stuff when they were young, at the meetings in teh 1960s and 1970s etc….and more. Always fun, no matter who does it each year.

  2. andy says

    I just think it was refreshing that the story not only had links to a related story and a poll, but to “Miss Kitka’s House of Burlesque”.

    You wouldn’t see that in our domestic press…

  3. says

    A very bad decision indeed. The Federal Government’s just taken its forum funding back, so they’ll have to have a whip round to pay for it. Probably with a real whip if the ‘entertainment’ was anything to go by.

  4. says

    Haha, oh man, some people are a tad too up-tight.

    I can understand objections to it, it is a free country, but to withdraw a $3,000 sponsorship, that’s just doing more harm than good.

  5. says

    You think that’s bad, you should have been at my 21st.

    But in fairness, they were dressed underneath the balloons.

    While I think it was in execrable taste, I find the Federal government’s response even worse. Why should a government rule on matters of taste in this respect? Does it affect the science? Is it the government’s business? Do they have a role as guardians of morality of scientists? That is much scarier than a woman wearing ballons.

    Also, I always bear in mind Mark Twain’s comment: “I wouldn’t hang a dog on a newspaper report”. Recall he was a journalist in his career…

  6. says

    Shocking and appalling! A burlesque show involving woman with their privy members clothed! In a room full of people who are supposed to be the intellectual elite!

    It’s not liked somebody porked a donkey onstage or reenacted The Aristocrats. These people need to take a Valium and calm down.

  7. Bruce McNeely says

    I attended the Canadian Association of Pathologists meeting a few years ago when it was held in Calgary. The dinner and social night were held at a ranch and consisted of a barbecue and a rodeo demonstration. It was a lot of fun until the wild horse race event, when a beautiful horse, trying to escape from the rider, ran full-tilt into a metal gate and broke its neck. That kind of cast a pall over the whole evening. We left a few minutes later.

  8. idlemind says

    I think all the climate scientists were outraged that the balloons were filled with greenhouse gases.

  9. BlueIndependent says

    Sorry for derailing for a second but…

    JZ Young…that name has some hip-hop street cred built-in.

    Sorry. :)

  10. JaysonB says

    you’d think you would want MORE burlesque shows, not less. Is there a more perfect way to turn scientists into rockstars, aside from sipping cristal?

  11. says

    When I was 15 I went to a conference with my dad in Germany. They had a burlesque show in some Brazilian restaurant in the Alsace for all the scientists. It was more based on Carnival so I think it slipped under the radar, but the boobies were in display.

    It was great. My mom was amused too, only my older brother I think was mortified because he realized he was at a burlesque show with his mother (it took me longer to feel the shame from that one).

    Apparently what we saw wasn’t even the worst. A few years before they had a dinner and the entertainment was topless (as well as the wait staff). I never got the full details of that one but apparently it was a bridge too far.

  12. PaulC says

    At a theoretical computer science conference, the most you get is a nice dinner. That’s if you’re fortunate to have a local arrangements chair who knows the restaurants. This can turn out quite well. Otherwise you get stuck with a typically bland hotel banquet.

    At one conference we did have an “elder statesman” pulled in as a volunteer for some amusement with Shamu at SeaWorld before giving his speech. I believe that was just because it was a larger consolidated conference and not just theorists.

    Of course in industry I’m lucky if I get out of my cubicle.

  13. Dunc says

    Well, they do say that there’s only two professions in Canberra – politics and prostitution. And they both grow their own weed.

  14. Mentat says

    This reminds of that time I went to a burlesque show and was subjected to a lecture on climatology. Why can’t they just keep these things separate, damnit?

  15. says

    A small conference I attended about 20 years ago hired a stripper. Even back then in the dark ages, everyone walked out.

    More recently (maybe 10 years ago) at a heavily commercially subsidized instrumentation conference, one of the vendors hired belly dancers for a product ‘unveiling’. There was a great deal of unfavorable comment, and I think it harmed them, maybe not so much for the sexism, as much as it was taken as a sign of their unprofessionalism.

    Both instances were in the US.

  16. Nymphalidae says

    I would probably be very uncomfortable if there was a burlesque show at a conference I attended, given that I am young and female and the majority of the people attending entomology conferences seem to be old and male.

    Last year’s theme at the national meeting of the Entomological Society of America was “Sex, Bugs, and Rock’n’Roll”. It was fun and it was an acknowledgement of the fact that much of our work involves sex. Scientists are hardly uptight; there are simply appropriate and inappropriate activities at a professional event.

  17. says

    Burlesque has made a comeback, and I don’t know quite what to think about it; some of it is silly and innocently campy, and some of it downright crass. I don’t think even the silly version belongs at a science convention, though.

    The point is to consider the audience! Hello! Where were the guys in balloons?

    I’m not even sure that a belly dancer should perform at a venue like this, given people’s misunderstandings, unless it is a traditional dance, such as with the cane. Few people have seen a Middle Eastern cane dance, which is really cool. (And difficult; I cannot do it yet.)

    But no need for an investigation! Geez! And withdrawing money–that’s counterproductive.

  18. Buffalo Gal says

    There’s also the issue of foisting this kind of entertainment on those who prefer not to view it. Not too unlike having a priest come out and say a Mass.

  19. Lars says

    At one conference we did have an “elder statesman” pulled in as a volunteer for some amusement with Shamu at SeaWorld…

    That sounds a bit extreme to me. I hope that Shamu had a good time with his chew-toy, but did the rest of you enjoy it?

  20. says

    Good grief people should lighten up about this. Burlesque sounds like a fun way to celebrate life. The prudish reaction is uncalled for, where’s the Aussie sense of fun?

  21. Frumious B. says

    The difference between hotpants-and-bustier and nudity is one of degree, not of nature. Reducing a person to a sexbot is inappropriate in all venues.
    I was told by an elder stateswoman in Physics that the true generational divide is between those who have seen playboy centerfolds on slides in talks and those who have not.

  22. Judith in Ottawa says

    At one conference I remember the final lecture was presented by a retired researcher whose time slot had been changed at the last minute. Apparently the program chair, upon receipt of the abstract, had assumed it was intended as humourous, so had slotted it as an after-dinner piece at the banquet. The gentleman in question, having strayed into a somewhat ‘fringe’ topic after a long and well-recognized career in zoological research, was not amused, and demanded a proper oral presentation allotment. The lecture was very well attended, and most of the delegates managed to be relatively polite during question period.

    But I thank the FSM that it did not include burlesque.

  23. hydropsyche says

    We’re supposed to be welcoming women into the sciences, not perpetually reminding them that this is an Old Boys’ Club to which they are not invited.

  24. Michael says

    I find left-wing prudery to be just as annoying as right-wing prudery, if not more so. My wife, and pretty much all the women I know, would have enjoyed the show. The only thing demeaning here is people walking out on the women performing in the show. How do you think that made them feel?

  25. Warren Terra says

    At the most recent international C. elegans meeting, two investigators performed a mix of jokes, songs, and slides for an hour or so one evening (an update by popular request on their show at the previous year’s West Coast C. elegans meeting). Of course, it was rather family-friendly stuff, it included lots of nerd humor, and a fair bit was dependent on knowing the senior people in the field, but it was basically a burlesque show for a scientific meeting. And hey, it was actually funny.

    With respect to some other comments, it is prudency, not prudery, to assume that a gethering of people many of whom you don’t know well and with whom you interact as professional colleagues is not the right venue for entertainments likely to offend a fair proportion of the attendees.

  26. says

    “I was told by an elder stateswoman in Physics that the true generational divide is between those who have seen playboy centerfolds on slides in talks and those who have not.”

    I certainly don’t disagree on this particular issue, but I am interested to hear what people think about the Lenna picture, used in image compression demos and research, which has been mildly controversial.

  27. Unstable Isotope says

    hydropsyche is absolutely right. As a woman scientist I would be extremely offended by a burlesque show as a part of the scientific conference. I wouldn’t care if many men went to see a show on their own time, but the presence of female performers just goes a long way to remind you that science is for men and that women aren’t welcome. There are lots of fun, lighthearted ways to entertain at a conference. It isn’t prudery to object to a burlesque show.

  28. Buffalo Gal says

    Joel, Michael – don’t you get it? _Women_ feel demeaned by displays like this. Your _colleagues_ feel demeaned by this. WE DON’T LIKE BEING TREATED LIKE OBJECTS.

    Ahem. Forgive the all caps. I was having an attack of feminism. Hopefully, it will continue.

  29. says

    I think everyone should take an aspirin, make a cup of tea and have a good lie down (to paraphrase an old Australian saying). I am reminded why I avoid conference dinners like the plague. Forced to eat rubber chook and having to sit for a whole evening next to people only slightly less boring than myself. Having to endure speeches devoted to mutual back-slapping with some good old political wind baggery thrown in. Considering it was a conference on climate change, it is likely that the amateur burlesque act was the only thing presented that was honest and free from cant.

    The unfortunately predictable response from government and the cowardly knee jerk from the ANU puts paid to our Australian self-delusion that we are a bunch of knockabout larrikins who can put up with a bit of piss-taking now and then. It also shows that po-faced political rectitude is a worldwide disease, and that none of us are immune.

  30. says

    I’ve used the Lenna picture in classwork! I’ve only used a copy that’s cropped to the face and shoulders, though — it is a very nice image with good levels of detail.

  31. says

    It’s certainly a Canberra thing.

    I thought politicians and sleaze went hand in hand… does this mean Washington D.C. isn’t the cheap sex capital of America?

  32. Ichneumon says

    Silly Aussies — burlesque shows are done in the evening *after* the conference adjourns… If you have the burlesque *during* the conference, you’ll have a hell of a time finding a local bar that presents dry lectures after the Sun goes down.

  33. Terry says

    Years ago I was at a Nuclear Quadrupole Resonance Spectroscopy conference in London and the entertainment was the Royal Grenadier Guard Band appearing amidst the tables. Very impressive and unexpected!

  34. Jeff Lanam says

    Reminds me of the scene in The Right Stuff where the seven Mercury astronauts are treated to a performance by Sally Rand.

  35. Cath says

    Well, I have actually attended one of Miss Kitka’s performances, and after seeing that, I’ve now become one of her students. She’s a postgrad student in psychology. All of the performers are amateurs, and most are either students or academics themselves. They’re also many ages and shapes from 20-60 – it’s more of an “all bodies are beautiful” feminist message show than a sleaze act. Plenty of women scientists there! I intend to be one in future shows.

    There were some guys in the act I saw, too, though not in balloons. That’s just one person’s act; every soloist has their own personal schtick. The show is light and fun and does not involve any nudity beyond underwear.

    I do think the organisers should not have hired her – not because of the act, but simply because they could have predicted this stupid humourless response.

    Oh, and folks – it *was* evening with alcohol. It was the conference dinner entertainment, not a formal session.

  36. says

    I’m with all the other rabid feminists here. I’ve been in belly dance show myself, and would probably be happy go to a burlesque show with the right group of people, if it were done in a respectful and non-sleazy way.

    But as a young woman at a scientific conference, you look around and see that everyone (or, if you’ve lucky, almost everyone) older and more powerful than you is male. You often have to work hard to be seen as a colleague, and will occasionally find that Prof. Eminent, whose work you admire, talks to your breasts and constantly steers the conversation away from science.

    In that situation you don’t want gender imbalance stuffed further up your nose, and you certainly don’t want a sexualised show as the entertainment.

  37. says

    Prime Minister proves once again he’s a prime troglodyte:

    “I’m sensitive to the view of many women in relation to this but I do think we shouldn’t overreact,” whatever that means. Perhaps, “it’s not an overreaction if it’s *my* reaction.”

    Michael’s invocation of “left wing” and “right wing” prudery is just too precious. I’d suggest he canvas the views of the women who *did* walk out; clearly they represent something alien to the world view of his coterie.

  38. Nymphalidae says

    I don’t think a lot of men realize just how hard women have to work in certain fields to get ahead. Entmology is still largely a good old boys club. I’ve managed to earn the respect of my professor when a lot of other female grad students couldn’t. I would happily attend a burlesque show in the right context – with my husband or with my friends. It isn’t prudery that motivates my desire not to be put in that type of situation at a conference, it’s my desire to continue to be seen as a professional scientist.

  39. Cath says

    Women are demeaned? Yes, I’ve seen it. Women are excluded from the old boy networks; women have their work overlooked or adopted without sufficient credit; women have struggled and still struggle to make a reputation in science.

    Women are demeaned by this show? No way. In a different context, it would be the show being abused for being overly PC – it’s all about women of all ages and shapes being humorously sexy. (Ew, who wants to see a 40-something chubby woman scientist in a corset?)

    I think the guy who booked it meant well; but very foolishly misjudged the political climate.