Last night, a friend and I went to see the new movie “Burlesque.” After I came home, my mom asked me how the movie was, and I told her it was terrible. When I followed that up with, “And I loved it!” she looked perplexed. To me, though, those things aren’t necessarily a contradiction – I often love things that are kitschy.
“Kitsch,” by the way, is anything tasteless or tacky intended to be an imitation of an existing art form, produced for mass appeal. Kitsch is not to be confused with “camp,” which is self-aware and performed ironically.
“Burlesque” is a perfect example of a kitschy movie because it attempts to follow a classic storyline: the young, innocent ingénue leaves her small town and – spoiler alert, but I’m sure you’ve already figured this out – uses her hidden talents to become a big star. Although there are campy aspects (the glamorous, over-the-top, extremely unlikely “Burlesque” club, for one), we are nevertheless clearly meant to take this story seriously and find it inspirational. However, when I went to see it, I and the rest of the audience couldn’t help laughing throughout the whole thing, because it was in no way believable. For one thing, it’s impossible to take Christina Aguilera seriously as an “ingénue” character. For another, all sorts of trite, overplayed formulae were shoehorned into the movie: the aging diva trying to hang onto the career she loves, the scheming dancer who is jealous of the new girl’s success, the handsome coworker with the overbearing, perpetually off-screen girlfriend, etc. Moreover, the screenwriting was painfully bad. For example, when the main character introduces herself as “Alice,” Stanley Tucci’s character replies, “Alice, hm? Well, welcome to Wonderland.”
The movie was poorly written, only tolerably acted, and obviously designed for mass appeal. And yet, I loved every minute of it.
One reason for this is that “Burlesque,” although its effects come cheaply, is in a sense really a fairy tale – and the message of that fairy tale is not necessarily a bad one. “Burlesque” tells us that if we have a dream and work exceptionally hard and refuse to take no for an answer, we can succeed no matter where we come from. Of course, most of us know that real success demands a certain amount of luck. Nonetheless, because we do not have control over luck but do have control over our own actions, the idea that hard work will get us far can actually be a beneficial thing to hear. It’s hard for us not to feel a twinge of excitement and joy when Christina Aguilera’s character performs her first big number on the stage to riotous applause – even though we all knew perfectly well it was coming from the moment we heard the premise of the movie.
Even as we respond to this fairy tale message, though, we cannot help but be aware of how reliant the movie is on tropes and stereotypes, and this awareness is actually another part of its appeal. A movie like “Burlesque” makes us feel superior and worldly. We know it is unrealistic and we recognize its lack of originality, and ultimately we feel good about ourselves for having that ironic distance from the story. More than that, the ironic distance makes us laugh, if only unintentionally – for instance when Cher sings a ballad at the eleventh hour about being strong and never giving up, we can’t help but laugh at the predictability of it all.
“Burlesque,” of course, isn’t the only thing I appreciate for its kitsch value. For example, a television show I find extraordinarily entertaining, to the despair of many of my friends, is “America’s Next Top Model.” If you don’t know the show, it is a modeling competition run by Tyra Banks in which the “models” participate in useless challenges, fight with each other, try to “find themselves,” and are generally humiliated by the judges and Tyra herself. The show is enjoyable for most of the same reasons as “Burlesque” is. It feeds us a familiar storyline – you can succeed if you work hard, learn quickly, and have a tragic enough back-story – and simultaneously manages to make us feel good about ourselves for not taking it as seriously as the participants.
Ultimately, I think there’s nothing wrong with having an appreciation for kitsch, as long as it’s not what you primarily fill your life with (which is to say, don’t spend every waking hour watching “Jersey Shore”). Kitsch can help you determine what makes good art versus what doesn’t, and it can even, occasionally, carry with it messages that may be useful to live by – even if those messages come in cheap packages.
Sophie Kaner is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]