Taylor Sweet performing as Agent Carter.

Revenge of the Nerds

Revenge of the Nerds

When the lights snapped off, Anja Keister disappeared. Not a sliver of skin could be seen nor the white of an eye. Before that moment, she had dominated the room, every gaze fixed upon her — all motion, brimming with rhythm.

Moments earlier, she had bounded onto the burlesque stage channeling the Invisible Man, complete with a professorial tweed blazer and a face wrapped in strips of shimmery white. It wasn’t Claude Rains’s 1930s monster she was embodying, but a far more lecherous incarnation of the classic character as envisioned by Alan Moore, in his comic series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. To the crowd’s cheers, off went the fedora, followed by the dress shirt, revealing a white bra over the black spandex body suit that covered her from head to toe.

In burlesque, an audience expects to see visible skin at the conclusion of a performance, but this was different — this was what enthusiasts call “nerdlesque,” a subgenre of the raunchy spectacle in which performers pay homage to the comics, games, and literature that they love. As Anja stood onstage, the song “The Invisible Girl,” by the Parov Stelar Trio, sounding like Louis Armstrong filtered through Tron, built to a crescendo. With a flick of Anja’s wrist, black lights kicked in, and she vanished. What remained was a bra floating on air and fishnets bopping in the dark. The audience erupted.

New York’s R Bar was otherwise quiet that Tuesday night, when Anja debuted the Invisible Man act. Aside from the commotion spilling out of the back room, the main bar was mostly empty. (It’s the kind of dive-chic joint that identifies the men’s room with a picture of Iggy Pop shoving his hands down the front of his skinny jeans, and in the absence of a crush of hipsters, it looks cavernous.) When Anja finished her act, every inch of her still hugged by black spandex, she made her way through the empty barroom to the dressing room downstairs, guided by her girlfriend, who took each step in front of her holding her hand. “Can you see?” a man behind her asked “Yeah, I got it. Thank you,” she said, not looking back, taking the steps one at a time, intently.

The audience would see her face for the first time when she re-emerged, wearing thick-framed glasses with her blue hair swept to one side, to take a final bow with the rest of the cast.

The story of burlesque in New York starts nearly 150 years ago, when the Victorian burlesque performer Lydia Thompson brought her British Blondes show to the city. “There were ‘leg shows’ before, and there was burlesque before, so it wasn’t like they invented it,” says Dr. Lucky, a New York-based performer and burlesque instructor who got into the scene while researching nineteenth- to early twentieth-century popular entertainment for her dissertation in performance studies. “But when those two things came together” — raunchy parody and what Lucky calls “feminized spectacle” — “with Lydia Thompson and the British Blondes, that’s sort of the point of origin from which burlesque was born in America.”

Today, burlesque conjures up visions of G-strings and twirling pasties, but the first shows were more akin to vaudeville, often including comedians, animal acts, and singers. They were nevertheless risqué, challenging the prevailing sense of propriety with blue humor. Victorian burlesque co-opted well-known upper-class entertainment, like Shakespeare and opera, and leaned hard on the double entendres and other prurient undertones. Thompson’s show, which went on to tour America to wild success and infamy, put women at the center. “It gave new life to an old art form,” Dr. Lucky explains. “These were women who were the stars of the show, which was radically unique; it also allowed them to dress up and play men’s parts in men’s clothing — which; again, at the time, was quite risqué, to see women in breeches.”

Burlesque houses popped up around the city, from the Apollo (known then as Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater) to the Ziegfeld and the Minsky theaters. New York burlesque gave rise to such legends as Gypsy Rose Lee, perhaps one of history’s best known stripteasers, as well as comedians like Abbott and Costello and W.C. Fields. By the 1920s, the striptease was emerging as the star of the show. Though the Minsky brothers claimed to have started the trend, apocryphal tales abound when it comes to how stripping started. “There's all these myths of origins, but they all sort of oscillate around a mistake, like a showgirl trying to save a few cents on her dry cleaning and taking off her cuff, or Mae Dix, who was moving from a chorus girl to her solo number and her costume got stuck, and she just went out and did the shimmy,” she says. “Even the famous story of Gypsy Rose Lee going from vaudeville to burlesque was a mistake. She mistakenly got booked at that venue.”

The Minsky brothers, who operated several theaters around the city, including in Brooklyn, became synonymous with burlesque. Starting with a struggling nickelodeon theater, they eventually moved over to live shows and installed a runway stage extension, the first in America, so the dancers could be out among the audience. Above all, they embraced the lowbrow. “The Ziegfeld had these really big production-type shows, and the Minsky were the down-and-dirty shows,” says Dustin M. Wax, the executive director of the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. “They were the ones the reformers were always checking and the police were always raiding.” Years later, Harold Minsky ventured out to the burgeoning desert oasis of Las Vegas and set the standard for the Vegas-style revue.

By the mid- to late-’30s, the moral outrage surrounding burlesque was verging on hysteria. A Brooklyn Eagle article from 1937 reported on local religious groups appealing to the city’s license commissioner. New York’s archbishop, Patrick Hayes, spoke of the “growing evil” burlesque represented, the Brooklyn Catholic Big Sisters warned that teenage girls were being corrupted, and Congregationalist pastor Ben F. Wyland, of the Brooklyn Federation of Churches, even characterized burlesque as “a distinct excitement to sex” that caused “boys and girls to commit crime.” Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, in his bid for re-election, decimated New York’s burlesque houses by making sure no theater got its license renewed. “I don’t know why La Guardia had his panties in a wad about burlesque,” Dr. Lucky says. After La Guardia’s purge, producers couldn’t call their shows burlesque and hope to stay in business. The Minskys had become so synonymous with burlesque by that point that they couldn’t even use their own name, which effectively put them out of business.

The family never got over it. In 1981, Morton Minsky, the last living brother, wrote a letter to the New York Times, which the Times headlined “The Day La Guardia Killed Burlesque.” In it, Minksy bemoaned La Guardia’s “anti-democratic” behavior. “While you are lauding La Guardia’s virtues, I think you should remember his lack of foresight in closing the Minsky Theaters. He used autocratic power to effect the closing. The burlesque industry lacked funds to fight for its constitutional rights,” Minsky wrote.

Burlesque held an an indomitable allure, but under pressure from the city, it was forced into new forms, moving from theaters to nightclubs. Wax points out that the constituent pieces of a burlesque performance began to be stripped away, too. Comedians and singers gravitated toward movies, radio, and television. Orchestras got smaller until recorded music took over. By the late ’60s and early ’70s, all that remained was the dancer — and with the artistry and parody gone, what was left was the modern strip club. “When we think of a strip club, the point is to see someone naked,” Wax said. “With a burlesque performance, they end with the nudity, but the getting there is the point.”

For Anja, growing up, it was always about finding a place. She loved school but saw herself as an outcast, and she wanted to click with people. At her rural Pennsylvanian high school, Anja joined the French and German clubs, performed in the marching band, and debated in the model U.N. (She claims to have been involved in 37 extracurricular activities at one point.)

By her junior year of high school, Anja, who had always been big on books and board games, and who had discovered role-playing games, like Dungeons & Dragons, in her late teens, had picked up an anime habit. She soon started the school’s first anime club. “I feel like anime is a thing that a lot of outcasts cling to — I think many people, regardless of their gender or race, can see themselves as the characters,” she told me. “The American animated world is getting better at having different types, but it was mainly the strong male superhero and attractive femme woman, both typically white. But you have anime where race can be ambiguous, where there are characters with no defined gender, meek delicate boys, strong, tall, outspoken female fighters.”

Anja enjoyed reading comics but found the classic heroes too mired in backstory to get into. Comic shops, to boot, were not welcoming. She found herself intimidated by the lack of women, not to mention the esoteric conversations. “It’s hard to go into a comic book store and ask questions,” she says. “I feel like if I go in there and I seem naive to this stuff, it’s just adding more fuel to that fire that women don’t know what they’re doing in this world.” She would try to do her research beforehand, so in the event that someone tested her, she’d be able to hold her own. It’s the nerd version of the feeling you might have upon entering a boxing gym for the first time: everyone there full of purpose, leaving no room for your confusion or aimlessness. Too timid to ask questions in comic shops, she mostly avoided them, sating her yen by borrowing what she could from friends. She tended toward indie titles and graphic novels, lingering over the works of writers like Moore, an anarchist who presented his Watchmen heroes as flawed and broken, rather than monolithic do-gooders.

The geek world, as recent flare-ups have laid bare, has a problem with sexism. It’s especially noticeable to women who cosplay, or dress up as favorite characters. So many of the women from comics, video games, and especially anime are hypersexualized — Red Sonja, Emma Frost, Harley Quinn, and Poison Ivy, to name a few popular characters who typify the genre — it’s hard to avoid being objectified when dressing up as them.

Tiger Bay manipulates a web while performing as Mary Jane, from the Spider-Man comics.

Stella Chuu, a burlesque performer and friend of Anja’s, has herself been treated as an object. At a convention where she was dressed as Psylocke, the X-Man whose outfit is basically a purple bathing suit with gloves, a stranger groped her. “I swirled around with my knife in my hand and was like ‘Did you just fucking grab my ass?’” she recalls. (The knife was fake, a prop for the costume.) Stella made a scene in the hopes he’d get ejected, but in the end she succeeded only in embarrassing him into a half-hearted apology. “It was a really great moment for me because no one defended me, and I didn’t want them to. I wanted to be the one in power,” she recalls.

In 2013, a group of men from a public access show and YouTube channel were kicked out of New York Comic Con after multiple complaints about their behavior. Segments of their “interviews” with attendees, some said, consisted of the men staring silently at women's breasts. The group was eventually barred from the convention. A nearly identical scenario took place the year before: A cosplayer named Mandy Caruso was dressed as Black Cat, the thief and ally of Spider-Man, when the all-male crew of an unknown website approached her for an interview and then asked her for her cup size. She tried brushing him off, but he persisted, urging the crowd to guess. The largely male crowd shouted out bra sizes. For its part, New York Comic Con has since implemented a “Cosplay is not Consent” campaign, and allows con-goers to report harassment via the NYCC app.

Since the 1990s, New York has seen a surge in new forms of burlesque. While there are only two theaters devoted specifically to burlesque — The Slipper Room and Duane Park — there are shows elsewhere almost every night of the week, from Manhattan to Brooklyn and Queens. Coney Island is a hotbed for shows, with others popping up in areas like Gowanus and Williamsburg. Even in dive bars, the shows are often ticketed events that draw a burlesque-loving crowd. Over at Bushwick Burlesque, Darlinda Just Darlinda co-produces a twice-monthly show on Jefferson Street. An 11-year veteran who also teaches at the New York School of Burlesque, Darlinda says when she was approached by her friends Scary Ben and Heather Loop about doing a show together close to home, her answer was simple: “That sounds amazing. I don’t want to have to leave Bushwick. How great would it be to walk to the venue?”

Darlinda says she couldn’t always find a place for her brand of “absurdist cabaret” until she helped start the Bushwick show, which has included farcical pageants like “Tooth Box: A Vagina Dentata Competition,” as well as performers like Dangrrr Doll, who regularly contributes to Bushwick Burlesque. She’s known for her 1984 act. It’s an utterly chilling tribute to Orwell's classic, in which she wears a man’s suit and, on her head, a massive security camera. “It's so creepy,” Darlinda said of the act. “And if you had never read 1984, it's still a great act.”

Dangrrr Doll performs her haunting 1984 act. (The final moments of the performance are not safe for work.)

“Nerdlesque really prides itself on the reference,” Dr. Lucky explains. “So if one does not get the reference, the act and the show still has to be entertaining on top of that.”

Dr. Lucky doesn’t see nerdlesque as different from its forebears. Burlesque has always turned out ribald parodies of popular culture, and nerdlesque follows very much in that tradition. If there is a difference, however, it’s in nerdlesque’s love of its source material. Where early burlesque meant to undermine the culture — to bring the trappings of the upper class that much closer to their baser instincts — nerdlesque celebrates it. Each routine is a tribute. As pop-culture has changed, Wax pointed out, so then has the nature of burlesque parody. “In a lot of ways it's reflective of a greater social change in which things that 30-40 years ago were way out of the mainstream — comic books, dungeons & dragons, science fiction movies — these were things that kids got beat up for liking,” Wax said.

As an adult, Anja was part of a tabletop role-playing group in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where she lived at the time and worked as an art therapist. During that period, these games were more or less the extent of her activity in the geek world. She hadn’t abandoned her interests, but she wasn’t in the culture. She didn't go to any conventions, and when she hit the comic shop, she would grab her books and go.

By 2010, Anja was living in New York. When she first saw burlesque that year, at the Jim Thorpe Burlesque Festival, she was hooked. She took classes at the festival and was drawn in by the variety, the empowerment, and how welcoming and encouraging the other performers were. “I get excited about artistic endeavors quite easily, so it was pretty much as soon as I saw burlesque, I knew I wanted to do it,” she remembers. “My ‘only a fan stage’ wasn't very long.” She went to shows often and started attending classes at the New York School of Burlesque. Those early days in New York were transitional, if not lonely. She knew few people outside of her colleagues at work, and because her job involved coordinating mental health services for teens, she felt it best to hide her interest in burlesque. “That was really hard, because it was something I really liked, and as I started to make new friends there, it was weird to keep the two separate,” she recalls. She had also lost touch with her gaming group and was dying to play Dungeons & Dragons again.

Anja had been to see a group called Epic Win, which specialized in nerd-themed burlesque. Unfortunately, Epic Win was a closed troupe, accepting no new members — so she started her own, drawing a pool of performers from a D&D game Anja belonged to, which included nerdlesque regulars Dangrr Doll, Iris Explosion, and Hazel Honeysuckle. “Burlesque was a great community to come into. I found really near and dear friends through that, and finding the nerdy community, too, was good for me,” she says. “Then to be able to cross them was amazing.”

D20, which takes its name from the 20-sided die know to D&D’ers the world over, varies in its themes, ranging from comics to video games to zombies. As the producer, Anja chooses the themes and curates the performances. “A lot of it is me, at this point, seeing how many performers I can get booked, because I would rather book performers who have these acts, rather than me kind of hogging the spotlight,” she explains.

Iris Explosion, a D20 staple with the large, expressive eyes of a silent film star, occasionally performs as Flash, and has other acts based on Twin Peaks and the board game Mousetrap. She draws inspiration for one performance from the game BioShock, where she portrays a Little Sister, a genetically modified little girl that carries a life-giving substance. The audience, just like a player of the game, chooses if she should be saved or harvested. It always chooses harvest. During the act, she cries as she strips, bleeds fake blood from her mouth, and eventually dies on stage. After performing it for the first time, she received an email from an audience member who found depicting a little girl that way, to a room full of cheers, offensive. It’s certainly violent, but Iris reminds them that the crowd had a choice. “I wanted to take that and make it a little more real. Stuff happening on a TV in animation is very different from stuff happening with a real person in front of you on stage,” she explains. “My intent was to make people uncomfortable with that act because it is something creepy you do in the game, and you should feel creepy about it.”

Anja has routines based on Settlers of Catan, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and the video game Fallout. Stella Chuu has acts for My Little Pony and Tron. But to truly appreciate the breadth of pop culture encompassed, one need only see D20’s year-end “Fan Favorite” show. Some past favorites have included Iris’s choose-your-own-adventure routine, in which the audience decides which clothes she removes, leaving her to dance lopsided on one high-heel. There was Stella Chuu’s quick-tempo tribute to breakfast (sunny-side-up pasties and all), and Taylor Sweet’s Freddy Kruger. Anja has even devoted a whole show to paying homage to the Lovecraftian podcast Welcome to Night Vale, which includes her Glow Cloud act. “It’s a cloud that speaks to the town, and it rains down animal carcasses and blood,” she explains. “Then the joke is that it really enjoys the town, so it decides to stay around. It ends up being on the school board.”

The essence of nerdlesque is expressing yourself, both physically and mentally. “A lot of what nerdlesque does is it says to the world, 'Yes, I am a fucking nerd!'” Iris says.

In 2013, after an otherwise fun and successful trip to PAX Prime in Seattle, Iris Explosion decided she was done with it and all of its offshoots. PAX, which started as a convention for fans of the popular web comic Penny Arcade, has ballooned into a force in the gaming world.

She had been invited there to participate in the panel, “You Game Like a Girl: Tales of Trolls and White Knights,” where she and the D20 ladies talked about women in the geek world. The panel had been a success at PAX East in Boston the previous March, with the discussion spilling out into the convention center halls. The crowd there was a fairly even split of men and women, who packed the 600-seat auditorium. Several of them approached her afterward asking her to sign plastic cups, which while on the panel she had periodically thrown in mock outrage. Seattle was similarly successful, and the Expo was by and large a positive experience for her. That is, until one of the founders of Penny Arcade pissed off a ton of people by dredging up the so-called dickwolf controversy.

Iris Explosion performing as Diane.

It started in 2010, when Penny Arcade published a comic strip mocking the strange ethics at play in many games, like when the player’s mission is to save five slaves and the hero takes off after saving the fifth, leaving the rest. The crux of the strip was a sixth slave asking why he wouldn’t be rescued, saying, “Every night, we are raped to sleep by the dickwolves.” To which the hero answers, “I only needed to save five slaves. Alright? Quest complete.” The rape comment caused a stir, but it was the reaction to the reaction that spurred the real outrage. The Penny Arcade creators doubled down, announcing they’d be selling Dickwolf T-shirts.

When D20 had done their first panel at the Escapist Expo, the trolling was rough, with commenters racking up record numbers of bans by the site’s moderators. One of the panelists received death threats and emails containing rape porn. The year prior, a girl working the expo had stopped by the burlesque group’s table explaining that guys were touching her hair and trying to pick her up — physically pick her up — because she’s small. “She's like mid-20s, but she looks like she’s 12,” Stella explains. “She looks like the kind of girl you want to pick up and run off with, and that happens to her all the time.” Anja, Iris, and Stella decided that the next year they should start a panel about making the geek world safer for women. The invitation to PAX Prime was a major step.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a troll’s logic that finds removing your clothes on stage at odds with not wanting to be harassed at conventions or with paneling for equality. “When I take my clothes off on stage, when I dress as a character and dance around and get naked, it has everything to do with what I want to do with my body and nothing to do with what anybody else wants to do with my body,” Iris says. “When I do this, it's a statement of my autonomy, of my sexuality, of my confidence, and just because I'm choosing to display myself for my own pleasure, and my own profit, doesn’t mean that I am any less of a nerd or any less of a feminist. People are free to look at my body in the context which I place it. That does not give anybody permission to touch me or harass me or to assault me. Ever.”

By the time PAX Prime 2013 rolled around, the dickwolf issue was less prickly and people generally seemed over it. But then, at the final event of the convention, co-founder Mike Krahulik brought it up, unprompted, saying that he regretted pulling the shirts.

“It was like a rug was ripped out from under me,” Iris say. “I had been invited to this convention to speak about how gamers should respect women, how we can make everything less toxic, and here's the guy running the convention saying something that’s incredibly alienating and horrifying.” The dickwolf situation, she explains, has become yet another source of discomfort for women. Iris says she won’t be returning to PAX.

“It’s tricky because now we lost part of our panel, and Stella was also on the fence about it,” Anja says. “It was like ‘No, we're standing up to this together!’”

“I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up. I was very socially awkward in middle school and high school, so my friends were comic books, video games, and sci-fi books,” Iris says. “Then, all of a sudden, you connect with other people who like those things, and it's like instant community.”

To the outside observer, it may seem counter-intuitive that nerds, a group of people defined, to some degree, by their status as social outcasts, would be so unaccepting of their own. And yet many women in this community feel disaffected. “I had a really hard time in high school. No one liked me, and I just sat in my basement playing video games for four years,” Dangrrr Doll told me once after a show. “Then when I got to college, they're like, ‘Where were you when I was in high school?’ Next to you, being ignored by you.”

“I think what they don't understand is that we're in the same boat as them,” Iris says. “There’s a disconnect, and that empathy isn’t there, only hostility.”

Anja still occasionally gets nerd-checked in the comic shop, challenged to prove the depth of her fandom. “When I go into stores and get my Walking Dead, I've had guys roll their eyes at me and go like ‘Oh, so you watch the television show,’” she says. “The reality is, what’s nerdiness? Nerdiness is enjoying something, so much,” Dangrrr Doll says. “Why do you have to prove that you enjoy something more than other people? Just fucking enjoy it, man.”

In many ways, nerdlesque is an elevated level of geekery, about more than simply consuming the culture. It’s a decisive nerd-check answer. Adapting a certain story or character into a dance number requires that you know the story, know the character. “If you're just taking a character and being that character, that's just cosplay,” Dangrrr Doll explains. “That’s not what we do here. We’re showing you a piece of that character that you can relate to.”

The crowd was already packed tightly around the pool table in the Parkside Lounge, all waiting for the doors to open for D20’s burlesque tribute to Marvel Comics, when a somewhat frazzled Anja hurried into the back room. They were behind schedule, and some preparations still needed to be made. Of course, you’d never know it by her stage presence: funny, at ease, enjoying herself. She started the show with her take on Cyclops’s absentee father and space-pirate, Corsair, complete with ’70s mustache, hip sash, and Starjammer logo emblazoned across her chest. She kept the mustache on for the rest of the night.

Anja Keister, mustache in place, performing as Corsair.

Other acts that night included Taylor Sweet’s tribute to Agent Peggy Carter (whom Anja introduced as “a woman who just wants to get shit done”), BB Heart’s beautifully dramatic take on Magneto, and Vanka Romanov’s heart-rending portrayal of the Death of Gwen Stacy, which ended with her suspended lifelessly from a harness. “Guys, that was really beautiful! I was crying on the side of the stage,” Anja said, still a little choked up, as Vonka dismounted and the crowd wailed. Dangrrr Doll blew the crowd away with a comically coquettish nod to the Hawkeye Initiative – an internet movement that draws attention to the absurdity of how female characters are illustrated by putting Hawkeye in the same poses.

Before the last act of the night – a fun, if somewhat unsettling, routine from Kat Mon Dieu in full Stan Lee makeup – Anja’s girlfriend, ZP Keister, emerged from the back of the room carrying a sparkling cube. Anja’s eyes lit up as the color-blocked cake made its way on stage. The entire crowd joined in singing Happy Birthday. “It's a fucking Minecraft cake!” she said.

Anja, now a makeup artist in Brooklyn, is no longer compelled to bifurcate her life. The clear line she once drew between her daily existence and her nocturnal life as a performer has faded. Not long ago, she was feeling down — it was the one year anniversary of her father’s death — so she sent out a message to some of her closest nerdlesque friends, seeking support. The response was uplifting. “A bunch of nerdy performers came over, and we just played games all night,” she says. “It really helped me get through it.”

D20 Burlesque is an open group, so a dancer can join for a show that speaks specifically to her — if she loves board games, for example, or robots, or Joss Whedon. But it’s the core group that keeps it, and Anja, afloat. “I feel better knowing they have my back,” Anja says. “If I didn't have people like Iris and Stella and Dangrrr, I don't know if I'd still be doing this.”

Robert Tutton is a freelance writer from Queens. He has contributed to The Atlantic, the Village Voice, and frequently writes about comics for Paste Magazine.

Meghan White is a freelance photographer and a graduate student at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

Also in this issue

Snow Days

Everywhere in the snowscape of February, that sleepiest of months, are signs of time’s having slowed. Photos by Emily Frances

Q&A: Matthew Wolf of Kings Theatre

The executive director on restoring a community gem and reviving the Brooklyn theater district that once was. Interview by John Surico