Cross-Dressing & Gender Performance in Burlesque
While they might play male roles or dress up in masculine garments, however, female burlesque performers were never trying to present a convincing, realistic portrayal of a man onstage. Instead, they were utilizing their masculine attire as a sort of fetish object, in fact emphasizing their feminine sexuality by contrasting it with markers of masculinity. Kirsten Pullen, in her book Actresses and Whores, discusses Lydia Thompson’s practice of cross-dressed performance, saying that “Thompson talked like a man but walked like a woman,” effectively using “male clothing and attitudes not to impersonate men but to underscore her femininity” (95). These practices, of course, ultimately emphasized the constructed nature of both genders, calling into question accepted gender roles themselves.
One figure often cited in the burlesque history books as an important progenitress of cross-dressing performers is actress Adah Isaacs Menken. Many actresses who played male roles would seek to reassure their public by conducting themselves with extreme feminine propriety in their personal lives, but Menken instead chose to embrace the controversy stirred by her performance of male roles and purposefully, as Rachel Shteir puts it in her book Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show, “exploited her androgynous appeal” (26). Menken’s most notorious performance came in 1863, in a lavish production of Mazeppa. Menken, in the role of the titular hero, took a daredevil ride across the stage, strapped to the back of a horse and wearing a form-fitting body stocking which showed off her distinctly feminine shape. Menken loudly defended her onstage near-nudity as an integral part of her theatrical art, inspiring many of the burlesque performers who followed after her.
Female burlesque performers may not have been trying to precisely imitate men when they took on male roles, but they were still in some ways appropriating the male voice. “Taking on the markers of masculinity,” Robert Allen explains, “the burlesque performer was licensed to act in a very unladylike fashion” (148). The effect of such “unladylike” conduct was evidently somewhat disturbing, leading William Dean Howells to deem such performers neither men nor women but “creatures of an alien sex, parodying both” (qtd. in Allen 25). The female burlesque performer might not successfully become another sex – nor was she attempting to – but she was able to transcend the social boundaries of her own gender, and therefore to say and do things of which so many other women would not dare to dream.