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Female Masculinity

by Jennifer Lachenmayer
Source: http://english.cla.umn.edu/GraduateProfiles/KSurkan/4403/fmale.html

Within the complex and diverse community of people who identify as lesbians exists a smaller and more controversial group who identify as masculine females. Judith Halberstam, author of Female Masculinity, writes that "female masculinities are framed as the rejected scraps of dominant masculinity in order that male masculinity may appear to be the real thing" (Halberstam, 1). Halberstam argues for taking a closer look at female masculinity, studying women who to varying degrees feel masculine and exhibit masculinity.

Annie Hindle, a male impersonator in the late 1800s, performed masculinity on stage in her vaudeville act, but offstage too. Looking back historically, we wonder how exactly does the concept of female masculinity relate to Annie Hindle, and what does it mean to other male impersonators of the past and the present?

Transgendered author Kate Bornstein has researched different sexualities, describing what she calls in Gender Outlaw "cues of gender." These cues often tip people off in determining who is gay, lesbian, transsexual or transgendered. They are also what help society determine a man from a woman. Gender cues can include clothing styles, hairstyles, makeup, walk, language, or attitude. They also help people wanting to pass to determine how identities are recognized.

Although these are all factors that Annie Hindle dealt with every day, Hindle had stage performance to help her pass, and therefore the public didn't question her sexuality. She passed successfully because she was supposed to be acting; yet personally the performance allowed her to explore her gender identity. She explored the line between transgenderism and female masculinity, and in turn raised many debates surrounding her life.

For instance, "Are all male impersonators masculine females -- only when they are on stage, or also off? How do we, as a society, know this? What is the relationship between sexual identity and gender performances? Where is the border between transgenderism and female masculinity? Annie Hindle raised these questions for us through her lifestyle, yet her lifestyle is not able to give us all of the answers, because unfortunately we don't know enough about her.

Hindle was not considered a transgendered person in her era, mainly because the concept didn't exist. Nor did the public consider her gay because she was simply an entertainer. However, her personal life was very closeted, such as her marriage to a woman she had worked with in vaudeville. Through her entertainment she was able to express her masculinity, which was socially acceptable.

Hindle didn't have the terms or definitions that we do today, so she wasn't able to identify herself in modern terms like transgender or transsexual. In Donoghue's play, Hindle's lover Ryanny made several comments early on in the production about wanting to be married with children. Consequently, the audience may interpret her as a straight person. However, when Ryanny and Annie consider marriage, it seems very natural to Ryanny because she was in love with Annie. Ryanny reacted to Annie's hesitation by saying something along the lines of, "What does it matter, us being two women? We are in love, surely Gods understands that." This statement reflects her desire to portray their relationship as a simple love story between two people, rather than a transgender or lesbian connection.

There is hardly any documented history of queer or lesbian lifestyles, and the experiences of Annie and her lover give us a rare insight into homosexuality a hundred years ago. Although homosexual relationships were accepted within vaudeville, there wasn't any homosexual terms used during the play, as most people in that era didn't have the terms to identify as any sort of sexuality.

If she were living today, Annie Hindle might identify as a transgendered person, or she might identify as a lesbian who displays masculinity, a "butch" lesbian. Her experience is an excellent example of the border that lies between butchness and transgender or transsexual identity. However, we need to remember that we cannot assume Annie Hindle's identity in modern terms, because we have since created terms and ideas that did not exist at the time. In fact, Hindle and her lover most likely didn't identify as lesbians either. Annie Hindle may have been considered an actor on stage, someone only impersonating a male. But in her real life she displayed masculinity and took on a husband-like role in her marriage.

A Brief History of Male Impersonation
by
Katie Wenkman

Male impersonation has often been interpreted as a role taken on by women to challenge the gender norms significant with their time in history. The concept of male impersonation can be further examined in terms of its limitations in cultural stage productions. The history of male impersonation can concisely be presented in three distinct cultural discourses of challenging gender roles. First, the era of the Renaissance presented a time when cross-dressing for women was a way to abandon traditional gender roles that were particularly dominated by men. Late eighteen and early nineteenth-century male impersonators were those who challenged the previously mentioned gender roles by performing on stage, and in bold cases by cross-dressing in public. Paving the way for recognition of transgender identity, stage performance of male impersonators created a new wave in the concept of transgender by giving gender identity a scope, rather than a two-tiered choice.

In terms of cultural production, male impersonation was rare within Renaissance England. This is especially apparent on the stage, where only men could perform both gender roles. Women who performed onstage were considered vulgar. However, there have been accounts of women who were male impersonators. This is evident through the strict laws imposed on women who wore men's clothing or behaved in any mannerisms that were declared "manly." Furthermore, most priests and religious leaders commonly preached against this practice.

Jean E. Howard addresses one explanation as to why male impersonation was deemed taboo in this era in her article, "Cross-Dressing, The Theater, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England:"

This era presented a sex-gender system under pressure and that cross-dressing, as fact and as idea, threatened a normative social order based upon strict principles of hierarchy and subordination, of which women's subordination to man was a chief instance, trumpeted from pulpit, instituted in law, and acted upon by monarch and commoner alike (Ferris 20).

With this in mind, male impersonators at this time were not always performing for entertainment value, which is the idea of male impersonation today, but rather to break free from the submissive feminine roles. Women were not exactly impersonating men, but rather trying to be men in order to take part in the dominant roles.

The Renaissance era of male impersonation is strikingly different from the 18th-19th century. During this time, Vaudeville became a highly visible entertainment component to which women were encouraged to profit from their talent of male impersonation. This type of entertainment led to conceptualization of the abstract male/female characteristics and norms.

Male impersonation brought publicity and recognition to the idea that one could question the construction of their gender identity. This publicity and recognition shed light on a hidden history of men and women who could successfully pass as the gender opposite of their sex. Vaudeville also created a community where such individuals could encompass this "deviant" identity and form a culture. However, limits were set. It was extremely risky for women to dress as men off the stage.

Such bold women did exist, the most famous being Annie Hindle and Ella Wesner. Hindle and Wesner were two of the most famous male impersonators of their time. They convinced many that they were indeed men. Their success contributed to their ability to continue their cross-dressing off the stage. Hindle was even successful in pursuing a marriage with a woman. 18th-19th century male impersonation made a strong argument for the construction of gender, especially on the stage, and contributed to future acknowledgement of transgender individuals. Vaudeville paved the way for future alternative conceptualizations of gender.


Storme DeLarverie

Contemporary male impersonation has generally been more liberated as a result of the women's liberation. Stress on gender role reevaluation was a vehicle in allowing the audience to discover the more elastic roles and scope of gender. The famous male impersonator of contemporary stage, Storme DeLarverie and the Jewel Box Revue can exemplify such concepts. She advertised herself as the only women in the theatre company, and successfully left many audiences guessing just which actor was the woman in many of her shows. Furthermore, the very recent upsurge in drag kings has left audiences in astonishment portraying gender as a concept that cannot be dichotomized as male or female.

The history of male impersonation has provided a strong base for explaining how gender was socially constructed. Successful male impersonators in the Renaissance were able to explore and enjoy the social privilege of men. Vaudeville male impersonators made audiences aware that certain gender norms could be easily broken and taken on by the opposite sex. This opened the door for recognizing the transgender identity. Contemporary male impersonation further inhibits the manifestations of gender as male/female and masculine/feminine and continues to create a scope of gender identity that many still struggle to conceptualize.

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