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
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?
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
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.
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
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
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
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.