Friday, October 19, 2012

War is a Drag: Female Impersonators in the First World War

The phenomenon of the Great War drag show is somewhat perplexing.  Some argue that soldiers were not just laughing at the gender-bending performances but were actually aroused by the shows.  A broad array of explanations are offered for the cross-dressing phenomenon, ranging from desires for the portrayal of normalized femininity, to sublimation of homosexuality.
'The Dumbells' Concert Party. Formed from
 3rd Canadian Division in France.  'Marjorie'
(R.D. Hamilton), and 'Marie' (A.G. Murray),
the two girls of the Dumbells show,
 with the manager, Captain M.W. Plunkett,
 Credit: Canada. Dept. of National
Defence/Library and Archives Canada/
JG Fuller's Troop Morale (Oxford, 1990), notes the importance of music shows to the soldiers when they were at rest, and among these theatrical revues, drag shows were fairly common.  Analyzing a broad range of soldiers' journals, Fuller writes that , "curiously these female impersonators seem to have generated considerable sexual excitement.  He quotes one of the men in the ranks as claiming, "judging from the way [the men] sat and goggled at the drag on stage it was obvious that they were indulging in delightful fantasies that brought to them substantial memories of the girls they had left behind them in London, Manchester, Glasgow, wherever." (As cited in Fuller, p.105)
Apparently, many impersonators did not make a caricature of their roles, but played their parts with candour.  Fuller notes that many journals accounted for the realism of the concert party "girls".  One soldier wrote that, "it all seems to show that English beauty is essentially masculine."  Fuller is more critical of the illusion: "judging from the photographs, it shows the intensity of the desire to believe." (p. 106)

Big Beauty Chorus, Marie and the Boys.  Dumbells troupe.  Library and Archives Canada.  PA-005741
Fuller wonders why this desire to believe in the gender-bending charade was so strong with the relative ease of access to women in the rear areas.  It is true that after the spring of 1917, troops may have gone for weeks without seeing a woman in the farms, hospitals, shops and estaminets. Yet, Fuller suggests that the appeal of the entertainers was likely, "their emphasis put on glamour [not] the sheer fewness of females."  He notes that "peasant girls, working hard at practical tasks with their menfolk away, were often the reverse of 'feminine' in the restricted sense of the age."  A quote from an Australian journal lamented, "Women of shattered Picardy, Why are your boots so flat and vast?"

Of this desire for fancy femininity, Fuller writes
The trappings of elegance and luxury were the negation of war and squalor and, as such, a potent fetish of peace.  The female impersonators therefore took care over the fripperies, having lingerie sent out, or going on special leave to London or Paris to select the items themselves.  On stage they sang the sentimental songs which represented the greatest frippery of all, asserting the idealized stereotype of soft and vulnerable romantic femininity. (Fuller, p.106)

Historian David A Boxwell, in his article "The Follies of War: Cross-Dressing and Popular Theatre on the British Front Lines, 1914-1918" Modernism/Modernity 9.1 (2002) 1-20, disagrees with the thesis that drag performance was strictly a desire for  idealized heterosexual relations.  He identifies two forms of female impersonation which had already developed on British stages by 1914.  He notes that, "Mimicry was most visibly embodied in the pantomime "dame" tradition, a comedic effort to render the female form in its most hypercarnivalized manner: the grotesque, oversized, and voracious body of the raddled, "ugly" woman presented on stage out of a misogynistic animus" (Boxwell, p. 13).   The other form of impersonation was mimesis, which historians have traced back to the 1860s.  Mimesis represented "idealized femininity as closely as possible (Boxwell, p. 14).

'The Dumbells' Concert Party. 
 'Marie' (A.G. Murray)PA-005743
Boxwell argues, "the complex dynamics of men objectifying other men as women does not occur completely within a heterosexual matrix." (Boxwell, p. 16)  Boxwell's argument is formed in analysis of the HC Owen quote that, "it all seems to show that English beauty is essentially masculine."
[Owen] may well have intended to define female beauty in masculine terms, to suggest that British women were at their most beautiful when they most looked like men. The slippage that inheres in the statement effectively eradicates women's existence: male beauty not only exists, but cannot be conceived of in anything other than "masculine" terms. Thus there was an ineradicable trace of homoeroticism at the heart of drag during the Great War.[...] A man watching another man in drag must, at some level, self-reassuringly avow that the "woman" has a penis. But this act of speculation threatens to put the male spectator beyond the boundaries of the heterosexual matrix. (Boxwell, p. 16)
For Boxwell, enjoying a drag show was a cathartic way of releasing homosexual anxieties in a homophobic society.  As may be expected, other historians disagree.

Laurel Halladay, in "A Lovely War: Male to Female Cross-Dressing and Canadian Military Entertainment in World War II Journal of Homosexuality Volume 46, Issue 3-4, 2004 traces drag performances in the Canadian military, and identified in the Great War period, an attempt to reconstruct a heterosexual community.  (Hallady, p.  21)   For Hallady, drag performance was either comedic or dramatic, either mocking perceived female foibles or respecting femininity.  On the issue of sexualization, Halladay writes that, "Perhaps contrary to more modern expectations, drag performers were not the least bit threatening to the taken-for-granted heterosexual practices of their comrades and both contributed to and
enjoyed the homosociability of the battlefield." (Halladay, p.23)  For Halladay, it was only when women were recruited into the Canadian military in the Second World War, that female impersonation was broadly considered deviant.

The debate over the meanings of female impersonators in the First World War is by no means over.  How could it be when analyzing the subjective reception of gendered performances by a broad variety of men?  The work yet to be written on the complex nuances of drag performance is bound to be exciting historical work, addressing the overlap between social, sexual, and gender history.
From John to Jack, Susannah to Susie, Punch (1916).


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