Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema
By Laura Horak
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016, 311 pp., $29.95, paperback
Reviewed by Erin Trahan
Clothing offers a visible and sometimes even measurable marker of gender and sexuality. That makes it ripe for study within the visual medium of film. The film scholar Laura Horak makes an impressive debut with Girls Will Be Boys by looking at how clothes relate to gender roles during cinema’s formative years, from 1908 to 1934. That’s before commercialization, consolidation, and the star system cemented Hollywood as one of the United States’ most potent cultural exports. It’s also before those influences narrowed Hollywood’s depictions of what supposedly makes a girl a girl, a woman a lesbian, and so forth.
Horak wants readers to know that gender rigidity, and the negativity associated with lesbians in particular, hasn’t always been cinema’s norm. The forgetting of film history is one of the book’s top concerns, and it’s a legitimate one. Cross-dressed images of the international stars Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Katharine Hepburn (who are discussed at length in chapter five) could jar even an educated cinemagoer into thinking, “Wow, she dressed as a man and kept getting roles?” Yet their films are in circulation and frequently studied. Girls Will Be Boys offers an explanation.
Horak’s research singlehandedly increases the record of silent-era films known to include crossed-dressed women from 37 to more than 400. Sadly, only some 200 of the films still exist. Horak tracked them down and provides scene analyses that in some cases measure down to the second. Throughout the book she effectively deploys this research, using quotes from film reviews, newspaper articles, advertisements, film ephemera, and more to illuminate and bolster her case. Moreover she includes a list of films and their archival locations in the book’s appendix.
Horak’s two-part book opens with an explanation of why females were so frequently cast as male characters in early American cinema. It wasn’t to pander for laughs or incur moral scorn. Rather, during the boom era for “female boy performers,” from 1908 to 1921 (a majority of the 476 total films Horak considers are of young women in boy roles), it was thought that only a girl actor could embody the ideal of boyhood on screen. “Female boys were considered more expressive, more beautiful, more innocent, and more vulnerable than boys played by male actors,” Horak explains. She ties this to a shifting appraisal of youth in general: “In contrast to Puritan and Enlightenment conceptions of the child as fallen or flawed, the Romantic child was innocent, spiritual, and wise. The child’s beauty attested to its goodness.”
Moral heft was exactly what the burgeoning form of cinema sought in its early years. That’s why casting girls in boys’ roles was a common practice among film companies like Vitagraph, Biograph, and Thanhouser, among others. The intent and result, according to Horak, was to improve cinema’s reputation and brand film companies as respectable. After all, they were borrowing the cultural cachet from the theater, where cross-dressing goes back centuries. (While Horak provides scant discussion of cross-dressed male performers, she maintains that those roles were limited to comedy. She observes, “While men’s clothing could make women more attractive to both men and women on-screen, women’s clothing most often made men undesirable to everyone.”)
So it was that the adolescent Marie Eline, who strikes an androgynous pose in tuxedo and top hat on the book’s cover, became the star of Thanhouser Company by playing both girl and boy roles. An exemplar of the era, Eline played boys “in at least thirty-seven films between 1910 and 1914, when she was between the ages of eight and twelve,” writes Horak. What’s more, Eline was dubbed the Thanhouser Kid and dressed in both boy and girl garb in publicity photos. In a similar case, Edna “Billy” Foster played boys in fourteen D.W. Griffith films and was marketed predominantly as a boy. She and Eline set the scene for Horak’s deeper plunge into the complicated ways in which female boys predominated in the films of the 1910s and how studios and critics accepted and even embraced cross-gender casting.
(As a comparison, it’s hard to imagine the gender-neutral billing of a contemporary child actor, especially when The All-New Mickey Mouse Club (1989 – 1994) delivered Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Christina Aguilera; and Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus got their starts in cultural machines like the Disney Channel. One could argue that in adulthood these celebrities are gendered—and heterosexualized—to the point of parody.)
Horak maintains a respectably studious tone, so she does not dramatically leap from the Thanhouser Kids to the Mickey Mouse Club, but she does situate herself within contemporary scholarship. For example, in chapter two, when she shifts into a discussion of the frontier “gender disguise” roles of cross-dressed cowboy girls, girl spies, and plots involving female ranch takeovers, she points to other scholars who, she says, have oversimplified these roles as “embodiments of the ‘New Woman.’” (I will oversimplify an explanation of the New Woman by defining it as a turn-of-the-century embodiment of feminism. New Women typically had political intentions.)
Horak wants readers to see that female bodies were, and thus are, significant in both the evolution of American cinema as it moved from East to West Coast, and to the formation of American masculinity. At times, these bodies were apolitical. A female driving a team of horses was as much of a spectacle to early cinemagoers as Alaskan glaciers or the Rocky Mountains. When a female evades a band of male pursuers, as they commonly do in cross-dressed chase sequences, her female status (evident to the audience despite the male disguise) ups the anxiety of those watching, and thus the narrative tension.
Horak notes that most such chases were initiated by the cross-dressed character herself, and the films “stressed the dynamism of the chase” rather than the male characters’ failures or the resolution of homoerotic attraction through heterosexual coupling (after the woman reveals her true gender). What’s more, Horak did not find a single cross-dressed chase sequence in which a girl gets caught. In other words, cross-dressed women were not punished or deemed pathological. Instead, most of these films “legitimized female masculinity as a necessary expedient.” The producers of frontier films hoped to draw in audiences already accustomed to cross-dressed characters “from the periodical press, dime novels, memoirs, elaborate stage shows, and Wild West performances.” Cross-dressed women crossed in and out of many forms of American entertainment.
Horak focuses the remaining three of her five chapters on the “detection of sexual deviance” and the “emergence of lesbian legibility.” The disapproving cultural turn is likely more familiar, and aggravating, to feminist and lesbian readers than the discovery and celebration of cross-dressed females in Horak’s earlier chapters. Yet she comes up here too with an abundance of original scholarship. Her fascinating examination of A Florida Enchantment, about women who swallow seeds that change their sex, turns the clock back the 1890s, when it came out as a novel (1892) and then a play (1896), the latter to a mixed critical reception. Elitist critics pointed out the play’s sexual pathology by using coded references, whereas populist critics “resisted these interpretations and insisted that even the most literal representation of gender inversion was innocent of immorality.” This marks a turning point, writes Horak: whether you perceived deviance depended upon where you stood in a hierarchy of cultural sophistication.
That may sound baffling to modern ears. Isn’t educated open-mindedness part of being sophisticated? Not to the critics of that time, Horak explains, with a synopsis of how the word “sophisticated” entered the popular lexicon. Theater critics were keen to moralize, and in the case of film critics, hungry—like the form itself—to establish themselves as legitimate. These cultural shifts are subtle and complicated, especially given that critics embraced the 1914 film of A Florida Enchantment as a wholesome comedy. It is to Horak’s credit that she hones in on such an ideal case study, presenting macro- and micro-level analyses that span high and popular culture and resist a modern-day lens.
With the visibility of sexual deviance in A Florida Enchantment questionable, Horak points out that “lesbian filmgoers could see some version of themselves on screen precisely because no one else recognized them there.” That changed in the mid 1920s, around the time when American women embraced the unequivocally masculine garb of trousers. Similar to her resistance to equating all cross-dressed females with New Women, as she had in chapter two, Horak resists equating all masculine (or trouser-wearing) women of 1920s films with protolesbians, as other scholars have. “I recognize them as belonging to a wide-ranging genealogy of gender nonconforming people,” she writes. And in keeping with her multidepartmental credibility (her book is applicable to Film and Media Studies, LGBTQ Studies, Gender Studies, and American Studies), she looks across multiple media and fields to track lesbianism’s entry into popular culture.
To accomplish this, Horak reminds readers that the presence of cross-dressed women in American movies falls into two waves: 1908 – 1921, averaging 26 films per year; and 1922 – 1928, averaging ten films per year and almost universally featuring slim, young flappers. Film critics, even those of the time, apparently forgot about the first wave and treated trouser-wearing female characters as if they were brand new, despite the more than 300 qualifying films made before 1923. Horak suggests this might have been a marketing strategy, to capitalize on a supposedly exotic trend, but it may also be attributed to the burgeoning field of film criticism. Those writing in the 1920s may not have had knowledge of prior films, because before then it was uncommon for newspapers to have film critics on staff.
Nevertheless, on its second go, cross-dressing was more likely to be questioned, due to the public’s increased association of it with lesbianism. Horak spends more than two-dozen pages discussing the play The Captive (1926) and the novel The Well of Loneliness (1928). Awareness of their same-sex storylines, she argues, galvanized film critics into writing, for the first time, that “an actress’s masculine clothing could have ‘pathological suggestions.’” The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America added sex perversion to the long list of movie subjects to avoid, and by 1933 Warner Brothers had banned women from wearing men’s clothing in its pictures.
All was not lost. Garbo, Dietrich, and Hepburn are just three examples of women who successfully wore mannish styles on and off-screen. And pants have prevailed in women’s daily attire. As it was, and is, in Hollywood, contentious symbols are opportunities. Horak closes with the observation that on the one hand a journalist
could use the phrase “ladies who prefer pants to petticoats” to mean lesbians. One the other, fan magazines could endorse trousers as a charming fashion statement available to all women.
The leeway women have in front of or behind the camera today feels similarly limited and likewise on the cusp. What seems certain, at least to me, is that Laura Horak is exactly the kind of scholar that feminists and queer advocates want in the academy. She brings rigor, curiosity, and originality into fields that can only benefit from her close observations, analyses, and research.
Erin Trahan writes regularly about movies for WBUR, Boston’s NPR News Station, and teaches film journalism at Emerson College.