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  • Representing “Awarishness”: Burlesque, Feminist Transgression, and the 19th-Century Pin-up
  • Maria-Elena Buszek

Faye E. Dudden’s book, Women in the American Theatre, begins with an anecdote about the author’s grandmother, who once told Dudden, “with an air of considerable importance, that she had seen Ellen Terry” (1994:1). Whether her grandmother had witnessed a performance by the legendary 19th-century Shakespearean performer or had simply caught a glimpse of the actress in the street, Dudden could not tell. What the author did understand, however, was that the awe with which her grandmother regarded the actress revealed something of the curious status that women of the stage possessed in the Victorian era—an age in which identity for white women generally consisted of two poles of existence: the idealized domestic “true woman” or the vilified prostitute. In the theatre, the presentation of an unstable, or “changeling” womanhood—ordinarily deemed a threat to the binary order by which female identity was indexed in society—was not only an acceptable, but celebrated identity for women. Dudden concludes that to women like her grandmother: “Perhaps Terry stood for pecuniary independence, authenticity, or the possibility of self-transformation; perhaps she was simply beautiful, famous and desirable. Perhaps, indeed, she was both” (1994:2).

Tracy C. Davis also wrote of this subversive identity of the 19th-century actress:

Actresses were symbols of women’s self-sufficiency and independence, but as such they were doubly threatening: like the middle classes generally, they advocated and embodied hard work, education, culture and family ties, yet unlike prostitutes they were regarded as “proper” vessels of physical and sexual beauty and legitimately moved in society as attractive and desirable beings.


As suggested above, by the mid-19th century the profession and identities of female performers negotiated a rare spectrum of gray areas between the period’s societal binary for women. They were proof that between the bourgeois “true woman” (the feminine ideal of “four cardinal virtues: piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity” [Welter 1966:152]) and the low-class [End Page 141] prostitute existed alternative, unstable, and powerful roles for white women—transgressive identities that were celebrated and made visible in the theatre.

What interests me about the role of the actress in this period of history is the effect that these performers have had, and the parallels that one finds, in the formation and expression of feminist identities today—particularly within the discourse of the construction and fluidity of sexuality in the representation of women. Most striking are the ways in which 19th-century photographic imagery—when created to represent and promote specifically sexualized theatrical identities outside of the contained space of the theatre—was constructed, circulated, and made visible in ways that reflect similar feminist modes of self-representation today. Through the use of visual imagery to promote their theatrical identities, female performers in the mid-19th century shifted these personae from the relative isolation of the stage to mass media and popular culture. Both the burlesque tradition and the photographic “pin-up” originated in this period—and the pin-up genre was utilized and manipulated by actresses in the realm of the burlesque. As representations of female performers who explored pointedly sexual roles (both on- and offstage) between a binary cultural construction, many of these early pin-ups can be read as a parallel to and inspiration for some of the more transgressive and unabashedly feminist uses and readings of the genre today.

The early carte de visite pin-ups of bawdy burlesque actresses represented a space in which these transgressive stage performers could control and construct what one 19th-century burlesque actress would call an ideal of sexual “awarishness.” Like the stage identities the images were meant to represent, these photographs not only called into question the legitimacy of defining female sexuality according to a binary structure, but also marked as desirable the spectrum of unstable and taboo identities as imaged between these poles. Moreover, these early pin-ups served to create a popular awareness of these transgressive sexual identities through media that was more readily controlled than and separate from the theatre. What resulted from burlesque performers’ use of the pin-up...

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pp. 141-162
Launched on MUSE
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