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  • Annie Oakley and the Disruption of Victorian Expectations
  • Lisa Bernd (bio)

This ongoing project to consider the legacy of Annie Oakley's performances began when I came upon a framed poster of Buffalo Bill's Wild West in the lobby of the Western History Collection at the University of Oklahoma. I was surprised when the images made me recall my own childhood in suburbia. Despite the fact that I grew up on Long Island during the 1970s, I had played cowboys and Indians, always insisting on impersonating Annie Oakley. This play scenario was perhaps the closest I came to being treated as an equal among the neighborhood boys. Letting me play with their cap pistols and ride my invisible horse next to theirs, they allowed me to be the hero—after I had finished cleaning up the cabin, of course.1 Ironically, by framing my play within gender expectations that included domestic chores, I was able to experience what performance theorist Peta Tait labels "moments of freedom" from those expectations—moments where I was able to run with the boys and capture (or even be) the "bad guy."2

As a female sharpshooter, Annie Oakley traveled the world precisely because she could do a "man's work" while appearing to adhere to the conventions of Victorian femininity. By framing her own "moments of freedom" in gendered gesture and behavior, Oakley was fundamental to the construction of a modern "American" identity for women. Modeling authority and self-sufficiency, as well as a spiffy pair of pantaloons, Annie Oakley influenced American women while fostering the national enterprise of cultural unification. Theorizing that "the Wild West" was an effort toward the creation of a national identity, I consider the way Annie Oakley's presence cultivated an American identity for women by embodying freedoms typically denied to women in the Victorian era. [End Page 39] Although Oakley refused to align herself politically with the feminist movement, her dress, actions, and associations resulted from the freedom she experienced as a performer, especially as a woman doing "man's" work. That her audience came to accept and idolize her speaks volumes about her ability to disrupt audience expectations to accommodate social change.

If, as Benedict Anderson suggests, nations are "imagined communities," then it was particularly important, at the end of the nineteenth century, for the United States to establish itself firmly in the imaginations of its own inhabitants as well as Europeans. Buffalo Bill's theatrical representation of frontier life offered an alternative to the prevalent European ethno-linguistic model of nationalism.3 The late nineteenth century proved a highly volatile period of European nationalism as groups constantly tried to partition territory according to historical ethnic demographics. Without ethnicity or history in common, cultural diversity and regional divisions were seen as the U.S.'s biggest threat to a cohesive nation. Clearly, however, the violent and oppressive dynamic of colonialism implicit in the "taming" of the frontier demonstrates that, for the United States, nationalism was not a matter of political self-determination but, ironically and inescapably, one of cultural recognition in a world where homogeneous ethnicity was "the decisive or even the only criteria of potential nationhood."4 No wonder, then, that international cultural expositions of all kinds flourished during this period. In the United States, a site of multicultural and multiethnic inevitability, those expositions often took the form of "Wild West" shows that deliberately capitalized on the exotic composition of its diversity.

Buffalo Bill Cody ran the largest and most popular Wild West show. His show included a cast and crew of over 600 as well as 400 horses. At one point, the show played 131 locations in 190 days. Incongruously, despite his own participation in the destruction of Native American culture, Buffalo Bill's show supported the idea that cultural diversity contributed to the strength of the nation. Roger Hall, in Performing the American Frontier: 1870-1906, argues that by framing the appearance/participation of Native Americans within a context of education and "cultural" enrichment and highlighting the contributions of diverse peoples in the "Rough Riders of the World" act, Buffalo Bill defended the United States's multicultural existence while other struggling nations clearly...


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pp. 39-48
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