- Girls Will Be Boys Cross-Dressed Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema by Laura Horak
by Laura Horak
Rutgers University Press, 2016
256 pp.; paper, $29.95
Silent film research has been radically advanced in recent years with the increased availability of silent film texts and resources via digital and other avenues.1 This means that there has been an explosion of notable silent film monographs making their way to the public, one of which is Laura Horak’s Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema. By combining a deep dive into nearly untouched film and paper archives with careful analysis and contextualization of these texts, Horak presents a compelling case for the importance—and the surprisingly “wholesome” cultural meaning—of cross-dressed women in the silent era.
Horak uses an impressive array of archival and popular sources to contextualize her analysis, which itself is impressive in its rigor. Perhaps the most impressive achievement of this book, however, is Horak’s expansion of our knowledge of the extent of cross-dressed women’s appearance in silent film. According to Horak, while previous research had identified only thirty-seven such roles, during her work she found more than four hundred, roughly two hundred of which she was able to view at archives around the country and world (2).
Armed with this impressive corpus of film, Horak was able to make new, much better substantiated arguments about the meaning and importance of these roles across the thirty years of her study (roughly 1908–34). Horak further solidified her methodological approach by looking outside of the films themselves to examine how they were received; thus, she formed a better understanding of their cultural context. Because of the paucity of available material (archival and otherwise) on this early period, Horak largely looked to newspaper-based reviews of the films. She admits that this only gives us one generalized level of understanding—we do not, for example, see how the gay, lesbian, and “invert” community received these films—but this is still [End Page 81] an impressive chunk of research to bite off for a monograph. She went admirably far in her quest for articles, citing papers from Milwaukee to Cleveland and beyond.
The goal of this book is to provide a historical corrective to received knowledge about gender roles in American silent film. The real thrust of the book’s argument comes in the first two chapters, covering 1908 to 1921. Here Horak makes her boldest claim: that despite what is widely held to be a transatlantic explosion of awareness regarding “pansies,” “inverts,” and lesbian identities in the 1890s, the first two decades of the twentieth century did not primarily associate female cross-dressing with transgression, much less with homosexuality.
This argument is admittedly surprising, and Horak has her work cut out for her in making a compelling argument for what meanings female cross-dressers embodied instead of transgressive ones. Horak details how the American theater had a tradition of women in male roles (i.e., “pants roles”) that went back centuries, and in the earliest years of her study, cross-dressed women had a high-class, wholesome appeal that played into the medium’s “uplift” attempts. Slightly later, cross-dressing was often adopted by the serial queens (as “cowboy girls” or “girl spies”) as part of their vigorous personas. These convincing alternative meanings, along with the evidence drawn from contemporary sources, provide a good backing for this perhaps unprecedented claim in queer film studies.
While Horak is, at least in the first half of the book, venturing into uncharted territory in terms of her subject matter, she thoroughly grounds her claims in the existing academic literature. While one of the back-cover blurbs frames this book as a necessary piece of queer scholarship covering a gap in the field, in the first part of the book, queer theory and history are engaged more to refute the assumed queer implications of these films than to support them. Instead, Horak has provided an impressive foundation in silent film literature, drawing from scholars new and old, mainstream...