Drag queens and female impersonators have long received greater attention than drag kings and male impersonators. While RuPaul's Drag Race continues a decade-long pathway to celebrity and huge increases in pay and touring ability for drag queens, drag kings have yet to receive their own television series or equivalent access to money and fame. At the academic level, kings and male impersonators have long been underrepresented in the literature on gender illusion and drag. While Judith Butler's Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) importantly examined the constructed nature of gender and Marjorie Garber's Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (1992) documented historical moments of cross-dressed performance, these works provide little or no lineage for a specific tradition of drag or gender impersonation, instead focusing on cross-dressed performances across history and the performance of gender in daily life.1 Though drag became a central topic for academia, performers who specifically cross-dressed to make their livings as entertainers still had no real history at all. Laurence Senelick's broad overview of these art forms in The Changing Room: Sex, Drag and Theatre (2000) filled many gaps in knowledge about the histories of gender crossing in daily life and performance and is likely the most comprehensive resource on drag artists and male and female impersonators to this day.2 Yet on account of its scope, ranging from cross-dressed figures on ancient pottery to the subversive drag countercultures produced in the latter half of the twentieth century, Senelick's study largely provides a key to previously locked rooms rather than in-depth explorations of many of the artists represented, including male impersonators.
Though the history of cross-dressed performance has received much academic consideration, the historiography of professional drag kings, drag queens, and male and female impersonators is still largely in its infancy, no other overarching survey of these traditions having appeared since Senelick's undertaking.3 This is partly due to the highly intersectional nature of drag performance as an art form that incorporates and interacts with the visual arts, theater, music, dance, politics, and gender theory. While scholars from these traditions have written about specific drag artists of importance to their own areas of interest,4 information presented in works of this kind often fails to circulate between disciplines. Drag queen history also tends to occupy most of the space in discussions of gender illusion, in part on account of its more clearly documented place in the fight for LGBTQ rights and the importance of transgender drag queens Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera in the fight against police at the Stonewall riots.5 The reasons for the disparity in representation between drag queens and female impersonators, on the one hand, and drag kings and male impersonators, on the other, are many in addition to the problems mentioned above, ranging from systemic misogyny to the lack of performance histories for these artists. Having long received short shrift, male impersonators are finally given the in-depth treatment they deserve in the works of musicologist Gillian M. Rodger.
The contributions of Just One of the Boys: Female-to-Male Cross-Dressing on the American Variety Stage to the history of gender illusion are tremendous. The book expands on the groundwork established in Rodger's Champagne Charlie and Pretty Jemima: Variety Theater in the Nineteenth Century (2010), which focused on working-class variety entertainment in the latter half of the nineteenth century.6 In this new project, Rodger zeroes in on the rise, heyday, and fall of the male impersonator as a prominent part of American variety entertainment in the final decades of the same century. In Just One of the Boys the male impersonator becomes a locus for the discussion of shifts in performance styles, the management and operation of variety theater, and constructions of gender and class from the 1860s until just after the beginning of the twentieth century.
Rodger complicates variety as a genre, documenting its shift into, and competition with, vaudeville and other theatrical forms. She tracks the careers of women who performed male impersonation throughout or during portions of their onstage lives, spotlighting major figures in the tradition including its originators Annie Hindle and Ella Wesner. She compares and contrasts differing strategies used by male impersonators in terms of how, where, and through whom they got bookings as well as how they constructed and performed their acts for their largely male working-class audience. These strategies bring to the fore her complication of Lawrence Levine's work on the growing divide between “high” and “low” art by showing that these performers operated in the “emerging and complex middle ground between ‘high’ narrative spoken drama and opera and ‘low’ variety that sought unabashedly to appeal to male tastes and interests and often resorted to sexually loaded content” (p. 9).7 Rodger shows that the artists and management in variety theater actively sought out audiences of increasing levels of wealth and sophistication.
At the outset, Rodger warns readers, especially lesbians and drag kings, that they may be as disappointed as she has been to discover that her study reveals a less queer history than one might have hoped. She argues that there is little to suggest a connection between the female practitioners of this tradition and a lesbian culture, especially within the working class, where there appears to be scant evidence of one. Though some performers had same-sex relationships, including, in Hindle's case, marriages to women, Rodger does not stake a claim to the sexualities of these performers, choosing to eschew modern sexological terminology that may not accurately fit nineteenth-century models of gender and sexuality. She frames her discussion of gender around the shift that occurred from the older one-sex model of gender to the two-sex model. Early male impersonators benefitted from the prominence of the one-sex model by which women were seen as inferior to men though not wholly separate, and able to take on male characteristics in times of hardship and need. The later adoption of the two-sex model forced realism in impersonations of male characters to subside as women were viewed as inferior to men and wholly separate in nature. Thus women were to be kept within more effeminized male roles on stage.
This effeminization and cleaning-up of the rowdier aspects of the oeuvre of previous male impersonators also coincides with concerns over the rise of the “mannish” (p. 174) woman in the late nineteenth century and societal desires to keep women under tighter control as they sought out greater freedoms, space outside the home, and the pursuit of leisure. Rodger highlights the ways in which this more effeminized model derived from the quite different English model of male impersonation, one that is most strongly typified by Vesta Tilley's lack of realism and focus on the assimilative tuxedo of the upper class rather than the decorous wear of earlier “swell” type characters that smoked and drank. She reveals that male impersonators' performances reflected shifting models of masculinity that mirrored the often contradictory views of working-class male audiences rather than a performer's personal views and outlook on gender. She seeks to refute the notion that gender impersonation is inherently connected to and reflective of a performer's gender and private proclivities.
Just One of the Boys also opens a number of doors for future scholarship that Rodger's exclusive focus on male impersonation precludes her from exploring in this project. Multiple times in this history, male impersonators work alongside contemporary female impersonators, but Rodger makes little of these incidents. She describes Hindle's work with female impersonators as a willingness to “exploit the oddity of her act in order to remain employed in this period, even if that meant she needed to appear to be a freak of nature” (p. 73). Yet the performances referred to here importantly show Hindle working alongside not just any female impersonator but the notorious Ernest “Stella” Boulton. Boulton had been arrested together with another female impersonator, both of whom dressed in female attire off stage, and their 1871 trial was the biggest English legal case based on sodomy until the trial of Oscar Wilde.8 Significantly, Rodger neither refers to Boulton's nickname “Stella,” which she went by off stage, nor addresses the dual fact that Hindle and Boulton both presented off stage in similar fashion to their onstage gender presentation, while both performers participated in same-sex intimate relationships that were known to the public. These performances featuring Hindle and Boulton may well have been an indication of sympathies between artists arising from the way they lived their lives rather than the showcase of oddities and desperate bid for attention depicted by Rodger.
In its initial 1860s rise to popularity, male impersonation, Rodger contends, offered a path by which older actresses might lengthen their stage careers and operate more independently of male control. Male impersonation also required skills broad enough to help performers adapt to shifts in entertainment during and after the Long Depression of the 1870s, as managers and promoters sought to bring houses and shows into line with audiences' changing class affiliations and tastes. Rodger carefully follows male impersonators through the course of their stage careers, using newspaper articles, theatrical reviews, song selections, and any remaining traces of the limited coverage of their personal lives and business moves. Through these documents, she shows how male impersonation began as an imitation of boisterous comedy acts by male comedians. Rodger also deftly explores the music of male impersonation, highlighting the way songs were selected and performed so as to accommodate the often contradictory views of masculinity held by audiences. She notes the most prominent types of songs performed by male impersonators and lays out the ways in which these types morphed over time as performers sought to please their changing audiences. Among the most prominent character types performed by these artists, the “swell” embodied the excesses of drinking and smoking, and the pursuit of leisure at all costs. Rodger shows, however, that the “swell” was often a simultaneous send-up of elite men as effeminate, an ersatz representation of a manhood whose foppish masculinity focused too heavily on fashion and excess, in part on account of the luxurious style of men's dress adopted by Hindle, Wesner, and the male impersonators who followed in their footsteps.
In Chapter 1, Rodger also provides an overview of female-to-male cross-dressed roles on the nineteenth-century stage prior to Hindle's 1868 American debut as the first male impersonator. She points out the relative rarity of male impersonation, even at its zenith, by comparison with, for example, en travesti roles in opera or boys' roles played by women in narrative spoken drama. For anyone looking to understand the roots of male impersonation, this chapter and those that follow provide the strongest and earliest narrative of the tradition, particularly filling in the gaps between Hindle and Wesner's inception of the form in variety and Vesta Tilley's massive success at the beginning of the twentieth century. Though Rodger claims that there is no real lineage for today's drag kings in this work because of differences between the traditions of drag kings and male impersonators and an abyss of unexplored historical territory between the two, this notion was refuted by the warm reception of the book during discussion at the drag king history panel of the 2018 Austin International Drag Festival. Here, drag kings from America, England, and Canada appeared thankful to have been given some kind of historical representation and to have a real, well-documented history of women practicing the illusion of male gender impersonation to look back to and connect with. It seems that Rodger may underestimate the value of her own work to today's kings, who have only begun to scrape the surface of their own history.