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LHMP #190 Straub 1991 The Guilty Pleasures of Female Theatrical Cross-Dressing and the Autobiography of Charlotte Charke

Full citation: 

Straub, Kristina. 1991. “The Guilty Pleasures of Female Theatrical Cross-Dressing and the Autobiography of Charlotte Charke” in Body guards : the cultural politics of gender ambiguity edited by Julia Epstein & Kristina Straub. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-90388-2

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers on topics relating to non-normative gender and sexuality in history. The Project will cover four of the papers with relevant content.

Straub, Kristina. 1991. “The Guilty Pleasures of Female Theatrical Cross-Dressing and the Autobiography of Charlotte Charke”

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In late 17th century England, the practice of boys playing female roles on stage became outmoded and even perhaps unacceptable to audiences. This was, of course, only made possible by women entering the acting profession to play those characters. But the growing unacceptability of male cross-gender performance did not translate to a similar rejecting of female cross-gender performance on the stage. In fact, women playing male roles became fashionable, though the nature of the practice changed during the course of the century.

By the early 18th century, men playing female parts was only acceptable as an obvious parody of femininity. The parallel expectation for women in male roles only arose in the later part of the 18th century.  In the mid-18th century, the ambiguity regarding women cross-dressing was considered part of the appeal. But toward the end of the 18th century, there was more condemnation unless the depiction left gender boundaries clear and unquestioned.

Theories about the appeal of cross-dressed actresses have tended to focus on the male gaze and how the roles objectified female bodies, but Straub suggests that the appeal was more complicated. She argues that evidence such as the autobiography of actress Charlotte Charke contradict an easy fit of this phenomenon into a traditional expectation of “the subjugation of a feminine spectable to the dominance of the male gaze and the exclusive definition of feminine sexual desire in terms of its relation to masculine heterosexual desire.”

The appearance of women on stage beginning in the 17th century did serve the obvious function of using conventionally attractive feminine bodies to sell tickets, as many commentaries will attest. But the variety of responses indicate that an equal attraction came from sexual ambiguity, and that female audiences were just as attracted to the performance as men were. A 1766 memoir notes, with regard to this topic, “It was a most nice point to decide between the gentlemen and the ladies, whether [the actress] was the finest woman or the prettiest fellow.”

This “double pleasure” on the stage was more problematic when it moved off-stage. Popular culture tended to contain the transgression of actresses who continued to cross-dress in ordinary life by assigning them unambiguously heterosexual desires. Susanna Maria Cibber was reported to cross-dress when off the stage to facilitate a heterosexual affair. Susanna Centlivre similarly cross-dressed to pose as her lover’s “cousin Jack” in order to live with him when he was at Oxford. Sarah Siddons was accused of taking on the role of Hamlet for an opportunity to seduce her married fencing instructor. Even same-sex attraction off-stage was framed with conventional motivations: Margaret Wolffington was said to have set out to win the affections of another woman, but only to distract that woman from the man they were competing for.

[Note: this catalog of stories doesn’t touch on the question of who is gate-keeping the recording and transmission of these responses. All the "was said"s and "was reporteds" raise the question of who is doing the talking and what topics they are not talking about.]

By the mid 18th century, there is significant pressure for cross-dressed actresses to confine their appeal to “acceptable” contexts, revealing the underlying anxiety about their roles. These anxieties were several. The appeal of cross-dressed women as men challenged traditional notions of masculinity. And secondly, they represented a challenge to the idea that women should be limited to the private, domestic sphere.

By the early 19th century, discussion of cross-dressed actresses became increasingly condemnatory. [Note: As for Trumbach’s article in this same collection, it’s hard to square this assertion with the mid-19th century popularity of actresses such as American Charlotte Cushman, who enjoyed major success on English stages in "trouser roles".] The suggestion was that it was “improper” for women to play these roles, appealing to shifting models of femininity. Wearing breeches on stage for broadly comic purposes was possibly acceptable, but still not entirely proper. This exception still allowed cross-dressed classics such as Shakespeare’s comedies, as long as the masquerade was obvious. Flying in the face of the evidence, critics of the practice denied the possibility that an actress could believably play a male role, much less one that is desirable by female spectators. The vehemence of these criticisms imply the success of cross-dressed actresses in challenging the stabiilty of masculine sexuality. In particular, they highlight the anxiety that a masculinized performance by a woman might attract unapproved sexual desires by the female audience.

Charlotte Charke’s 1746 autobiography illustrates the real basis of these anxieties as she took her cross-gender behavior off the stage and into everyday life in ways that challenged heterosexual norms. The work is a textual performance, in parallel with her stage performances, and part of a varied set of gender-fracturing enterprises by which she worked to support herself and her daughter. A number of those enterprises involved taking on male occupations (such as valet) in male garb. [Charke’s early experiences with cross-dressing, whether as performance or personal expression, suggest to the modern reader a transgender framing, and there are a number of publications that examine Charke's life in that context, but I have followed the author’s lead in consistently gendering her as female in this summary.]

Straub suggests some interesting potential motivations for the prominence of cross-dressing in Charke’s life story. In particular, she suggests a through-line of critiquing her father’s submissive subservience to his artistocratic male patrons. Various historians see in her performance a challenge to concepts of masculinity that, in her era, were increasingly driven by contrast to a female “other”. The masculine woman refused to be “other” and so undermined the concept of a distinctive masculine identity. The major threat to “masculinity” was being seen as womanish or feminized, as represented by the “feminine” male homosexual. This was the image of “failed masculinity” that Straub suggests that Charke is implicitly critiquing in her father.

There does not appear to be any unambiguous evidence that Charke engaged in sexual activity with women, in disguise or otherwise, but many of her early “adventures” involve inspiring the desire of a woman while in male guise and only narrowly escaping situations in which she would need to confront that desire.

Historians, in considering Charke’s life and writings, are often frustrated by her resistance to being read either clearly as heterosexual or lesbian. Straub discusses the context of the “female husband” narrative and the ways in which Charke contradicts it--a contradiction that can just as easily be read as a refusal to fit female same-sex desire into a heterosexual mould, instead of as a refutation of same-sex desires. Henry Fielding’s fictionalized account of “female husband” Mary Hamilton is discussed, focusing on the motif of Hamilton’s use of an artificial penis as part of her disguise. [Note: I think there’s a significant difference in that Hamilton is not telling her own story or intending it as a performed spectacle. Whereas Charke was clearly performing even when not on stage.]

Charke plays with the idea that she might return the desire of the women who engage with her male presentation, always regretfully finding a reason to escape. But her protestations such as that she was “greived it was not in my power to make a suitable return” (of affections) leave open the possibility of genuine regret, not simply feigned excuse. Regarding the reason for her cross-dressing, she toys with her readers, saying that “the original motive proceeded from a particular cause” but then protesting that “I am bound, as I before hinted, by all the vows of truth and honour everlastingly to conceal [it].”

In contradiction of the potential for same-sex desire, Straub fastens on to Charke’s novel The History of Henry Dumont, which includes a vicious portrayal of a male homosexual character, as implying a general position of homophobia (to use the modern term) and a distancing of her own experience. [Note: I think that Straub overlooks the problem that male and female same-sex desire were not seen as parallel and equivalent in this era--or, indeed, in most eras before the 20th century. Hostility by Charke to male homosexuality doesn’t strike me as automatically ruling out the possibility that she felt same-sex desire for women and possibly even acted on it.] Straub concludes by noting the continuing difficulty of interpreting Charke’s biography when colored by modern concepts of gender and identity.

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