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Gillian M. Rodger

Just One of the Boys

Female-to-Male Cross-Dressing on the American Variety Stage

University of Illinois Press 2018

New Books in American StudiesNew Books in Arts & LettersNew Books in Gender StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in MusicNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in Popular CultureNew Books Network May 16, 2018 Kristin Turner

In the 1870s, one of the most popular forms of entertainment attended by American working-class men was variety—a succession of unrelated bawdy acts that...

In the 1870s, one of the most popular forms of entertainment attended by American working-class men was variety—a succession of unrelated bawdy acts that preceded its tamer later nineteenth-century cousin, vaudeville. Gillian M. Rodger, author of Just One of the Boys: Female-to-Male Cross-Dressing on the American Variety Stage (University of Illinois Press, 2018), introduces the reader to some of the stars of these shows—male impersonators, women who dressed and performed as men on stage. Focusing on the period between about 1870 and World War I, Rodger traces how their acts changed over time as American ideas about gender and class also changed. Along the way, Rodger presents a fascinating cast of characters who defied social and sexual norms on stage and off. A few women even managed to marry their same-sex partners. But Rodger’s book is about more than just an obscure theatrical performance practice because her work illuminates the intersections and connections between class, sexuality, and gender. Historical musicology tends to skew to the middle class, but male impersonation was entertainment for the working class. Through examining the content of these acts, as well as their reception, Rodger argues that during the second half of the nineteenth century, working class men began to guard their access to employment and the public sphere against competition from women, just as middle-class women began to break into the public sphere through work and political activity in support of women’s suffrage. The more realistic acts that lampooned middle-class masculinity that male impersonators once performed for an all-male working class audience became more focused on respectability and upholding conservative social values by the early twentieth century as audiences became mixed gender and more middle-class.

Gillian M. Rodger is a professor of ethnomusicology and musicology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her research centers on popular musical entertainment in the nineteenth century and American white working-class culture. In all her work, Rodger is interested in the dramatic function of songs in non-narrative entertainments and how those songs reflect contemporary ideas about gender, class, and sexuality. She has published articles in several journals including American Music and Musical Quarterly. Her first book, Champagne Charlie and Pretty Jemima: Variety Theater in the Nineteenth Century (2010), surveys the history of variety beginning in the 1840s.

Kristen M. Turner, Ph.D. is a lecturer at North Carolina State University in the music department. Her work centers on American musical culture at the turn of the twentieth century and has been published in several journals and essay collections.