By David Nilsen
Laura Horak’s new book Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema (Rutgers University Press, 2016) is an exhaustively researched and insightful look at gender norms and gender deviance in Hollywood before Joseph Breen began strictly enforcing the Hays Code in the mid-1930s. Horak’s scholarship is impressive in this much-needed book, and Girls Will Be Boys fills an important hole on the shelf of American film studies.
Horak looks at cross-dressed women in early American films in what she sees as three main stages: 1908-1921, in which female stars often played young boys or frontier men and their cross-dressing was viewed in a wholesome light, 1922-1928, a transitional period for Hollywood films as a whole and cross-dressing films as well, and 1929-1934, when film-viewers became sophisticated enough to detect underlying messages of gender and sexuality in these films, female fashion trends became more androgynous or masculine, and the Hays office began putting pressure on film studios to promote more conventional American morals. To support her theses, Horak digs into similar themes in American theater in the decades preceding and coinciding with those of the films she explores, as well as political, cultural, and social influences and impacts interacting with these movie trends. Horak is careful, to the best of the ability of a modern scholar, to views these themes in early cinema through in the light of their own era without bringing along the baggage and sophistication of a 21st-century viewer. As she states in her introduction:
“Previous scholars have read representations of cross-dressed women as mirrors of their own concerns and identities. That is, feminist scholars have read cross-dressed women as feminists; lesbian scholars have read them as lesbians; and queer and postmodern scholars have read them as queer and postmodern. Transgender scholars have considered cross-dressed individuals as examples of historical gender variance, though they usually stop short of claiming them as trans. Indeed, the open meanings of cross-dressed women are a key part of their appeal. But scholars’ interpretive seal has obscured the ways that representations of cross-dressed women were understood at the time they were made and circulated. Reading cross-dressed women as embodiments of contemporary concerns flattens and sometimes misrepresents the cultural work that they were doing in their own times.” – page 2
Horak strikes an admirable balance between exploring these films through the lens of their own eras and maintaining inclusive and affirming modern sensibilities toward issues of sexuality and gender variance. One hopes the language of an academic work will always be careful and precise, but this is even more critical in a work exploring personal identities, especially those of traditionally marginalized groups. Horak’s handling of this language, while also providing honest, period-correct readings of films from an era whose racial and sexual presentations can now make us squirm, is impressive.
Horak’s dissection of these films and the culture that produced them is astute and fascinating. I had no idea cross-dressing was so common in silent and early sound films. Horak here presents 476 such films, though only about 200 are still extant. In very early films, cross-dressing was most commonly exhibited by adult female actresses playing young boys and male teens, usually without the audience’s knowledge. It wasn’t until the rise of the star system in Hollywood, in which studios wanted their stars to be more recognizable on screen and their female stars necessarily more conventionally feminine, that this trend died out. Additionally, a significant number of early films set in the American west also featured actresses playing men or pretending to be men and performing traditionally masculine feats of heroism. Rather than a threat to masculinity or American gender norms, these early films were viewed as wholesome, bolstering the nobility of American masculinity. It wasn’t until the mid-1910s, when war was brewing in Europe and idealized boyhood transitioned fully from sweet sentimentality to red-blooded bravery these impersonations of boys and men by female actresses became problematic to viewers and critics. I never knew any of this before Horak’s book, and I’m eager to learn more.
From Horak’s research, cross-dressing didn’t really start to be viewed as sinister until the sound era, and then it and it’s oft-accompanying suggestions of lesbianism became signifiers for general excess and deviance. There were traces throughout film’s early history of lesbianism being subtly hinted at, but these were generally considered to be legible only to sophisticated, cosmopolitan viewers and were thus not deemed a threat to the general public. But the early 1930s, however, audiences had caught up with the times, and same-sex desire and activity began to take on connotations that directly clashed with popular American morality, or at least what certain interest groups wanted to be America’s popular morality. Horak does an excellent job of explaining these shifts, as well as the economic and political events that intersected with these shifts. Her succinct explanations for the development and execution of the Hays Code are fine primers on this complicated and often misunderstood piece of Hollywood history.
Later portions of the book explore the fashion industry and the ways in which European stars who migrated to Hollywood, specifically Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, influenced popular women’s fashion toward more comfortable and at times overtly masculine styles, and infuriated those trying to police gender norms in the process. Horak does a nice job here, as throughout the book, of sufficiently establishing her points and presenting her evidence while still maintaining readability and avoiding bogging her text down with too many examples.
Girls Will Be Boys is an excellent work of film scholarship, meticulously researched and expertly presented, while still being an approachable and enjoyable read for the diligent non-academic reader. This is a wonderful book for those cinephiles who take an interest in how gender and sexuality have been presented throughout film history, and for social historians who recognize the important role cinema has played over the last century in shaping popular perspectives on gender and sexuality. Laura Horak has written an informative and necessary book.
Girls Will Be Boys is available now at GPL.