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Skirts and Pants and Everything In Between: Laura Horak on Girls Will Be Boys

by Regina Longo
from Film Quarterly Summer 2016, Volume 69, Number 4

Laura Horak’s first monograph, Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema, 1908–1934, is refreshing and invigorating. In a moment when pop culture is ablaze with stories of the “novelty” of transgender and gender nonconforming people, this historian was delighted to sink into a thoroughly researched book that was ten years in the making. Girls Will Be Boys is groundbreaking for, among other things, taking up the subject of cross-dressed females in early American silent cinema rather than seeking an origin or cognate in the cross-dressed, gender-bending females (and males) of Germany’s Weimar era cinema and culture. As is often the case, the deeper one digs into a subject, the more complicated and nuanced it becomes.

By taking a few steps back from contemporary preoccupations with gay and trans identities and returning to the early years of American silent cinema, Horak reveals the multiple motivations for, and implications of, cross-dressed women in American films of 1908–34. She notes that cross-dressing was not always enacted to transgress sexual boundaries, but often to express aspects of character, strength, style, and athleticism. Yet, she also suggests that a hundred years ago, the prevalence of cross-dressed female actors on-screen not only provided a space within the story world, but also provided characters for girls and women (and boys and men) in the audience to identify with, and/or be challenged by. Such larger-than-life representations might indeed have encouraged viewers to think beyond the screen and to experiment with expressing themselves in a manner that did not always fit the classically accepted modes of comportment that American culture considered feminine or female. Thus, early American cinema projected a vital step in the process of reimaging gender norms.

Girls Will Be Boys lays out a complex genealogy for cross-dressed women that cannot be easily defined by today’s standards, and that is not always easy to explain in today’s parlance. In order to make her findings more legible, Horak spends a significant portion of her introductory chapter defining the terms that she will use to describe a variety of female masculinities, as well as the terms that she has chosen not to use. This intervention is necessary for a responsible historicization, and it is essential to Horak’s mindful work of avoiding the trap of periodization that earlier feminist and lesbian scholars have performed.

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Horak is up to the challenge: she divides her book into two parts to demonstrate where some of the early disjunctures occurred in the representations and interpretations of cross-dressed females in American films. In chapters 1 and 2 the reader is introduced to the hitherto under-recognized archetypes, or prototypes, of the “female boy,” “cowboy girl,” and “girl spy” of American films of the 1910s. While Horak notes that these prototypes are not new, her lexicon and identification of them are indeed innovative. By naming and establishing these semantic categories of cross-dressed women, Horak shows the different elements at play in the creation of cross-dressed female prototypes, and that the status of cross-dressed women across a variety of early film genres is not monolithic.

With these pre-conditions in place, Horak is able to form a remarkable bridge to the second part of her book, tracing the emergence of lesbian representability in American popular culture between the 1890s and 1930s. Her innovative approach helps to situate these earlier films in a larger cultural and cinematic “transcape” and points to the meticulousness of her research process. She effectively foregrounds her conclusions to reveal just how many popular and historical misconceptions have circulated about early representations of cross-dressing women in American cinema.

Regina Longo: Your Introduction, and sections of each chapter for that matter, address your methodological approach in detail. I appreciated this. While it may seem par for the course for an academic monograph, many authors do not address their methods beyond their introductory or concluding chapters. Can you tell me why you chose this framework?

Laura Horak: In the book, I try to understand what representations of cross-dressed women and lesbians meant when they were first created and circulated. This is quite different from previous approaches, which generally use versions of what Patricia White has called “retrospectatorship” to read previous representations in relation to today’s identity categories, theories, and politics. Retrospectatorship is an important method that can be extremely productive both politically and intellectually.

However, this approach has its limitations—it cannot get at the question of how people at the time may have understood the representations using the concepts and categories available to them. It also can’t really help us understand how the representations may have changed the culture they circulated in and ultimately help create the concepts that now dominate our thinking.

These were precisely the types of questions that I wanted to answer. That meant that many of the kinds of evidence that you would normally rely on—such as viewers’ retrospective accounts of watching these films, or my gut-level readings of the representations—were too intertwined with later conceptual developments and so couldn’t help me all that much. Instead, I had to immerse myself in the writings, images, and moving pictures from and before the period, to discover what kinds of frameworks were available to them and how people at the time explained and described these representations.

I was inspired by Sharon Marcus’s work in Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007]. By forgetting everything she thought she knew about relations between women in Victorian England and immersing herself in wide ranging, hugely varied material—from memoirs, autobiographies, letters, and diaries, to novels, fashion magazines, dolls, and legal contracts—she discovered a whole system of relations that don’t fit into our current set of identity categories. She was able to describe those attachments between women using the concepts and frameworks that women used during that period. What Marcus did for relations between Victorian British women, I wanted to do for American cinema’s cross-dressed women and lesbians. While I (unfortunately!) couldn’t find the kinds of personal life writing she used, I turned to public materials, such as newspapers, magazines, photographs, posters, literature, plays, medical writings, and censorship files.

Longo: While you use the traditional tools of historiography—primary source literature such as industry trade journals, fan magazines, and the popular press in general—I find that you are doing something quite different with these sources. You recognize your own biases when approaching these materials, and then actively work to remove your preconceptions and expectations, and this allows the materials to reveal the unexpected. As you note in the close of your Intro (20), early American cinema “made important contributions to new concepts of sexual and gender identity.” Can you discuss your approach to adjusting expectations and what it takes to read in between the lines in this way?

Horak: In her introduction, Marcus writes, “If one can identify the core method of any discipline, then the method of theory is the critique of existing assumptions; the method of history is generalization based on immersion in the largest number and widest range of sources possible; and the method of literary and visual criticism is interpretation based on close reading” (7). That summarizes better than anything my own intellectual approach.

Of course, in a fundamental way, I am always inside of the particular time and space in which I live, and all its attendant ideologies and discourses. I can never fully understand or even approach the past. However, given these fundamental limitations, I do my best to “forget” what scholars have said about these kinds of representations and also everything I know about sexual and gender categories today, and about how clothing, gestures, hair, and makeup signify today. What if I only drew conclusions based on what writings from the period said that these things mean? What if I took the films’ own arguments about these figures at face value? This is a version of the “surface reading” that Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus have called for, as an alternative to “deep reading.”1

After spending quite a bit of time in this state of willed ignorance, I then go back to what scholars have written. Sometimes their work explains aspects of the material I found puzzling, illuminating a contemporaneous conceptual framework I was unaware of. But sometimes I find that the concepts the scholar uses and the conclusions she draws don’t fit the way people were thinking at the time. (Of course, I fully expect that some later scholar will level the same critique at some of my own conclusions—the nature of the historical project is to continually contest and revise our thinking.)

I also go back to the films to see not only what they affirm at their “surface,” but also what lies below—what implicit connections and assumptions they make, what kinds of absences structure the films, etc. So it’s a long process, of going back and forth between the material and the scholarship. Likewise, I go back and forth between reading the films first at the surface, then in the depths, and then back to the surface.

Due to my distrust of generalizations and fondness for exceptions, I found it very difficult to come up with the book’s main arguments when it came time to do that. I wanted to stay within and celebrate all the particulars. Anytime you go from a bunch of detailed case studies to a more general argument, you have to simplify things a bit, in ways that can feel painful. However, this step is also necessary. I didn’t only want to reveal hundreds of amazing forgotten films, but also to understand some of the large-scale interactions between popular cinema and American society.

Longo: It may be inevitable for me to ask you this, but if you take off your film historian’s hat (well, maybe only to tip it) and put on your contemporary cultural critic’s hat, why it is that from today’s vantage point, the trend is to assume that any sort of gender play also implies some sort of transgressive sexual practice?

Horak: I think the answer is simple. Today, wearing clothing, hairstyles, or makeup that don’t accord with one’s assigned sex does indeed transgress social norms in most contexts and is often met with ridicule, disgust, and even violence. Furthermore, dressing at odds with one’s assigned sex is a common mode of self-expression and community identification for many queer, trans, and gender nonconforming people. In other words, in most contexts today, gender play does indeed transgress social norms, so it is only natural that one would expect to find this in the past, too. Many people also assume that Western society has only ever gotten more accepting and open, and that things were only ever worse in the past. They don’t expect to find periods when certain kinds of gender nonconformity were celebrated by mainstream culture.

Longo: It is a commonly held assumption that individuals are on a continuum in terms of how they outwardly express their gender, and how they internalize it, and in how they outwardly express their sexuality and how they internalize it. In your research, did you come across any documentation that demonstrated that these types of film roles for women also gave female audiences (young and old) a space to imagine a different kind of life for themselves beyond the traditional roles of mother, teacher, nurse, society lady, etc., and perhaps even achieve it?

Horak: It is crucial to allow children and adolescents (and also adults!) to experiment with gendered expression, behaviors, and practices without needing to label them as one thing or another. It is equally important to allow people to tell others what they mean by wearing the clothes they wear, without assuming that it automatically makes them part of a particular identity category.

As far as figuring out what young women audiences thought of the films featuring cross-dressed women, I unfortunately wasn’t able to find any firsthand accounts of these films by women who were not journalists. I can only imagine, though, that watching capable, athletic women who felt equally at home in men’s and women’s clothes would have been an inspiration for young women viewers. Already, offscreen, girls were reading scouting manuals and dime novels meant for boys and starting their own scouting troops (sometimes even registering with the Boy Scouts using an initial for their first names).

The films responded to and amplified the trends that were going on in real life. The frontier seemed to hold the promise of freedom from gender and sexual norms for some women and gender nonconforming people. The boy roles that were so popular in the 1910s may also have contributed to young women’s imaginations—what would it be like to be a prince? Or an heir? Or to fly to “Never Never Land” as Peter Pan? There was definitely a sense—at least amongst physical culturists and people in the women’s movement—that all girls could benefit from an active, outdoorsy “boyhood” before it was time for them to get married and begin having children.

Female journalists, like Kitty Kelly of the Chicago Daily Tribune and Grace Kingsley of the Los Angeles Times, were much more consistently positive about women playing boy roles than male journalists like Robert E. Sherwood of Life magazine, who became actively hostile to it.

Longo: Inevitably, the frontier characters and the girl spies you discuss in chapter 2 lend themselves to this notion of adventure and masquerade for the thrill of the sensations and satisfactions they could bring to the embodiment of such characters in the larger expanse of the American landscape. These characters help to cinematically reinvent a tableau that also existed in American landscape paintings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Is there any sense that cinema’s cross-dressed women helped to domesticate other frontiers still perceived as wild, or was something else at stake?

Horak: Jennifer Peterson has done great work on how travelogues that pictured women tourists in western spaces helped symbolically domesticate these spaces.2 I think a similar thing happened in the frontier and war films. By shooting in actual spaces of the frontier (including frontiers to the north and south), American cinema could capitalize on the fascination these spaces already held for domestic and foreign audiences. Many frontier films (not just the cross-dressing ones) involve chase scenes of some kind—I think because the visually detailed, movement-based exploration of these spaces was something cinema could offer that no other medium could.

Many frontier films were set in times when the spaces were more “wild” than they were when the films were made. Often, the disguised young woman was drawn to the space because of the freedom and opportunities it offered her, but, paradoxically, her presence fundamentally changed the space and shut down these freedoms to a certain extent. This is particularly true of the “range romances,” in which a woman disguised as a boy becomes romantically involved with a male cowboy, and of the feminist ranch takeovers, in which a group of women take over a ranch and kick out the men, but in the face of danger ask the male ranchers to come back and help them. In both types of films, women are drawn to the single-sex collective life of a ranch, but, by the end, become catalysts that dissolve this collectivity into heterosexual couples who marry and (presumably) start having children.

Longo: Your third chapter, on A Florida Enchantment [Sidney Drew, 1914], was fascinating. I had known of the film through film archives circles, and had spent a great deal of time studying the preservation of this title. I had first been introduced to this film as an early form of erotic cinema. Can you talk about this film as a bridge, methodologically, for your book, and as a bridge between two different periods in silent cinema?

Horak: A Florida Enchantment was always a conundrum for me. Watching the film today, it seems to portray same-sex desire and (magically induced) transsexuality very obviously and, indeed, to revel in these inversions of heterosexual life. And yet the film wasn’t debated or censored, the way films that dealt with controversial aspects of gender and sexuality, like A Traffic in Souls [George Loane Tucker, 1913] or Where Are My Children? [Lois Weber, Phillips Smalley, 1916], were. Why wasn’t it? Figuring out the answer to this question seemed key if I wanted to understand how cinematic representations of cross-dressing were functioning in relation to available concepts of sexual and gender identity. Why weren’t people objecting to this film?

The plot only thickened when I read R. Bruce Brasell’s description of New York critics’ outraged reactions to the play.3 If theater critics in 1896 could find pathology in this story, why didn’t anyone in 1914 seem to find these meanings in the film?

All my research on the films featuring cross-dressed women made in the 1910s— the height of their popularity—showed that critics and audiences were reading these figures in many ways, but never as signifiers of a deviant sexual identity. Rather than making this negative assertion continually throughout Part I, I spent those chapters making positive claims about some of the ways people did read these figures—as idealized Victorian boys, or as athletic, heroic American women, for example. Then, I used the middle chapter, the Intermezzo, to make this negative claim, using A Florida Enchantment—the film that reads most lesbian and transsexual—as a limit case. The Vitagraph Company promoted A Florida Enchantment as a high-class, respectable comedy, directed by and starring the popular Broadway comedian Sidney Drew, and this is the way that critics, exhibitors, and censors seem to have understood the film. Some censors even called for more comedies of the type made by Sidney Drew (read: upper-class and respectable) to stem the overwhelming tide of slapstick comedies (read: lower-class and disreputable). If even this film—which seems to so obviously associate cross-dressing with sexual deviance—was not read as deviant, then it would support the acceptance of my claim that all those other films were not read that way either.

In addition to this main task, I used the chapter to sketch out a genealogy of when, where, and why American journalists interpreted popular cultural texts as representing sexual deviance and when and why they didn’t. A lot more of this story needs to be filled out, but the varied receptions of A Florida Enchantment gave me a concrete case study through which to navigate these changes.

Longo: When you reach the point in the book where lesbian characters are introduced and analyzed as lesbian characters, I find the discussion of less-studied films such as Hal Roach’s What’s the World Coming To? [1926] and The Clinging Vine [1926], and Édouard Bourdet’s play The Captive fascinating. Can you talk about how these productions open up a space for a re-examination of the female couples portrayed in films that scholars have mined in great detail, such as Wings [William Wellman, 1927] and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse [Rex Ingram, 1921]?

Horak: I find those works fascinating, too! They are right in the middle of this tipping point when the American media begins to take up lesbianism in a big way. The prolonged, highly publicized censorship battles over American productions of the play The Captive were the main engine behind this change. You have two publicity hounds, Horace Liveright and William Randolph Hearst, on either side of the fight and many civil liberties activists taking up the play as a touchstone for their larger anti-censorship battle. In the wake of these censorship battles, codes for recognizing lesbians began to circulate among the general public—codes that included, but were not limited to, male clothing. This development tarnished cross-dressed women’s wholesomeness and inspired the first efforts to regulate cinema’s cross-dressed women. It also established the transgressive meanings, which are familiar today.

Four Horsemen shows that Hollywood films were already flirting with lesbian representations before this happened. What’s the World Coming To?, The Clinging Vine, and Wings are released right before and during these clashes. What’s the World Coming To? and Wings riff on the looks and styles of existing lesbian and inverted artists, as I show with the photo comparisons of characters in the film and historical figures such as Radclyffe Hall. In that sense, they’re participating in the public recognition of a newly visible subculture.

The Clinging Vine, to my mind, is the most difficult to understand. The protagonist seems so comfortably butch in the first part of the movie and so uneasily hyper-feminine in the second part that both performances look today like self-conscious drag. But no one really objected to the film at the time and it was even recommended to children. Honestly, I still don’t fully understand how that film was intended to be read or how most audiences would have viewed it. It’s one of those contradictory, transitional texts that are so fascinating to explore.

Longo: Which chapter was the most fun to research? Which was the most fun to write?

Horak: That’s a hard question! I mostly researched them all at the same time. I did love paging through the amazing Robinson Locke scrapbooks on theater and film personalities at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts. I also liked looking at the fan letters written to Garbo at the Margaret Herrick Library, even though I didn’t end up using them in my book. One of the films that surprised me most, which I really want some festival to show, was The Snowbird [Edwin Carewe, 1916] at George Eastman House. The scenery is gorgeous, the acting is great, and the whole relationship between the two leads is just so perverse!

I ended up having to completely rewrite the second half of the book manuscript due to the creation of Lantern, the full-text search tool for the Media History Digital Library (a remarkable, open access collection of digitized film trade papers and fan magazines).4 In addition to examining many, many clipping files, scrapbooks, and microfilms at archives, I had made significant use of digitized newspapers (e.g., ProQuest,, Chronicling America) from around 2006 onward. I basically had a full draft of the manuscript ready for the publisher to read in July 2013, when the MHDL team launched Lantern. I thought, “Oh, maybe I should try typing in words like ‘lesbian’ and ‘The Captive’ to see what I find.…” I found so much material, I could hardly believe it.

I discovered that the film press was using pretty widely known code words for lesbianism already in 1927 (for example, Photoplay observed that “one’s memory might hark back to ‘The Captive’” when watching The Crystal Cup [John Francis Dillon, 1927] and continued throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s. Previously, what is now Part II was a single chapter, which had focused on important moments during this period, but this new tool allowed me to fill in many of the blanks and get a much richer, more fine-grained picture. I had to expand the final chapter into two separate, quite long chapters. I spent the next half-year rewriting these chapters from the ground up, which was a lot of work, but well worth it.

Longo: What do you hope readers will carry forward from your historiography into contemporary discussions of transgender and gender nonconforming people?

Horak: Today, happily, more transgender and gender nonconforming people are able to tell their own stories and represent their experiences in everything from feature films to TV shows, experimental films, and YouTube videos. This is a welcome development and it’s wonderful that the long-burning transgender movement is finally bursting into mainstream consciousness. One of the things I wanted to show in my book is that a wide variety of female masculinities have been really important to American filmmaking in its earliest decades. This offers a genealogy that might be politically, personally, and artistically useful to gender nonconforming people today, even if the female masculinities of the past were understood in very different terms than they are today.

I also wanted to show how important American cinema and popular culture was in introducing lesbian identities to mainstream audiences. This created new opportunities for community and identity formation for women who now had the option of identifying as lesbian. Although there are important differences, I think something similar has happened in the last ten years around the transgender community.

During those early years when representations of cross-dressed women were not generally understood as lesbian (from 1908 to the late 1920s), I do think it was likely that some lesbian, inverted, and female-bodied male viewers found those representations compelling, as a version of their own experience or as a sexy style. Martha Vicinus has shown that some lesbians were drawn to the British music hall male impersonator Vesta Tilley.5 I’ve even seen some Tilley postcards that had been used by women to arrange assignations with other women. So it’s likely that some lesbian, inverted, and female-bodied male viewers also connected intensely with movie representations of cross-dressed women, but, unfortunately, I have not yet found any traces that they left behind.

There are several reasons why cross-dressed men have gotten more attention. The first is that cross-dressing men remain somewhat shocking or surprising to society today, while women in trousers and suit coats have become absolutely normal. So cross-dressing men “stick out” more and also seem to require more explanation. Another is that men playing female roles in theater have a much longer history than the reverse, and are found in a wider variety of contexts—so there are more examples to investigate. One reason why cross-dressed men in silent film have gotten more attention is that many of those cross-dressed men are celebrated comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle, whose films circulate widely even today. Often the only silent films people today have seen are slapstick comedies, which feature cross-dressed men fairly regularly. The kinds of films featuring cross-dressed women, in contrast, are mostly not slapstick comedies, and mostly do not circulate. Even though many of the actresses who cross-dressed are still known today (like Mary Pickford and Gloria Swanson), their cross-dressing films are still hard to see.

I hope that by listing all 476 American films featuring cross-dressed women between 1904 and 1934 in my appendix (including where to find the films that survive), I will spur further research on these forgotten works. I hope that my book is just the beginning. I also hope that people start programming these films at film festivals, showing them in classes, and releasing them on DVD or via streaming sites. There is also much to be done in investigating cross-dressing in silent films made all over the world.

Longo: Where has this research led you in terms of your next book?

Horak: I am currently investigating the Finnish-Swedish filmmaker Mauritz Stiller, who is most famous today for discovering Greta Garbo and going to Hollywood with her. However, Stiller also directed almost forty films, mostly in Sweden, and was fairly well-known in Sweden as being both gay and Jewish. My new book, tentatively called Cinema’s Oscar Wilde: Mauritz Stiller and the Production of Modern Sexuality, will investigate how Stiller and his films participated in the enormous social changes around sexuality and gender in Northern Europe in the first decades of the twentieth century. In some sense, I’m asking similar questions about the relationship between cinema, popular culture, gender, and sexuality as I did in Girls Will Be Boys, but asking them about a different set of films in a different geopolitical context.

1. Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Representations 108, no. 1 (November 1, 2009): 1–21.
2. Jennifer Lynn Peterson, “‘The Nation’s First Playground’: Travel Films and the American West, 1895–1920,” in Virtual Voyages: Cinema and Travel, ed. Jeffrey Ruoff (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 79–98. See also Jennifer Peterson, Education in the School of Dreams: Travelogues and Early Nonfiction Film (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).
3. R. Bruce Brasell, “A Seed for Change: The Engenderment of ‘A Florida Enchantment,’” Cinema Journal 36, no. 4 (Summer 1997): 3–21.
5. Martha Vicinus, “Turn-of-the-Century Male Impersonation: Rewriting the Romance Plot,” in Sexualities in Victorian Britain, ed. Andrew H. Miller and James Eli Adams (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996), 187–213.

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Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema, 1908-1934
Laura Horak
Rutgers University Press, 2016
$29.95 paper, $90.00 cloth, 256 pages, 40 photographs

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