Female Impersonators (Historically)

Role-switching has always been a good (sometimes cheap) theatrical way to get comedic attention or make a point.

Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges dressed as little kids in at least a couple of movies/shorts, IIRC. The Little Rascals had a few episodes (unless I imagine) where the kids played adults.

Were the historical cross-dressers doing ONLY this sort of expectation-challenging? Or . . . hidden meaning?

Inspired mostly by Dame Edna. I gather Barry Humphries is completely straight and does the Dame Edna thing just as a '60s/'70s era commentary?

But historically, of the “female impersonators” who made a living of it:

How many were heterosexual, but just playing a “funny role reversal?”
How many were homosexual, playing a homosexual role, albeit covertly?
How many were “conflicted,” telling themselves they were just being “funny cross dressing impersonators,” while actually being “wannabe real life crossdressing homosexuals?”

Please, no debates on what was okay or not, or is now. I’ll assume (for this post) that all is lawful.

I just can’t figure out the gist of what seems to have been, on the one hand, a substantial subculture of “female impersonators,” some with substantial mainstream support (Milton Berle). Was this meant and understood as simple broad heterosexual comedy, wherein putting a dress on a man was “funny” in the way that putting burnt cork on a white guy was?

Was it a case of double entendre, wherein an American public largely unaware of the existence of homosexual “culture” was nonetheless unwittingly exposed to it? What percentage of popular female impersonators were straight/non?

Or was it pretty well understood, at the time, that female impersonators were all effeminate homosexual men (assuming that’s true)?

If there ever was a marketable role for a heterosexual female impersonator – has the rise of “drag culture” mooted that?

FWIW transgendered people, crossdressers, and the like are by no means automatically homosexual. Drag queens, who dress up “be more fabulous” often are, but people who believe they were born with the wrong set of genitals span the spectrum of human sexuality (the male-to-female transgendered person I knew was interest soley in women) and cross dressers (people- usually men- who dress up for kicks) are almost always hetrosexual.

Well, my post is not going to answer your question, but I hope I can provide you with more examples to examine. In the Netherlands there have been a few well-loved comedians that did male, as well as female impersonations.

Paul de Leeuw; gay, famous 1985-now; does silly types. With him, I don’t suspect any internal conflicts. He’s just outrageous in all of his humour.

Van Kooten and de Bie ; heterosexual, famous 1965-1998 (when they split up and retired). They did male and female “types”, sometimes silly, but more often realistically funny. The impersonations were always used to make a point. Comedian De Bie (an atletic, squarejawed six-footer) did very convincing impersonations of middle-aged upperclass women (The sisters Veenendaal), a female ethic, shy married housewives and an elderly herbologist crone. So, more then just a funny role reversal, they were just extremely gifted actors (with an extremely gifted make-up team) who didn’t want to be limited by just doing male roles.

Paul Haenen, gay, famous 1990-now, has two or three alter-egos that allow him to do comedy with a different voice. One of these is his female alter egoMargreet Dolman. Paul Haenen might be a bit of a crossdresser, in the sense that with a simple wig another part of his personality surfaces. That other part is fortunately also a great comedian.

Men have been dressing in women’s clothing since the beginning of time. This article lists cross dressers back to Ancient Egyptian times. Since you seem to be mainly asked about performers, it’s worth noting that cross dressing was compulsory back in the times of Shakespeare, since women wern’t allowed on the stage. The tradition never died out. In the Amercian West during the cowboy era, there was probably a lot of cross dressing, purely due the lack of female performers. The tradition never died out. It’s got very little to do with homosexuality.

This page should clear up any misconceptions that you have about the link between wearing silk panties and being homsexual.

It’s really, really hard to generalize about the expectations and realities of actors worldwide over the past 5000 years to answer the OP’s questions. I don’t think he understands just how huge a subject this is.

Just some random comments then.

The tradition of men dressing up as women is common, perhaps universal, in every all-male society, and also societies in which women were not allowed to take public roles. Women were banned from stage roles all the way back to Greece and for almost the entire existence of the profession female actors were considered to be prostitutes. Because they usually were prostitutes. It was expected in sort of a vicious cycle.

Closer to our times, all the major Ivy League colleges had annual shows back in the days when they were all-male schools (and may still have) that featured the guys dressed up as women. From what I’ve read about them, the humor mostly lies in the sight of big hulking guys pretending to be dainty women and failing miserably.

This tradition lives on in the sitcom, which always seem to wind up with an episode in which the men have to dress up as women.

Most of the portrayals in vaudeville, movies and television fall into this category of broad humor, no pun intended. Some of it does have an undercurrent of homosexuality, especially today when it’s more acceptable to suggest that, but the Milton Berle-type drag joke wouldn’t be read by the general public in that way. Just the opposite. The joke was that much funnier when a noted woman-chaser like Berle (bearer of the biggest penis in Hollywood) played a woman.

The current movie Stage Beauty deals with the era in which women were first allowed on the stage. The lead, played excellently by Billy Crudup, is someone who is very conflicted in his sexuality. His particular character was a street urchin taken in by a pederast and brought up to play female roles, and also much sought after by homosexual men in the audience. The movie doesn’t try to examine whether this was common or just a way to make the character more nuanced but it doesn’t seem unlikely based on what I’ve read of the theater at the time.

Yes, it’s important to remember that men-in-women’s-roles isn’t limited to comedy. In plenty of times and places it was socially unacceptable for women to appear onstage, so any play featuring female characters would require the presence of cross-dressing male actors. In most dramatic works this was not apparently meant to be funny or to make any sort of social/sexual point.

As for the actors themselves, I guess a MtF transgendered actor might naturally gravitate towards female roles. However, I would bet that for most actors that specialized in female roles gender identity and sexual orientation didn’t factor into the equation. It was probably because of their body type, because they’d had special training in imitating feminine speech and mannerisms, or just because they liked the challenge of playing a character very different from their real selves.

I do, or at least I think, sort of. Implicitly, I was assuming the Shakespearean et al. types were simply dealing with how to stage a multi-sex play in a sex-segregated culture – and my question was not directed at them. Also, as witness my reference to Barry Humphries and his (near)-contemporary Milton Berle – I was curious about the quasi-modern era, in which women were not explicitly barred from the entertainment world (as in Shakespeare’s time), yet men (straight, seemingly) somehow carved out a career as female impersonators.

Note, I am not necessarily staking any position on whether all transvestites are homosexuals. It is just that Humphries and Berle seemed (on the surface) to be playing things strictly for laughs with their cross-dressing, with no actual “sexual identity” or “transgressive” element at all. While some cross-dressing men may not be operative “homosexuals,” it seems a stretch to say, of all of them, that their inclinations are “non-sexual” and purely parodic, as Berle’s and Humphries’ (on the surface) would seem to be. Perhaps a better way to pose the question, if the OP freaks out “gender theorists,” would be, how many “cross dressers” are (or historically were) playing purely for “role reversal” laughs, and how many were in some realm of personal/sexual (if not “homosexual”) wish fulfillment/expression?

There’s just no answer to that; a lot of them didn’t know (or wouldn’t admit) themselves. Julian Eltinge, the B’way female impersonator of the 1900-1915 period, insisted he was straight. Maybe he was, maybe not. Bert Savoy, the godfather of camp (popular in the 1910s and early '20s) was openly gay, as was Divine.

I’ve been trying to figure out a way to mention Eddie Izzard in this discussion, though I wouldn’t say he’s a female impersonator. Here’s the best I can do:

Izzard might be the first post-gender performer. He’s a transvestite, but it doesn’t merit more than a couple of mentions in his stand-up act. For the most part it’s just a fact of his performance that the jokes are being delivered by a man wearing makeup and a dress. I think he professes to be straight, but doesn’t really talk about it; he certainly isn’t effeminate. So that might be relevant somewhat to your last question. He’s certainly not playing it for laughs, since he really is a transvestite.

There is still some insight to be gained from Shakespeare here, though. For the most part, of course, cross-dressing was just a practical necessity of an all-male theater, so you can’t read anything into the fact that Lady Macbeth or Cleopatra was played by a man. But there are a number of places in the comedies where one of the characters (as opposed to just the actor) cross-dresses, and it’s played up for laughs. There’s even fun poked at the theatrical practice itself; in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of the mechanicals (Flute, I think) complains about having to take a female role in the play-within-the-play, since he has a beard coming. So offhand, I’d say that transvestites are just inherently funny, and have been recognized as such for a long time.