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Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women and the Legitimation of American Silent Cinema


Recent scholars tend to describe cross-dressing as inherently transgressive. Cross-dressing, they explain, shows us that there is no natural link between physical sex and social roles. It shows us that we cannot trust our own vision, or even, as Marjorie Garber argues, the very notion of categories. Furthermore, scholars argue that early-twentieth-century Americans viewed female masculinity as unattractive and pathological, associated with shrewish suffragettes and sexual inverts. It may seem strange then, that the emerging American moving picture industry produced over three hundred films featuring cross-dressed women during the silent era. More than seventy percent of these films were released between 1908 and 1919, American cinema's "transitional era," when moving picture makers struggled to "uplift" their products in order to win over middle-class audiences and avoid censorship. These films and their complex cultural functions are largely missing from existing film historical accounts of this period. In this dissertation, I demonstrate that the circulation of an interpretive strategy that would read cross-dressing or "mannishness" as a sign of sexual inversion was much more limited than scholars have acknowledged. In fact, cross-dressed women helped moving pictures secure greater respectability by evoking a range of established, socially privileged representational traditions, thereby expanding the medium's appeal to broad audiences.

Over the course of the transitional era, moving pictures developed strategies to make performers' gender more consistently legible, adapting techniques from police detection, protean artists, sister acts, and newspaper photographs of men discovered to be female-bodied. At the same time, filmmakers cast women and girls in boy roles such as Oliver Twist in order to align the medium with genteel Anglo-American children's theater and Victorian sentimentalism. Cross-dressed women in frontier films, in contrast, provided an opportunity to see a capable, usually white, female body interacting with--and triumphing over--varied American natural landscapes. Their presence also helped as defuse the homoeroticism between men cultivated in sex-imbalanced frontier spaces. The "innocent" readings of cross-dressed women were so prominent during the transitional era that critics received even a seemingly obvious depiction of sexual inversion like A FLORIDA ENCHANTMENT (Vitagraph, August 1914) as wholesome, respectable comedy. Only in the 1920s and early 1930s did American moving pictures begin to connect cross-dressing and lesbianism, a shift that disrupted the practice's relationship to respectability.

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