Female-to-male crossdressing became all the rage in the variety shows of nineteenth century America, and began as the domain of mature actresses who desired to extend their careers. These women engaged in the kinds of raucous comedy acts usually reserved for men. Over time, as younger women entered the specialty, the comedy became less pointed, and came to center on the celebration of male leisure and fashion. Gillian M. Rodger uses the development of male impersonation from 1820 to 1920 to illuminate the history of the variety show. Exploding notions of high- and lowbrow entertainment, Rodger looks at how both performers and forms consistently expanded upward toward respectable "and richer "audiences. At the same time, she illuminates a lost theatrical world where women made fun of middle class restrictions even as they bumped up against rules imposed in part by audiences. Onstage, the actresses' changing performance styles reflected gender construction in the working class and shifts in class affiliation by parts of the audiences. Rodger observes how restrictive standards of femininity increasingly bound male impersonators as new gender constructions allowed women greater access to public space while tolerating less independent behavior from them.
Gillian Rodger is an associate professor musicology and ethnomusicology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is the author of Champagne Charlie and Pretty Jemima: Variety Theater in the Nineteenth Century .