Gypsy Rose Lee and Esoteric Gender Performance in 20th-Century America

Friday, January 6, 2017: 4:10 PM
Room 503 (Colorado Convention Center)
Jeremy C. Young, Dixie State University
Throughout the twentieth century, many Americans have engaged in gender performances designed to obscure, rather than to illuminate, their inner identities and thoughts.  Both women and men have engaged in these voluminous, contradictory, and baffling gender performances; examples include burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee, astrologer and medium Madame Marcia, evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, rigged quiz show participant Charles Van Doren, and con artist Frank Abagnale.  Borrowing from philosophy the concept of esotericism (the encoding of hidden meanings accessible only by a select few within texts available to many), the paper identifies these performance practices as forms of “esoteric gender performance.”  Americans who displayed such behavior found liberation in masking the gendered realities of their lives and experiences, while controlling and limiting the small audiences to whom they revealed those realities.  The paper outlines the theory of esoteric gender performance and discusses each of the five cases above, paying special attention to the performances of Lee and Marcia.  It then sketches a preliminary analysis of why Americans chose to mask their gendered identities in this way.  In particular, it links the behavior of Lee, Van Doren, and Abagnale with the strict and unattainable normative gender roles of the early Cold War era.  Evidently, it concludes, increased gender normativity and conformity bred a simultaneous increase in esoteric gender performance, as Americans who felt threatened or stifled by societal norms embraced gender performances that protected their non-normative identities from public view.
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