Women in American popular entertainment: creating a niche in the vaudevillian era, 1890s to 1930s

by Pittenger, Peach

Abstract (Summary)
During the vaudevillian era, the professional careers of all women in popular entertainment operated within and reflected the complex social and cultural tensions surrounding ideas about women’s increased participation in public, political, and social life. For the purposes of this study, I bracket the female performers who personified the idealized images of femininity, beauty, and sexuality, and focus instead on the women who performed an oppositional, or transgressive, representation of femininity and American womanhood due to their physical appearance, body size, race, ethnicity, age, overt sexuality, or independent, assertive personalities. Representative women of this case study include a diverse group ranging from May Irwin, Marie Dressler, Eva Tanguay, Ethel Waters, Sophie Tucker, and Fanny Brice to the nearly forgotten Cherry Sisters and Trixie Friganza. This dissertation is an examination of the methods used by working women in popular entertainment to negotiate for agency and self-definition, as well as a niche for themselves, within a male-dominated business and society. I draw from Michel de Certeau’s theory of strategy and tactics within oppositional power relationships in order to evaluate an entertainer’s career as an organic whole: her performance and public personas, marketing and publicity strategies, development of a niche audience, and relative agency in management of her own career. My research project is based on the premise that an analysis of women who exemplified nontraditional femininity in their performances, audience relationships, and career management will reflect the prevailing position of women in American society: their subordinate status, the social constraints and cultural ideologies imposed upon them, the necessity of ongoing renegotiations for autonomy and self-definition, and the strategies and tactics used by women to achieve a measure of agency. Because the women crafted their personas and careers in relation to prevailing ideas about idealized female beauty and sexuality, each nontraditional performer found a unique way to manipulate, finesse, or counter the ideal as a means of creating a niche for herself in a business that resisted her presence.
Bibliographical Information:


School:The Ohio State University

School Location:USA - Ohio

Source Type:Master's Thesis

Keywords:american theatre popular entertainment vaudeville cherry sisters trixie friganza eva tanguay marie dressler ethel waters mamba s daughters sophie tucker fanny brice


Date of Publication:01/01/2005

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