Wednesday, January 05, 2005

"From the King of Beasts to Clowns in Drag”

“…is a chapter from Janet Davis’s book, The Circus Age: Culture & Society Under the American Big Top, one that doesn’t really deliver on its title. Her premise is that “the world of the circus [is] one of the male gender flux, with androgynous acrobats, gender-bending clowns, players in drag, and animals dressed as men” (143). The zoo, as a site of “athletic [...] manliness,” was created to appeal to men and boys. Davis describes specific elements of the circus and then proves how they are particularly appealing the masculine interests.

Her thesis is certainly not something that one might puzzle out on her own, but after reading it, I’m convinced and not surprised in the least. She describes, for example, how “men [...] sought to reclaim their authority by fortifying the body: they participated in alternative models of male power such as basketball and wrestling or embraced ‘primitive cultural practices, specifically living in the wilderness or hunting wild game” (144). When I read this passage I thought about what are now called “x-treme sports” or vehicles marketed as “off-road” or “outback.” It takes no explanation for us to understand that they’re aimed at men, that they appeal primarily (if not exclusively) to men.

So these pursuits are not new. Davis describes older pursuits—like “Youthful counterparts to the back-to-nature movement like the Boy Scouts of America, the Sons of Daniel Boone, and the Woodcraft Indians.” The first one, obviously, is more familiar to us in modern times than the last ones, but we can still gather what the groups were about. She observes that these groups “enabled white boys to assume a temporary nonwhite identity as they dressed up as Native Americans and learned indigenous crafts and camping and survival skills. These organizations paradoxically helped heighten boys’ own sense of manly whiteness through the act of what Phillip Deloria succinctly calls ‘playing Indian’” (146). John Muir was his own special man’s man, “quietly staging his own remarkable death-defying bodily feats: he walked across much of the United States, fasted constantly and climbed the snow-covered Sierras clad in a woolen shirt, denim pants, and thin shoes” (146).

So, it’s not surprising, says Davis, that in what she calls our “nascent celebrity culture,” early heroes were not men but “adult animal males—Jumbo the elephant, Chiko the ‘gorilla,’ and Rajah the man-eating tiger” (148). These were animals connected “to the ‘masculine’ wilderness” (148). And in their performances, the animals tended to be humanized; they wore dresses and performed human acts. Not only that, but alongside the “humanized animals” were “animalized humans,” so, according to Davis, the situation “highlighted this ambiguity of modern people’s position within the natural world” (152).

It was around this time, not incidentally, that animal welfare became a big issue. Davis blames it lightly on the growing popularity at the time of the theory of evolution. She says that since “evolutionary theory linked human beings and animals to shared biological origins, some circus audience members saw the caged animal as an enslaved human being” (153). I think she’s really off the mark here. That simply isn’t the only reason why people would protest the use of animals in the circus. Animal cruelty is so undeniably apparent in the circus. It doesn’t take a preoccupation with evolution to notice that.

One of the most interesting cases Daily makes between the circus and masculinity is in telling of the children’s books P.T. Barnum wrote, which featured as protagonists young boys “who tracked, captured, or killed wild beasts” (155). His stories capitalized on a cultural myth of sorts, of a young man who could save a crazed circus animal gone berserk at a circus performance. The circus was built around the hunt-n-save fantasies of men and boys. That’s not the only explanation of the animal-gone-wild myth, though. Elsewhere, Davis mentions it in the context of the “curtailed” animal’s being a metaphor for the lynched black man.

Davis finally gets to the point about the drag performers. As early as the 1840s, comedian Robert Stickney performed “The Frolics of My Granny,” dressed as an old woman with a boy on her shoulders (only to be revealed as a single person in a convincing costume. Another performer did “Biddy O’Flaherty.” What’s interesting is that in the mid- and late-nineteenth century, these “’fairies,’ ‘inverts,’ ‘female impersonators,’ and ‘traders’ were more broadly accepted in the first third of the twentieth century than in subsequent decades, in part because contemporary scientific and popular constructions of an intermediate ‘third-sex’ made homosexuals less threatening to male codes” (169).

Well, that’s about enough. More is said—she discusses other fine points, here, but the most important thing to know is her main point, that the circus was devised as a male event.

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