Themes of Female Impersonation and Homosexuality

Female impersonation and homosexuality are prominent themes in Dirty Blonde: Charlie loves to dress up as Mae West; one of the most spectacular scenes in the play involves the female impersonators Duchess and Ed Hearn; West’s play, The Drag is about homosexuals, and act 2 of that play contains a drag party. Both themes occur in period settings (the 1910s and 1920s) and in the present. When these themes are understood in context they help to explain the success and appeal of Mae West as an enduring cultural icon.

As far as the present-day setting is concerned, these two themes underlie the emerging relationship between Jo and Charlie. Soon after they meet, they walk to the subway together. After Charlie exits, Jo remarks to the audience that Charlie seems interested in her. But she quickly dismisses any notion that they might have a romance together: “Well, never mind. I mean the whole Mae West thing was a tip-off.” She is referring to the fact that many of Mae West’s fans, both during her lifetime and in the early 2000s were and are gay men, and she makes the assumption that Charlie is gay. This possibility is hinted at again a short while later, when seventeen-year-old Charlie is visiting Mae at her Ravenswood apartment, and Mae, who has found out that Charlie is a wrestler and has been feeling his arm, puts her hand between his legs. Charlie does not respond sexually, merely looking down at his scrapbook and then making an innocuous comment about Mae’s gown. (More likely, Charlie is embarrassed and simply does not know what to do after being approached in this manner, but the playwright uses the opportunity to reinforce the notion already planted in the audience’s mind that Charlie may be gay.)

Later, when Jo discovers the skirt in Charlie’s apartment, she sees it as confirmation that Charlie is gay: “So, he’s not just gay as a handbag, he’s gay with a handbag.” By the end of the play, though, she discovers that Charlie is not gay at all, but he likes to dress up as Mae West. Jo’s assumptions about a man who cross-dresses turn out to be false. Although Jo does not know it, the understanding she reaches is in line with modern studies of the phenomenon of cross-dressing by males in contemporary Western society. It appears that those who indulge in this practice, also known as transvestitism, are not necessarily homosexual. They simply find that dressing in women’s clothes nourishes or gives expression to another side of their personality, and they feel more complete and whole as a result. The attraction to cross-dressing usually makes itself known in childhood; it is rarer for this desire and behavior to appear for the first time in adulthood. Charlie in Dirty Blonde appears to bear out this point, when he confesses to Jo that the first time he felt the attraction of cross-dressing was as a child at Halloween, when he dressed up as a vampire. The key part of the process, the part that conveyed the thrill for him, was a purely female aspect. As he puts it, he was “shivering with excitement as my mother leaned over me with her golden tube of lipstick, me looking at her, her looking at me, her mouth pouting a little, mirroring mine.”

Charlie’s small moment of insight about the origin of his unusual interest is a link to the theme of female impersonation in the parts of Dirty Blonde that are set in the 1910s and 1920s. In those decades, female impersonators were far more popular, and their acts far more mainstream, than they are in the early 2000s. There were many female impersonators on the vaudeville circuit, and as Marybeth Hamilton notes in When I’m Bad, I’m Better: Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment, some of the best had national reputations. Their acts were considered entirely respectable, good wholesome entertainment suitable for middle-class families, including women and children. Such performances upheld cultural ideas about the ideal of womanhood, that women were graceful, delicate, and refined. One famous female impersonator of the period, Julian Eltinge, was reportedly so convincing on stage as a woman that it seemed almost impossible to audiences that he was really a man. As Hamilton explains, such entertainers were “lauded as magicians, able to conjure themselves across gender boundaries that their audience believed to be fixed and immutable.”

Although there was no overt association...

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What Makes a Girl Tough

In Claudia Shear’s Dirty Blonde, the characters Jo and Charlie open the play with statements of what they believe makes a girl tough. A tough girl is someone who does not care what other people think about what she does, how she talks, where she goes, they say. She does what she wants to do. She “doesn’t sit like a lady or laugh like a little girl,” Charlie says. Rather, she wants to “dress up” and “go out.” And when she goes out, she wants to dance, but not just stepping to the music, she wants to dance “close and tight and hot.” This is the introduction, in the play, to Mae West, the actress with whom Jo and Charlie are obsessed. Their shared attraction to Mae West brings Jo and Charlie together, keeps them interested in one another, and helps them to get to know and love each other. It is only appropriate that the life and personality of Mae West is developed in Shear’s play, so the audience comes to appreciate the actress’s life and rise to stardom and so the strange relationship between Jo and Charlie is better understood.

After describing some of the personality traits that Jo and Charlie believe Mae West had, they then relate some of those characteristics to their own lives. Charlie’s version is that he wore a Madras shirt when he was young. This seems like a fairly mild form of rebellion or an attempt to stand out in a crowd, especially compared to some of the antics that Mae West pulled off to get attention, but for Charlie, a young Midwestern boy, it was a defiant stance of being tough. While everyone else was dressing in shades of white and khaki, he wore a plaid shirt of deep blues, purples, and red, colors that were so unsettled that when the shirt got wet, its colors bled. Although Charlie’s connection to Mae West seems rather tenuous, Jo’s in many ways is even more tangential. She has no claim to rebellion. Rather she lived through someone else who rebelled. She had a school friend who stood up in front of her study hall one day and belted out a song with sexual overtones. That was enough for Jo. When she found out that this song had been performed by Mae West, Jo was hooked on the actress. From these mild beginnings, both Jo’s and Charlie’s obsessions with Mae West developed, or at least that is what they claim. These were their early samplings of being tough.

The scene then switches to the historical Mae West and her early start in show business, which was almost as innocent as Jo and Charlie’s beginnings. One of Mae West’s first stage shows is filled with sexual innuendoes but not much else, especially in comparison to what she would do in the future. For example, she talks about her partner Harry’s piano playing as a woman might talk about a lover. And she wiggles a lot across the stage. Then she ends the act with a risqué move: the strap of her dress accidentally breaks revealing a breast. According to the stage directions, Mae West does not immediately cover herself as any other woman might have done were it truly an accident. Instead she pauses, looks down at her chest, says what will become a definitive exclamation of hers—“Oh!”—and then “slowly” covers herself. Jo and Charlie are right. Mae West is tough. She does exactly what she wants to do.

Charlie then describes something he did that was rather gutsy, showing that as he grew older he became a little more intense in his toughness. He travels to Los Angeles to fulfill his dream to meet Mae West. She is an old woman by now, but Charlie has brought an album of pictures taken when West was at the top of her career. This is a gentle touch by someone who wants to be tough, but it turns out to be just what Charlie needs to get to meet the aging actress. Charlie is persistent; he waits for several days outside Mae West’s apartment. He has no clue that the odds are against his seeing her. He does not care. Like Mae West in this respect, he is going to do what he wants to do, even if it means lying to his parents. Charlie is not standing on stage and provocatively arousing his audience, but he is taking a chance. He has not resigned himself, as most other fans have, to sitting in an air-conditioned bus, driving by Mae West’s apartment and hoping to gain a small glimpse of the actress. No, Charlie is much more daring than that. Because of both his innocence and his enterprise, Charlie achieves his wish, proving that Charlie is tough too, in his own way.

Mae West may be tough, just like Jo and Charlie believe, but even Mae West has her soft spots. When Charlie first meets her, he realizes that Mae West is not the immortal beauty that he had imagined. Even in his youth, or maybe especially because of his youth, and in his innocence, he realizes that the well-known actress is old enough to be his grandmother. For a grandmother, Mae West looks good. But Charlie stumbles in trying to say this to the actress, and Mae West proves she is incapable of accepting the fact that she has aged. When Charlie refers to a marble statue as an antique, Mae West is visibly hurt. “It’s me, can’t you tell, it looks just like me!” she says. The strength that Mae West once found in her youthful body is disappearing with age. Unlike the marble statue, her body is subject to a much more rapid rate of decay, and Mae West cannot face this fact. On this topic, she is far from tough. If she were truly a tough woman, she would have developed an inner strength that would have carried her into old age, a toughness that goes beyond the physical. If Mae West truly does not care what other people think, then why does she worry about her appearance? Joe Frisco, a boxer friend of hers, the guy who takes young Charlie up to meet Mae West, gives a more realistic impression of who the actress really is. Joe tells Charlie that what makes Mae West feel good is a really loyal fan, especially if that fan is a young man, and a bunch of flattering photographs of her. She thrives on a young man’s adoration, but she also tears up pictures that do not make her look good. Joe paints a less flattering picture of Mae West. In his eyes, the audience sees an insecure woman....

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Review by Misha Berson

(Drama for Students)

It is one thing to imitate the inimitable film siren Mae West. It is another to capture her essence.

The latter feat occurs,...

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New York Post Review

(Drama for Students)

Was there life for Claudia Shear’s Dirty Blonde after Claudia Shear (and, for that matter, one of her co-stars, Kevin Chamberlin)...

(The entire section is 635 words.)

Review by Charles Isherwood

(Drama for Students)

Mae West, the central character in Claudia Shear’s Dirty Blonde, is not the most ravishing thing in the production, a misfortune...

(The entire section is 754 words.)

Review by Charles Isherwood

(Drama for Students)

The Helen Hayes Theater may at long last have a buxom B.O. tenant in Dirty Blonde, Claudia Shear’s genial, funny, crowd-pleasing...

(The entire section is 715 words.)