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January 1997, Week 5


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Pam Robertson <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 30 Jan 1997 02:05:10 +1100
text/plain (56 lines)
>Subject: Mae West and Drag Queens
>Dear Colleagues,
>A friend writes:
>A Claudia Roth Pierpont article on Mae West in the NEW YORKER cites
>Marybeth Hamilton's book on Mae West as "pinpointing" West's creation
>of her sexual persona as taking place while she (West)
>was watching drag queens in the two gay productions she put on.  Is that a
>fairly common idea or is it Hamilton's own?  If the latter, is it now
>well-enough accepted to mention without defending in detail?
>All comments welcome.
Dear Krin,
There has been a lot of work done on Mae West lately -- Hamilton's book on
the plays, Ramona Curry's book on the film career (with some attention to
TV and radio) and my own work on West and/as feminist camp, which deals in
part with the degree to which West models herself on gay female
impersonators and argues that West's film character is more like the gay
men in her plays than like the prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold she herself
played in the plays. (See my book Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae
West to Madonna, 1996, and an earlier article in Cinema Journal, "The Kinda
Comedy That Imitates Me: Mae West's Identification with the Feminist Camp"
Winter 1993)
The New Yorker piece you mention is very curious.  It seems to me to be
relying heavily on these academic articles and books but also to want to
trash academic writing. Frankly, reading it, I felt pretty sure that I'd
been "borrowed" from -- there are claims about West's use of camp that seem
to mirror some of my claims, some even using the same quotes I've taken
from West's plays, all of which are presented as self-evident.  I suspect
the article also relies a lot on Curry's book, which it attacks, as well as
Hamilton's which is the only one it admits to using. It also, obviously,
relies on various biographies.  Hamilton's work is good -- my problem is
not with her book at all, but with the way it is used in the article, And
Curry gets short shrift in the essay.
So, yes, we can now pretty safely say that West modelled herself on drag
queens but as somebody who took some pains to ground that claim in
historical evidence, I think that rather than be treated as a truism, it is
still worth reading and citing these books and articles.
Sorry to be such a crab but that New Yorker piece really bugged me.
Pam Robertson
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