There’s no Business like Show Business – Drag, Camp and the Masquerade in the Western Musical

Authors: Van Raalte, C.

Start date: 24 March 2015

The Western musicals Annie Get Your Gun (George Sidney, 1950) and Calamity Jane (David Butler, 1953) created memorable images of cross-dressing, sharp-shooting heroines that continue to resonate within popular culture more than half a century later. Less memorable perhaps, but potentially more subversive are the images of the eponymous heroines in conventional female attire, attempting to fulfill more conventionally ‘feminine’ roles. The resulting dissonance foregrounds the constructed nature of gender identity, raising the unsettling specter of drag as “an imitation without an origin”. (Judith Butler 1990:138)

In this paper I will argue that the sartorial adventures of both heroines serve to destabilise and deconstruct gender identities in rather more sophisticated ways than may be immediately apparent. Calamity Jane can be read as a colourful (if inadvertent) exposition of Joan Rivière’s seminal 1929 essay on “Womanliness as a Masquerade”, which characterises ‘womanliness’, as a set of learned behaviours designed to distract men from the actual abilities and activities of the perpetrator, governing her relationship with both the men and the women around her. Annie Get Your Gun, meanwhile, illustrates Luce Irigaray’s proposition that “the masquerade …is what women do… in order to participate in man’s desire, but at the cost of giving up theirs”. (1985:131) Both films can be said to exploit the freedoms afforded by their generic hybridity: as musical comedies they are structured by sexual difference (Robert Altman 2002); as Western comedies they engage playfully on Western iconography and the ideology of American Tough (Rupert Wilkinson 1984) to explicitly problematize that difference.

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