Aerial Stars: Femininity, Celebrity & Glamour in the Representations of Female Aerialists in the UK & USA in the 1920s and Early 1930s
Holmes, Catherine Jane
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
Reason for embargo
I would like to embargo for 18 months in order to publish from the thesis.
Female solo aerialists of the 1920s and early 1930s were internationally popular performers in the largest live mass entertainment of the period in the UK and USA. Yet these aerialists and this period in circus history have been largely forgotten by scholars. I address this omission by arguing these stars should be remembered for how they contributed to strength being incorporated into some stereotypes of femininity. Analysing in detail Lillian Leitzel, Luisita Leers and, to a lesser extent the Flying Codonas, I employ a cross-disciplinary methodology unique to aerial scholarship that uses embodied understanding to reinvigorate archival resources. This approach allows me to build on the wider scholarly histories of Peta Tait, drawing important conclusions about the form including how weightlessness is constructed and risk is performed. In the introduction I re-evaluate the nostalgic histories of circus to establish circus’ and aerialists’ popularity in this period, before exploring how engagements shaped careers. Chapter 1 considers the difference in experiencing aerialists in the USA and UK by bringing together previously unrelated data on circus, variety and vaudeville venues. Aerialists made good celebrities because their acts, located above audience members’ heads, challenged the conventional relationship between ticket prices and sightlines. Chapter 2 explores how the kinaesthetic fantasy evoked by experiencing aerial action created glamour and how glamour had the power to reframe femininity in the 1920s. Glamour and celebrity have often been confused and Chapter 3 distinguishes the two before considering what characterises aerial celebrity. Reconfiguring Joseph Roach’s public intimacy as skilful vulnerability allows me to analyse how risk was gendered and performed in relationship to skill. The gendering of risk leads me to consider what in society contributed to aerial stardom by drawing upon Richard Dyer’s argument that celebrities embody a cultural ambiguity. Female aerialists reframed their femininity in a similar way to women who aspired to the modern girl stereotype in wider society. In the final chapter I expand on the activity of the modern girl, comparing strategies used by young exercising women to female aerialists. This enables me to draw conclusions about how witnessing these stars tapped into national ideas of citizenship, and to designate aerialists as the first to use the power of glamour to make muscular femininity acceptable.
PhD in Drama