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Unruly Reproductions: The Embodied Art of Mimicry in Vaudeville

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This new, aloof physicality and the uniformity sent up by the lyrics of the song—“for all in perfect type should be”—correspond to a general trend in depictions of women in the United States. In Imaging American Women, Martha Banta argues that “the woman as image was one of the [Progressive] era’s dominant cultural tics.”[3] The allegorical figure of Columbia, for instance, the young attractive woman representing America, appeared with great frequency during this period in political cartoons or as a brand symbol, such as in Columbia Records and Columbia Pictures. Other female allegorical figures towered over the United States in the form of the Statue of Liberty and the 65-foot Statue of the Republic at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition or graced the facades of buildings like the Four Continents statues at the United States Customs House.[4] Matching these stately figures were Gibson’s pervasive drawings of narrow-waisted, large-busted women with upswept hair, button noses, and distant gazes. As Adams, Keene, and Koella discuss in Seeing the American Woman, the Girl was “unindividualized”: “she generally looked down or away…or she danced and promenaded in lines of similar beings.”[5]

Thus, as the United States entered the twentieth century, the types of women presented to the public in mass media and entertainment were often idealized, generalized, and detached. With the cultural turn to the visual, “woman as image” became increasingly separated from the living, breathing, individual bodies of women. As images of the American Girl proliferated, however, solo female performers in vaudeville offered alternatives to the disembodied anonymity of these aloof female types. In particular, the practice of mimicry allowed performers like Gertrude Hoffmann, Cissie Loftus, and Elsie Janis to break the “girl” mold with their vividly individualized impersonations of celebrities. Hoffmann, Loftus, and Janis brought attention to the manufactured nature of womanhood in the public sphere through an embodied form of imitation, which allowed them critical, creative space to comment on the celebrity culture of their time. The malleability of their form, in which they embodied several figures at once, gave them an unusual freedom from the strict types and categories for female performers, and their abilities as shape-shifters emphasized a bodily rather than an artificial or mechanical means of reproduction. In response to the commercialization and replication of the female image in the Progressive Era female mimics in vaudeville countered the mass-produced, male-created depictions of women, seen in magazines and chorus lines, with their own unruly reproductions.[6]

At the beginning of the twentieth century, mimicry became a highly popular act on variety stages, and while both male and female mimics thrived in vaudeville, women especially dominated the field. A retrospective Variety article from 1948, titled “Vaudeville: Mimics,” reveals the prevalence of female mimics. The author, Joe Laurie, Jr., recalls the “heyday” of mimicry on the vaudeville stage, claiming that “There was an epidemic of imitations in vaudeville from 1905 to 1930.”[7] In a list of the “great artists” of mimicry, the majority are women, and of the artists he mentions who created original material for their acts, all five are women: Cissie Loftus, Juliet Delf, Elsie Janis, Gertrude Hoffmann, and Venita Gould. These mimics “used their own special material,” and Laurie, Jr. considered this to be a superior practice than simply copying material from the acts they were imitating.

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