Archive for February 18th, 2012

Mae West surrounded by male supporters after she was arrested for making the movie, Sex

Dear friends and readers,

I returned to my project of reading towards and then writing a review of Nussbaum’s Rival Queens (on 18th century actresses), and found myself again facing this vexed question of how to treat prostitution. Nussbaum is determined to distinguish actresses from prostitutes, to insist the “whore” angle has been exaggerated, is even unimportant, especially when it comes to the really successful actress. So many others say the “whore” position is one incessantly attached to any actress until the later 19th century. Sometimes I’m beginning to think it’s still attached — except for the unusual actress, often English, who has made herself an icon of high culture art and/or (quiet) feminism.

So I’m reading both Sandra Richards’s The Rise of the English Actress and Kirsten Pullen’s Actresses and Whores: On Stage and in Society as my last two survey books before writing. I’ll write about Richards when I’ve finished it; this blog is on Pullen’s book which (like Elizabeth Howe’s First English Actresses and Kristina Staub’s Sexual Suspects) is a kind of antidote, contrast, rebutal to Nussbaum. Pullen differs from all these but Staub because Pullen wants to more than acknowledge that later 17th century and many 18th century actresses worked as prostitutes or were promiscuous or went in for serial relationships (very like today). Like Staub she sympathizes with women who become prostitutes, does not sneer at or degrade them through language or implications; Pullen goes further: she wants to legitimize prostitution or women’s sexuality in liberated forms.

The glaring fault or gap in Pullen’s presentation is she leaves out a real aspect of prostitution: violence. I couldn’t find the word in all the first chapter. Yes other professions have problems with injuries, hurts, exploitation of the body, but a miner when a mine falls on him has not been put there to have that happen: violence is part of what costumers want to pay for. Prostitutes are directly answerable by their bodies. Yet Pullen is valuable: she makes all sorts of persuasive counterarguments showing how this stigmatizing of the prostitute is unjust; they are not different from the rest of women, only on a continuum, and the edge of this continuum matters (it spills over into today’s sex trafficking, modern forms of chattel slavery for women).

So Pullen’s is a fresh frank book which can make one question, why the need to separate actresses from prostitutes so intensely as Nussbaum does when at the same time Nussbaum is happy to show her actresses crossing all sorts of sexual taboos? What really bothers Nussbaum to separate prostitution off? I doubt it’s the violence for she remains resolutely at a distance from the body most of the time, but rather that in the 18th century and today a woman needs to de-sexualize her worldly presentation or she cannot rise to power, big money and respectability. It’s the respectability Nussbaum craves for her actresses. (Without it no tenure I suppose and for academic women the guise is dowdy clothes.)

This is a third in a series of blogs I mean to write on 18th century actresses (see Margaret Woffington, Francis Abingdon, with Susannah Cibber and Catherine Clive, foremother actress, writer, poet), another of several about the treatment of prostitutes and women’s sexuality in our society (e.g., On “an argument for not trying to decrease prostitution”).


There is no picture of Elizabeth Davenport Boutell; this is an unusal one found in books and on the Net as Elizabeth Barry (see the common one and wikipedia): it has the merit of genuinely capturing a thoughtful face which is not conventionally pretty; I don’t know its provenance

In Pullen’s prologue she argues that Mae West was the first screen heiress of earlier actresses, a woman who actively sought to break down repressive restrictive notions of sexuality for women; she then moves to two chapters on the long 18th century stage — her best and most persuasive because she show that the sexualized demeaning legends that grew up immediately around the actresses often had little connection with the literal realities of their lives. Betty Boutell provides the first ironic story.

Boutell was a second line actresss (so to speak) in the restoration (Elizabeth Barry was a more central presence) and the ugliest scurrilous assertions were made about Betty Boutell, basically that she went to bed with anything. A famous line from a particularly misogynistic poem refers to her as Betty Boutell “whom all the Town fucks.”

Elizabeth Davenport Boutell was her full name (born 1649, died 1715). Judith Milhous has put together the real details of Boutell’s career and life. Guess what? we cannot connect Boutell to even one man as his mistress or as one stage in a series of serial monogamous relationships on her part regularly at all. When it comes to her private off-stage life what we discover is Betty Boutell married a Mr Boutell, and led a respectable married and prosperous life in the 1670s and 80s. Upon becoming financially successful enough to be independent, she separated herself from him and travelled (to, among other places, Holland several times in the 1690s). She became close with one woman friend, Elizabeth Price who she helped with a lawsuit against an Earl. There is evidence of her living in London and caring for her sister, Francis, when Francis became ill — her sister was not as strong as she and suffered nervous collapses and was towards the end of her life confined in an asylum and then taken care of by Betty (and her money). When nearly 50 Betty was still acting in Breeches roles, and living a cosmopolitan life travelling in Europe. When she retired she was well off enough to buy an annuity for Price, and to inherit money from her sister’s first husband, collect a debt from one Justin Maccarty (3rd son of Earl of Clancarry), rumored to be her lover, but there is no proof of this or even anecdotes of any kind. She died in 1715 leaving bequests worth about 800 pounds.

And yet Betty is best remembered as a whore, so strongly helplessly heterosexual she could not resist any man in town. How or why is this? Pullen shows that the kinds of parts Boutell took would create (if they were real in the world) a woman who was promiscuous. In her first chapter Pullen also goes over attitudes towards sex, women, marriage, actresses. Whore was a term used for any unchaste woman — and in common pop parlance today one finds “ho” used similarly. Older historians used the whore/actress connection to limit the agency and write condescendingly of women. It’s virtually impossible to disentangle much that was rumored with what actually happened to a woman. Much that we do have suggests (Pullen is quite different from Nussbaum continually) a lack of respect for actresses. Pullen does agree with Straub that rowdiness was very bad for actresses, they did not enjoy it, thrive have “robust” responses (as Nussbaum claims). Who could when, for example, one of Middleton’s men threw shit in Rebecca Marshall’s face when she tried to flee him.

Earlier historians of actresses show a lack of respect for their women; simply assume the general truth of the sex rumors and go about to explain (justify) why women did accede to sell their bodies. They never stop to think maybe this or that woman didn’t. No empathy here, no endowing them with real humanity with all its individualities. Or you get the kind of thing Lawrence Stone in his study odes: he will say well she must’ve been frigid, that’s why or how she escaped promiscuity (women naturally are promiscuous you see, they all want heterosexual sex from men). Quaif denies women agency and choice; more recent studies show women did assert their romantic and sexual desires (Lois G. Schwoerer) but cannot get their minds around an idea a women might just see that independence of men was the real way to achieve liberty, peace of mind, personal self-respect and power over the self.

Pullen is very good on the 17th century stage world: she describes (unusually) a rough, hard, mean place, often squalid in experience and risky for actors and actresses; we learn about its crafts (too) as well types of plays, staging: theater stage design, costumes meant to display women and underline sexuality strongly (in men too). Pullen also remembers that men were prostitutes, men had a problem with status, also threatened the class status of aristocrats, the wealthy and respectable. Mohun (a baron) got away with murdering William Mountfort with impunity. Mohun a lout, thug, drone; Mountfort a hard-working intelligent actor. Wjho cared what they were as individuals. Pullen does agree with Nussbaum that both male and female actors did play and same roles and kinds of roles over and over which the public persisted then (and does until today) creating a sort of putative personailty/biography from.


Charlotte Charke (another unusual image); there is no image for Margaret Leeson

In Chapter Three Pullen takes us into two memoirs of women who are openly sexually promiscuous: Margaret Leeson and Charlotte Charke. Pullen wants us to see how the circumstances of these two and how they wrote about it show why we must bring into our perspective how women sold themselves for sex and not reject them for this at all. In effect Pullen wants to increase the number of women we respect.

I knew of Charlotte Charke’s life and autobiography: she is probably known to 18th century scholars because she was the daughter of Colley Cibber (who threw her off) and openly lesbian, a transvestite, but I had never heard of Margaret Leeson. Leeson was able to write her memoirs because in her last years she had become a brothel madam and was thus somewhat protected from the violence and control from others lower status prostitutes had to endure.

Leeson’s book is long: I downloaded 3 full volumes in ECCO. What a hard and in the end sad life she had. In a nutshell, when young she was seduced, impregnated and abandoned by a young man; her family refused to take her in. Abandoned by his man she could not find any job to support herself, had not been trained for any and ended up a prostitute in the streets. Strength of character, luck took her on a journey where she became a successful brothel madam for a couple of decades. But late in life aging (perhaps ill), she became depressed, lonely, and in the end without friends. It could be her business went badly so she wrote to make money, but her memoirs were the final thing that destroyed her. Instead of creating sympathy. (There is no wikipedia article on her.) Pullen thinks Leeson’s memoirs actually destroyed her career as a brothel-madam. Leeson died in extreme poverty, aged sick. In her memoirs, Leeson does assert her right to a life of her own, to respect, to sexual pleasure. Sometimes she revels in her life, sometimes she apologizes. She too downplays the violence.
I felt for her.

Leeson was never an actress but I can see how she belongs to Pullen’s book. At the close her (poignant to me) memoir Leeson makes an argument for valuing other kinds of virtue in women than chastity (or virginity): generosity, charity. Like many other actresses then and since, shows herself charitable (today’s actresses interest themselves in good causes); in one case, Leeson is kind to another brothel-madam left dead and destitute; Leeson praises people for generosity; and presents herself as never debauching an innocent young woman; and asserts that she did find work including prostitution for women ejected by their families. She has several love affairs but also strong friendships with women; her female friends sustain her. These latter details remind me of how Fanny Hill justifies one of the madams who becomes her friend in the novel by Cleland.

I know for some there’s no need for me to rehearse the the outline of Charlotte Charke’s life, but as seen in Pullen’s perspective a rather different set of experiences emerges (also different from Emma Donoghue’s because Donoghue wants to prove she was a lesbian and active sexually). We see a hard-working life. The obviously transgressive Charlotte , Colley Cibber’s unlucky daughter, sister of the vicious Theophilus (no help to anyone but himself) was a late child, not sympathized with (mother exhausted by this time), so had a neglected childhood. She married Richard Charke to get away; he was a violinist, spendthrift, promiscuous, indifferent to her; alas Charke lies to the reader frequently: defensively, to cover up, but it’s lies.

Much of her life she worked in the theater as actress; she worked with her brother in illegal theaters; with Fielding, father’s rival, took male roles repeatedly, for her a breeches role not a woman revealing herself but a male role (acted roles her father took and roles meant to recall him), reputation as rebellious and 1737 act destroys her connections with legitimate theater world; ran puppet theater, 1746 a strolling played, 1753 return to London and begins to write (for money), memoir, novels, and dies 1760 still estranged from family and living with Mrs Brown

Was hers an appeal to lesbians in the audience? Is this why she was so frank? Pullen says this handle was a double-edged sword, for Charke became disliked because she was clearly not subjugated to men; she had a regular audience in women by the 18th century; her power appealing as alternative to conventional women’s roles. A woman of conflicted identities, without resources, in debt. So cross-dresser seen as “whore” because she is “outside the mainstream” fo “femininity” Pullen does not see her as aligned in public mind as a man but a prostitute. She cross-dressed because it was easier to find work as a man, she attracted attention and got jobs on stage, she felt power and privilege; she uses theatrical conventions. Charke exhibits playfulness and she plays a comic hero; denies natural characteristics of women, remains in control of her fate; a world of women working and living together. Yet she yearned for the comforts of family life. She wanted someone to love her.

Pullen ends on an usual summing up: in these memoirs we see the “whore” position offers a woman space from which to speak. In the 18th century it was not even acceptable for the chaste woman to write and publish a book with her name on it.


Lydia Thompson

I was at first puzzled by Chapter 4. Pullen tells the story of Lydia Thompson and Charlotte Cushman, two actresses who defied norms of femininity at the time. This may be seen in their pictures.

Charlotte Cushman

Thompson dresses like a masculine woman who is exposing her usually hidden sexual parts. Cushman really looks mannish, powerful body and although her lower legs are exposed, the flat shoes do not allow them to be taken as sexy.

Their stories: Thompson — together with a troupe of women and her second husband, Henderson — succeeded in making a financial success of a burlesque act which was bawdy and involved cross-dressing and breaking sexual taboos. Then after initial approval. the critics turned against her: what was most loathed was her defiance of male prerogative (she led her troupe) and her exposure of female as well as male aggression in sexuality. The criticism was vitriolic, mostly because she was making money, getting audiences, apparently amused the crowds.

What Pullen shows is Thompson fought to have her own narrative of her life emerge and it never did. Thompson stressed middle class background, respectability (which by contrast Boutell never had a chance to). Thompson even had children to show, but at the same time on stage she flaunted her sexual behavior. Those attacking made her subordinate to Henderson as if she had no agency. She tried and tried to get a discourse dominant which showed she was in charge; she never managed that. Thompson tried to construct a story that would appeal to the public and was really partly true, but she could not control what use was made of her words and photos.

Pullen ends her tale of Thompson on a odd climactic moment: it seems that Thompson literally assaulted her worse critic, Storey, in the face with a horse whip. Pullen says when this event was told in newspapers every attempt made to downplay Thompson’s violence. Since Pullen has had so little violence in her book, this sudden eruption is startling. This violence of Thompson comes from nowhere, like from a vaccuum, Pullen herself treats in almost a trivializing way, as half-joking justified retribution.

Charlotte Cushman was probably a lesbian and did make a successful career out of popular theater — vaudeville. She was more accepted by the critics for she was content to present herself as lower class. She said financial circumstances drove her to the stage. Like Margaret Woffington, Cushman played male roles as males. So in this woman’s life and public history, the element of class ironically emerges as what affected how she was allowed to succeed in life.s consciousness, what class the actress feels she belongs to. Here also the question of fashion comes in: it is not just self-expression, but (as in Francis Abingdon’s success) a visible marker of identity according to controlling conventional norms. Cushman got away with her act because she presented herself as not defying upper class femininity — thought the cross-dressing was still seen as transgressive, and treated as a joke, not discussed seriously, the way 18t century actresses delivering epilogues were treated.

At the same time in normal social life neither woman was ever acceptable, ever invited into respectable women’s homes or society. Pullen cites two treatises (Dr Sanger and Dr Action) who denied good or natural women sexual feeling. The horror felt by these Victorian men as well as what was said of Cushman, Thompson, and at the opening of the 19th century other actresses (say Dora Jordan) reminds me of Trollope’s attitude towards transgressive women. Trollope has them in the “virtuous” place in his plot-designs but treats them as inferior and polluted; Dickens leaves them outside as monsters. Thackeray has them inside but as very bad or as jokes.

So these two women were not socially successful but symbolically important. Pullen’s argument is that to understand what happened to them we need to recognize and to respect the whore component here. We can’t avoid it as they were called whores and worse, so if we marginalize them stigmatized women, we lose their story and its signficance. Pullen is making the point that from the marginalized position Thompson was forced to take, she spoke to her social order and thus it is important to recognize the validity of the job as prostitute.


Julia Roberts (note the long hair is still a characteristic of the whore-actress) and Richard Gere (Pretty Woman).

Pullen’s last chapter is about prostitution. At first she was so dead wrong, that I was tempted to put the book down at last. But then she produced an example of her stance that made me pause.

She begins with a movie, Pretty Woman and from that deduces “the performative nature of prostitution.” This is taking Judith Butler and Lacan very far; first her evidence is a movie, a sentimentalized fiction. More centrally, that the real self of someone is different from their self on the job or in different roles is one thing but to disassociate prostitution from the real body is to mistake it altogether. This is social constructionism misused. What Kirsten wants us to see is prostitution is a form of playacting. She did ethnic research among prostitutes &discovered that’s how they like to see themselves. I like to see blogs as important writing; does that mean they are?

What is the difference between an actress and prostitute then? that actresses are taken seriously and respected because of 150 years or realism on stage, discourses of admiration for their acting and they live so luxuriously and are accorded fame. First not all are, and then throughout the book and here too Pullen is forgetting the central reality of prostitutes lives: they are answerable directly with their bodies; she wants us to ignore the story of the “poor beaten victim” as a simply stereotype; it’s not. Has she not heard of trafficking women? Violence is wreaked on prostitutes; they are outside the loop of respectability and the police care not. Police use and beat them too. People are violent creatures. Whores (let us use the demeaning term) have no status. It’s a free-for-all (and homosexual people face the same terrors).

I was going to shut the book – not because I’m against someone being
sympathetic to prostitutes but then I noticed Pullen turned to “high
class” prostitutes” (those who are hired by agencies for big sums of
money) and she began to make her argument in ways that resemble Nussbaum’s — by looking at exceptions. She also began to make the argument that prostitute stories in movies and fiction are told to make political points about areas of life outside prostitution.

I read on.

Her argument is that the two stereotypes, beaten up street-walking victim, or high class call girl who “succeeds” leave out the myriad of realities and types and experiences that make up the reality and history of prostitutes lives over the century. One is it’s something many women have done for a little while or part time to make ends meet or achieve some goal for which they can make enough money only by selling their bodies. Selling your uterus for someone to impregnate artificially is analogous. Pullen manages to suggest the array of reasons women might go in for prostitution. You do learn of organizations prostitutes make up for themselves and individuals who went public (it’s very rare) like Linda Marchiano who played Linda Lovelace in the notorious Deep throat. And she admits it does seem most women who go public pay harshly for it, and most of the lives told end in misery and are harder to endure than lives lived where men treat women as chaste and thus not subject to physical moves without some previous by-your-leave.

Nevertheless, Pullen’s persistent notion that performance as what prostitution is “really,” that it corresponds to women on the stage does actresses as disservice, trivializes what actress do on stage (people are not actors on a stage, what we do counts in life, the play is over after 2 hours) and on the face of her own evidence does not correspond to the reality based experiences of actresses. She becomes sentimental telling the love experiences these prostitutes had with customers and bosses that they tell her. These tales correspond to the biographies of actresses that Nussbaum (and Laura Engel in her book Fashioning Celebrity) recount – in that they mirror today’s mores more than what happened.

So many of them are ashamed too. The use any word but prostitute for themselvese any word but “whore” — which has come back to mean promiscuous women once again in the 21st centruy. Feminism has not even been able to make the term narrowly precise; it’s slander.


Juliet Stevenson (in Rosalind, a breeches role in As You Like It) and Fiona Shaw (as Celia) in a 20th century production of Shakespeare’s play — two actresses who have escaped the stigmatizing

One thing comes clear: how tabooed this profession is, how stigmatized promiscuity among women. Pullen downplays the violence and her pooh-poohing (for that’s what this is) over the “victim stereotype” and arguing against attempts to stamp out prostitution by getting after the men who frequent them is (I think) allowing this to happen, supporting the establishment’s cruelties towards women. What would she say to traffickers in undeveloped countries who snatch women? of laws and customs which allow families to sell their daughters as submissive wives at ages 12-15. Shall we let them do what they want too?

It would be wonderful if the truth about women’s lives which leads to prostitution, the false tales told of women on the stage could change the way women in general and women who are driven to sell their bodies are seen and treated. Yes women have resorted to this out of desperation on and off during their lives sometimes; they have occasionally lucked in and found a good husband; gotten a job on an interview which included a demand for sex, a promotion. But they have also been raped and engulfed through debt and having no friends or relatives who will help them and died young and sick most of the time. Or gotten out in time and died old and quiet.

Pullen’s is finally a generous minded book which is wrong because she slides over harsh realities with her performative nonsense. It doesn’t work on its own terms.

Still on her behalf and behalf of reading this book and thinking about it, I’d like to confide a brief incident. I’d been reading Annibel Jenkins’s rich, informative, insightful biography of Elizabeth Inchbald, a later 18th century actress and playwright and writing about it on line and when I told of Jenkins’s demonstration that Inchbald has sexual desires and experience outside her husband at least once, I was confronted with a repeatedly urged denial and Inchbald’s behavior if it were so characterized in the derisory absurd term, “sleeping around” (why is a fuck called sleeping around; you need not sleep with anyone to fuck them or be fucked). Jenkins herself will wonder why another actress who did not maintain the chaste reputation Inchbald did, Mary Well, didn’t sleep with a given man. It did not occur to Jenkins in that moment maybe Wells didn’t like him. No she was an actress, ergo probably promiscuous, and ergo could have nothing against sex with anyone.

Pullen wants such seething underlying hatred of women’s sexuality which comes out today as slut-shaming to end and writes her book in this good cause.

Helen Mirren who uses as well as defies the sexual stereotyping (from “Scent of Darkness” in Prime Suspect: in the next instance she spits in this man’s face in retaliation for the way he has tried to destroy her career)


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