Academic journal article Early American Studies

Fair Bosom/Black Beard: Facial Hair, Gender Determination, and the Strange Career of Madame Clofullia, "Bearded Lady"

Academic journal article Early American Studies

Fair Bosom/Black Beard: Facial Hair, Gender Determination, and the Strange Career of Madame Clofullia, "Bearded Lady"

Article excerpt

Twenty-first-century conventional wisdom holds that women should not have beards-a point made unmistakably clear by Mara Altman's 2012 memoir, Bearded Lady. In one memorable scene, Altman discovers a few dark mustache hairs, which prompt an episode of panic. "I'd noticed these little hairs on my upper lip before," she writes, "but I'd ignored them-they were little blonde wispy nothings. But now they were getting a little darker and a bit longer. If I caught myself in the right light... I could see a vague resemblance to Tom Selleck." The sight is apparently unsettling. "How in the fucking shit ball mother fucking hell did I get a mustache?" she screams. "Only males had mustaches. I was not a male. Or was If' Terrified by what she finds in the mirror, Altman goes on an obsessive, fifteen-year hair-removing tear. She lasers her face, tweezes her nipples, threads her legs, and waxes her "happy trail." In the process, she endures "so much pain . . . that if I experienced it all at once, it would likely be lethal."1

Though Altman's memoir concludes with the author's acceptance, if not embrace, of her insurgent hair, her creeping fears of boundary crossing reflect anxiety about the coherence of gender: a sense that her body was constantly transgressing the borders of convincing womanhood. Her compulsive dépilation thus becomes an imposition of order on chaos, a shoring up of boundaries between man and woman-the kind of coerced performance of gender described by the theorist Judith Buder. Fearful of becoming the gender-bending "bearded lady"-the ambiguous woman-as-manAltman shaves, singes, and rips until it hurts.2

But what of more famous bearded ladies: the women of sideshow and freakshow fame, well known to museumand circus-goers throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? How did their performances, appearances-indeed, very existence-reflect and inform norms of gender difference? Were they seen as men? As manly? As beautiful, monstrous, or unremarkable? Did they fundamentally challenge the distinction between woman and man?

The extant scholarship on these women-and on "freaks" and "freakery" more generally-suggests that, yes, bearded ladies did upset gender norms. The literary theorist Leslie Fiedler, for example, contends that the "true Freak challenges the conventional boundaries between male and female, sexed and sexless, animal and human, large and small, self and other." The disabilities scholar Rosemarie Garland Thomson writes that bearded ladies and other "freaks" violate "the categorical boundaries that seem to order civilization and inform individuality." And Erin Naomi Burrows, in her biography of the Bearded Lady Jane Barnell, claims that hirsute women posed an "innate challenge to gender norms."3

I make a different argument. Examining the career of Madame Clofullia, the United States' first famed bearded lady, I contend that many antebellum Americans found her appearance neither subversive nor transgressive. Save for members of the cultural and medical elite, those who saw her in the 1850s accepted her womanhood as a matter of fact-one that required no explication, examination, or defense.4

This is not to suggest that Clofullia, an educated, well-born, white woman of Swiss birth, was treated like an ordinary person of her class, gender, or race. She was looked at and occasionally touched with a freedom typically reserved for working-class women, prostitutes, and slaves. She was the butt of nasty humor. And English medical authorities wrote about her body with license. It's hard to imagine white American men standing for such transgressions of female honor had Clofullia not worn a beard. And yet only rarely did they call her gender into question or indicate that her appearance provoked transgressive anxieties. Clofullia's facial hair, then, may have compromised her ladyship but not her womanhood.s

What accounts for this response? Why, in sharp contrast to their latterday counterparts, did antebellum Americans fail to find Clofullia's facial hair subversive of gender categories? …

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