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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Women who fly : aerialists in modernity (1880-1930) Gils, Bieke


Around 1900, Charmion (alias Laverie Vallée) introduced a provocative ‘trapeze disrobing act,’ combined with feats of strength to her audiences in vaudeville theaters in New York. She was one of a wave of female aerialists whose performances quite literally ‘flew’ in the face of Victorian values. Trapeze artists in circuses and in vaudeville theaters, as well as stunt flying aviators showcasing their courage and abilities during local fairs or aerial exhibitions from the 1910s on, indeed pushed the boundaries of what was deemed possible in terms of the human body’s physical capacities while challenging traditional notions of gender, race, class, and sexuality through their unconventional performances. In this study I explore three cases of aerialists who navigated both the demands of managers/spectators for spectacular and titillating acts and their personal aspirations within the confines of the increasingly capitalist entertainment industries in the West between 1880 and 1930. Besides Charmion, my study takes shape around the performances of “Barbette” or Vander Clyde who took Parisian theaters by storm with an amalgamation of trapeze artistry and female impersonation in interwar France; and Bessie Coleman, the first African American woman to gain a pilot license and to set up her own flying shows throughout the United States in the 1920s. For each case study I conducted exhaustive archival searches and analysed relevant newspaper articles, magazines, show reviews, photographs and silent film. I draw on Mikhail Bakhtin’s concepts of the carnivalesque and the grotesque, and on Victor Turner’s concept of liminality to illustrate how aerial performances between 1880 and 1930 functioned as sites of creative resistance, opening up possibilities for a rethinking and redefinition of social categories of gender, race, class, and sexuality. I show how the performances of Charmion, Coleman and Barbette simultaneously reflected and challenged the anxieties and optimism of a society forced to revisit traditional beliefs regarding the gendered/racialized/classed/sexualized body. In demonstrating how these performers helped question modernizing beliefs regarding the human body’s capacities, and the female body’s physical abilities and appearance in particular, I argue they suggested new types of embodied agency for both women and men at the time.

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