Betwixt and Between: How Male and Female Audiences Engaged with the "Magnetic Girl" to Complicate Fin-de-Siècle Gender Roles
Lulu Hurst was a young Gilded Age-era performer known for her demonstrations of uncanny physical strength. For the most part, Hurst’s performance involved challenging an audience member to wrest objects from her grasp. For a member of Hurst's predominantly male audience, matching her strength to his own was a means by which to prove his masculinity to his peers. The notion of masculinity being on trial was particularly significant in the late nineteenth century--a time when women were beginning to gain social power. Elaine Showalter famously describes this period as being characterized by a "battle within the sexes" as well as between them (9). As such, I argue that Hurst’s “demonstrations of strength” are best understood within the context of what Marvin Carlson terms "resistant performance"--that is, a performance that subverts the status quo by exposing its underlying assumptions. Drawing on Victor Turner’s work on ritual and liminality, I argue that when the individual male agent separates himself from his peers in order to challenge Hurst, his gender identity temporarily becomes destabilized. However, while Hurst may have disrupted the status quo by troubling gender binaries, her performance also served to reify existing social hierarchies. This paradox is both a marker of resistant performance and of social change. For the postmodern reader, Hurst's performance is significant in that her demonstrations reveal the implications of resistant performance during a unique period of cultural transition in which gender identity was called into question.
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