Monday, April 18, 2011

Matinee Girl

A recent article by Stefany Anne Golberg in The Smart Set, contemplating the waning interest in live performance, reminded me of the matinee girl, a type of audience member who was intensely interested in the stage. A fixture of urban theater culture in the late 19th century, matinee girls were young women who attended the cheaper afternoon performances of plays and, unlike "ordinary" audience members, found pleasure and meaning by engaging with the offstage personas of actors rather than the aesthetic content of the dramatic works. She was among the first widely-identified consumer types in American history, and, until the arrival of the flapper and then the bobbysoxer later in the 20th century, the most visible of America's female fans.

Charles Reade Bacon in "The Reporter's Nosegay" of 1896 said of matinee girls:
The eccentricities of the callow youths who haunt the stage doors of the theatres are well known. Most of them are regarded as harmless, and if they get any enjoyment out of ogling chorus girls as they leave the theatres it is nobody's business. There is another species of stage-door habitues, however, possessing far more interest, in the persons of matinee girls. The stage entrances to most of the Philadelphia theatres are located in dark, dirty and altogether uninviting alleys, but the environments do not deter hosts of nicely-dressed young women from repairing thither immediately after a Wednesday or Saturday matinee. Some of them are regulars, and they are slightly blase, unless some particularly strong matinee hero is the attraction. But it is amusing to watch the actions of those to whom the experience is novel. Their excitement is intense, and occasionally almost hysterical. The matinee stage door girl never speaks to the object of her adoration. She dreams of doing so someday, and in the meantime contents herself with writing him perfumed notes, which come in handy for shaving paper.
Bacon's description of backstage door culture raises issues that are still at work in contemporary fan culture--the hierarchy of more experienced fans and overly-excited neophytes, the reluctance to actually engage with stars, etc. Interestingly, it also pathologizes this kind of audience behavior in ways that are still current. While boys are just being boys while ogling chorus girls, women audience members who long for matinee heroes are portrayed as dreamy and deluded.

The matinee girl was a regular subject for derision in the press. Matinees were created by entrepreneurs in 1870s to move theater away from its reputation as an uncontrolled and dangerous environment and create new, safe entertainment. In fact, matinee performances were meant to help women fulfill the feminine ideal of Victorian culture and to develop their emotional sensibility through participation in the arts. Of course, this was a kind of trap; while it cultivated the feminine ideal, it also enforced that ideal. Genteel women easily slipped into the caricature of the overly-excitable, overly-emotional, easily-manipulated girl, given to romantic fantasy. And for male critics worried about the increasing emasculation wrought by industrialization and urban life in the late 19th century, female consumers were a symbol of everything that was wrong with America's commercialized society. Matinee girls made clear suspected associations between femininity, passivity, and lifeless bourgeois “Culture.”

However, there was also something else going on, here. For many women participating in theater at the turn-of-the-century, the matinee became a source of new power. It provided a rare shared space in which they could gather and express themselves freely in ways forbidden in everyday life—in Peter Rabinowitz’s phrase, with their “own dominant passions.” The matinee girl was commonly portrayed in the press as prone to fantasy and hysteria, but in reality she was also independent, single, unaccompanied by a male escort, and openly displaying desire outside of the usual prescriptions of middle-class courtship. Another thing I didn't know until recently was that apparently matinee girls were as equally fascinated by women actors as men. Thus a 1900 article in Metropolitan Magazine (Vol. XI, No. 6, 611) could state, "Margaret Anglin, the leading lady at the Empire, maintains that she is always at her best at a Saturday matinee. She declares that the sea of uplifted faces, eager, mobile, and attentive, is a source of inspiration...the real matinee girl is more deeply fascinated by young women who depict the lighter emotions of every-day life."

The rise and fall of "matinee girl" as a term between 1890 to 1940.

The height of matinee girl culture in the United States was around 1910. Of course, one can follow the matinee girl into cultural forms beyond theater, including film, popular music, and television. Fred and Judy Vermorel, writing in Fandemonium (1989), argued that the marked cultural position of “the girl” broadly serves as “the key sign for desire itself. The GIRL acts out for all of us our consumerist deliriums of possession and ecstasy.” Perhaps the recent blow-up about the problem of the tween girl audience for American Idol is a good example of that. “Matinee girls” will remain with us as long as public discourse links popular culture consumption and irrationality and then, in turn, portrays irrationality as a marker of nascent femininity.

Of course, girls themselves may have something else to say about it all, which remains an important area of fan research.


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