In her monograph, Kirsten Pullen examines the perennial association between the actress and the prostitute, that slippery elision that across the centuries has attempted to curtail the impact of the performing woman, but that has, in effect, simply made her allure more enticingly illicit and potentially unsettling. In chapters that move from the seventeenth-century actress Betty Boutell to contemporary sex workers in the author’s home city of Madison, Wisconsin, including breeches, burlesque performers and Mae West, Pullen analyses the configurations that the actress-whore dyad is made to enact. The histories and case studies she investigates are viewed through the prism of contemporary feminist theory, and particularly through the intersections of gender and performativity developed by Judith Butler. Of professional actresses, Pullen writes that they “used their performances to engage questions of gender identity and appropriate female sexuality,” and that “acting out a version of femininity...simultaneously masks and projects subjectivity.” Underlying this theoretical position is the more polemical belief that women’s own acceptance of the “whore stigma,” may enable them to construct their own narratives, and, specifically, more readily explore their own sexuality, and hence exert more control over their “appearances.”
Pullen’s book moves through a series of chronologically arranged “case studies” that examine the historically-specific resonances of the whore image, and make clear the gradations of that term, which range from promiscuity in the earlier periods to what we would more readily recognize now as the commercialized exchange of sex with which the book’s final chapters are concerned. The slipperiness of the term is part of what Pullen argues is its usefulness for the actress or sexually performing woman, but it also configures a net sufficiently flexible to capture any woman straying into the arena of performance. Meticulously researched, the earlier chapters of the book present a persuasive case for the necessity of viewing the actress in the light of prevailing discourses about women’s promiscuity, so readily do previous generations of critics and reviewers adopt that discourse in responses to the actress. As the case of the Restoration actress Betty Boutell makes clear, however, the whore label might be concerned with broader effects than the stifling of the actress: indeed, in Boutell’s case, “accusations of whorishness might better be viewed as an attempt to contain the threats embodied in the consanguinity between the first generation of English actresses and the aristocracy, rather than an indication of actresses’ sexual passivity and victimization” (54).
More interesting still are Pullen’s suggestions as to how actresses themselves manipulate the whore label to effect a position of strength and agency, an act she sees as less historically specific, and more of a universal response to the position of being viewed. In her chapter “British Blondes,” devoted to a troupe of burlesque performers who appeared in the US in the 1860s, Pullen describes how their leader, Lydia Thompson, managed both her on and off-stage appearances in order to effect the greatest power and publicity for her troupe. As this chapter makes clear, however, the whorish actress’s greatest threat might actually have been the way in which she exposed the commercial and sexual basis lying behind the act of viewing all actresses, including those operating within the legitimate theatre. The whore label might in some respects be a final attempt on audiences’ part to retain a distinction that performing women themselves found hard to recognize. It is interesting too that, in a book about the actress, little attention is paid to creativity, which, for the actress, might be a further potential protective screen against the too rapacious audience.
The book’s final chapter is a brave attempt to bring the story up to date, and to examine the contemporary representations and experiences of sex-workers in order to analyze the extent to which the actress-whore dyad works from their perspective too. Pullen argues compellingly for the importance of the performative within the work of a group of part-time prostitutes who are largely working to help them to manage their university fees and living expenses whilst studying. These women are not full-time sex workers, and it is difficult entirely to shake off the suspicion that their willingness to name their acts as performative is part of a system of denying their status as sex-workers. In these stories, the academic and theoretical treatment of the whore threatens to misconstrue a narrative of sheer economic need. Pullen’s insistence on the performative as an act of self-aggrandizement, of sex work as potentially sexually fulfilling. sits awkwardly with the narrative unease manifested in the sex workers’ stories, where the performative often seems to offer a final comforting bulwark against the reality of their activities. This chapter too, also presents the reader with a dilemma that has lurked a little uneasily throughout—the figure of the audience. Confident though this text is in its assertion of the power of the performative, in a very visceral sense the reality of a paying audience unmistakably threatens the position of agency claimed by and for the performative nature of the prostitute’s work. Sitting writing this review in Britain, where the details of a series of hideous murders of prostitutes are gradually coming to light during the murder suspect’s trial, the sheer vulnerability of the prostitute, and the illegibility of the contemporary relationship between client and worker—the misreadings that men and women might perpetuate and suffer by—loom larger than the compensatory possibilities of the performative.
Gail Marshall is Reader in 19th-Century Literature at Oxford Brookes University, UK. She has published on Victorian theatre and fiction, and recently completed a monograph for Cambridge University Press on “Shakespeare and Victorian Women.” She is currently writing a study of the literature and culture of 1859.