In her book “A Queer Way of Feeling: Girl Fans and Personal Archives of Early Hollywood,” the feminist film historian Diana Anselmo approaches queerness during the early days of Hollywood (circa WWI) in an unusual fashion. Rather than interrogating the sexual orientation of the film stars themselves, she places young “movie-mad” fans under the spotlight. Anselmo examines artifacts such as scrapbooks, diaries, letters, drawings and poems constructed by young female film enthusiasts seeking connection with their Hollywood crushes. The author also details the fans’ circumstances and life arcs.
“A Queer Way of Feeling” is easy to engage with because it has numerous photographs and uses many of the fans’ own words. However, it’s not a light-history beach read; it is more like wending your way through a dense forest, patiently moving aside the overgrowth of scholarly words and ideas. Having a dictionary handy is helpful in understanding words and phrases such as limerence, sacralization, alterity, atavistically, identarian, affective expenditures, haptic physicality and synaptic otherness.
Yet the book rewards the persistent reader with hidden knowledge about early queer culture. We learn that, despite being given no positive alternatives to heteronormativity, many girls still chafed against their restrictions and broke free. Movie fandom set the groundwork for rebellion, giving them a venue where their usually unwelcome feelings were validated.
One method of queer expression was letter writing, a format that was detached enough to tolerate girlish rhapsodies about the beauty of an actress or dreams of same-sex romantic attachment. These types of letters were even published in movie magazines. Anselmo quotes a columnist, Motion Picture Magazine’s Answer Man, who informs a fan that it is perfectly “proper” for her, a young female, to tell actress Norma Talmadge of her love.
The stars themselves appeared to condone the behavior. Mary Pickford, a very popular performer, had a column in which she corresponded directly with her (mainly) young girl fans as an intimate friend. Florence Lawrence, an actress much beloved by many girl fans for portraying strong women in movie roles, went even further. Over two dozen of the letters she saved for her entire life were from young girls, and she seems to have personally visited at least two of her teenage super-fans. Anselmo presented Lawrence as someone who most identified with her young fans who appreciated her as she was. The rest of her life was rather unhappy. I wonder if nowadays she’d be like Taylor Swift, engaging with fans on social media regularly.
These early Hollywood fans also expressed themselves through gender fluidity. One method was by penning poems from a male point of view to female stars. For example, in Motion Picture Magazine, one fan portrays herself as a knight, kissing the “delish” lips of actress Lillian Gish. Fans dug through hundreds of standard images of starlets in demure curls and frills to unearth much rarer images of cross-dressed actresses and paste them in scrapbooks. Mary Pickford, costumed as a messenger boy, and Marguerite Clark, as Lord Tommy, a noble-born girl raised as a boy, spent much of their respective movies cross-dressed. But Pearl White, in the clothes of a jockey, was only in a brief scene, showing that its inclusion in a scrapbook was a deliberate act, costing much effort to obtain.
Photographs show evidence that some of the female fans also wore male clothing themselves, and it was accepted. In a scrapbook from the women’s college Smith College, young pupils dressed in slacks and ties appear to mingle comfortably with others wearing long skirts and hair bows. Another fan poses for a picture as one of Charlie Chaplin’s personas, complete with a small mustache.
There was indeed a man who appeared in many scrapbooks. Wavy-haired movie star Jack W. Kerrigan attracted an army of girl fans (“Kerriganites”). Yet in a scrapbook Anselmo examined, Kerrigan seems to be admired for his lack of stereotypically manly qualities. The fan underlined passages where he proclaimed love for his mother and disinterest in girls. He enjoyed nice clothing, art and flowers. The scrapbooking fan even included love poems from men to Jack Kerrigan in her pages.
Anselmo details the fans’ lives over time, showing that their nonconforming behavior was usually not just a brief adolescent phase. Kitty Baker, whose Kodak photo of herself kissing another girl adorns the cover, was already a committed suffragette at the age of 12. Another fan, who kept an extensive scrapbook, stayed unmarried, living with her sisters throughout her life.
One common denominator of the enthusiasts is that they were white and educated. The author, who is an immigrant herself, addresses this lack of diversity. In the vast majority of the collections Anselmo was able to access, the owners self-described as being white, of European descent or U.S. born. Furthermore, magazines and movie stars did not encourage letters from minority readers, and if received, they were less often given a response. Attending movies and buying magazines took money, as did stamps and stationery. Ample leisure time was required, and this was more common in wealthier, whiter segments of the population.
This book shows that while queer culture has always been an integral part of Hollywood, the role of fans, especially queer ones, was largely overlooked. Yet what influence would movies have had without viewers? The fans, in a way, controlled the fates of actors and movies by conferring popularity on them, and generally it was the young girl fans who were the most obsessive consumers of films and tie-ins to films, such as magazines and photos. Anselmo shows a through line from the WWI-era fans to social media platforms such as Tumblr and Instagram, where communities devoted to certain celebrities flourish.
Queer fans can now openly admire same-sex performers in print or online, and some movies are made depicting same-sex romance, but it has taken a long time to reach this point. “A Queer Way of Feeling” is worth the time and effort it takes to read, showing the coded and veiled steps indomitable girl fans employed on the bumpy path to a vibrant LGBTQ+ community.
Andrea Kreidler is a writer based in Edmonds, who can be reached at <[email protected]>.
Read more of the Aug. 30-Sept. 5, 2023 issue.