The Modern Girl and Racial Masquerade

Alys Eve Weinbaum (University of Washington)

    In the 1910s and 1920s images, ideas, and themes of masking and masquerade became pervasive in the United States in a number of domains including film, advertising, novels, social scientific literature, and psychoanalytic theory. This paper explores this explosion of representations and deployments of masquerade and connects it to the emergence of new forms of modern femininity and racial identity. Through analysis of advertising images, writings by the preeminent Chicago School sociologist of race relations, Robert Ezra Park, and work by the feminist psychoanalyst, Joan Riviere, this paper demonstrates how the idea of masquerade emerged as a racialized trope. To masquerade was not only to put on and perform gender identity, but also to racialize the gendered self.

    IIn her work, the Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen explored the power and problems associated with using racial masquerade as a mechanism to secure “modernity” for African American women in a context in which they were frequently cast as “out of time,” “primitive,” or pre-modern. Through a close reading of her novel Quicksand I consider the power of masquerade to construct and deconstruct hegemonic racial formation. Overall this paper argues that in the United States modern femininity was figured as a form of masquerade in which both gender and racial identity were negotiated. In so doing it demonstrates that concepts of masking, masquerade, and sartorial performance were central to the construction of the modern girl’s modernity. For it was the ability to control the masquerade and perform the self as racially “other” that ultimately indexed modernity for the American modern girl.