It’s not often we hear about women disguising themselves as men to get ahead. Joan of Ark pulled one over on the gender police, but that was in the 1400s. Writers used to do it all the time: George Elliot (Mary Ann Evans), A.M Barnard (Louisa May Alcott), and Ellis, Acton, and Currer Bell (the Brontë Sisters) are just a few, but those ladies are all six-feet-under.
For the most part we tend to believe that we’ve moved beyond this drag, despite prevailing gender inequalities (shout out to the wage gap and the states that never ratified the Equal Rights Amendment!). We call that a holler back-wards. Truth is this cross-dressing is still happening, but it’s a bit more of a headline grabber when those in highly visual public careers–like modeling–decide to pull a gender bait and switch to further their career.
When now 31-year-old Ford model Elliot Sailors started losing work to younger ladies in the industry, she decided to switch things up and try her luck booking jobs as a man. Sailors strapped down the girls, buzzed her hair, and took on a male persona. Her reasoning being that society’s perception of aging men is fine and dandy (think of the ongoing oogling of George Clooney, who, at 45, was named People’s “Sexiest Man Alive”), but that the same doesn’t hold true for aging women.
The change is working for Sailors’ career, who tends to dress like a guy on her off time too because it’s easier than switching back and forth, but she is not the first model to take this bold step. Casey Legler, 35, was the first woman to be signed on a modeling contract for only male gigs. Legler joined Ford Models’ male division, and was featured in the May 2013 issue of Vogue under the headline “Gender Agenda.”
Legler told Vogue, “I happen to be a woman — sheer luck of the biological roulette — who has the great privilege to engage the ways in which gender signifiers can be liberated.” Sailors is the latest example of models who gender-flip, following the footsteps of Legler, Andrej Pejic, Lea T and Saskia de Brauw, but her decision to shift her sex as a response to ageism, looks and feels a whole lot different than fashion’s propensity for androgynous or cross-dressing lookers.
There are numerous issues at play here beyond the ability to monetize a career. On the one hand, this kind of social experiment proves gender bias, bringing more attention to an already publicized subject. On the other, it feels like a distinctive step in the wrong direction. Is the only way to destabilize the patriarch to become one of them? Get them at their own game?
We don’t believe women should need to pose as men to get succeed, or get a foot in the door, and yet Sailors’ decision highlights the issue that many still do.
Mary Ann Evans died in 1880, but in 1997 it wasn’t artistic choice that led Joanne Rowling to publish Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone under the pen name J.K. “It sometimes makes sense for a female author to use a pseudonym, particularly when the main characters are male, or when it’s a genre with a strong appeal to men, like military science fiction, certain types of fantasy or gritty thrillers,” Peguin editor Anne Sowards told the Wall Street Journal in 2012. Interesting.
In 2013, Rowling did it again, albeit claiming she released her 2013 adult crime novel, The Cuckoo’s’ Calling under pseudonym as Robert Galbraith because she wanted to publish “without hype and expectation and pure pleasure.” The decision however, looks different under magnification of Sowards’ subsequent statement: “When we think a book will appeal to male readers, we want everything about the book to say that-the cover, the copy and, yes, the author’s name.”
Is the lesson these women are teaching, if you want to be successful, be a man?
What a drag indeed.