Davis, Tracy C. “The Actress in Victorian Pornography” in Garrigan, Kristine Ottesen. Victorian Scandals: Representations of Gender and Class Ohio University Press, 1992
It was a widespread assumption in the 19th century that actresses were whores. The actress was the most common female occupational type in pornography of the period, and some pornographic works explicitly referred to actual actresses. Actresses in turn danced on the edge of decency in see-through white dresses, body stockings and “breeches roles,” i.e. cross-dressing as men.
In the weekly serial magazines, available for as little as one penny and with circulations of hundreds of thousands, actresses were depicted in knee-length skirts, exotic Oriental harem trousers, men’s fencing costumes or breeches, intermixed with nude or semi-nude pictorials included spanking and lesbianism. The sexualization or fetishization of the costume itself is what’s at work here.
Because the sexualized contest relies on references to more overtly pornographic literature (particularly fetishistic literature) and a long pictorial tradition of inferred sexuality in the subject, the knowing reader of these illustrated weeklies sees more than appears to be represented. Thus a photograph that gives an excuse for a lifted skirt or a posterior view alludes to rape or invites sodomy; …. “sisters” acts and catty hair-pulling episodes stand in for lesbian sex scenes; the innocent or debutante is a virgin ripe for defilement; allusions to an actress’s or dancer’s tights refer more to the contents of the tights than to the tights themselves (which, unlike stockings, encase the pelvis).
While I agree that fetishistic images can be produced and consumed in a way that alludes to other activities that cannot be represented directly, I disagree that a fetish is only an excuse for what the fetishist really wants. A catfight may be an allusion to lesbianism, but the catfight fan wants the two women to fight more than to have sex. Somewhere along the line, the fetish becomes a thing in itself rather than a reference to another thing. (I think this is called the telos of desire.)
In printed books, restricted by price to a different rank of customer than the serials, prominently featured actresses, often viewed as synonymous with dancers, too. “The sadomasochistic themes so prevalent in English erotica of the period appear with special force in connection with female dancers (possibly through an erotic association between balletic training and other forms of postural “correction”) and are drawn out in this format to their fullest extent.” (Pg.112) Obviously, hierarchical, disciplinary institutions like ballet school are well suited to sadomasochistic scenarios.
The pseudo-autobiographical Memoirs of a Russian Ballet Girl (1901) uses the life of a Russian servant girl as a framework for various BDSM and fetishistic scenarios. (Russia was, to the Western European mind, partially Oriental, and therefore a suitable backdrop for erotic fantasies of dominance and submission.) Once sold into a Grand Duke’s dancing academy, the fitting of her revealing costume takes an entire chapter. “Corporal punishment is meted out by the ballet master during private lessons, while public whippings always follow rehearsals and performances; the whipped girls then disappear for a few hours or overnight in the company of the courtiers.” (Pg. 116)
Both fictional and actual dancers were eroticized in this way. One book, Maudie. Revelations of Life in London and an unforeseen denouement, says that “Miss______”, “a very well-known player”, performed a sexually explicit play to a private, select audience. “Yes, that’s how she spent her time when the papers said she was touring in Italy.” (Pg.119)
In the late Victorian period, explicit photography became more available, and theater had a hard time keeping up.
The theater’s unconsummated dramatic narratives of Oriental exoticism, classical mythology, fairyland; melodramatic threats of defloration; callypiges (a pornographic invention denoting women who were remarkable for their fleshy buttocks), shepherdesses, painters’ models, and cocottes could not vie with consummated versions of the same fictions attainable at a bookseller’s or stationer’s for roughly the price of admission to a West End playhouse.
Davis’ essay delineates an entire sexual system and dreamworld that has largely gone by the wayside. In the late Victorian period, increasing numbers of women working outside the home and more relaxed attitudes to sex made Victorian actresses lose their mystique and fetishistic value.
Today, we still have a somewhat fetishized view of the sexuality of male and female celebrities. Google “real person slash” and you’ll see erotic stories of male actors and musicians, as well as female-female scenarios in prose and illustration. There are still people who fetishize ballerinas, but it is not one of the mainstream fetishes.