Heroines don't come easy. An excellent article by Jody Rosen in this weekend's New York Times advances vaudeville star Sophie Tucker -- whose early recordings have just been re-released -- as an early herald of pop modernity and an example of startlingly contemporary, sexually confident feminism. It also points out troubling facets of her history. Can a woman who began her career in blackface be reclaimed?
Tucker, who started performing in the 1900s and continued until her 1966 death, prefigured the shift in gender roles that marked the 20th century. Rosen locates her in a larger movement of performers who “flouted 19th-century ideals of demure femininity.” In Tucker's case, that included numbers like “I Ain't Taking Orders From No-One” about the joys of autonomy and casual sex and “That Lovin' Soul Kiss,” a double-edged number about receiving oral attentions -- “Sip the honey divine for a long time / one, two, and three / now, longer.” She was big, and proud of her weight; she aged, and flaunted her aging; she was unabashedly funny, carnal, and in control. In an age of pop starlets whose sexuality is Photoshopped and endlessly audience-tested, Tucker's brashness isn't just a history lesson, but a relief.
Yet there is the blackface. Rosen begins his piece with a list of Tucker's nicknames, but leaves one out: “Queen of Coon Shouters.” Her fame came through minstrelsy. One story is that Tucker was told to do this because she was “fat and ugly.” But biographer Armond Fields contends that she was told to put on blackface, not because she was fat, but because she was Jewish. The burnt cork did not hide pure privilege, but a different kind of marginalization, less acceptable because it was authentic.
Blackface is an ugly part of our entertainment history (and has not left us: Next to Rosen's piece, you'll find a profile of Mike Henry, the white voice actor who plays the black lead of Seth McFarlane's new, "post-PC" "The Cleveland Show" and just last night on "Mad Men," Roger performed an uncomfortable blackface routine for his new wife). Still, the move toward authenticity is what marks Tucker's career. She ditched blackface around 1909. She also reclaimed Jewishness, with her hit “My Yiddische Momma.” At first, her bossiness and appetite may have been acceptable because they promoted a stereotype: a big, sassy, sexual black woman was easy to laugh at. As Tucker became more powerful she began to present these qualities, not as attributes of a character, but as attributes of Sophie Tucker. And that, without letting Tucker off the hook, makes her worthy of lasting consideration.