H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-PCAACA@h-net.msu.edu (May, 2000)
Lori Landay. Madcaps, Screwballs and Con Women: The Female Trickster in American Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.
272 pp. Bibliographical references, index, 76 b/w illustrations. $45.00
(cloth), ISBN 0-8122-3435-9; $22.50 (paper), ISBN 0-8122-1651-2.
Reviewed for H-PCAACA by ViBrina Coronado , The Union Institute Graduate School
Women are naturally deceptive, right? Landay exposes this fallacy in
Madcaps, Screwballs and Con Women, a look at nineteenth and
twentieth century tricky females in popular culture. She lays out
how women use trickery to negotiate the societal limits placed on
them, including advertising's influence. She spotlights white
heterosexual performers and characters, among them: Mae West,
Lorelei Lee of Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Lucy Ricardo of I Love
Lucy, and Catwoman in Batman Returns. A few performers and
characters outside this range, African American Whoopi Goldberg and
lesbian Ellen DeGeneres, get coverage. Film stills and frame
enlargements, and magazine advertisements illustrate Landay's
An amusing story about a pair of wily women opens the book. But
neither are performers or popular genre characters so why are they
included? Landay says one of the women probably, emphasis on
probably, modeled her tricky performance on a Mae West character.
This upstart beginning foreshadows the strength and weakness of the
rest of the book. Landay chooses interesting examples, explains
clearly why they are significant but fails to offer evidence for her
In searching for ways to codify female behavior that, in relation to
mainstream mores, is transgressive, Landay settled on "trickster."
Her use relies heavily on how the term is defined by Native American
and African American traditions. In this light, the concept is more
of an overlay than an idea fully integrated.
One reason Landay chose "trickster" is that trickster figures
illustrate duality -- life and death, good and bad. But when Landay
cites John Berger's idea of the "split of female consciousness"
women are saddled with by having to be both the viewer and the view,
she shows she has confused the term duality with dichotomy. Duality
is two complimentary parts while dichotomy is a split into two
opposing divisions. And many of the "trickster" characters that
Landay discusses are one-dimensional -- their selfish trickster
plots don't ever backfire -- as they do in Native stories. Nor does
she does mention the spiritual aspect of tricksters, which is
important for Native Americans.
Another of Landay reasons for choosing "trickster" is that the
trickster reminds us how constructed societal roles and institutions
are. Landay is more successful in integrating this aspect of the
Native American concept into her study. While not all, most of the
female figures covered in the book do hold a mirror to society.
Landay also probably chose "trickster" because it is not pejorative.
Still, I challenge Euro-American scholars such as Landay to look
into their own cultures, or that of their subject, to support their
arguments. Unfortunately Landay neglected Euro-American
"tricksters" like the Jack stories protagonist, or the country
man/farmer who gets the better of the city slicker. Using the
trickster concepts from Native America would work if Landay
understood the concept completely, acknowledged what she left out,
and included more people of color in her study. Also Landay does
not use her title categories: madcap, screwball or con woman,
throughout the book. These, as she defines and illustrates them
with popular culture characters in Chapter one, make more sense than
imposing a multi-cultural trickster concept, even if, as she states,
"the term trickster is a scholarly conceit."
The crafty women in Landay's study use various types of 'passing.'
These include passing as a member of a more privileged or valued
ethnic group, and acting as a more moneyed or privileged class
member. But the most common is gender role-playing, which Judith
Butler has explained so well. Here females act the role of socially
constructed femaleness. If a boyfriend desires a demure, sweet
voiced girlfriend, the woman, knowing she will gain material goods,
acts like a 'lady.' Landay sees passing as analogous to the shape
shifting of Native American and African American trickster figures,
but I find this a stretch.
Chapter One examines nineteenth century literature featuring female
characters acting outside socially sanctioned roles for women-the
madcap, the screwball and the con woman. Landay includes the novel
Passing, which recounts how a young mulatto woman passes as
In Chapter two Landay moves into the beginning of the century with a
study of the consummate con woman Lorelei Lee of Anita Loos' novel,
Gentleman Prefer Blondes, and of actress Clara Bow as the girl
with 'It:' sex appeal.
Mae West and screwball comedy films make up Chapter Three. Landay
notes in the early 1930s the trickery in films is loosey-goosey,
trickery is done as much for and with men as to them. By the late
thirties, the woman uses covert trickery to dupe the man into
Chapter four looks at the film version of Gentlemen Prefer
Blondes, as well as the television series "I Love Lucy." Marilyn
Monroe's innocent portrayal of Lorelei is contrasted with Loos'
original character. Landay shows how Lorelei's sidekick Dorothy, as
played by Jane Russell, is the real trickster onscreen. Up to the
mid-1950s, in Landay's examples, the female 'trickster' is a single
woman whose trickery is used to capture a husband. Lucy Ricardo
illustrates what happens to the crafty woman once she marries.
Chapter five moves us into the last thirty years. Landay looks at
characters from television sit-coms "Bewitched," "The Mary Tyler
Moore Show," "Roseanne," "Ellen" and "Cybill." The movie
"tricksters" include characters from "Desperately Seeking Susan,"
"The Last Seduction," "Thelma and Louise," "Sister Act" and "Batman
Returns." Landay sees Catwoman/Selina as the quintessential female
trickster at the millenium. She has not used her trickery to carve
out a place within mainstream society, as characters such as Lorelei
Lee and Lucy Ricardo have done, but remains a threatening outsider.
If Landay had created a neutral term for women who use trickery to
negotiate societal roles and/or had drawn on Euro-American
"trickster" figures and relied less on her wit to carry theory her
book would be stronger. So it's best to ignore any overt Native
American aspect to the trickster title and concentrate on the almost
thoroughly Euro-American madcaps, screwballs and con women in
Landay's engaging book.
Copyright (c) 2000 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work
may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit
is given to the author and the list. For other permission,
please contact H-Net@H-Net.MSU.EDU.