Photo: Courtesy of Tracy Dawson
Let Me Be Frank
In her first book, comedian Tracy Dawson delights in historical stories about women “who dressed like men to do s--t they weren’t supposed to do.” / BY Jim Slotek / May 13th, 2022
In comedian Tracy Dawson’s new book, she outlines how, in 1473 B.C., the fifth pharaoh of the 18th Egyptian dynasty, Hatshepsut, ordered royal artists to include male features on her iconography to add to her gravitas. In the 1660s, a Scottish woman posed as a male witch-hunter to avoid accusations of witchcraft. And in the 19th century, all three Brontë sisters wrote under men’s names at a time best summarized by the English poet Robert Southey: “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life and ought not to be,” he wrote in a 1847 letter to Charlotte Brontë.
Women disguised themselves as men to become pirates (18th century maritime brigands Anne Bonny and Mary Read), soldiers and even a judo champ. (In 1959, Rena “Rusty” Kanokogi taped down her breasts to compete and win the New York State YMCA judo title. She was subsequently stripped of her medal after her sex was revealed).
This is a sampling of women profiled in Let Me Be Frank: A Book About Women Who Dressed Like Men To Do Shit They Weren’t Supposed To.
It is an impressive first effort by Dawson, a Gen-Xer whose career in comedy includes a stint at Second City, a Best Actress Canadian Screen Award for her role as the brash sister in Jason Priestley’s HBO series Call Me Fitz and sitcom writing.
Diminutive, mouthy, profane, hilarious and with a voice twice her size, Dawson was the wrong person to mess with when a female network executive sized her up for a TV writing gig in 2013.
“She asked which of the pilots of their new slate I could see myself working on. And I said ‘This, this, and this,’” Dawson recalls in a Zoom chat from her Los Angeles home. “And she said, ‘Oh, well none of those have any female needs.’ It wasn’t like there weren’t jobs open in the writer’s room. I go, ‘so what if I wasn’t a female writer? I’m a good joke writer. What the hell?’”
The exec didn’t know it, but that exchange inspired Let Me Be Frank, as well as an idea for a historical drama anthology about women disguised as men and a sitcom pitch about a female comedian who poses as a male to get better gigs. “Everybody called it a ‘Reverse Tootsie,’” Dawson says.
But times had changed. “All of a sudden, it was, ‘Why are you writing a show where a woman is disguising herself as a man? It would be insulting and an erasure to non-gender conforming people.’”
For that reason, Dawson excludes trans and non-binary people from Let Me Be Frank. “I’m talking about people who did this to cross the rules and play sports and do other things when they weren’t supposed to. I love that s–t. I love people being told they can’t do something and them going, ‘F— you!’ That’s my jam.”
The anthology series was received positively, “but ultimately, we didn’t sell the show,” and the sitcom pilot didn’t get picked up either.
“I felt sad for all these women through history. I wanted everyone to know about them. I was their modern-day sister who was supposed to shout about them from the rooftops. And I said to myself, ‘I wonder if this is a book?’”
It turned out it was. “I wrote a few chapters, sent them out to some book agents. And they came back and said, ‘Yes, this is a book. You’ve got a great title!’” she says with a laugh. “It was the best title I’ve ever come up with. It sells itself, and spurred me on.”
Ironically, Dawson says the success of the book – and endorsements from celebrities like Samantha Bee, Patton Oswalt and Ed Begley Jr. – has ignited the interest of book-to-film agents.
“I did a lot of reading. I’m the proof that someone could be a dropout and you could still educate yourself. The bibliography makes me look like, ‘Wow! That’s a lot of books!’ But of course, you don’t read every page of every book. You reference the section that you need in all those books. But it was still a lot of reading, Holey Moley!”
Dawson says she has a very conversational style of writing, and that was intentional. “What I said to my agent was that I wanted to sound like I was sitting across the table at a coffee shop from the reader, and I was holding their hands, and I was like, ‘Can you believe this?”
See Dawson’s description of Christian Caddell, the aforementioned Scottish “Witch Pricker” (so named because she would poke women with needles, and if they didn’t flinch, they were deemed witches). “When you start getting depressed about still having to fight for our rights and freedoms,” Dawson writes, “one thing you could do is remember how much worse it used to be.”
“Remind yourself that olden times were innnnnnnnnsane, especially for women. Witch-prickers are the stuff of horror films; a man – yes, always a man – in the tall hat and dark cloak of a Puritan who rolls into town to terrorize its citizens. Witch pricking: Nice work, if you can get it, but ya gotta be a dude!”
Just the military masquerades alone could fill a book. Dawson discovered an estimated 400 women disguised themselves as men to fight in the American Civil War. Cathay Williams, who enlisted in the U.S. Army as William Cathay in 1866, was the only known female member of the African American regiments known as the Buffalo Soldiers. “And Dorothy Lawrence, who dressed as a soldier in the First World War, didn’t set out to be a soldier,” says Dawson. “She wanted to be a journalist and report on the war. But after 10 days, she found herself in the trenches, and it was like, ‘Oh f—!’”
For all that, some women didn’t make the cut. “There was a story of two women who were on whaling ships, and I thought, ‘That’s a little too similar to the pirates [Bonny and Read],’ even though their stories were different.”
I suggest to Dawson that, in many ways, writing a book – especially one as full of research as this one – is something to be prouder of than writing a sitcom or a movie. It may sound old-fashioned, but books have heft.
“They literally have heft,” she replies. “I opened up the box and said, ‘Holy s–t! You could fend off a sexual assault with this thing!’ I was very impressed.”