Historical Social Research

Kasia Boddy: American Girl: The Iconographies of Helen Wills. [Abstract]

The ‘American Girl’ this paper considers is Helen Wills, the top-ranked women’s tennis player from 1927 to 1934. Wills was the subject of numerous narrative and visual representations as well as many self-representations in both words and images. Reading Wills in the context of Henry James's Daisy Miller and the popular magazine Gibson Girl, the paper considers the mechanisms by which national symbols are constructed.  In particular, it examines the ways in which Wills's style of playing, her clothes, and even her facial expression came to signify a particular version of modern, American femininity (in contrast to that of opponents such as Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Jacobs). It also explores her identity as a white Californian, a neo-classical girl next door, who appealed to Nativists like James Phelan and Gertrude Atherton and whom Diego Rivera placed at the centre of 1931 Allegory of California. In short, Helen Wills proved both a very flexible American symbol and a global celebrity.

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