Performing a Persona

4 minute read

In 1974, Roberta Breitmore moved from Cleveland to San Francisco, desperate for a fresh start. Besides leaving behind an unsuccessful marriage, Roberta was also hoping to escape her recurring weight problems, as well as mental health issues that persisted from years of sexual abuse. But despite her complicated past, Breitmore only existed for four years. 

Roberta Breitmore was a fictional alter ego conceived by artist Lynn Hershman Leeson. Using performance art, Leeson wanted to construct an “everywoman,” through whom she’d document the state of 1970s American womanhood. 

The Roberta Breitmore Series (1974-1978) was born. 

A photo of Roberta Breitmore with various elements of her face labeled. Image credit:  YBCA .

A photo of Roberta Breitmore with various elements of her face labeled. Image credit: YBCA.

For four years, Hershman Leeson physically transformed into Breitmore, with the help of make-up, clothing, and wigs. But it wasn’t just a costume—Breitmore had her own handwriting, posture, mannerisms, and interests. The artist also secured a driver’s license, credit cards, and even a Social Security number for her fictitious persona. 

Why go to such extreme lengths?

Because characters can document the world in a dynamic way that archives can't. And in the case of many female alter egos, they make room for stories that have too often been excluded from history books written (and mostly populated) by men. In a 2016 survey of popular history books, Slate found that 75.8 percent of the titles surveyed had male authors. Of the biographies examined, 71.7 percent of the subjects were men. 

With even the most famous women in history blatantly taking a backseat, it’s safe to say that the historical record has all but ignored the everywoman. Artists such as Lynn Hershman Leeson have sought to challenge this exclusion, inventing fictional personas as a way to claim spaces for the ordinary woman in our cultural narrative.

Through simply being, Roberta Breitmore mirrored the lives of women in 1970s America—she struggled to keep a job, and, like many other women, could only access low-paying gigs with poor career prospects. When Breitmore did manage to find work, she still barely made rent, which eventually forced her to seek a roommate. But when she placed an ad in the local paper, most of the responses weren’t from legitimately interested parties. Instead she received  various replies from lonely men—the worst coming from a man who tried to persuade her to join a prostitution ring.

For better and worse, Breitmore  truly was a woman of her time, living during the second wave of feminism but still trapped in a male-dominated world. And, for Lynn Hershman Leeson, this “archetype of stereotypes” was the perfect way to document the complex state of womanhood in the 1970s, with all its triumphs and challenges.

Roberta Breitmore's driver's license. Image credit:  Lynn Hershman Leeson .

Roberta Breitmore's driver's license. Image credit: Lynn Hershman Leeson.

At the time of The Roberta Breitmore Series, most records were static, unchanging things—and largely the preserve of male-dominated, mainstream history. Lynn Hershman Leeson’s alter ego represented a living, responsive document. Over four years, the persona was molded by the world she lived in, and the resulting thumbprints revealed quite a bit about society’s treatment of women—from widely-accepted sexual abuse to workplace discrimination. Breitmore’s personal records reflect some harsh truths about being a woman in the 20th century, which aren’t likely to be found in mainstream historical documentation.

“I think women were and are still trying to insert themselves into an existing history,” Hershman Leeson told Art Practical in 2011

And she was right—women artists continue to create alter egos to protect themselves from historical erasure today. For instance, there’s Shana Moulton, whose Whispering Pines video series stars the hypochondriac character Cynthia, and Leah Schrager who doubles as the sex-positive Instagram celebrity Ona (NSFW). Through their work, both Moulton and Schrager confront problems that disproportionately affect women (anxiety and slut-shaming, respectively), using fictitious personas to push these issues into the larger cultural narrative.

“There’s really not that much history of the woman presenting herself,” Schrager told Time magazine. 

And while Lynn Hershman Leeson’s influence can be felt through the likes of Leah Schrager and Shana Moulton, her work still holds up on its own merits—an artful document of 1970s American womanhood. Despite not being “real,” Roberta Breitmore left an undeniable cultural legacy, eventually becoming both a Second Life character and the subject of a graphic novel. And in 2005, Stanford University acquired the 90-box information archive of her series, ensuring this dynamic record won’t be lost anytime soon.

Forty years after The Roberta Breitmore Series ended, it’s fitting that we reflect on the growing number of ways in which the underrepresented can speak their truths. For example, popular publications such as Teen Vogue and Rookie address the concerns and experiences of today’s teenagers. Ethnic minorities also have more platforms to tell their stories. In Britain, 15 writers were able to document what it means to be a minority ethnicity via the crowdfunded, award-winning book The Good Immigrant. In the United States, popular websites such as The Root, ColorLines, and Remezcla provide political and cultural coverage by and for people of color.

Of course, these platforms are not alter egos. But they do faithfully represent the lives of the ignored, ensuring the stories have a place in the cultural record. Four decades after Lynn Hershman Leeson decided to officially “exorcize” the character, the spirit of Roberta Breitmore lives on.