Malindo Lo recently posted a discussion of cross-dressing in her book, Ash, on her blog. Lo felt that some of the responses to a cross-dressing scene in Ash, though interesting, didn’t quite get at the difference between cross-dressing in an essentially “straight” story and cross-dressing in a queer one.
She mentions that in your common, “straight” cross-dressing story, a same-sex attraction between the cross-dressed character and the “really” male (or female or what-have-you) character is a problem until the cross-dressing is revealed, allowing the audience/reader to breathe a sigh of relief that everyone was heterosexual after all. Such resolutions annoy Lo.
Understandably so. They are annoying if only because they are so old. Emma Donoghue’s recent romp through all literature lesbian for the past–well, ever, gives countless examples of this sort of plot in early European literature from plays based on Classical myth to early novels. She calls it the “Female Bridegroom” plot. A woman falls for another woman disguised as a man and then the other woman is changed into a man or has a look-alike brother (think of Viola and Sebastian in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” for example) who replaces her and all ends happily.
Yes, heterosexuality is reinstated as the triumphant norm. But as Claudia Tate used to say “once those worms are out, you can’t stuff them back into the can.” Afterall, isn’t there something a little suspicious and unbelievable about Sebastian stepping in for Viola at the last minute? Don’t think Elizabethans were just so dumb that they thought it wouldn’t make a difference. They were scratching their heads, vaguely unsatisfied with that ending too.
But Shakespeare is technically off the hook, having shoved the worms, squirming, back into the can.
Add the fact that all the women in Shakespeare’s plays were played by men dressed as women, and you get yet another layer of meaning that makes a smart theatre-goer wink knowingly.
So although it is sort of a resolution to change the genders back to “normal” at the end of the modern cross-dressing story, the fact is, for a moment, the “wrong” person was attracted to the “wrong” person and we all got to watch that and think about it for awhile. It raised questions that really didn’t get answered, that we will leave the story still asking, like “but Sebastian isn’t Viola, even if he looks a lot like her.”
The thing is, in 2011, it shouldn’t be so odd and titillating to think about that–especially if only temporarily. Or it seems to some of us that it shouldn’t be. But clearly, it still is. And therefor, it’s still a queer story, if not a homosexual one. At least it is queer on some level (and maybe a rather reactionary one).
But Lo wants to talk about what cross-dressing means in an out and proud queer story and she asserts that there is a difference.
I have to agree with her. Cross-dressing in a book like Tipping the Velvet is not just about tricking people–in fact it’s very little about tricking anyone, because the performers doing it are doing it with an open fourth-wall-wink to their audience. it’s titillating because it is women in trousers, not because it’s attractive men. And women in trousers in the late Victorian era are titillating at least partly because they were daring to cross a boundary set up as the border between decency and…something else. So it was sexy.
Cross-dressing in other queer contexts could mean other things too–but in a historical setting (or in Lo’s fairy tale setting in which the genders are divided by clothing most of the time) it at least means this (transgression of a decency boundary).
In my writing, there is a lot of cross-dressing. I have found an almost infinite well of interest in writing about it, because I have a visceral sense of what cross-dressing means to me that I have never found represented in literature–at least not for more than a tiny moment here and there.
Even Tipping the Velvet (which I love, which is a fabulous representation of what it represents) doesn’t represent certain other kinds of cross-dressing that interest me or that I have experienced in my own life or found intriguing historically. That is, in Tipping the Velvet, the cross-dressing occurs on stage, as overt performance rather than the kind of performance in everyday life post-marxist gender and performance studies have theorized. Off-stage, the girls are girls, wear proper female attire and are in a fairly femme-femme kind of sexual relationship. The exception to this is when Nan is a kept “boy” in a rather unhealthy situation and her boyness seems almost symbolic of her immaturity. When she grows up, she’s a woman, for the most part, and only takes out her trousers for an occasional lark.
Like I said, this is an excellent representation of something. It’s real. But it isn’t the only something out there in the realm of cross-dressing in women’s lives and history. And I’m personally even more interested in some of those other somethings.
Some characters in my writing live as men. At some point in childhood they made a conscious decision to switch genders for both practical and personal reasons and stuck with it. They think of themselves as “men with a difference.” Some of my characters put on male disguise for short-term purposes. Some are known by their peers as women but go out as men anonymously on occasion.
There are historical examples of all of these things. The “men with a difference” are rather closely akin to the contemporary butch lesbians of my world, as they are to transgendered men. (Though it would be anachronistic to say they are either of these–these did not exist in the time of my writing and what did exist then does not exist now.)
And then there are the women (oh yes, and men!) who are attracted to and/or in love with these characters. Some are “girls” who just accept the cross-dresser as a boy. Some are women who specifically prefer “men with a difference” to typical men. Some are other boys or other cross-dressing girls. And of course there is the attraction of wanting to be like versus attraction to, and sometimes these overlap. Yum!
All this is to say that the “female bridegroom,” the trousers-for-a-lark showgirl, the “man with a difference” and the girl in temporary disguise are all queer to me. I think we need as many of these stories as we can generate. The more the better. Because as I am always saying, there are as many genders as there are people on the planet, and it would make for some entertaining (not to mention educational) reading to have a story about each of them.