The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was: Myths of Self-Imitation

By Wendy Doniger | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER NINE
Passing
Race and Gender

I feel as if I am falling, trembling, melting. I am so ashamed as I see
myself becoming a woman. Alas, my chest is sprouting breasts, and
jewelry is growing right out of my body
.

Chudala-as-Kumbha-as-Madanika, Yogavasistha (c. 1200 CE)

WHERE INDIVIDUAL PEOPLE may willingly masquerade, society as a whole often forces people of one group to pass as people of another group. Self-imitation often arises in the course of passing, a term usually applied primarily to racial passing, black people pretending to be white, but more recently also applied to gender passing, gay people pretending to be straight or people of one gender pretending to be people of the other gender.1 Sometimes, as in Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, racial passing and gender passing overlap,2 and drag may also parody race. In a variant of the usual gender asymmetry, many black drag queens parody white women, while relatively few white drag queens parody black women. In both race and gender, social pressures force individuals to masquerade, usually (though not always) as someone of a higher and/or more powerful class. And in both race and gender, the simplistic paradigm (black passing as white or woman passing as man/man as woman) is destabilized by the intrinsic insubstantiality of the original categories and dichotomies that are the basis of their construction. Black passing for black is the racial equivalent of women pretending to be women, a not uncommon gender trope. These stories demonstrate that everyone who passes is, in a very real sense, self-imitating; since there is neither

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