Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives

Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives

Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives

Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives


Gender reversal is a perennial theme in the cultures of both East and West. It emerges in classical Chinese theatre, in the ceremony consecrating the Japanese emperor, and in Hindu mythology; in the ancient Greek rites of Dionysos, in medieval Christian thought and in the culture of the American Indians.The original essays in Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures explore the historical and cultural diversity of the experience of gender reversal over an exceptional geographical and chronological range. The contributors bring a unique mixture of perspectives to bear on the subject, with backgrounds in anthropology, history, literature, political science, comparative religion and women's studies. They reveal the complex relation of gender reversal to taboo, and show how differing attitudes reveal much about particular cultures.


The theme of gender reversals has occurred in all societies since the beginning of recorded history. Many societies in the past institutionalized procedures for permanent or temporary gender reversal or gender change; other societies, such as the Aztec system and sections of modern Protestant America have endeavored to enforce a rigid gender system in which nothing may ever change and in which no boundaries may be crossed. The fixation on maintaining fixed boundaries and on suppressing gender change is as much a clue as the prevalence of such change across history to the centrality of this theme in human culture.

Why gender reversal? Gender lies at the core of an individual’s self-definition. We establish our identities through work and friends, through nationality and religious affiliation, but underlying all of these, as a kind of foundation upon which any individual builds, is gender. One might say (with apologies to Descartes), “I am a woman [or a man]; therefore, I am.” Human existence without gender identity is inconceivable. One can live without a sense of nationality, without a religion, without a job or career, even (although with much more difficulty) without friends; but without a concept of one’s gender identity, existence itself is thrown into question. It is for this reason that changing gender is associated with intense energy, with magic, with miracle, even (as amply demonstrated in ancient religious rituals of gender transformation, explored in Judith Ochshorn’s chapter) with the supernatural. Inevitably, the theme of gender reversals has occupied a salient position in religion, in literature, in drama, and in folk traditions.

Gender reversals also appear in another guise, viz., as a route to individual career advancement (examples provided in chapters 1 and 7) and as a mechanism through which a community assures stability and harmony (as suggested in the chapters by Sabine Lang and Fitz John Porter Poole in this collection).

There is a growing literature dealing with gender reversals. A pioneering book by Will Roscoe investigated gender traditions among American Indian tribes and was, for many, the first time that the theme of gender reversal occupied center stage. Previous books by Marjorie Garber, Lesley Ferris, and

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