Academic journal article Helios

Cross-Dressing and "Gender Trouble" in the Ovidian Corpus

Academic journal article Helios

Cross-Dressing and "Gender Trouble" in the Ovidian Corpus

Article excerpt

The 1999 critically acclaimed indie film Boys Don't Cry tells the tale of Teena Brandon, a young woman who, after living and dressing as a man (under the name of Brandon Teena), was murdered for her assumption of a masculine identity. Much of the film's power for many viewers may be traced to Hilary Swank's moving and persuasive performance as the transgendered Brandon, while movie critics have commented on how Swank manages to embody visually both masculine and feminine characteristics and actually blur gender lines. (1) Director Kimberly Pierce revealed in an interview with the London paper The Independent that it took her almost three years to cast the role of Brandon, since she needed "someone who could not only capture Brandon's spirit, but also pass as a guy" (Spenser 11). Swank's real-life preparations for the role mirrored Teena Brandon's own attempts to transform her gender. (2) She cut off all of her hair, bandaged her breasts, put a sock in her trousers, and began working out two hours a day to rem ove any body fat, since Pierce had told her that she "had to pass for male in real life, because if she didn't the whole premise would have been a joke" (D'Souza 9). Before filming began, Swank put her altered appearance to the test by hitting the streets of New York cross-dressed. She recalls: "Everyone stared and then looked away. Some people thought that I was a boy, others couldn't figure out what gender I was, and felt quite threatened" (D'Souza 9).

In its presentation of male impersonation and its success in actively creating gender slippage, Boys Don't Cry differed from most of the American transvestite narratives produced in the 1980s and 1990s. Elisabeth Krimmer has observed (29) that female-to-male cross-dressing is the exception rather than the rule in American movies. Many of these films feature situations of female impersonation in which cross-dressing does not erode gender boundaries but rather allows male characters to incorporate the feminine within themselves and ultimately emerge stronger and more virile. Tootsie, for example, became, after its release in 1982, the focus of debate in feminist and literary criticism circles. (3) Elaine Showalter has moments when the gender performance of the cross-dressed Michael/Dorothy is disrupted through physical gestures of masculinity, when we are reminded of "the masculine power disguised and veiled by feminine costume." The different approaches to cross-dressing represented by Boys Don't Cry and Toots ie are perhaps symptomatic of a larger distinction between modem cinematic and theatrical depictions of male-to-female and female-to-male cross-dressing. Molly Haskell, for example, contends that "male impersonation operates on a principle of aggrandizement (and is therefore not funny), while the adoption of female characteristics, and female impersonation, resting as they do on the principle of belittlement, will continue to be comical" (cited in Bell-Metereau 67). Along similar lines, Alisa Solomon remarks in her discussion of female-to-male drag in twentieth-century American theater that "men dressed as women often parody gender; women dressed as men, on the other hand, tend to 'perform' gender" (145; emphasis in original).

In recent years, cross-dressing has been the focus of investigations of gender and identity, both in artistic and critical texts, because it has the potential to problematize the simple equation of body and gender. For theorists such as Judith Butler and Marjorie Garber, the material body does not exist as a fixed essence that gender serves to express and reinforce; rather, the body and gender exist separately, yet coextensively, with each other. Butler remarks (6): "If gender is the cultural meanings that the sexed body assumes, then a gender cannot be said to follow from a sex in any one way. Taken to its logical limit, the sex/gender distinction suggests a radical discontinuity between sexed bodies and culturally constructed genders. …

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