Male-to-Female Crossdressing in Early Modern English Literature: Gender, Performance, and Queer Relations

By Panek, Jennifer | Early Theatre, June 2017 | Go to article overview

Male-to-Female Crossdressing in Early Modern English Literature: Gender, Performance, and Queer Relations


Panek, Jennifer, Early Theatre


Simone Chess. Male-to-Female Crossdressing in Early Modern English Literature: Gender, Performance, and Queer Relations. New York: Routledge, 2016. Pp xi, 196.

Simone Chess's Male-to-Female Crossdressing in Early Modern English Literature revisits a topic that had its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s when the cross-pollination of feminism and new historicism produced a wealth of critical interest in Shakespeare's disguised heroines, real-life transvestites like Moll Cutpurse of The Roaring Girl, and antitheatrical diatribes about the erotic dangers of crossdressed actors. These studies, as Chess notes in her introduction, tended to fall into certain binary patterns: female-to-male (FTM) crossdressing was typically empowering, benefitting the disguised heroine while raising enlightening questions about the constructedness of gender; male-to-female (MTF) crossdressing, conversely, spoke to cultural anxieties about effeminacy, seduction, and degeneration. Crossdressed erotic activity was examined in similarly binary terms of homoeroticism--eg, a male character attracted to a male-disguised stage heroine as an instance of male-male desire--or heterosexuality, if one took the stage's fictions at face value. As Chess observes, however, our own contemporary landscape of gender and sexuality has changed since then in ways that may be bringing us closer to our early modern counterparts, with their ways of thinking about anatomical sex as a spectrum and no fixed concept of sexual 'orientation' (15). Invoking 'recent moves in the contemporary trans*, queer, and genderqueer communities to broaden the discourse that surrounds queer and genderqueer individuals' lived experience' (13), Chess describes her work as being 'informed and enabled by contemporary trans* and genderqueer theory', even as it focuses on 'a type of queer gender play that is culturally and historically specific to the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries' (14). In particular, the book is concerned with questions of 'relational' gender expression--'how MTF crossdressers constitute their gender with and through their relationships with other characters' (9)--and with recovering representations of queer gender that are positive and beneficial, rather than shaming, for the crossdresser.

Chapter 1, 'Doublecrossdressing Encounters', opens with a description of the 'Machine to be Another', an ongoing (as of 2016) interdisciplinary research project in which virtual reality allows users 'the immersive experience of seeing themselves in the body of another person' (39). In one instance, the research collective engineers a 'gender swap', in which a male and a female, outfitted with Oculus Rift headsets, perform simultaneous movements while looking down to see their 'own' bodies as those of the opposite gender. Examining texts that stage encounters between MTF and FTM crossdressers, the chapter sets out to argue that such encounters, in which 'one queer gender facilitates another', not only 'reveal the construction and maintenance of the more normative genders that surround them' but can also accomplish one of the stated goals of the Machine: a shift in perspective that enables empathy. As with each of the subsequent chapters, the chosen texts are a heterogeneous lot: the anonymous pamphlets Hic Mulier and Haec Vir; the episode in book 5 of Spenser's The Faerie Queene in which Britomart encounters the crossdressed Artegall in Radigund's service; Chapman's 1611 comedy May Day; and a mid-seventeenth-century ballad titled 'Robin Hood and the Bishop'. That the encounters depicted in these texts work to facilitate--for both the characters involved and the audience--'improved understandings of how sex and gender work in their world' (50) is aptly demonstrated; that they 'provoke cross-gender empathy and identification', however, is a claim that the chapter struggles to prove, leaving its concluding claims about 'empathetic cross-identification' and 'empathetic gender exchange' ringing rather hollow: the attempt to find empathy often obscures the extent to which these early modern texts view gender as a zero-sum game, in which any power achieved by women comes at the expense of men. …

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