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Cross Dressing In Fiction English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3382 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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For this project, I will be exploring the ways in which the characters of three literary texts cross-dress and the questions surrounding the act. The texts are all from the twentieth century and concern women passing as men for either a career and/or a relationship. All three novels come from three very different subject positions and from a specific period in sexual history – the 1990’s. Sexual liberation had been around for nearly fifty years and during the 1950s-60s, sex changes were in practise.

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The first book that I have chosen to study is Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night, mainly for Otoh’s ‘unnoticed’ sex transformation. The two begin a romance that disregards the labels of heterosexuality or homosexuality. The second is Jackie Kay’s Trumpet, a novel that tells the story of jazz musician Joss Moody who was biologically a woman, but lived her life as a man. The third and final literary text I have chosen is Patricia Duncker’s James Miranda Barry. It tells the story of a real woman who ‘passed’ as a man for more than fifty years as a military surgeon. The secondary/critical texts that I have researched in relation to my topic include Marjorie Garber’s Vested Interests: Cross Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity and Charlotte Suthrell’s Unzipping Gender: Sex, Cross-Dressing and Culture.

Before addressing the phenomenon, I realise that I need to acknowledge the differences between cross-dressing and drag (when referring to secondary sources and author’s opinions). Drag artists are cross-dressers, but by no means are cross-dressers always drag artists. As Judith Butler asserts in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, drag is not always what we think.

Within feminist theory, such parodic identities have been understood to be either degrading to women, in the case of drag and cross-dressing, or an uncritical appropriation of sex-role stereotyping from within the practice of heterosexuality, especially in the case of butch/femme lesbian identities. But the relationship between the ‘imitation’ and the ‘original’ is, I think, more complicated than that critique generally allows. [1] 

Therefore, I will be referring to cross-dressing as an act of integration rather than as a parody of a woman.

A vital question one might ask when observing the characters in these books is what function does cross-dressing play? What fundamental reason drives these women to cross-dress? In Marjorie Garber’s Vested Interests, she states that psychological professionals still deny the existence of female-to-male transvestites, asserting that these individuals are in fact transsexuals. [2] To further this claim and reason for cross-dressing, I found that Dr. Robert Stoller’s (the most frequently cited influence on this topic) outlook on the matter is that

there are an extremely rare number of females who dress all the time as men, live as men, work as men – in fact, pass unrecognised in society as men. Are they not transvestites? No – and again one must be careful that one is not merely quibbling with words. These women are transsexuals, quite comparable to male transsexuals. They wish to be males, that is to have a body in every way male, and to live in all ways a man does. They cannot stomach sexual relation with men; they are aroused only by women. Men’s clothes have no erotic value whatsoever; these people have no clothing fetish. [3] 

The notion that female cross-dressers want to be men and are homosexual is a plausible reason as to why these characters cross-dress. It shows that these females find masculine power culturally desirable in society. The fact that sexual excitement is not a factor in the act (whereas doctors agree it is in transvestism) shows the cultural desire to be a man. This is reflected in my three texts with Otoh, Joss Moody and James Barry. They are all attracted to women and none cross-dress for sexual pleasure, it is simply who they are. Their primary purpose is to gain cultural satisfaction by living their lives as men. This brings me to ask whether there is a correlation between gender and power in the novels, and it appears so. If one changes appearance from female to male and the reasons are not for sexual gratification, then cultural reasoning means that a male appearance is more desirable. Be it to claim ‘a son’s privilege’ [4] or a refusal to be hindered by a female body.

To understand how the act of cross-dressing affects the females in the novels, we must look at how the authors represent it. In James Miranda Barry, we can see that even during Barry’s early life she intimately refers to her mother as ‘my beloved’ [5] , and her descriptions of events sound like those of an adventurer or soldier. She sounds very much like a young boy playing pretend.

Now my beloved is my faithful mare. We are charging towards a gap in the enemy ranks. I dig my heels into her pure white flanks as we sweep past the poised. Frenchies, with their green faces and their pink flowering guns. One of the rhododendrons has been transformed into a general. […] I flash my sword at him. He wants to steal my chain. My mare shifts beneath me. [6] 

Barry’s unusually boyish train of thought may be Duncker’s way of suggesting that the girl’s future may have turned out the same nevertheless; as though behaving like a boy is an innate mannerism. Of course when Francisco et al. tell her to ‘join the men’ [7] and encourage her to go to university, her future is sealed. Duncker continuously shows the young Barry as being quite content with being dressed like a boy. In fact, nothing seems odd or ‘unnatural’ to young Barry at all, apart from when she realises people think she is actually a son. ‘”[…] I’m not a son.” I hesitated. I had never been dressed as daughters usually were and was therefore swaying in limbo between safe worlds or either sweet ribbons or breeches.’ [8] Cross-dressing is shown to have been brought on by Barry’s mother and General Francisco. We can speculate that this liminal way of dressing could have influenced Barry to identify as a boy. ‘He explained to me in great detail what a castrato was. It sounded wonderful. You were specifically chosen, then you remained a boy forever with a voice borrowed from God and became famous, fat and rich. You never turned into a woman, nor did you die in childbirth.’ [9] Barry idealises the life of a boy and fears that one day it will be taken from her in return for being a woman. She enjoys the thought of ‘remaining a boy’ forever, signifying that cross-dressing has and never will be a taboo issue or anything to question.

Charlotte Suthrell’s view on clothing, I feel, could be what Particia Duncker, Jackie Kay and Shani Mootoo wanted to convey through their characters. Clothing obviously plays a huge part in their lives. ‘We also use dress, consciously or unconsciously, as one of the ways in which we project ourselves, the self we wish to present to the world, the group with which we desire to be associated.’ [10] I believe Duncker’s intentions were to show that James Miranda Barry uses dress unconsciously (in her younger years especially) to fit into her desired group. Kay shows that Joss Moody makes a conscious decision to dress as the opposite sex and Mootoo introduces an ‘in-between’ option of gender/sexual existence.

Shani Mootoo’s Otoh was born a woman but lives as a male (the opposite situation to Tyler in the novel). We can consider that Mootoo is signifying that the tag of man or woman is as flexible as that of heterosexual and homosexual. She writes that Otoh ‘walked and ran and dressed and talked and tumbled and all but relieved himself so much like an authentic boy’ [11] . This transformation is recognised as acceptable from his parents who seem to forget that they ever had a girl. Otoh is difficult to place into any sexual paradigm. On this conception, Judith Butler says that ‘when the constructed status of gender is theorised as radically independent of sex, gender itself becomes a free-floating artifice, with the consequence that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one.’ [12] Otoh could just as easily wear female clothing and be ‘cross-dressing’ as far as she is concerned. For a woman who normally shows her femininity by wearing trousers, for example, it could be seen as cross-dressing if she decided to wear a dress.

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For Joss Moody in Trumpet, we don’t get to hear any of his own feelings or intentions, only of those who knew her as a he. Jackie Kay has Joss Moody appear to not like talking about her sex by showing that she does not speak to her wife much about it at all. Feelings of shame are noted in Charlotte Suthrell’s Unzipping Gender [13] . The times that she does open up, Joss refers to her childhood as, ‘when I was a girl’ [14] .

The set-up for the characters in each novel is empowering and a positive act. Duncker illustrates how James Barry would have been ‘wasted as a woman’ [15] if she did not cross-dress and she would not have had the opportunity to study at university to be a doctor. Joss Moody would not have been able to pursue the career of a jazz musician if she had retained her image of a woman, as musicians were predominantly men. [16] Otoh is a strong ‘male figure’ in the book, despite biologically being a woman. When Otoh dresses in her father’s old clothes, she helps him remember Mala, something which ends up being the first step in reuniting Ambrose and Mala.

Psychological effects can be noted from the characters. Kay paints a clear picture of how Joss Moody had come to terms with her identity. Her decision to live as a man was never a problem for her or her wife to understand, as being a man was her identity. For others in the novel this is quite the opposite. Colman, her adopted son, struggles with the finding upon Moody’s death. Through this struggle, the reader begins to see that Kay uses Moody as a vessel for showing it’s not who or what you are in the world; it’s your influence upon the people in it. Patricia Duncker shows that gender can be fabricated with Barry. As Barry was always a ‘tomboy’, to say the least, psychological reactions or emotions associated with her cross-dressing I feel are kept to a minimum. Other characters, however, show a feeling of intrigue when around her. ‘At that moment James wondered if the rumours were correct. Could Barry be some kind of hermaphrodite, with a spectacular intelligence? He was neither man nor woman, but partook of both. He had a woman’s delicacy and grace, but the courage and skill of a man.’ [17] 

Charlotte Suthrell observes that cross-dressing and secrets often come hand in hand. ‘They are a very small minority group and yet attract large headlines when ‘discovered’ since transvestism is arguably more of a guilty secret than, for example, having an affair or being a wife-beater.’ [18] Even though this statement is about transvestites (as mentioned earlier, transvestism is often for sexual gain), I believe that it is just as appreciated by female cross-dressers. The secret of cross-dressing in each novel is always a major theme. The fear of being found out could indeed ruin James Barry’s and Joss Moody’s careers. In the case of Otoh, there are no secrets, or any obvious ones. Her relationship with Tyler shows just how secrets can be abolished when one has no reputation or career to hold.

To understand what defines masculinity and femininity, I am going to take a quote from Marjorie Garber.

Throughout the changes in every field which have taken place since classical times and have become ever more discussed and challenged during the last century, arguments have raged over the nature of sex and gender, and whether and how much there is an essential component of masculinity and femininity. On the one side – the farthest end of these arguments – are the biological determinists who would argue that there is a fixed core of traits belonging rigidly to each sex, immutable and unaffected by societal constructions, with any who do not fit into these descriptions (homosexuals, for example) perceived as deviant and unnatural. On the other side are ranged the arguments of social constructionism which, at their most extreme, would suggest that nothing is biologically determined and that all gender associated behaviour is brought about by societal pressures. [19] 

I don’t feel as though we will ever know if nature or nurture is the predominant deciding factor when it comes to what sex we feel we are. Still, masculinity and femininity are shown in the three novels by both sexes. It is difficult to label Barry and Moody as homosexuals because the act of cross-dressing indicates that they are in fact males, which renders their relationships as heterosexual. In Otoh’s case, this is even more complicated as she essentially has the ‘penis’ and Tyler has the ‘vagina’, despite their physiology. Physiologically and psychologically, they have a heterosexual relationship but the difference is that psychologically, the genders are switched. Masculinity and femininity is consequently a complex issue to define in these novels.

Cross dressing can be seen to link to ideas of sexual transgression in parts of Trumpet. When Joss Moody is found to be a male, the deception is quite clearly a huge issue – especially to Colman, Moody’s son who has already struggled with his identity because of his adoption. The fact that Moody was so successful in ‘passing’ as a man makes the deception feel all the more shocking. As Diane Wood Middlebrook’s biography of Billy Tipton (the ‘real life’ Joss Moody) Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton shows, Tipton’s ‘death in the provincial western city of Spokane, Washington, made news all over the world, not because Billy was a well-known musician, but because the scale of the deception and the scarcity of explanations endowed the skimpy available facts with the aura of myth.’ [20] Kay emulates this shock in Trumpet by showing how Moody’s widow is hounded by the paparazzi and by using Sophie Stones, the journalist who wants to write a book about Moody’s alternate life. On the matter of transgression, Charlotte Suthrell points out that ‘s/he is performing a social role for the whole of society, whether this is viewed as a social imperative, a transgression, or a striking out for balance and wholeness. The secular cross-dressers of Western industrialised societies are consigned by their culture to a position which primarily bears disadvantages, marginalisation and disapproval.’ [21] Sexual transgression appears hard to escape from for all who bend the ‘rules’. The novels discussed show the shock from society when the women are found out to be men.

Cross-dressing characters could be argued to be truer to themselves than conventional persons in the novel. This can be illustrated in James Miranda Barry. Alice Jones, Barry’s love, professes, ‘now that’s what I’ve always wanted to do. Act in a real theatre. Not just charades. Dress up like a lady. Be a lady. Or be a soldier. Or a madwoman. […] On stage you can have any hair colour you want.’ [22] Alice loves the idea of pretending to be somebody else; the power of disguise excites her, which could be argued to represent that she is untrue to herself. Barry replies with, ‘I don’t think that you can pretend to be something you’re not,’ [23] which in turn signifies that she is true to herself, even under her male pretence. It is a twisted situation: Duncker presents to us Alice, a woman whose outward appearance is ‘true’ to her sex, but at the same time wants to be able to pretend to be somebody else. Alternatively, Barry’s outward appearance betrays her sex, but this appearance remains true to her identity. Towards the end of the novel, Alice erupts with anger towards Barry when she suggests revealing herself as a woman. She is against the idea, claiming that no-one is absolutely genuine and that people perform in life by acting out different roles. [24] I think this is Duncker’s way of showing that we humans are different people to everyone we know, even Barry to some extent.

Ultimately, the novels Cereus Blooms at Night, Trumpet, and James Miranda Barry reflect much of what my noted theoretical explanations suggest. We are defined not only by what we wear, but by who and what we would like to be. There is a prevalent social obedience to the different ways of expressing sex and gender – cross-dressing being just one of these ways.


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