Mary Frith aka Moll Cutpurse
This article looks at the fascination with cross-dressing women in popular culture in 16-17th century England. “Cross-dressing” in this context doesn’t necessarily mean serious gender disguise, but includes ritualized cross-dressing in the contexts of celebrations, as well as partial cross-dressing where the use of specific male-coded garments was viewed as transgressive.
Krantz primarily focuses on the character of Moll Cutpurse in The Roaring Girl, with a secondary consideration of how that image relates to the historic Mary Frith. [Note: to keep the two clear with the least effort, in this summary I’ll use “Moll” for the dramatic character and “Frith” for the historic person.] She examines Moll’s ambiguous identity through three framings: prostitute, hermaphrodite, and bisexual ideal.
It was hard to escape two underlying themes in this article, neither of them speaking directly to the scholarship: the author appears to have something of a personal grudge against Elizabeth Spearing’s edition of Frith’s biography, and he seems determined to conclude that there was nothing particularly queer or transgressive about Frith’s life—she just thought dressing in men’s clothing was a useful career move.
This book is a study and edition of two 17th century “real life memoirs” of women who attracted mythologizing stories due to their unusual lives and criminal contexts. The label “counterfeit” women would seem to apply more obviously in the case of Mary Carleton, who passed herself off as a foreign noblewoman and used that image to acquire financial support and attract advantageous suitors. As there are no overt queer elements to her story, I won’t be discussing that part of the book in detail.
In this chapter, Faderman reviews the historic and literary perception of women cross-dressing as men during the 16-18th centuries. She notes that women passing as men [or transgender men, although this framing was not typically used at the time the book was published] were considered a more serious issue than lesbian sex, as long as that sex was between “feminine” women. One difference was that sexual encounters could be framed as a transient amusement whereas passing women were engaged in a long-term transgression.
Following the theme of “who tells your story?”, this set of selections diverges strongly between male and female authors. We have three named male authors including lesbian themes in pornography or crude sexual satires. We have five female authors writing poetry of intense romantic friendships, sometimes tinged with an erotic sensibility but never explicit. And we have two anonymous works of varied nature.
(blogged by Heather Rose Jones)
Krimmer’s primary focus is on the motif of cross-dressing women in 18th century German literature (novels, plays, etc.), but as part of the background, she reviews a great many historic cases. The issues of theory that are covered in these opening parts of Krimmer’s work, with the complexities of gender theory and clothing as signifiers of all manner of social classifications, are thoroughly covered in the analysis of chapters 2-5. The present summary is simply a rough catalog of the examples she cites.
I. Dramatic Constructions of Female Homoeroticism
The book opens with what has become a familiar lament that the scholarly consensus spent entirely too long proclaiming that female homoeroticism was not attested in early modern literature (largely because no one was actually looking for it, or considering it of importance when they found it), but that the last decade or so has been beginning to remedy that misapprehension.
Chapter 1 (Introduction)
A discussion of terminology, some of the cross-cultural problems of defining the topic of the book, and a statement of intent.
Chapter 2 (In the Beginning: 40,000-1200 BCE)
This article looks at the Middleton and Dekker play (1608) The Roaring Girl based on the life of Moll Frith. One of Frith's several claims to fame was her habit of going about London openly wearing male clothing. That is, she made no effort to pass as a man or to use the clothing as disguise, but rather adopted it as a form of personal expression. The theatrical depiction of her similarly challenges gender expectations and anxieties, but obviously in a more self-conscious way.