Skip to content Skip to navigation

trouser roles

This is a technical term for a female actor portraying a male character on stage. It includes both roles that are more typically played by male actors, and ones that are specifically designed to be filled by female actors. The overt nature of this type of cross-dressing provided an acceptable context for women spectators to experience erotic attraction to other women.

LHMP entry

Friedli provides an extensive examination of “passing women” -- defined as women (using current terminology, it might be better to say “persons assigned female at birth”, but Friedli uses “women” and I will follow that here) who live, work, and/or marry as men for some period during their lives. This is specifically distinguished from theatrical cross-dressing or overt cross-dressing as a sexual signal. While the phenomenon is far from confined to the 18th century, there seems to have been a fascination with it in England, beginning in the late 17th century.

(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.

Some writers object to examining cross-dressing dramas from a homoerotic viewpoint, noting that the act of changing clothes does not change orientation. But Walen emphasizes that the female homoeroticism in cross-dressing plays is situated, not necessarily within the sexual orientation of the characters, but in the dramatic tropes enabled by the cross-dressing motif. It is the audience, more than the characters, who experience the female-female desire.

Images of women-loving-women were established enough in 16th century England to appear as a character type that was not so much defined as simply assumed, and therefore was available for reference both explicitly and obliquely. Within this general type, there were clear distinctions made between the motifs of desire between women and sexual acts between women. This chapter explores evidence for this character type in non-dramatic sources that were available to early modern English playwrights and their audiences.

There are as many as 80 early modern dramatic works that feature cross-dressed heroines, with overt motivations ranging from following a (male) lover, avoiding rape, scandal, or death, traveling freely, or as a deliberate expression of gender non-conformity. In roughly 30 of these plays (written between 1580 and 1660), the cross-dressing also precipitates female homoerotic desire in some fashion. This raises the question of how and why this motif was employed.

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 5

Rather than arising from male fantasies as some suggest, the ballads are rooted in actual working class experience. Three features are key contributors to the context in which they arose. There was a general expectation of physical strength and toughness from working-class women. There was a context of near constant warfare and the routine participation of women in military contexts, as well as a somewhat less rigid and regimented structure to the military. And there was a general preoccupation with disguise and cross-dressing.

There was a theatrical counterpart to the real life cross-dressing women discussed in the previous chapter. It had become the fashion for women to play certain types of male roles on stage, under the cover term “breeches parts”. This was part of the contradictory acceptance/rejection of women in male disguise. Acceptability was not related to how well the disguise was pulled off: “masculine” clothing among fashionable women (such as riding habits) might be mocked while women discovered after passing completely as soldiers might be lauded.

This article concerns an individual who may more properly be interpreted as transgender, however as noted a number of times before, in a historic context where heteronormativity is so strong as to impede the ability to self-define as a woman-oriented woman, interpretation can be ambiguous.

Subscribe to trouser roles