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Gender-Queer Historic Motif Project: 81c Krimmer 2004 - In the Company of Men: Cross-Dressed Women Around 1800 (Ch 3)

Full citation: 

Krimmer, Elisabeth. 2004. In the Company of Men: Cross-Dressed Women Around 1800. Wayne State University Press, Detroit. ISBN 0-8143-3145-9

Publication summary: 

A study of cross-dressed women (or trans men) in history and literature in 18-19th century Germany and surrounding cultures. Most of the summary for this work is provided by guest-blogger Rose Fox.

Chapter 3: The Death of a Cross-Dresser: Epistemologies of the Body

We continue with Rose Fox's guest-analysis. They are doing research for a novel with a trans male protagonist and a lesbian supporting character in ~1810 London, examining the works Krimmer covers through the lens of what a transmasculine person reading these books might have thought and felt.

If other readers are interested in contributing entries to the Project, feel free to contact me about it.

* * *

(by Rose Fox)

This chapter opens with an overview of the Chevalière d'Eon: MAAB, legally declared female by Louis XVI, wore men's clothes. Fascinating person. Transvestism was called "eonism" for a couple hundred years thanks to the Chevalière. "For several years, d'Eon's gender was the subject of numerous bets and legal proceedings." "D'Eon's story teaches us that as long as we live and breathe, the culturally mediated body is an unreliable agent of truth."

In many cases "the riddle of a dubious gender identity was only to be solved postmortem." [Augh, no, genitals "solve" nothing! But of course the whole point is that people think pulling down someone's pants gives you more "truth" than asking them.] A crossdresser's death is seen as both a moment of truth and as a punishment for transgression. [Hm, this is starting to get into triggery territory.] Lots of true and fictional stories of murdered gender transgressors. I will refrain from tweeting details. Now there’s a digression to describe Catharina Lincken's dildo: stuffed leather, with leather testicles in a pouch made from a pig's bladder. Lincken was prosecuted for marrying a woman, so the equipment used for consummation was of interest to the court.

Literary analysis: Friedrich Schiller's Fiesco's Conspiracy at Genoa, 1783; Heinrich von Kleist's The Family Schroffenstein, 1803. [I'd tweet the original German titles but some are more than 140 characters long. :) ]

Fiesco: "the cross-dresser, who has transformed gender into an arbitrary sign, becomes a metaphor for language itself." "Fiesco suggests that, though clothing (and men) may lie, the truth of the female body will reassert itself in the end." "It is through re-inscribing gender in the body that the validity of truth and morality is restored." I can't even imagine how traumatic it would have been for trans people to read these books.

Family Schroffenstein "intertwines the search for truth and the interrogation of the body with the concept of gender identity.” In contrast, Karoline von Günderrode's work sees both death and gender signification as arbitrary and morally indifferent. Von Günderrode, in a letter: "Why didn't I turn out to be a man! I have no feeling for feminine virtues, for a woman's happiness." [So her work could be seen as a transmasculine person writing about transmasculinity.] Krimmer says that scholars have "accused" von Günderrode of being unfeminine. That's a pretty loaded word. But I will stop digressing before I get too annoyed. Back to the litcrit.

Fiesco: often regarded as a minor work because of too much uncomfortable ambiguity around Fiesco's "true" character and politics. Fiesco repeatedly assumes new identities, driven by circumstances and the needs of his partners. A 1784 stage version further confuses matters by changing Fiesco's politics, from would-be usurper to local republican. "In Fiesco's hands, real facts vanish behind constructs even as constructs create real facts." [I'm very glad that my book will have a rather more straightforward plot.] Fiesco's wife dons male clothing and later acquires the garb of Fiesco's enemy--so Fiesco mistakes her for his enemy and stabs her. Her death is "both the result of and the punishment for Fiesco's web of lies." This is getting into tangled metaphors about art and creation and falsehood. Skimming moar. I'm by no means an expert, but I'm finding Krimmer's arguments here very unconvincing and difficult to follow. In the 1783 version of Fiesco, a second woman dresses as a man, but her beloved recognizes her, a sign of his moral integrity.

Moving on to Kleist's Family Schroffenstein, "haunted by the anxiety that all knowledge will ultimately remain uncertain." Kleist sounds like a pretty messed-up dude. Obsessed with injured/dead female bodies as "the last reliable repository of truth". Family Schroffenstein: "In the end, the hoped-for naturalness of the body turns out to be nothing but another cultural sign." Romeo and Juliet-ish story. Relevant bit: lovers from feuding families swap clothes, are then killed by their own parents. [!]

Kleist's half-sister and traveling companion often wore men's clothes. He said she "has nothing of woman but the hips". And he wrote, "What mistake has nature committed when it made her a being that...vacillates like an amphibian between...genders?" I am annoyed enough by this dude to skip very quickly through the rest of the discussion of his work. Interesting note, though: while dressed as a man, Kleist's sister encountered a blind flute player who identified her as female. The blind person who can tell the "truth" of someone's gender later appears in Kleist's drama. "One might wonder why Kleist's drama is fraught with so many misunderstandings if the body tells the truth so loquaciously." Zing! A nod to "the Christian tradition in which the body of the crucified stands in for the truth of his message." Interesting. As a non-Christian writing Christian characters, I'm always glad for info on Christian viewpoints.

And finally, on to von Günderrode. This is a remarkably ciscentric view of her masculinity. In correspondence she often called herself by neutral or male names and pronouns. This is called "effacing her identity as a woman". Krimmer asserts that "Günderrode's gender effacement" contributed "to her personal suffering". [Gnashes teeth] "Günderrode's own experience of a male spirit trapped in a female body"--I'm not sure how much more of this I can take. [I used female pronouns for von Günderrode because the text does, but at this point I'm fairly certain I should not do so.] If anyone knows of a biography of Karoline von Günderrode that's sympathetic to her transmasculinity, please let me know.

Poem "Darthula According to Ossian": a princess dresses as male to go to war against the man who killed her father and brother. "Darthula's heroic strength and determination are but empty gestures in the face of...existential impotence and hopelessness" Her father dies in battle--while she's trying to guard him. Ouch. Notable that Darthula isn't the only one killed, and it has nothing to do with her gender--she dies like any other soldier. "In Günderrode's ballad, gender is dissociated from power, just like power is dissociated from morality." "Consequently, assuming a male persona by cross-dressing will not boost a person's courage nor can it invigorate the fighter." Darthula's clothes are torn, exposing her chest--they are not a magic gender-talisman. I hope that somewhere in this book are stories where things go well for the gender transgressors. I probably hope in vain. Oh well.

Von Günderrode's poem “Mora”, 1804: a woman dons her lover's armor to protect herself against a would-be rapist. The rapist thinks her a man, challenges her, and kills her. Of course. [sigh] Mora represents "life and love" while her lover, Frothal, seeks the immortality of fame and glory. He insists they go on a hunting trip even though she has premonitions of death. LISTEN TO THE WOMAN WITH PREMONITIONS. Likewise, she tries to convince Karmor that there can't be love without consent, but he only understands women as objects. [Be right back: writing fanfic of this poem where Mora convinces Frothal to stay home and they have a long happy life together.] "Mora's sacrifice is denied its redemptive purpose." Frothal plots revenge, and the (male) cycle of violence will go on forever. "In Mora, the telling of a heroic tale, while granting immortality and glory, cannot make up for the loss of life" And that's the end of chapter 3. Cheery stuff.

Note: Here's that Anne McClintock piece on crossdressed female miners being seen as a different race. [Note by hrj: if the link as given does not display the required page, try a search within that book on "female miner"."

Time period: 

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