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Gender-Queer Historic Motif Project: 81d Krimmer 2004 - In the Company of Men: Cross-Dressed Women Around 1800 (Ch 4)

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 4: Classic Amazons: Performing Gender in Goethe's Weimar

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)

Chapter 4 is "Classic Amazons: Performing Gender in Goethe's Weimar." Weimar was small and poor, far from major trade routes, with an enormous "dominating" palace. Krimmer doesn't mince words, drawing an analogy between the “great palace” and “shabby town” and the “acclaim for Weimar's male writers” versus the “obscurity of Weimar's female writers”. "In order fully to understand the gender concepts inherent in Weimar Classicism, we must read canonical works alongside marginalized texts by women writers of the time."

Krimmer compares works by Goethe to those by Charlotte von Stein, both featuring crossdressed figures, all in the context of "the struggle to redefine the relation between body and identity, and between gender and social order." Weimar had lots of theater, frequent masked balls (up to 400 people!), masked processions. LOTS of crossdressing. They were so popular that a huge new "Redouten- und Komödienhaus" was built in 1780 to accommodate them. These events offered liberation from sumptuary laws as well as gendered clothing in general.

Goethe loved to attend masked events, and also often traveled in disguise. Krimmer suggests this indicates "his interest in the performative nature of a person's social identity and his fascination with the cross-dresser as expressing his recognition of the performativity of gender." Regarding crossdressing in German theater: all male actors until 1550s, female actors in late 1600s, but still lots of crossdressing after. In the 1770s, "typically, the cross-dressed man played a wicked and/or old woman" and women played boys. The limited roles for crossdressed male actors reduced subversiveness. The "women" they portrayed lacked both beauty and virtue.

Many popular plays had all-male or mostly-male casts, so women sometimes had to fill in if there weren't enough male actors. A few actresses made "breeches roles" their specialties, such as the much-lauded Christianne Neumann. Krimmer thinks that Goethe's interest in Neumann was homoerotic to some degree, but this "must remain speculation". Krimmer notes that women played not just boys but "boys of lower-class status: peasants, gypsies, servants." Maybe "actresses were restricted to the portrayal of powerless male adolescents" so they couldn't steal any male/masculine power. "Women who wanted to assume the prerogatives of men...were relegated to the realm of fiction."

Analysis time! Charlotte von Stein's A New System of Freedom (written 1798, pub. 1867) and The Two Emilies (1803). Von Stein was a member of the elite, friends with a duchess, etc., but keenly aware of discrimination against women. She drew links between women's domestic burden and the lack of women artists and "refused to set aesthetics above ethical concerns." She frequently commented on gender bias in works by Schiller and Goethe. At the same time, she was Goethe's friend and lover. Krimmer calls her privileged-yet-marginalized status "contradictory" where I would say "intersectional".

Von Stein is so much seen as attached to Goethe that her works which don't critique or allude to his are ignored. She wrote A New System of Freedom in 1798; her great-grandson revised it extensively and published it in 1867. Lord Daval, who hates love, prevents his friend Avelos's marriage to Daval's sister Menonda by forging letters. Daval asks Avelos to kidnap two actresses for his private theater; he kidnaps Menonda and her cousin instead. Oops. The actresses also show up along with rescuer Montrose. Everyone pairs up at the end.

"In von Stein's play...the more educated [and high-status] a man is, the more absurd and confused is his reasoning." In contrast, the servants are realistic and sensible. Avelos's servant keeps telling him he's kidnapped the wrong ladies. But while the male servants are ignored, and the rich ladies are resigned, the low-status women foil the men's scheme. The maid Susette gives Montrose the wrong directions, then poses as him and confronts Daval. Susette's impersonation is so successful that when Montrose shows up, no one believes he's him! Alas, the obligatory "happy ending" requires Susette to go back to being Susette. But she proves women can hold their own.

A comment that "women are always crazy about uniforms" turns it from being about liking soldiers to wanting to be soldiers. The actresses also wear male disguises, explaining them as necessary precautions for women who travel alone. Daval says "Didn't I hear men in your room?" and they say, no no, that was us PRETENDING to be men, we are virgins! So by transgressing gender norms they actually lay claim to moral purity. That's pretty great.

Von Stein portrays "deception and cunning as male qualities", which women overcome through parody and roleplay. "By imitating men, women salvage a situation that was created (and wrecked) by male reasoning [that's] inherently flawed." Faces, voices, and handwriting are not giveaways; von Stein rejects a notion of gender inherent in the body. The mimicry is what Judith Butler calls "subversive repetition", showing men themselves as parodies of masculinity. The genre of comedy and happy ending defuse what would otherwise be a lot of threatening gender confusion and questioning.

The Two Emilies is based on Sophia Lee's novel of the same name. Von Stein retains the English names but moves it to Italy. Foundling Emilie Fitzallen believes that wealthy, happy Emilie Arden swindled her out of her inheritance. Emilie F. poses as a man and befriends Emilie A.'s fiancé, Lenox, then tricks him into marrying her. Then, an earthquake! Lenox thinks Emilie F. is dead and tries to marry Emilie A. after all. But Emilie F. reappears and begins to blackmail him. Finally Emilie F.'s parentage is revealed: she's the illegitimate daughter of Lenox's father. The siblings' marriage is annulled.

The work blends and blurs "right and wrong, man and woman, fantasy and reality...with amazing ease". Lots of people thought dead who are still alive, then not believed to be truly alive when they reappear. Again, the idea of the body as the seat of truth is rejected: "it is the mind that accords the body its meaning and...reality". Krimmer quotes Terry Castle: "a growing sense of the ghostliness of other people" was a key feature of the late 18thC sensibility. When Lenox pictures the thought-dead Emilie F. he sees her in male guise, echoing the element of absence in crossdressing as a new gender is taken on, the absence of the old one is significant. So Emilie F.'s femaleness is itself a kind of ghost when she dresses as a man.

Lenox's unwillingness to marry Emilie A. but willingness to marry Emilie F.-as-man implies homoerotic desire. Emilie F. is "said to possess the soul of a man" while "Lenox's behavior and character are feminized". She's physically strong; he has "nerves as tender as those of a woman". She's intellectual; he's moody. The earthquake that separates them is a natural disaster to "cut short an 'unnatural' union". Emilie F.'s reappearance, posing as a ghost (still in menswear), could be "the return of [Lenox's] repressed homoerotic desire". However, Emilie F. is interested in Lenox only as a way to get back at Emilie A.--another homosocial relationship. However however, Emilie A. wasn't at fault--Emilie F. was disinherited because of her illegitimacy (her father's fault).

So basically everyone's problems are caused by men. Emilie F. has a long speech about how unfair the world is to women. "That in which one woman succeeds, pushes the other down." But in the end her father is the one who's shamed, and both women triumph: Emilie A. marries Lenox, Emilie F. gets her revenge. Marvelously, Emilie F. refuses to retire to a monastery and exits as a "true amazon". "Von Stein's drama turns the fight among women into a fight against patriarchy" that succeeds thanks to crossdressing.

Both works "depict women who imitate men in order to outwit them and thus secure their own happiness." "Through his/her presence-in-absence the crossdresser points to the empty space that is the place of women in patriarchal society." Once Emilie F. is treated as a person whose feelings matter, "the ghost of the missing woman disappears." [Whew, I need a breather after that! Some heavy, juicy stuff there.]

While von Stein loves "the playful dissolution of gender roles, Goethe is troubled by the social anarchy that comes in its wake". Goethe wrote an essay called "Women's Parts Played by Men in the Roman Theater". His attempt to define the essence of femininity "opens up an abyss" between gender ideals and reality. In 1788 Rome, the pope had banned women from appearing onstage. Goethe enjoyed seeing an all-male cast perform La Locandiera but was bothered by how much he liked it. So he wrote a blog, essay about it. "The pleasure of the spectator" comes from being aware that all the "women" in the play are in fact played by men. "The imitation of a woman...demonstrates that art itself is concerned with imitation." [Quotes are from Krimmer paraphrasing Goethe, not Goethe directly.] Goethe sees art as not just imitating nature but trying to capture its "true essence". So men play better women than women do, because men have consciously studied how to behave like women. [This is my side-eye face.]

Goethe: a man's portrayal of a woman is not "the thing itself" but "the result of the thing." If men are portraying "true femininity" then there must BE such a thing as "true femininity". Goethe treats this like a scientific inquiry, starting with the empirical, then abstracting until the "pure phenomenon" is found. [This is pretty tangled. We're at the point of paragraphs that take up multiple pages.] I'm going to skim past phrases like "an idea about the objects of experience"--sorry, philosophy fans. So! If true femininity exists, then a man can represent it, but it's so abstract that it has little to do with women's real lives. "By severing femininity from the body of a woman... Goethe introduces a performative concept of gender." However, he does not allow for female actors to represent "true masculinity". And when men portray women, as noted earlier, it often reinforces conservative notions of femininity. Goethe: "My idea of women... is rather innate, or it developed within me God knows how!" [Patriarchy. You're swimming in it.]

Krimmer: "One might read Goethe's own works as an attempt to...teach [women] how to perform their gender 'correctly.' " In a letter to von Stein, he says women "should not want to" shed femininity. But that "should" is very telling. Goethe wrote accounts of two experiences with Carnival in Rome. The first time: "an incredible noise but no heart-felt joy". His account of the second time is much more enthusiastic, though heavily edited. (No original notes are extant.) He notes that Carnival can make tourists and non-participants very uncomfortable. But he'd lived in Italy for 1.5 years and had gone to many masked balls. Why did Carnival make him feel such unease? He singles out the suspension of class boundaries. Weimar's balls barred the lower classes; servants could not wear masks. In Carnival, everyone is masked, and people wear cross-class costumes. This questions the idea of a God-given social hierarchy. And he says Carnival "follows naturally from the Roman way of life"--very frightening to him!

Goethe takes refuge in his stranger status. [I see this as an interesting reversal of the "strangers get to transgress" idea. Where earlier chapters discussed offloading transgression onto foreigners, here the foreigner gets to be safely "normal" at least in his own head.] Goethe says the social differences "seem" abolished, but that idea vanishes "like a dream, like a fairytale". Public and private spheres, inside and outside, also blur. Finally, everyone lights candles, turning night into day. Goethe describes both men and women taking great pleasure in crossdressing at Carnival. Goethe: "One must confess that [crossdressers are] highly attractive in their hybrid shape." But he always emphasizes that they are MEN in WOMEN's clothes, WOMEN in MEN's clothes. Keep those gender barriers high! His effort to describe the dangers of gender transgression is undermined by his revelation of the pleasures of it.

Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship "features the largest number of cross-dressers" of any book Krimmer covers. Almost all the female protagonists wear men's clothes, once or repeatedly. Wilhelm loves theater and later directs a theater, and is fascinated with theatrical cross-dressing. The actress Mariane so delights in portraying an officer that she refuses to take off the uniform after the performance. The character Mignon is a child whose gender can't be easily discerned at first glance. Krimmer notes that almost all illustrations of Mignon portray a very feminine young woman. Hmmmm. Mignon wears sailor pants in everyday life. A baroness does likewise with hunter's clothing. Lots of other women wear menswear.

But all these "amazons" are still portrayed as inherently feminine characters. "The novel conjures up the specter of the masculinized women only to affirm that such masculinization did not take place." Mariane, in uniform, is brave and determined like a soldier, but her self-confidence is shortlived. Another woman mocks her as a "little officer" and she's ridiculed for thinking she can get away with acting like a man. Her downfall is a "feminine" weakness for material things. Her story ends tragically. Goethe's original draft had her marry Wilhelm, but he couldn't get away with a wedding between a man and his "fallen" ex-mistress. Therese is a "true amazon" unlike those "mere well-behaved hermaphrodites" [!]. She rides astride and runs businesses. This is not treated as an expression of masculine nature, but as an expansion of the women's work of managing households. Goethe has her "take care in every way of the happiness of men and the household". She dresses as a man in order to be recognized as an ideal partner by the man she loves, Lothario.

Krimmer: "Why is it that all male protagonists in Goethe's novel fall for women who at first wear men's clothing?" She answers that it "speaks of the underlying homosocial structure of Goethe's male alliance." Natalie wears her uncle's overcoat, and when she takes it off, Wilhelm sees her "disappear in splendor"--to him, she vanishes. She gives him the coat and ceases to matter; her role was simply to connect the two men, Wilhelm and her uncle. There's also a lot of discussion of fathers and sons in the book, and patrilinearity (while mothers vanish from the text).

Mignon is referred to with both male and female pronouns, and declares "I am a boy, I don't want to be a girl." As penalty Mignon is excluded from the symbolic systems of culture, evidenced by a limited ability to read or write. Eugen Wolff suggests that Goethe based Mignon's character on a married couple, and the husband was known to have had gay affairs. Goethe claimed that Mignon is the reason that the entire work was written. Mignon is described as having incestuous parents, perhaps a stand-in for other kinds of forbidden relationships. In the end, Mignon dies, androgyny is expelled, and homoeroticism is subverted into homosociality.

Summary: for von Stein, male clothing helps women overcome powerlessness. Goethe relocates gender in the body. But Goethe can't get away from his own theories of essential femininity that make it something disconnected from the physical. And where Goethe kills off or denatures gender transgressors, von Stein's characters disappear and reappear on their own terms. That's the end of chapter 4 and of my brain for tonight.

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