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cross-dressing

Any context where an individual wears clothing that is socially designated for a different gender than the one they are assigned. The tag includes instances where clothing is used as an overt symbol rather than an overall presentation.

LHMP entry

This chapter focuses on the creation of homoerotic tension in a more asymmetric aggressive context, especially those involving a older experienced woman seducing a younger innocent, including those where the seduction (or assault) is triangulated around a male character that one or both women have a connection to. This motif stands in contrast to more idealized, egalitarian relationships such as those in Shakespeare’s As You Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Lyly’s Gallathea.

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.

This chapter begins with a look at allegorical images of what appear on the surface to be female same-sex erotic embraces. Images such as "Peace and Justice embracing" on the frontispiece of Saxton's 1579 atlas (in the cartouche above Elizabeth's head), or various paired embracing nudes in paintings representing Justice and Prudence or Faith and Hope raise questions of the public use of female homoeroticism for symbolic purpose.

Renaissance drama provides a case study in how lesbian themes and female homoerotic potential can be hidden in plain sight simply by the denial of their possibility. Traub notes that even today one can find vehement denials of homoerotic content in such overtly suggestive works as Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. And less overt content may only emerge into view through an awareness of the era’s understanding and encoding of female desire and forms of female intimacy.

[Note: I think the first two paragraphs here actually belong with chapter 4, I lost my section marker somehow.]

In contrast to many of the “decency” laws that disproportionately targeted minorities (such as anti-prostitution laws), cross-dressing prosecutions tended to ignore members of racial minorities unless some other significant factor were involved. This falls naturally out of the framing of normative gender as an inherently “white” possession. Therefore transgression against normative gender can only be done by those who had access to it in the first place.

This chapter comes from the angle of racially-targeted immigration restrictions. Gendered dress comes into the subject, but in an oblique way. One illustration: a Chinese woman who cross-dressed to stow away on a ship to San Francisco in 1910 was charged with violating immigration law, but not with cross-dressing offences. In the context of immigration law (and especially laws targeting Asian immigrants), cross-dressing came into the rationale, not as a charge against specific individuals, but as a categorical basis for exclusion involving gendered aspects of racial stereotyping.

This section summarizes the connections and intersections of legal and social attitudes toward non-normative bodies, whether involving gender, sexuality, race, or disability. These “problem bodies” provoked a combination of fascination and hostility which was resolved by instituting legal regulations to create a “safe” public space for those fitting into normative paradigms while permitting marginal existence to others as long as it served those in power.

A 15th century account of a young woman attending Krakow university in male disguise. After successfully passing as a man for two years and nearly attaining her degree, she was unmasked due to the suspicions of a soldier who won a bet with his friends by forcibly undressing her and revealing her sex. She was taken before a judge but no one could find any complaint against her except the cross-dressing. After that she chose (from among unknown other options) to go into a convent where she became Abbess.

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