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Gender Transgression and the Status Quo

Monday, June 24, 2019 - 07:00

Several of the articles I currently have lined up collide to produce an emergent theme of how apparently transgressive motifs can be seen as resolving in ways that reinforce the heteronormative status quo. This current article points out that cross-dressing narratives in medieval European literature may flirt with the creation of homoerotic possibilities, but always resolve to heterosexuality. Further, the homoerotic possibilities in these narratives are always f/f. (I'm taking the authors word for this because I don't have the research background in male-centered stories to have an opinion on the conclusion.) Unlike the cross-dressing heroines like Silence and Yde, romance heros who take on a female presentation never find themselves unexpectedly desired by men, rather their story is about how they convince a woman to accept f/f desire as a bridge toward transfering that desire to their "true" male self. In contrast, when the disguised Blanchandine and her lover Tristan are teased by Tristan's male companions about their relationship, all parties are "in on the secret". The superficially m/m couple is given textual approval because everyone knows it's "really" a heterosexual relationship.

There are no stories about an assigned-male character presenting as female, being desired by a man, and then being magically transformed into a physiological woman to resolve the moral conflict. There are no literary stories (as opposed to real-life case studies) where an assigned-female person presents as male in order to pursue erotic attraction to a woman. (There are a few Renaissance-era plays with a motif where a cross-dressed woman deliberately pays court to another woman, but the underlying motivation is presented as deception or revenge, generaly revolving around a triangular relationship with a male third party.)

One of the other articles I have lined up examines the legends of "transvestite saints" and comes to similar conclusions about how the underlying message is not about women breaking free of arbitrary social gender conventions, but rather about women accepting social attitudes about women's limitations and "becoming male" to escape them, without challenging those attitudes (and, indeed, sometimes reinforcing misogynistic attitudes in their encounters with other female characters in the stories).

This pattern of the reinforcement of misogyny and heteronormativity presents a continuing challenge to those of us who mine historical motifs for creative purposes. If we adhere too closely to the historic exemplars, we find no space in which to create positive homoerotic resolutions. (And only a very narrow set of positive transgender resolutions.) But when we re-make the historic exemplars into stories that have more resonance for us a modern authors and readers, we necessarily make choices as to which elements we contradict or discard. One of the most fraught contexts in which this conflict is currently playing out in genre literature is over "ownership" of the motif of "assigned-female person presents as male, engages in a romantic relationship with a female-presenting female-assigned person, and the story resolves with the couple presenting the social appearance of a heterosexual couple." The motif occurs time and again through history in literature and case studies.

The literary examples typically apply a "magical" bodily change to create a heterosexual reality. But although the resolution supports a transgender understanding of the story, the lead-up to that resolution rarely does so, in that the transitioning character has not been presented as experiencing gender dysphoria. (One can argue that Silence does express something interpretable as gender dysphoria, but Silence is not given a transgender resolution.) The non-literary case studies rarely offer us unfiltered insight into the subject's interior motivations and self-understanding. ("Rarely", not "never.")

The long history of scholarly analysis that focuses on cultural subjectivity (the "they had different categories/understandings" position) or lack of approved evidence (the "we can't really know" position) in order to erase both transgender and homosexual interpretations of the past has had the unfortunate byproduct of making these motifs into contested ground between groups that might more productively be allies against the pervasive heteronormativity and misogyny of the source material. But in an atmosphere of "resource scarcity"--both with regard to that source material and with regard to the ways it is being reworked in modern genre literature--too often any particular interpretation is seen as a theft of cultural property from the group not reflected in that specific interpretation. I wish I had a productive answer for the conundrum, but my only fallback position is to continue to point it out.

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Full citation: 

Perret, Michele. 1985. “Travesties et Transsexuelles: Yde, Silence, Grisandole, Blanchandine” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 25:3 pp.328-340

This article looks at four heroines in French literature of the 13-14th centuries whose stories involved either transvestite or transsexual elements or both. What the stories dance around, without treating it directly is homosexuality, both male and female. Cross-dressing motifs, either men disguised as women or women disguised as men are not rare, and create an ambiguous situation where homosexual possibilities can emerge.

The ambiguity, in both cases, revolves around relations with a woman. The man disguised as a woman wins her love with the appearance of homosexuality but the underlying “reality” of heterosexuality, while the woman disguised as a man wins a woman’s love with the appearance of heterosexuality but the underlying “reality” of homosexuality. In the first case, the plot typically resolves with proof of the heterosexual nature of the union in the birth of a child. But in the second case, the resolution may take one of two forms: either the disguised woman becomes, in truth, a man, or she returns to her original sex and thus loses her autonomy in marriage. The social freedom that the cross-dressing woman gains creates a problem of identity that can only be resolved by reinforcing the status quo by one means or another.

In literature, the reasons for male and female cross-dressing are different. The male characters take on the disguise to facilitate access to the desired woman. The cross-dressing women seek masculine privileges: the right to inherit, to travel alone, to have autonomy. While the cross-dressing episode for men is a period of intense sexuality, for women the disguise requires a non-sexual life.

In the case of Silence, the cross-dressing is for the purpose of inheritance. She attracts female desire but does not respond. For Yde it is to escape her father’s incestuous desire. When she is forced to marry the emperor’s daughter Olive, she laments that she has no means of fulfilling the duties of marriage. Silence, like the figure of Grisandole in l’Estoire de Merlin, returns to her original gender presentation. But Yde doesn’t return to female garments, as God transforms her into a man. A similar divine miracle resolves the case of Blanchandine in Tristan de Nanteuil. Her disguise was originally to facilitate escaping her family to stay with Tristan, but believing him dead, she is pressured into marrying the daughter of the sultan and accepts a transformation of sex to resolve the conflict.

The change of sex is signaled not only by taking on male clothing but also by a change of name. Blanchandine, Yde, and Silence use only a grammatical transformation from feminine to masculine, while Grisandole is the male name taken on by Avenable. There is a discussion of how these name changes are treated in the text, with particular attention to the case of Silence, where there is also a secondary adoption of the pseudonym “Malduit” for part of her adventures.

The author compares these heroic figures with a different genre of crossdressing women in fabliaux, such as the woman in Berengier au lonc cul, who takes revenge on her cowardly husband by disguising herself as a knight and tricking him into kissing her ass (literally).

There is a technical discussion of the complexities of gender reference in the texts and how word play is used to emphasize the multi-layered identities and relationships of the disguised women. In the story of Silence, this duality is highlighted by the disputes between the personifications of Nature and Nurture who each claim the right to define Silence’s identity.

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