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Sexual Identities in The Roaring Girl

Monday, September 24, 2018 - 09:00

This article makes a nice palate-clenser to last week's piece by Ungerer. It primarily focuses on the dramatic character of Moll Cutpurse within The Roaring Girl, but also notes how Mary Frith (by way of her post-show performance) acted to underming the play's attempt to rehabilitate her character, and to re-claim her identity as a disruption to existing gender identities.

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Kranz, Susan E. 1995. The Sexual Identities of Moll Cutpurse in Dekker and Middleton’s The Roaring Girl and in London in Renaissance and Reformation 19: 5-20.

Krantz primarily focuses on the character of Moll Cutpurse in The Roaring Girl, with a secondary consideration of how that image relates to the historic Mary Frith. [Note: to keep the two clear with the least effort, in this summary I’ll use “Moll” for the dramatic character and “Frith” for the historic person.] She examines Moll’s ambiguous identity through three framings: prostitute, hermaphrodite, and bisexual ideal.

Moll Cutpurse stands out in the context of cross-dressed female characters in Renaissance theater in using the trope not for complete gender disguise, as with the girl-disguised-as-a-boy leads in romantic comedy, but in depicting a hybrid “hermaphroditic” character who has both male and female characteristics at the same time. The character of Moll is also complicated by the historic Mary Frith, who also challenged gender boundaries, but within a different context. The portrait of Moll in the frontispiece of the printed edition of The Roaring Girl show her key masculine signifiers: short hair, a pipe, a drawn sword, and wearing loose “slops” breeches. But neither for the historic Frith nor for the character Moll are these used for gender passing or disguise. And both in the play and in real life, her default outfit combined a feminine skirt with masculine upper garments.

Women wearing masculine garments were subject to various interpretations in 17th century England. The one that came foremost to mind, especially from official sources, was an assumption of immorality and uncontrolled sexuality, i.e., either prostitution or at least sexual impropriety. When Frith was arrested for going about wearing garments of mixed genders, but clearly not trying to pass as a man, the central suspicion and charge was that she was involved in prostitution, a charge she vehemently denied.

The character of Moll is explicitly described in a similarly hybrid outfit: Enter Moll in a frieze jerkin and a black safeguard [i.e., a protective outer skirt]. With the addition of the props of a sword and tobacco pipe, the audience is given a contradictory set of signifiers to read. Moll doesn’t fit easily (or at all) into Jacobean social and sexual hierarchies and thereby points out the deficiencies and flaws in those hierarchies. She disrupts the gender binary, but does so by claiming male privilege and opting out of the marriage economy, rather than by sweeping away the existing social order.

One can’t read The Roaring Girl as a straightforward transvestite plot, with characters moving within the gender binary while reaffirming it. Standard female transvestite characters temporarily claim the independence and privileges of a man, but participate in a heterosexual marriage resolution that inevitably re-establishes the gender binary and gender hierarchy. But Moll doesn’t return to a normative feminine role at the conclusion. She neither marries nor undergoes personal transformation. Her interaction in marriage sub-plots works to establish her comic unsuitability for marriage, thereby supporting the positive outcome for the designated romantic leads.

Moll’s simple existence creates a category crisis: she exists as a gender enigma, neither adopting nor shedding her hybrid costume. The other characters recognize this crisis by engaging with her via three different sexual identities, as well as with the character’s refusal to identify herself as a sexual being. She is approached via both standard poles of female sexuality, the virgin and the whore, but also as standing outside binary gender as a “monster” or hermaphrodite, either an ungendered being who is neither male nor female, or a bisexual being who is both simultaneously.

Moll is given the attributes of a dramatic hero: physical prowess, a noble spirit, and moral certitude--but she succeeds in claiming them only by removing herself from the question of sexual identity. In the end, she is allowed to transcend gender by reference to a philosophical bisexual ideal that makes her self-sufficient and unconnected to sexuality.

Another continuing theme in the play is for other characters to misread Moll’s transgression as sexual promiscuity. Women assume she is a rival for their husbands’ sexual attention. Men assume she is available for their sexual conquest. Moll’s resistance to these assumptions is not as a virtuous and chaste woman, but as a martial champion of all women’s virtue. She confronts the male sexual aggressors, defeats them by force of arms, and chastises them for thinking that women are their natural prey. But in doing so, Moll removes herself from the category she defends. She is not susceptible to male flattery and she cannot be subjected by force.

This feeds into the reading of Moll as a “third sex” outside the gender binary. The character of Sir Alexander labels her a monstrous gender hybrid in response to Moll’s deliberate emphasizing of her masculine dress (deliberately done to deceive him). Other characters speculate on her possible physical hermaphroditism, or at least on her bisexual potential: “she might first cuckold the husband and then make him do as much for the wife.”

Renaissance culture was obsessed with the concept of the hermaphrodite. In terms of ordinary bodies, this manifested as a need to force ambiguous individuals into one binary category or the other. But on an abstract philosophical level, it allowed for the envisioning of a sexually self-suffient ideal being who combined the best attributes of male and female, thereby transcending the need to unify with a gender opposite to achieve perfection.

Moll rejects the reading of her as physiologically indeterminate, as monstrous. The play then invokes this hermaphroditic ideal, turning her transgressive masculine signifiers into an outward sign of her male-coded virtues. One of Moll’s speeches invokes this sexual self-sufficiency when she rejects a suitor’s overtures saying she, “likes to lie a-both sides of the bed herself”. Being both male and female, there is no place in her bed for any other.

The mythologic origins of Hermaphroditus may be alluded to in various astrological discussions of Moll (and of Frith) which invoke the sign of Mercury (Hermes) in the context of her criminal activities and her service to Venus (in Frith’s case, in running a bawdy house later in life; in Moll’s case, in helping the young lovers to their happy conclusion). But in doing so, the question of Moll’s own sexuality is removed from the question, and her performative status as a “third gender” is instead idealized as a metaphorical ideal.

The confusing contradiction of Moll’s various identities in the play is disrupted further by the appearance of Frith on stage after at least one of the performances of the place, wearing her hybrid-gender outfit, singing, and giving “immodest and lascivious speeches” including an offer to prove her female gender to anyone who would return to her lodgings with her. Frith rejects the metaphoric idealized hermaphrodite posited by the play, and invokes a physiological-essentialist position that prioritizes her genitalia over her gender performance. [Note: This framing by Krantz should be noted as speculative. Frith could just as reasonably be read as identifying as female and offering her body as contradiction to the accusation of hermaphroditism and comfortable in embracing her hybrid gender expression.] While the playwrights used Moll to advocate for social liberality and the incorporation of transgressive gender identities into society, Frith herself raises the question of whether she wanted to be so incorporated and normalized, or whether she preferred to continue as a disruptive force.

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