Crossdressing and Cultural Anxiety

Source: “Playing with Clothes” Copyright © by Debra Silverman

Dept. of English, University of Southern California

Postmodern Culture v.3 n.3 (May, 1993)

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Review of: Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, 1992.

In March, the women’s NCAA basketball championship was played in Atlanta, Georgia, and for the first time in many years the event was sold out. The sellout warranted a lot of notice in the printed press and on the television news – the men’s tournament always sold out but women’s basketball had been all but neglected in the past few years. The rise of women’s basketball had already been making headlines in the Los Angeles Times, where a story on the women’s team at Stanford noted that the women’s games were frequently selling out this season while the men’s games were marked by numerous empty seats. According to the Times, fans are appreciating the new athleticism of female players, particularly of stars such as Texas Tech’s Sheryl Swoops, who has been said to run the fast break as well as any male player. But many sports writers and radio call-in jocks have been dismayed by the sudden popularity of the women’s sport and by the media attention it has received, proclaiming that too much TV time has been taken away from the male players. On one call-in program a male viewer complained, “It’s not as if we really want to watch a bunch of girls run around a basketball court.” It seems that men, players and sports aficionados alike, felt for the first time this season that their all-male space was being threatened. It was an anxious moment for men’s basketball.

But it has been an anxious cultural moment for women in the sport, as well. Another L.A. Times article, which appeared at the end of last year’s tournament, is symptomatic. Entitled “Lesbian Issue Stirs Discussion” (April 16, 1992), the article engages the all too familiar conflation of discussions of women athletes with discussions of sexual preference. The “Lesbian Issue” was precipitated by comments from Penn State women’s basketball coach Rene Portland – her team rules include the mandate “no lesbians.” Julie Cart, Times staff writer, sets out to investigate the history of this mandate and the problematic relationship between women athletes and their perceived (homo)sexuality. Cart concludes that, “being perceived as a lesbian in the women’s sports world often carries the same stigma as ‘being’ a lesbian.” The way in which one’s sexuality is perceived is just as potent as how one represents her own sexuality.

In an effort to confuse (or perhaps illuminate) the boundaries between “being” and “seeming,” women athletes have turned to traditional “feminine” tactics. Cart notes that “to counter the perception of lesbianism, some female athletes adopt ‘compensatory’ behavior” (emphasis added). By femme-ing up, wearing make-up while competing and dressing in “ultra-feminine” clothing when not on the court, players have marked their (“seeming”) heterosexuality with a vengeance. Pat Griffin, a former basketball coach who currently conducts seminars on homophobia for collegiate sports programs, calls this compensation “hetero-sexy.” Indeed, there has been a long-standing tradition of making female athletes seem more like women and less like men. Cart turns to Mariah Burton Nelson, a former Stanford player, as confirmation of this tradition. When hired by the L.A. Dreams, one of the short-lived women’s pro teams, Nelson and her teammates were told to enter charm school. If we can judge by last year’s film A League of Their Own, these basketball players were not the first female athletes sent for etiquette lessons. In Penny Marshall’s film, set in the 1940’s, female baseball players learned to sip tea, to apply their make-up properly, and to play baseball in skirts. Such calculated displays of “femininity” were meant to combat the spectacle of the masculine woman.

One might wonder why a review of Marjorie Garber’s excellent and comprehensive study Vested Interests begins with a discussion of women’s basketball. On the surface, it seems that what we have is a simple example of machismo – the desire that men’s space be men’s space and that women not confuse the issue by playing sports. Nor should women ever confuse or challenge gender expectations – it is not expected or widely accepted that women should desire a career in basketball. Simultaneously, we have a confirmation of the long standing acceptance of homophobia in our culture – spectators look past the performer, here a basketball player, to what might potentially go on in the locker room. I would like to argue a third possibility which intersects with Garber’s book. The women talked about in the Times article were women playing with drag – dressing up as women to make sure that they would not be (mis)taken for someone or something else. Rather than covering up gender, their drag performances displace sexuality. The femme, female athletes use the markers of femininity as expressions of self-representation; markers that culture can easily read. I also want to suggest that their dressing up, crossdressing for societal consumption, creates many of the same anxieties that Garber examines and negotiates so well in Vested Interests.

Garber’s book is a combination of literary and cultural criticism. Its episodic and anecdotal moments work beautifully with theoretical interventions into discussions of postmodern gender configurations. Much like Donna Haraway’s ground breaking “A Cyborg Manifesto” which challenged the fixed nature of two terms, male and female, by introducing a third term, the cyborg, Garber’s theory insists on the discussion of three terms: male, female, and transvestite. In her analysis, the transvestite is not a side-effect of culture, an interesting thing to look past while being entertained. Her third term is the defining point of culture. As she writes in the introduction, “The ‘third’ is a mode of articulation, a way of describing a space of possibility. Three puts in question the idea of one: of identity, self-sufficiency, self-knowledge” (11). The third term – transvestite – throws gender categories into a state of “category crisis” which we must see as “not the exception but rather the ground of culture itself” (16). In other words, for Garber, crisis defines culture – and the transvestite figure defines the space of crisis negotiation, and hence of cultural redefinition or transformation.

Maneuvering her critical readings toward an examination of cultural anxiety about transvestites, Garber distinguishes her project from those which have preceded it. “The appeal of crossdressing,” she observes, “is clearly related to its status as a sign of the constructedness of gender categories.” But the tendency on the part of many critics has been to look ‘through’ rather than ‘at’ the crossdresser, to turn away from a close encounter with the transvestite, and to want instead to subsume that figure within one of the two traditional genders. To elide and erase – or to ‘appropriate’ the transvestite for particular political and critical aims. (9) Garber will insist on the third term as the marker of entry into the Symbolic, training her readers to look ‘at’ the transvestite and read this figure as the site of cultural confusion and anxiety.

At its heart, Vested Interests is a book about blurred boundaries. Many things happen when we really look at a transvestite figure instead of incorporating its “mode of articulation” into comfortable categories of gender identification. Many boundaries are crossed. It becomes difficult or impossible to explain away the transvestite or fit the crossdresser into a specific cultural niche. Garber continually reminds us that “‘transvestism is a space of possibility structuring and confounding culture’: the disruptive element that intervenes, not just a category crisis of male, and female, but the crisis of category itself” (17). In this respect, Garber’s position can be placed alongside Judith Butler’s theorization of identity in Gender Trouble (Routledge 1990). Both writers suggest that finding true identity is never fully possible as the truth is always already constructed by gendered expectations. In other words, it is not just about peeling back layers of clothing to find the truth of gender under the clothes. What is always at stake is what Butler calls the “parody” of the original, “[a] parodic proliferation [which] deprives hegemonic culture and its critics of its claim to naturalized or essentialized gender identities” (138).

Garber’s book is divided into two large sections, “Transvestite Logics,” which seeks to show “the way transvestism creates culture,” and “Transvestite Effects,” which explores how “culture creates transvestites” (16). “Transvestite Logics” is the more important half of the book. Here Garber establishes her theoretical parameters and sets her theories into place. But the entire book, which moves on a trajectory from the culturally and legally imposed rules of dress and behavior, to the ways in which these play themselves out in our need for the transvestite, is of considerable interest. Garber finds entertaining examples and compelling evidence for her theories in all corners of western culture – from the Shakespearean stage and medieval sumptuary laws to a crossdressed Ken doll and Elvis’s clothes, from manuals for women on how to crossdress as men to Madonna. The book is rich in beautiful photographs, drawings and film stills. Taken together, these many examples and illustrations highlight the problematic status of transvestite figures and confirm Garber’s argument that even in persecuting crossdressers we express our fundamental dependence on them as the crisis points of cultural negotiation.

A brief tour of some chapters will suggest the main contours of this complex and involved book. “Transvestite Logics” begins with “Dress Codes, or the Theatricality of Difference,” which explores sumptuary laws in medieval and Renaissance England and their function in enforcing social hierarchy. In Elizabethan England gender and status confusion became fashionable, causing an official stigmatization of “excess” in clothing. This excess becomes the space of the transvestite. In the two subsequent sections, Garber investigates modern instances of crossdressed Shakespeare using the actor Sir Laurence Olivier and actresses such as Sarah Bernhardt to offer the possibility that transvestite theater is the norm, rather than an aberration. Transvestite theater signifies impersonation itself, Garber argues, concluding that “there is no ground of Shakespeare that is not already crossdressed” (40). All the world really ‘is’ a stage. This initial staging sets the tone for a lot of what will follow. In part, Garber’s book is about excesses of all sorts – excessive behavior, excessive clothing styles, excessive masquerades and parades of gender confusions. It is about excessive body modifications and about pushing the limits of our everyday performances. Therefore, Garber’s point of entry, by way of a historical narrative / analysis of sumptuary laws, sets the scene(s) for the investigations that will follow. From the very outset, Garber urges us to read cultural staging and plotting in exciting and revealing ways.

“Spare Parts: The Surgical Construction of Gender” is a fascinating study of transsexualism, both female-to-male and male-to-female, using psychoanalytic theories in a discussion of male subjectivity. This chapter is particularly interesting when read with the question of excess in mind. To change one’s gender, to construct or deconstruct the proper parts, is a radical way to stage gender. Here Garber asserts that “the transvestite and the transsexual both define and problematize the entire concept of ‘male subjectivity’” (98). Since this subjectivity can be surgically constructed, Garber’s analysis obviously calls into question the viability of any essentialist orientation towards gender. If one can construct the gender s/he is, then the “natural” demarcations of difference (and desire) cannot in any sense be essential.

Garber’s assertion, in the introduction, that “to ignore the role played by homosexuality would be to risk a radical misunderstanding of the social and cultural implications of crossdressing” (4) leads her to chapter six, “Breaking the Code: Transvestism and Gay Identity.” This chapter’s organizing caveat is the assertion that no matter how intertwined homosexuality and transvestism are, “neither can simply be transhistorically ‘decoded’ as a sign for the other” (131). The section “Transvestite Panic” uses Eve Sedgwick’s model of homosexual panic to describe the anxiety over the crossdresser in gay society. Later, Garber examines the colonization of gay styles and sensibilities by straight society, using, as examples, the current vogue of camp and the eternal vogue of gay fashion and fashion designers.

“Transvestite Effects” turns its attention more firmly to popular culture. Chapters nine and eleven stand out in this section. “Religions Habits” (chapter 9) draws a connection between crossdressing and religion. This is an interesting section on the perceived effeminacy of the Jew in various places and periods, as well as the relationship, often quite complicated, between the construction of the Jew and the construction of the male homosexual. “Black and White TV: Crossdressing the Color Line” (chapter 11) discusses the question of race and the related subjects of minstrelsy and passing. This is an important and insightful chapter. Garber asserts that “the overdetermined presence of crossdressing in so many Western configurations of black culture suggests some useful ways to interrogate notions of ‘stereotype’ and ‘cliché’” (268). With attention to these stereotypes, Garber artfully and intelligently delineates the ways in which “the use of elements of transvestism by black performers and artists as a strategy for economic, political and cultural achievement … marks the translation of a mode of oppression and stigmatization into a supple medium for social commentary and aesthetic power” (303).

Despite the many strengths of this book, there were two things about it that I found troublesome. The first is that Garber does not pay enough attention to women in drag. Her only extended discussion of how women fit into the analysis is in the chapter “Fetish Envy,” the briefest chapter of the book. Part of what Garber does here is use Madonna to explore the possibility of simultaneously having and not having a penis. Her conclusion: playing with these positions can be an empowering gesture. And certainly Garber is right to observe that when Madonna squeezes her crotch on stage it is funny and offensive precisely because it plays on the joke of having and not having – it mocks the Freudian desire for what is not there. But since this sort of female fetishism plays only a contributing role in Garber’s book, serving to extend or elaborate her theorizations of male transvestitism, the discussion of Madonna’s cultural role, and of female drag in general, is closed down all too quickly. Garber, it seems to me, is too willing to leave women on the margins of transvestite theory. And the result is that she has missed an opportunity to explore the sort of cultural terrain I began with – the staging of “femininity” by women whose threatening “masculinity” requires that they in effect perform in drag. Of course Garber had to place some kinds of limits on her research. But it is a decided weakness that her book has so little to say about women in drag, and that when it broaches the issue at all it is only to situate women in relation to the fetish, positioning them once again as the troubled objects of fetishism.

The second trouble spot was pointed out to me by a friend and grows out of what we see as a dangerous trajectory initiated by Garber’s sixth chapter. In a recent article, Eve Sedgwick remarks that “gender theory at this moment is talking incessantly about crossdressing ‘in order’ never to have to talk about homosexuality.” Crossdressing has been used to allude to gay male culture by an operation similar to the “open secret” of homosexuality: “everyone already knows” that crossdressing and male homosexuality are intimately connected, so the fact of homosexuality can both be avoided and commented on through a discourse on transvestism. Sedgwick sees crossdressing as a kind of veil or displacement, and the proliferating academic literature on crossdressing as a discursive closet. I find Sedgwick’s position very persuasive. I also believe that if we are searching for a theory of crossdressing as a truly effective transgressive practice, one of the most fruitful sites to examine would be the intersection of crossdressing and gay political action. Clearly, this in itself would not solve the problem of academic or cultural displacement, but I find it troubling that Garber does not even look to these political spaces.

On March 31, 1993 Anji Xtravaganza died in New York from an AIDS-related liver disease. Anji was one of the queens featured in Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris is Burning. On April 19, 1993, the New York Times ran an article both on Anji Xtravaganza and the New York drag world. Entitled “Film, Fame, Then Fade-Out: The Drag World in Collapse,” the article reports that numerous deaths have decimated the New York drag community. Simultaneously, the writer notes that drag has arrived in prime time; with the appearance of Dame Edna Everage on TV and Ru Paul on magazine covers, nobody need seek out the New York vogue houses. Middle-class Americans can watch drag performances from the comfort of their own living rooms. This would seem to indicate that Garber’s assertions about transvestite culture are true: there is nothing without the transvestite, the figure who confounds our sense of identity while at the same time constructing who we are. Describing the last days of Anji Xtravaganza, Jesse Green writes that the liver disease was “destroying [Anji’s] hard won femininity.” Green reports that near the end Anji had to stop taking the hormones which were inadvertently helping the progress of the disease. Green notes, “In later pictures you can see the masculine lines of Angie’s [sic] face re-emerging despite the make-up.” For Green, there must always be something else behind the make-up which disease(s) can devastatingly reveal – there is inevitably a re-emergence of what Green reads as “true” identity. It is the strength of Garber’s book to make us aware of just how spurious this underlying or final truth really is – to show us that there is always something else behind the something else behind the make-up. What is always still underneath, and can never fully be revealed, is Anji’s most complex layer; neither a “true” nor a “made-up” identity, but a third term, that which both defies and defines Anji’s “masculinity” and “feminity.”

In Vested Interests Marjorie Garber has managed to traverse the spaces of this third term – some of the most difficult terrain in contemporary gender studies – with the style and grace of Sheryl Swoops leading a fast break, or Anji Xtravaganza sashaying down a runway. It’s a performance not to be missed.

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