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Cross-Dressing in the Theater: Unbinding and Binding Gender

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A lot of my thoughts this past month have been about cross-dressing in a theatrical setting – what it means for my own gender and other actors’ gender exploration. In my third web event I focused in on this idea and how it relates to feminism unbound. I discussed the idea of cross-dressing in the theater and how Judith Butler’s notion of performativity unbinds gender and can itself be further unbound to allow for more freedom in gender expression and exploration.

Summary of web event #3: Performativity and Feminism Unbound

In my paper, I defined “feminism unbound” as feminism after we have problematized the ideas of sex and gender, after we have realized how difficult it is to define the category “women,” after we have acknowledged that sexism affects everyone in infinite ways and that feminism is not a movement for women, but for humanity. I then took this idea and decided to apply it in a theatrical setting, where I have spent a good deal of time this past semester.

Performativity in its essence is the concept that individuals construct their identities through “performance” or “acting.” People act out certain behaviors and in turn this begins to reflect on the reality of their own character. Judith Butler, in much of her work, discussed the connection between performativity and gender identity. As she stated in an interview: “to say that gender is performative is to say that nobody really is a gender from the start” (Your Behavior Creates Your Gender). From the start of their lives, individuals learn to imitate the behaviors of what society considers gender “ideals” – the ideal masculine man and the ideal feminine woman. The behaviors they imitate, in whatever capacity or combination, end up constructing a gender identity within the individual.

I then attempted in my paper to connect this notion of performativity with feminism unbound by unbinding the idea further. If performativity implies that people are constantly constructing and changing their identities based simply on where they are in life, then clearly we, as humans, cannot be defined as stable beings. Further, this means that the “we” in feminism is unstable and indeterminate. Thus, feminism really isn’t a movement for women; it can be unbound because it works for all people to have equality, including freedom of exploration in their gender and identity.

This concept can then be connected to the theater and the idea of cross-dressing in the theater. There is a distinct difference between performance and performativity. The term performance typically implies enactment, while performativity suggests the constitution of regulatory impressions and their effects on the performer’s reality (Brickell 28). Yet performance “is an essential element of performativity and paying attention to performance provides a way of studying gender construction and troubling” (Morison 567). From my own experience as an actor, this past semester I took on the role of Prince Henry in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, which meant cross-dressing to portray a rather “masculine man.” Throughout this whole process, I began to realize that my performance of Prince Henry was beginning to reflect on the reality of my identity – by imitating society’s masculine gender “ideal,” I was constructing a new part of my gender identity that consisted of more masculine qualities than I remembered being included before. This is a perfect example of how cross-dressing in the theater can upset gender scripts and begin to break the boundaries between male and female in the gender binary. Further, it can trouble gender by emphasizing the great disjunction between the sexed body and performance, thus highlighting the imitative nature of gender itself (Morison 567).

We can see that performativity by itself has an unbinding nature towards gender, but I attempted to unbind the idea even further by claiming that the next goal would be to completely eliminate gender roles and these “gender ideals” in society. Butler’s idea relies on the fact that the socially constructed ideal man and woman are the basis for performativity, since we must imitate these ideals in some combination to construct our identities. As Brickell states, “…performativity involves subsequent repetition or citation of gender norms. This citation takes place under conditions of cultural constraint or regulatory regimes, which compel some appearances of masculinity and femininity while prohibiting others” (Brickell 26).  So my suggestion was that the next step in unbinding the idea would be to get rid of those cultural constraints, those “gender ideals” to allow for complete freedom in gender construction, not regulated by any existing gender roles or stereotypes. I even took one more step to say that we can unbind this idea further by opening it up to apply to all aspects of identity, not just gender. This would mean making society more acceptable to change in general – something that society seems to hate and fear. In reality, people are constantly changing aspects of their character or identity just because of the situations they are experiencing at different times throughout life, and this sort of identity journey should be supported and encouraged, not shamed, by society.

I ended my paper with the idea that instead of uniting all humans under the fact that we will all die someday, as Butler suggests, we unite under the fact that none of us are really stable in the world or know 100% what we are doing, but are constantly changing and just doing the best with what we have. As cheesy as this will sound, Shakespeare really nailed the crux of this whole idea in his play As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances and one man in his time plays many parts.”

Unbinding my argument with a counter argument

The whole idea for my last paper topic stemmed from my own experience cross-dressing in the theater and what it did to open up my mind to the idea of gender exploration. For me, it began to break down the gender binary and make gender seem like a much more fluid thing within my own identity and in general. I found myself wearing binders even once the show was over just because sometimes I felt like presenting a more masculine gender expression. I even had one experience where I spent the day wearing a binder and androgynous clothing, but then in the evening I was going out with some friends so I took off the binder and put on a push-up bra, dress, and heels. Both presentations of my gender felt right and I had a good chuckle about how I was messing with gender that day. I began to question where my gender existed, what it entailed, and how the simple term “woman” could not begin to encompass all that my gender was. For me, cross-dressing in the theater unbound my own gender and made me question myself in ways I never had before.

That being said, I’m now going to completely unbind the argument I just put together by providing a counter argument: that cross-dressing in the theater, instead of unbinding gender through performativity and troubling of gender scripts, actually reinforces and perpetuates the gender binary and gender stereotypes. I’ll look at the issue from multiple perspectives, including cross-dressing in the plots of theatrical performances (specifically in Shakespeare’s comedies), how cross-dressing is used as a form of humor and entertainment, actors that cross-dress in theater and what it means for them, cross-dressing in Bryn Mawr’s Shakespeare Performance Troupe (which consists of all Bryn Mawr students, mostly female-identifying), and my own experience with performativity and cross-dressing (but from the opposite position this time, as something that is binding on my gender rather than unbinding).

First I’ll look at cross-dressing as it is represented in the plots of plays, specifically Shakespeare plays since they are such well-loved texts in the culture of theater performance and his comedies often contain good examples of cross-dressing to investigate further. Could these fables in theater of cross-dressing have contributed to the cultural apparatus for policing gender binaries in society (Howard 428)? One example of a Shakespearean comedy that centers on cross-dressing is Twelfth Night. Jean Howard, a professor in humanities with particular interest in feminism, wrote about cross-dressing in Shakespeare’s plays and what roles gender played in the development of the plots. In her analysis of Twelfth Night and the cross-dressed female protagonist Viola, she argues that the treatment of this character actually reinforces gender roles and gender stereotypes (Ferris 14). As Howard states, “…the play seems to embody a fairly oppressive fable of the containment of gender and class insurgency and the valorization of the ‘good woman’ as the one who has interiorized – whatever her clothing – her essential difference from, and subordinate relations to, the male” (Howard 431). By this she means that despite the masculine attire Viola has disguised herself in, it is made clear to the audience that she is a proper heterosexual female on the inside, and this negates the threat her masculine appearance poses and completely rules out the possibility of her aspiring to anything like male privilege and prerogative. One of the main tensions of the play is the want to release this true woman from the prison created by her masculine appearance and return her to her proper and natural position as the wife of a man – namely, Orsino (Howard 432).

In another example of Shakespearean cross-dressing plots, Rosalind in As You Like It dresses as a man and at times impersonates a woman (herself) by playing out masculine constructions of femininity, thereby showing their limitations (Howard 435). As Howard puts it, “Ironically, rather than blurring gender difference or challenging male domination and exploitation of women, female cross-dressing often strengthens notions of difference by stressing what the disguised woman cannot do, or by stressing those feelings held to constitute a ‘true’ female subjectivity” (Howard 439). Despite the temporary power these cross-dressing women in Shakespeare’s plays gain in their masculine attire, the plays always end with the woman very willingly shedding the male clothes and privileges, and often thereafter taking up the position as the wife/lover of a man (Howard 439). So though it may seem to undermine gender differences on the surface, this cross-dressing in Shakespeare’s work actually highlights the gender differences between men and women and reinforces traditional gender roles.

Another important aspect of theatrical cross-dressing is its use as a form of humor by way of exaggerated gender stereotypes. It is a long-standing theatrical tradition for actors, typically men, to cross-dress as women for the purposes of making an audience laugh. Male actors often do this by representing the culture’s most blatant female stereotypes, including scolds, shrews, and adulteresses (Shapiro 30), and audiences typically find this hilarious. Their laughter makes light of the ridiculous display and can continue the reinforcement of social norms and these gender stereotypes. This laughter, in fact, “is precisely what keeps audiences from seriously examining the rules and hierarchies they delight in seeing temporarily subverted” (Modelski 529). So although cross-dressing could have the potential to challenge gender binaries, theatrical impersonations of women become humorous and enjoyable for the audience with no real defiance towards the gender binary system (Shapiro 40). The question is, would calling attention to these stereotypes as stereotypes help at all, or would it simply magnify its negative effect?

We can also examine the purposes and effects of cross-dressing when it is not for the purpose of humor, and what kinds of prejudices arise in these cases. When cross-dressing in a theatrical performance is meant for entertainment and laughter, it seems that men impersonating women is far more common than women impersonating men. As Ferris states, “men dressed as women often parody gender, women dressed as men, on the other hand, tend to perform gender” (Ferris 12). Cross-dressed men are typically praised as being much funnier and more loved by the audience, while women cross-dressed as men who try to be funny are seen as pathetic, thus more commonly they take on serious male characters. This sort of thinking simply perpetuates society’s view of the man as universal (Ferris 6). However, when theatrical impersonations of women by male cross-dressers are not meant to parody and degrade but instead to be serious and genuine, a very aggressive prejudice arises against men dressing and acting as women because women in society are considered inferior beings (Ferris 6). Men playing female roles in theater often get to experience a freedom of emotions denied them in normal life because emotions are considered such feminine quality that’s degrading for men to take on - it becomes a playground for them to experiment with emotions. However, despite this clear prejudice, male actors who cross-dress still find themselves with much more privilege than female actors because once they are done playing around with these feminine emotions, they can return to the the real world run by a patriarchal system that supports them and their maleness (Ferris 12).

Female performers in theater also face a great deal of prejudice, including even what male roles they are “allowed” to be cast in or are deemed capable of performing. For example, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a common role for a woman to play because he is stereotyped as “a waffling neurotic prone to violent fits” unlike some of Shakespeare’s more masculine characters (Ferris 2). So because Hamlet may be a male character with more feminine qualities than others, women are deemed worthy and capable of playing him because of the female gender stereotype. To add on to this, you never see male actors scrambling with a desire to play any female characters in theatrical performances, thus we see a clear imbalance, as all of the masculine roles are considered “stronger” and more dynamic. By casting Hamlet as a woman, it simply “reemphasizes the universalist pretensions of maleness, the specific limitations of femaleness, in our culture” (Ferris 2). In the days when women were typically not allowed to act on the Elizabethan stage, young boys were usually cast in women’s roles because it was believed that at some level, young boys and women shared a common temperament – irrational, emotional, and mercurial (Shapiro 41). By all of this, we can see the clear dichotomy when it comes to cross-dressing in the theater and how male and female actors are treated and viewed by society when they cross-dress.

As I talked about before, in my own experience playing a very masculine male role this semester, in many ways it seemed to unbind gender for me and it certainly made me view my own gender differently, exploring a gender outside the social binary that encompassed more than just “woman.” However, what I didn’t realize at first was that in many ways, the experience also bound my views of masculine and feminine behavior in myself and made me more aware of differences in behavior that are actually socially constructed. In all of my experiences acting in the Shakespeare Performance Troupe, I have been trained to perform gender very specifically, because we are a mostly female-identifying group and have to exaggerate gender differences to clearly portray the characters’ distinct genders on stage. For the actors who play male characters, every semester we must go through a workshop we call “Manshop,” in which we learn how to “act like a man.” We learn how to “take up space” like a man, how to hold our bodies in (non-homosexual) interactions with men as opposed to women, and how to “walk with a penis.” As the leaders of the workshop always openly admit, it is all very stereotyped. In the same vein, since we have to really distinguish character gender differences, actors who play women are told to over-exaggerate their “womanly” motions and behaviors. For example, we must “take up as little space as possible,” walk with lots of hip movement as if we were wearing heels, etc. In the fall of my freshman year, I played the courtesan in a modern day interpretation of Comedy of Errors set in a college fraternity. I remember the director telling me again and again to be more “girly” – to flip my wrists more, to accentuate my curves more, to flick my head around more. I had to be the epitome of the female “valley girl” stereotype.

When I think back on this experience of playing a stereotypical ditsy, hyper-feminine role in comparison to this semester when I played a stereotypical suave masculine role, I realized that as a woman trying to accurately portray characters based on a gender binary in theatrical performances, I have to pretty much embody the gender binary. All of this subconsciously has made me very aware of the differences between stereotypical masculine and feminine behavior, to the point where I can recognize the different components in my own everyday behavior. For example, if I’m casually standing around somewhere in my “man-stance,” sometimes I’ll realize it and think, “Oops I’m in my man-stance again!” Even sometimes other people from SPT who have also gone through this whole process will recognize this behavior in me and point it out with a chuckle. Is this a bad thing? By learning how to portray the different genders in theater, we have defined in our minds very specific “male” body movements and “female” body movements. Would we have been better off not even being aware of the difference? Did some of this “masculine” behavior exist in me before and I just never recognized it as such, or did I construct it through performativity as Butler would suggest? Although it is true that my performance as a man brought out more manly qualities in me, I recognize them as “man” behaviors instead of just “human” behaviors. It would seem then, that in some ways my experience cross-dressing in the theater has actually subconsciously reinforced the gender binary and gender stereotypes in my mind.

All of this is a really fascinating thought experiment and explores the complete opposite side to an argument I formerly made, but the fact of the matter is, after I finish this paper and this class, I’m still going to do theater and cross-dress in theater as a man in more plays to come, so I’ll still be going to “Manshop” and exaggerating gender differences to make my gender portrayals more believable. So what can really be done at this point? What does all this mean put together? I have now crafted two opposing, both well-thought-out, complete arguments. I have convinced myself of one opinion and then completely unbound it with another. So where do I stand now? Honestly, I have no idea. I’ve spent so much time trying to make sense of my two opposing arguments, and I can only conclude that my opinion must exist somewhere in the middle. In analyzing my own experience, it seems as though I’ve both unbound my own gender AND reinforced behavioral gender stereotypes in my mind. Perhaps even just being aware of this could help me to fight against it in the rest of the world. For now, this whole exploration of the notion of performativity and cross-dressing in the theater – whether it unbinds gender or binds it back up – has opened my eyes to important subtleties and ideas that had passed me by before, and is something I will be taking with me in my future acting endeavors as I continue on this never-ending, always-changing journey to explore and unbind gender in my life.

**Some pictures of me in the opposing gender roles I played as the Courtesan in Comedy of Errors and Prince Henry in Henry IV (notice the gendered differences in the clothing, makeup, facial expressions, and even just in the way I am standing for these photos):

Works Cited

Brickell, Chris. "Masculinities, Performativity, and Subversion: A Sociological Reappraisal." Men and Masculinities (2005): 24-43. SAGE Journals. SAGE. Web. 08 Dec. 2013. < html>.

Felluga, Dino F. "Introduction to Judith Butler, Module on Performativity." Gender & Sex. Dino F. Felluga, 31 Jan. 2011. Web. 07 Dec. 2013. <>.

Ferris, Lesley. "Introduction: Current Crossings." Crossing the Stage: Controversies on Cross-dressing. London: Routledge, 1993. 1-18. Print.

Howard, Jean E. "Crossdressing, The Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England." Shakespeare Quarterly 39.4 (1988): 418-40. JSTOR. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.

Modleski, Tania. "A Woman's Gotta Do ... What a Man's Gotta Do? Cross-Dressing in the Western." Signs 22.3 (1997): 519-44. JSTOR. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.

Morison, Tracy, and Catriona Macleod. "A Performative-Performance Analytical Approach: Infusing Butlerian Theory Into the Narrative-Discursive Method." Qualitative Inquiry (2013): 566-77. SAGE Journals. SAGE, 2013. Web. 08 Dec. 2013. < html>.

Morris, Rosalind C. "All Made Up: Performance Theory and the New Anthropology of Sex and Gender." Annual Review of Anthropology 24 (1995): 567-92. JSTOR. Web. 8 Dec. 2013. <>.

Shapiro, Michael. Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage: Boy Heroines and Female Pages. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1994. Print.

Your Behavior Creates Your Gender. Judith Butler. Big Think. N.p., 19 Feb. 2011. Web. 06 Dec. 2013. <>.