Review of Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety


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CLOTHES TO YOU

A Review of VESTED INTERESTS: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety

by Marjorie Garber

New York: Routledge

Review Copyright © 1992 by William A. Henkin

Originally published in Spectator

 

 

Did you ever see the famous photograph of Ernest Hemingway, age two, clad in a dainty white dress and a big flowered hat? The picture, and the news that his mother called it "Summer girl," shook up a few of the macho breed when one of Papa's famous bios was published.

And how about the hysteria the media kicked up not two years ago, when the Mattel Corp. accidentally sold, in a still-sealed box, one Ken doll (the Barbie doll's boyfriend) dressed in a satiny white tutu and pink lace flounces, with a baby blue purse draped softly across his manly chest? "So easy to dress!" the box proclaimed. "He's a handsome prince!"

Or did you see David Hwang's critically acclaimed theatre piece M. Butterfly last year? In this fresh weaving of some threads from Puccini's Madame Butterfly the male transvestite spy finally stands naked while the man who loved him when he was a she paints and clothes his own face and body in a travesty of transvestism.

No? Well then, let's try some movies (many made, admittedly, from books). Recall Dustin Hoffman as Michael Dorsey playing Dorothy Michaels in Tootsie? Barbra Streisand as Anshel the Yeshiva boy in Yentl? Did you see Myra Breckenridge? Victor/ Victoria? The Silence of the Lambs? Dog Day Afternoon? The World According to Garp? Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean? The Sheltering Sky? Some Like It Hot? Dressed to Kill? What about The Rocky Horror Picture Show?

Transvestites – men who dress in women's clothes and women who dress in men's – appear to be everywhere. Some are so obvious in their clothing play they never attempt to hide their sex or gender, such as Liberace, Little Richard, Boy George, or k.d. lang. Some are less apparent because they camouflage themselves right out in the open, like the later Elvis Presley portraying a sensitive man in his Las Vegas heartthrob make-up, or Marlene Dietrich and Josephine Baker as sexy women toughs in their tuxes and tails, and – where Madonna reinvents them, cross-dressed as a tough man cross-dressing as a soft woman – in teddies.

Still others – transgenderists, to use the current term – are utterly invisible: men living the lives of women, women living the lives of men, at least until they die and some mortician blows their cover. That's what happened to the female body of jazz great Billy Tipton, whose own wife believed him to be male, and to Dr. James Barry, a physician who became Inspector General of the Medical Department of the British Army in 1822.

And some, such as the 18th Century Chevalier d'Eon, utterly confound our feeble notions of gender. Diplomat, soldier, and spy, Minister Plenipotentiary for the French Foreign Service, decorated with the cross of St. Louis which he – and she – wore proudly until death, d'Eon lived his first 49 years as a man and his last 34 as a woman.

D'Eon always referred to himself with care, avoiding either feminine or masculine pronouns. His changing faces disconcerted his contemporaries so, that not only the woman with whom he lived for many years, but also his own physician thought he was female. Another surgeon, who claimed to have examined d'Eon earlier, similarly found the person female. Heavy betting on his sex took place not only in fashionable clubs, but on the London Stock Exchange as well. Royal courts begged to know the truth, and finally in the name of his king d'Eon was ordered to dress as a woman for the rest of his life simply to resolve the uncertainty – a simplistic sort of executive solution that proved to confuse the truth further in the end.

So don't be surprised, good buddy, if that hot number you hit on last night doesn''t turn out to be exactly what you think s/he is. Cross-dressers are not only history and media stars – they are you, or they're your neighbors. Psychologists and researchers in this area say 5 - 10 percent of the American population cross-dresses part or all the way, part or all the time. That's about 20 million Americans. According to Marjorie Garber, author of Vested Interests, the Tiffany Club of Waltham, Massachussetts claims 350 transvestite members, who are "mostly male, middle class, and ninety percent married." A Club spokesperson told her, "Our largest group is computer engineers, and our second largest is truck drivers. Our biggest contingent is from MIT [Massachussetts Institute of Technology]." And as in ETVC*, the San Francisco Bay Area's largest cross-dresser's organization, other Tiffany Club members are doctors, lawyers, accountants, and other people like you and your neighbors.

The grey universe inhabited by D'Eon – or in the preceding century by Francois Timolon, the Abbé de Choisy, a man monumentally, aggressively, yea, flamingly heterosexual who used to dress himself in a flowing gown, jewels, and make-up, dress his mistress as a boy, then step out to the opening of the opera; who was sent to attend the election of the Pope and dressed as a woman at the Pope's coronation ball, as he did again while in the entourage of Louis XIV's ambassador to Siam – this grey universe is a lot of what Vested Interests is about.

But the book is not about the middle ground just because of sex. Writers have posited the existence of a third sex for thousands of years, and – in addition to the rare intersexed person – cultures across the globe and throughout history from the Native American transgenderists the French called berdache to the hijras of India, have provided evidence supporting the possibility. But a third sex – or, more likely, a third gender – is not quite what this most remarkable book is about either.

* Name changed to TGSF in 1998 – WAH.

 

In fact, Vested Interests is not even about transvestism or cross-dressing (trans is Latin for cross, vestia is Latin for clothing), exactly. Instead, it's about the importance of the intermediate – the person who crosses lines as a way of life – in civilization. It's about the actor, the spy, the diplomat, the escaped slave or prisoner, the expatriate – anyone who passes or seeks to pass, in his own mind or in the minds of others, for what she is not, or would not be called by most other people if the covers of his presentation were removed. It's about the anxiety many people experience when they confront the indeterminacy of others whose existence in the borderland between dichotomies – of race, class, nationality, profession, sanity – challenges the binary rules of role laid down by almost every society, insisting that you're either one thing or another, black or white, native or alien, man or woman – and how, by doing so, they actually create culture. This book is about "third terms" in general because Garber believes that without them the social world of dualities in which most of us live most of the time would not even exist. And for Garber it is the figure of the cross-dresser that most conspicuously and most profoundly marks the figure of cross-over.

Garber's book begins by explaining the importance of cultural values in enabling us to read the people we meet. Until about the beginning of World War II, for instance, blue was the color routinely worn by baby girls because it was dainty and delicate, while pink, considered the stronger color, was worn by baby boys. That bright-red necktie lawyers and t.v. anchormen affected a decade ago as a source and sign of personal power was worn as a code by homosexual men early in the century so they could identify each other, as green (or yellow, depending on your locale) meant gay in 1950s highschools, and lavender and pink – defiantly recouped from the Nazis – have recently been rallying colors in gay communities.

Garber asserts that "the story of transvestism in western culture is... bound up with the story of homosexuality and gay identity," yet maintains that "to restrict cross-dressing to the context of an emerging gay and lesbian identity" is to risk missing some of its most important political and cultural features.

And it is a prodigious examination of those features that make up her nearly 400 pages of closely-written text. Garber explores cross-dressing as a mode of disguise in theatre, as a tool in navigating a business career, and as a feature of gender identity among gay men and women, transsexuals, and clothing fetishists. She devotes a wonderful chapter to pondering why the title role in Peter Pan has virtually always been played by a female, ever since its very first performance (the boy who won't grow up to be a man can't grow up to be a man, if he is safely ensconced in a female body), and includes a long aside on Lord Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the recently homophobic Boy Scouts, who "was famous for his skirt dancing' and female impersonations both at school and throughout his long career in the British army," and who enjoyed a lengthy military co-habitation with a member of his regiment he referred to as "the Boy," later writing in a piece about marriage "that he was convinced two men could live as happily together as a man and a woman."

She writes about cross-dressing in detective fiction, about transvestite saints, martyrs, and other religious figures, and about cross-dressing over racial barriers. She spends several chapters on cross-dressing among the obvious professions – theatre in its many manifestations and international diplomacy in its many manifestations – and includes a delicious, unexpected reading of Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf in Grandma's clothing.

For the visually-inclined she offers three sets of photographs, including (but not limited to) one of T. E. Lawrence (whom she calls "The Chic of Araby") that was clearly a model for Peter O'Toole in David Lean's movie Lawrence of Arabia; several each of Rudolph Valentino ("Radical Shiek") and Julian Eltinge, the Jim Bailey of the late 19th Century; lots of pictures of young Harvard undergraduates in their sometimes skimpy drag for the annual Hasty Pudding Review; one portrait of Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, who as Colonial Governor of New York and New Jersey from 1702 - 1708 dressed in women's clothes because, he said, he wished to represent Queen Anne "as faithfully as I can"; and one apiece of a wonderfully androgynous Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol in drag, Marcel Duchamp as his female alter ego Rrose Slavy (Eros, c'est la vie), and Nancy Reagan sitting on the lap of a Santa Claus-costumed Mr. T.

Obviously, in order to cover all this ground Garber must have spent several lifetimes reading and otherwise exposing herself to popular and intellectual culture. Books, movies, rock n' roll epics, and television; Shakespeare, Freud, Mark Twain, and Lacan; Newsweek, Gentleman's Quarterly, Fruit of the Loom underwear ads, and Liz Smith's gossip column; Sherlock Holmes, John T. Molloy, and even two of San Francisco's most conspicuous contributors to worldwide gender education, Jack Fertig (who helped found the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and who, as Sister Boom-Boom, Nun of the Above, won more than 20,000 votes in the 1982 election for the Board of Supervisors) and the late Lou Sullivan, founder of FTM and author of Information for the Female to Male Cross Dresser and Transsexual: few people, artifacts, or cultural icons that have anything to do with cross-dressing as a symbol of crossing boundaries fail to turn up in these densely-packed pages.

The dust-jacket of this beautifully produced book – full cloth binding, tasteful end papers, sewn as well as glued so the pages won't fall out next year, adequate margins and leading for easy eye-work – calls this book a tour de force, and I must say it's been difficult not to use that phrase till now. Though the going sometimes does get tough because Garber aims to cover lots of ground, nonetheless she does it with panache and a happy sense of humor. Yes, she has academic credentials – Professor of English and Director of the Center for Literary and Cultural Studies at Harvard, and author of a pair of books on Shakespeare; but Garber also loves puns shamelessly. Not only in her references to T. E. Lawrence and Rudolph Valentino, cited above, but in chapter titles and subtitles throughout this book she crosses words and concepts any time she can. The chapter concerning business and clothing is "Cross-Dress for Success"; the opening subsection, of course, is "TV Guide." The piece on detective fiction, "Cherchez la Femme," follows "Fear of Flying," the chapter on Peter Pan. The chapter on church drag, "Religious Habits," is followed by a chapter on people who vanish into or out of their cross-gendered disguises, especially in theatre: that's "Phantoms of the Opera."

Yet, despite her love of painful humor – which I confess I share with glee – Garber's aim remains scholarly and serious. In her chapter on cross-dressing the color line, "Black and White TV," she discusses in some detail a painting that hung briefly in Chicago's Art Institute of the city's late mayor Harold Washington dressed "only in bra, bikini pants, garter belt, and stockings."

Washington, a black politician rumored in some quarters to be gay, had won the mayoralty against a nasty and blatantly racist white challenger. When the painting appeared shortly after he died it nearly caused a riot among the city's black aldermen. They had it removed from the museum, censoring one form of cross-over with another: anti-Semitism. The artist was Jewish and some aldermen attacked him on that ground. By the time the painting was returned someone had slashed a five-inch gash in the Mayor's chest. Writes Garber,

 

Why was it that the portrait of Mayor Washington in frilly lingerie aroused such violent emotions in the black community? Because – I want to suggest – it tells a story that has been put under erasure, blacked out, blotted: the story of the transvestite as the figure of crossover itself, of that which is both fantasized and feared.... Paradoxically, the black American male has [also] been constructed by majority culture as both sexually threatening and feminized, as both super-potent and impotent. The easy "equation" between castration and feminization, offensive alike to men and to women... is an all-too-clear demonstration of the ways in which categories like "gender" and "race" have been made to intersect and cross over one another in the service of political rhetoric and cultural domination. To change sex is to slide along a power differential. To change power is to change sex.... The forcible cross-dressing of Mayor Washington's image "downward" toward a ludicrous "femininity" ... is a sign at once of the denigration of blacks and of women.

 

For each of the past several years major publishing companies have treated us to at least one brilliant tour de force (there's that phrase again) by a reigning feminist intellectual. Each in its own way, and among other aims, Jessica Benjamin's Bonds of Love, Louise Kaplan's Female Perversions, and Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae all sought to address Freud's notion that men have perversions – which are about possessing something – and women have neuroses – which are about lacking something.

 

Not until Vested Interests, however, has someone bothered to take the middle way, and use the cross-gender condition of having something that is lacking to define the boundaries of what passes for our experience of gender. Because those boundaries are very real to us, and instrumental in enabling us to establish our identities, helping us at the most primitive level to distinguish "me" from "you," we use them to create a world of opposites in the form of binaries and dualties. Because they are also symbolic we can learn to see beyond them to a world of unity, a place beyond opposites, where "up" and "down" or "male" and "female" are not antagonistic but are equal participants in the creation of direction or a sexual species.

This, in the elegant phrase I first heard from sinologist Elgin Heinz, who borrowed it in part from the physicist Neils Bohr, is the world of "bipolar complementarities:" two extremes of one continuum. It is also where, as Garber says, "transvestism creates culture."

 

Cross-dressing is about gender confusion. Cross-dressing is about the phallus as constitutively veiled. Cross-dressing is about the power of women. Cross-dressing is about the emergence of gay identity. Cross-dressing is about the anxiety of economic or cultural dislocation, the anticipation or recognition of "otherness" as loss. All true, all partial truths, all powerful metaphors. But the compelling force of transvestism in literature and culture comes not, or not only, from these effects, but also from its instatement of metaphor itself, not as that for which a literal meaning must be found, but precisely as that without which there would be no such thing as meaning in the first place.

 

 


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