26.09.16: Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Cross-dressing and Re-dressing
Within the second volume of No Man's Land is this essay, an intensively researched investigation by Gilbert and Gubar (G&G) on the history of gender switching in English literature. Most useful is the sheer depth and detail of the history of cross-dressing in literature, though the object of attention is transvestism, rather than transsexuality. G&G start in the Renaissance with Shakespeare's two comedies involving female cross-dressing as disguise, Twelfth Night and As You Like It. Further female-to-male cross-dressing occurs in examples of nineteenth-century literature, with the context of socio-economic opportunity. The texts being reviewed, while obscure, highlight the historical phenomenon of gender apartheid in nineteenth century Britain, with the fictional portrayal of women dressing as men to escape their predicament.
It is the in the twentieth century that G&G briefly note a work that questions gender itself, with Edward Carpenter's vision of a sacred third sex, in his works The Intermediate Sex (1908) and The Intermediate Types (1914). Yet such an exploration beyond gender's confines is otherwise barely covered. It is in this early twentieth-century period that a division instead occurs, between female writers using transvestism and gender-transformation as a means for women to embrace a better life, and male writers expressing the anxiety of castration and lost authority. G&G present several examples of such novels that emerge over the ensuing twentieth-century, up until the 1970s, with cross-dressing allowing for female emancipation, or male emasculation and reduction. Famous texts epitomising this development include Joyce's Ulysses, Hemingway's unfinished The Garden of Eden, and Woolf's Orlando, none of which I would regard as doing justice to the complexity and tensions surrounding gender switching. The male literature does provide an insight into cross-dressing as a source of sado-masochistic pleasure, and this is a significant reflection of how femininity and womanhood continued to be seen in the twentieth century.In focusing on only English literature, there are missed opportunities for a broader scope. Niels Hoyer's Man Into Woman, for example, as a semi-factual account of one of the first post-op transsexuals Lily Elbe, deserves some mention. In fact it is surprising, based on G&G's historical focus, that so little is written historically about the experience of transsexuals, considering the developments in medical technology regarding gender reassignment surgery in the early twentieth century. G&G maintain their focus on literature using cross-dressing as metaphor, not as a genuine experience with its accompanying, complex issues of doubt, disappointments, social rejections and realities. Is this really all that was written about the experience of changing gender? Or does there exist a body of work, perhaps beyond the English speaking world, that explores a transsexual experience. Hoyer's Man Into Woman may well be the tip of the ice-berg, but we don't see it in this essay.