from Vested Interests: Cross-dressing & Cultural Anxiety (1991)

Vested InterestsThis book is an attempt to explore the nature and significance both of the "fact" of cross-dressing and of the historcially recurrent fascination with it. In the chapters that follow I will explore such varied topics as the relationship between cross-dressing and theatricality; the ways in which clothing constructs (and deconstructs) gender and gender differences; transvestism, power relations, and career pathsl cultural misperceptions of gendered costume; transvestism and racism; and the role of cross-dressing in popular culture, high (and low) fashion, and the atrs -- as well as in the construction of culture itself. [...]

I have also spent an considerable amount of time examining medical discourses about corss-dressing and taking note of their implicit and sometimes explicit gender biases. Medical discourses about transvestism, even those advanced by the establishment within gender identity clinics, are often diametrically at odds with the political discourses of the transvestite-transsexaul community. For while doctors find it necessary to distinguish among transvestic cyndromes, and especiallyn between transvestites and transsexuals, in order to determine an appropriate course of treatment, transvestites and transsexuals often resist such diagnostic taxonomies for political reasons.

A doctor wants to know whether to perform surgery on the patient, altering the body to conform to an inner sense of gender identity -- the most extreme treatment offered for transsexuals -- or whether, by contrast, the patient is a transvestite or transvestophile whose pleasure comes from wearing the clothes of the other sex rather than in physcially becoming a member of that sex. If, for example, the patient is a male transvestite, whose erotic pleasure comes from the "reassurance" of being a phallic woman, of havin a penis and dressing in women's clothes, his mort reassuring symptom, according to clinicians, is the erection itself; surgery would be a catastrophic, and not a therapeutic, procedure for such patients, since it would remove, hot the cause of distress, but the source of pleasure.

For the transvestite-transsexual community, however -- a significant populations with an active international organization and dozens of local branches from Poughkeepsie to New South Wales -- clinical distinctions are divisive rather than helpful. United around issues like the right to shop -- access to dresses and nightgowns in large sizes and helpful, courteous sales personnel -- this group politically elides such clinical distinctions in favor of effective organization as a neglected minority group. Needless to say, members of the TV-TS community do hnot think of themselves as "patients," nor do they particularly like the word "transvestite," which seems to imply a compulsive disorder; they prefer "cross-dresser," which suggests a choice of lifestyle. (Vested Interests 3-4)

It is curious to note how many literary and cultural critics have recently studies the phenomenon of cross-dressing in literature from the Renaissance to high modernism. The appeal of cross-dressing 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 cross-dresser, 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. Top elide and erase -- or to appropriate the transvestite for particular political and critical aims. [...]

This tendency to rease the third term, to appropriate the corss-dresser "as" one of the two sexes, is emblematic of a fairly consistent critical desire to look away from the transvestite as transvestite, not to see cross-dressing except as male or female manqué, whether motivated by social, cultural, or aesthetic designs. And this tendency might be called and underestimation of the object.

For me, therefore, one of the most important aspects of cross-dressing is the way in which it offers a challenge to easy notions of binarity, putting into question the categories of "female" and "male," whether they are considered esssential or constructed, biological or cultural. The current popularity of cross-dressing as a theme in art and criticism represents, I think, an undertheorized recognition of the necessary critique of binary thinking, whether particularized as male and female, black and white, yes and no, Republican and Democrat, self and other, or in any other way.

This critique often takes shape, as we have already seen, as the creation of what looks like a third term. [...]

The "third" is that which quyestions binary thinking and introduces crisis -- a crisis which is symptomatized by both the oversetimation and the underestimation of cross-dressing. But what is crucial here -- and I can hardly underscore this strongly enough -- is that the "third term" is not a term. Much less is it a sex, certainly not an instantiated "blurred" sex as signified by a term like "androgyne" or "hermaphrodite," although these words have culturally specific significance at certain historical moments. 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. (Vested Interests 9-11)

The chapters that follow [in Vested Interests] are divided into two long sections, Transvestite Logics and Transvestite Effects. The reader should not regard them as completely separate or separable, but rather as complementary mirror images of one another. Broadly speaking, Transvestite Logics explores the way that transvestism creates culture, and Transvestite Effects, the way that culture creates transvestites. Since, as I will argue, one of the most consistent and effective functions of the transvestite in culture is to indicate the place of what I call "category crisis," disrupting and calling attention to cultural, social, or aethetic dissonances, there has been no attempt here to produce a seamless historical narrative of the "development" of the transvestite figure -- indeed, as weill quickly become clear, I regard the appropriation of the transvestite as a figure for development, progress, or a "stage of life" as to a large extent a refusal to confront the extraordinary power of transvestism to disrupt, expose, and challenge, putting in question the very notion of the "original" and of stable identity. The rest of this book will be devoted to the exploration of the logics, and the effects, of cross-dressing as an index, precisely, of many different kinds of "category crisis" -- for the notion of "category crisis," I will contend, is not the exception but rather the ground of culture itself.

By "category crisis" I mean a failure of definitional distiction, a borderline that becomes permeable, that permist of border crossings from one (apparently distinct) category to another: black/white, Jew/Christian, noble/bourgeois, master/servant, master/slave. The binarims male/female, one apparent ground of distinction (in contemporary eyes, at least) between "this" and "that," "him" and "me," is itself put in question or under erasure in transvestism, and a transvestite figure, or a tranvestite mode, will always function as a sign of overdetermination -- a mechanism of displacement from one blurred boundary to another. An analogy here might be the so-called "tagged" gene that shows up in a genetic chain, indicating the presence of some otherwise hidden condition. It is not the gene itself, but its presence, that marks the trouble spot, indication the likelihood of a crisis somewhere, elsewhere.

In a similar way, I will argue, the apparently spontaneous or unexpected or supplementary presence of a transvestite figure in a text (whether fiction or history, verbal or visual, imagistic or "real") that does not seem, thematically, to be primarily concerned with gender difference or blurred gender indicates a category crisis elsewhere, an irresolvable conflict or epistomological crux that destabilizes comfortable binarity, and displaces the resulting discomfort onto a figure that already inhabits, indeed incarnates, the margin. Thus a play like David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly, which tells the story of a male French diplomat and his affair with a male-to-female transvestite singer from the Chinese opera who turns out to be a spy, focuses attention on East-West, Orient-Occident, and gay-straight tensions and redefinitions; that Hwang should choose from current history precisely this story, and that readers and reviewers of his play should regard transvestism as its vehicle rather than its tenor, as, once again, something to be looked through on the way to a story about men or women, Asian or European -- all of this seems to me symptomatic of category crisis. And we should bear in mind that Hwang's play is based upon a "real" event; that the fantasies unleashed here are cultural forces, not merely "literary" ones.

Likewise, it is, for example, not really surpising to find that there are a remarkable number of transvestite figures in African-American literature -- nor is it surprising to find that these figures have been often ignored or marginalized in the crucial and often brilliant discussions of the last years centering on race conflict, miscegenation, and the mulatto/mulatta.

Category crises can and do mark displacements from the axis of class as well as from race onto to axis of gender. As we will see shortly, the sumptuary laws that regulated dress for each social class in medieval and Renaissance Europe quickly came as well to regulate and reify dress codes for men and women. Once again, transvestism was the specter that rose up -- both in the thater and in the streets -- to mark and overdetermine this crisis of social and economic change. In texts as various as Peter Pan, As You Like It, and Yentl, in figures as enigmatic and compelling as d'Eon and Elvis Presley, George Sand and Boy George, the category crisis and its resultant "transvestite effect" focus cultural anxiety, and challenge vested interests.

What this book insists upon, however, is not -- or not only -- that cultural forces in general create literary effects, nor eve -- although I believe this to be the case -- that the opposite is also true, but rather 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. (Vested Interests 16-17)

We have noted that what ties together cross-dressing and the Red Riding Hood story and Freud's account of the Wolf-Man is that all of them have something to do with the primal scene in general. Red Riding Hood, in fact, is the primal scene of narrativized cross-dressing, the story that is told over and over again in a multiplicity of versions, when the child, the innocent gazer (Lily Fairchild, Nora Flood), comes upon the spectacle of cross-gender representations: that which -- like parental coitus -- seems inexplicable, unimaginable, fascinating, taboo. When we find the Red Riding Hood story in Freud, we find it in the case history that is about the primal scene. So that even for Freud "Red Riding Hood" is a primal scene -- a primal scene, so to speak, within the narrative of the Urszene, the ur-primal scene.

"I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl," writes Jan Morris at the beginning of Conundrum. "I was sitting beneath my mother's piano." Nora Ephron rather tartly suggests, in her review of Morris's book, that a boy sitting beneath the piano would be looking up his mother's skirt, and that a visit to a Freudian analyst to recover this scenario might have saved Morris the trouble and expense of transsexual surgery. But such scenes, such scenarios of looking, are part of the very structure of the recognition scene we have noted in figures from Radclyffe Hall's lesbian cross-dresser Stephen Gordon opening the pages of Krafft-Ebing to Peter O'Toole's Lawrence of Arabia, curtseying to his robed shadow in the desert sun. The very existence of transvestite theaters, from Shakespeare's cross-dressed "heroines" to the contemporary drag show, testifies to the primacy of cross-dressing as spectacle, as that which purports both to conceal and to reveal. Conceal what? Reveal what? When the wig is doffed, ceremonially, at the end of a transvestic stage performance, what is the "answer" that is disclosed? Only another question: is this the real one? In what sense real? What is the "truth" of gender and sexuality that we try, in vain, to see, to see through, when what we are gazing at is a hall of mirrors?

I began this book by noting how frequently the phenomenon of cross-dressing, or transvestism, is looked through rather than at in critical and cultural analyses -- how often, indeed how insistently, cultural observers have tried to make it mean something, anything, other than itself. If cross-dressing is, in fact, a primal scene, that which is not only constitutive of culture but also, by the same repressive mechanism, a deferral and a displacement, in Lacan's terms "a unique and decisive revelation of the subject, in which an indefinite something that is unsayable is concentrated, in which the subject is lost for a moment, blown up" -- if, that is to say, cross-dressing is not only found in representations of the primal scene, but also itself represents a primal scene, then the secondary revision of commentators upon this phenomenon can be regarded as part of the mechanism. Cross-dressing is about gender confusion. Cross-dressing is about the phallus as constitutively veiled. 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. (Vested Interests 389-390)


(c) 1991 Marjorie Garber. Used with permission




ARCHIVES || CALENDAR || LECTURERS || SYMPOSIA || HUMANITIES AT STANFORD

Top of Page || Home Page || Stanford University Libraries || Stanford University