Recall the sweet, sweet banter of school children shouting such encouraging things such as,
“YOU THROW LIKE A GIRL!!”
“YOU HIT LIKE A GIRL!!!!”
“YOU FIGHT LIKE A GIRL!!”
“YOU RUN LIKE A GIRL!!!”
Such sweet times, don’t you agree? Well, as a matter of fact, that was actually a huge fear among the anti-theatricalists and other critics of male cross-dressing in Early Modern England (1500-1800). Jean E. Howard quotes Gosson, stating cross-dressing “would make men ‘weake, tender and infirme, not able to abide such sharp conflicts and blustering stormes” like real men (Howard 25).
The boys and young males adopting the clothing of females on stage to play a role was thought and feared to lead to and extended the practice of transvestism. Katie Normington expands, stating “fears of transvestism on the Renaissance stage were raised through the pamphlet writings of Elizabethan scholars. The pamphlet war, conducted between 1580 and 1600 debated the morality of men’s cross-dressing on stage. Evidence of its effectiveness is revealed by an awareness of the dishonor that participating in transvestism brought” (Normington 59).
These critics were freaking out at the fact that men were dressing like women, and could possibly even pass for one. This brings up a significant issue within their society.
“Sometime in 1579…Stephen Gosson made the curious remark that theater “effeminated” the mind.1 Four years later, in a pamphlet twice the size, Phillip Stubbes clarified this claim even as he heightened it by insisting that male actors who wore women’s clothing could literally “adulterate” male gender” (Levine 121).
The people of this time period did not believe in biological differences between men and women. The clothes someone wore defined everything. From class, to status, to race to gender. Maybe the source of the panic of tranvestims rested in that, as Nicholas F. Radel notes “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”(Radel 55).
As made clear by Jean E. Howard, “If a boy can so successfully personate the voice, gait, and manner of a woman, how stable are those boundaries separating one sexual kind from another, and thus how secure are those powers and privileges assigned to the hierarchically superior sex which depends upon notions of difference to justify its dominance? (Howard 37-38).
WHAT MADE A WOMAN? WHAT MADE A MAN? HOW DIFFERENT ARE THE TWO? WHAT IS IT THAT MAKES A MAN SUPERIOR TO A WOMAN?
Critics had more ammunition to attack the theatrical practices. They are disturbed that a practice could cause this “corruption” in the ideas of gender in their society. They said that the gender was a fixed characteristic, however, there was a GLARING contradiction to these critics. As Robert L. A. Clark points out
“…a position which tries to explain anti-theatricality from the standpoint of a fixed and stable self gives rise to a glaring contradiction. If those who attack the stage see the self as stable, why do they imagine that theater has such a tremendous power to alter it?”(Clark 121).
Exactly. The seemingly easy transition for the boy actor to transform between male and female gave rise to all sorts of thoughts about gender and its fixed/fluid construct. As specified by Normington in her quote that “Greenblatt and Belesey suggest that the boy actor transverses binary gender definitions and is actually part f the ‘third sex’. Belsey sees this as a ‘third, unified, androgynous identity which eliminates all distinctions’” (Normington 61). Sara Gorman takes this a step further, suggesting that “gender…and sexuality both constituted [a] ‘spectra’ of possibilities in which transformation was always possible” and that “the theaters was a space in which o speculate on these transformations, often in a transgressive manner, but more importantly in a manner that drew on their spectacular and theatrical potential” (Gorman 31).
⊗Howard, Jean E. “Cross-Dressing, the Theater, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England.” , 1993. 20-46. Web.
⊗Normington, Katie. Gender and Medieval Drama. 1. Vol. Woodbridge, Suffolk;Rochester, NY;: D.S. Brewer, 2004. Web.
⊗LEVINE, LAURA. “Men in Women’s Clothing: Anti-theatricality and Effeminization from 1579 to 1642”.Criticism 28.2 (1986): 121–143. Web…
⊗RADEL, NICHOLAS F.. “Fletcherian Tragicomedy, Cross-dressing, and the Constriction of Homoerotic Desire in Early Modern England”.Renaissance Drama 26 (1995): 53–82. Web…
⊗Clark, Robert L. A., and Claire Sponsler. “Queer Play: The Cultural Work of Crossdressing in Medieval Drama”. New Literary History 28.2 (1997): 319–344. Web..
⊗Gorman, Sara. “The Theatricality of Transformation: cross-dressing, sexual misdemeanour and gender/sexuality spectra on the Elizabethan stage, Bridewell Hospital CourtRecords, and the Repertories of the Court of the Aldermen, 1574-1607.” Early Modern Literary Studies 13.3 (2008). Literature Resource Center. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.