The practice of Male Cross-dressing in Early Modern England (1500-1800)
stirred up a lot of controversy. One of the realms that
it affected was the idea of what made a woman?
If young boys could pull off looking and acting like a woman, what ideas about women did they learn and imitate? Not only that, how was the female presented?
On stage, as Katie Normington states, “…the two major approaches to the study of women’s roles in theatre have been followed- either a ‘positive roles’ focus, which women were assigned for their independence, or a ‘misogynistic roles’ study, which note that women were assigned certain roles by men, for example witch, vamp, bitch, virgin/ goddess” (Normington 18).
With the boy actors easy assimilation of female parts, it brought to light the similarities between them and the idealized woman. Sara Gorman notes, “while it is familiar for us to ‘view boys as versions of men,’ this assumption may be misguided when imposed on Elizabethan notions of sex and gender. Orgel prefers to align boys with women, pointing out that the Elizabethan ideal of womanhood was particularly ‘boyish,’ favoring ‘slim-hipped and flat-chested’ women.”(Gorman 25) I can’t help but point out how drastically things have changed when looking at what the “idealized” woman is made of now.
To lay it out bluntly, women then were viewed as being incomplete men. They were believed to have both balls and a penis that had not dropped out to become a man. Similar to how boys are incomplete men.
In plays in which young men disguised themselves as women, not in acting a female role, the characters would be, as Robert L.A. Clark puts,“empowered … to engage in ‘irrational,’ quintessentially female, and socially disruptive behavior” (Clark 331).
So, from what we have learned from impersonating females in plays and how that played out, women were essentially irrational virgin goddesses who could curse and bite when angered… or bitches.
⊗Normington, Katie. Gender and Medieval Drama. 1. Vol. Woodbridge, Suffolk;Rochester, NY;: D.S. Brewer, 2004. 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.
⊗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..