The question of "trans" is at the heart of a new culture war. But if we look at the box office history...by / November 15, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
If William Shakespeare were alive today and picked up a copy of Time Out, he might find himself pausing over the theatre listings. At a pop-up space in King’s Cross, the Donmar Warehouse is currently hosting a season of his plays Julius Caesar, both parts of Henry IV and The Tempest. No doubt he’d have been thrilled to see that he remains in fashion, albeit a little thrown that in these all-female productions not one male actor appears on stage. In November, at the Old Vic, former Labour MP Glenda Jackson will make her long-awaited return to the stage as King Lear. She will definitely not be Queen Lear: the production is billed as “gender-blind.”
It’s not just on stage that gender roles appear to be more fluid than they used to be. Jill Soloway’s Amazon Prime sitcom Transparent follows a retired professor named Mort Pfeffermen as he ponders gender-reassignment surgery and tries to find a new life as Maura. Two years ago, Laverne Cox, who plays a fireman-cum-hairdresser in Netflix’s prison drama Orange is the New Black, became the first transgender woman to be nominated for an acting Emmy. Even more strikingly, mainstream British television has started to explore trans issues. Rebecca Root’s turn in the BBC’s Boy Meets Girl was the first starring role for a transgender actor in a prime-time series. There is also Annie Wallace in Hollyoaks, and Riley Carter Millington’s ongoing role in EastEnders, the latter a rare example of a female-to-male transgender actor.
Even the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is loosening up. In September, its editors added the phrase “gender-fluid,” alongside other recent entries including “cisgender,” “genderqueer,” “gender identity,” “trans” and “Mx” (a form of address that leaves gender unspecified). The OED defined “gender-fluid” as either “not clearly or wholly male or female; androgynous,” or “designating a person who does not identify with a single fixed gender.” They point out that the first, faintly negative, usage dates back to 1987.
Gender is the story of the moment—perhaps of our age. Barely a week goes by without its boundaries being redrawn. Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover in July 2015 felt like a watershed; so too does the bitter controversy about “bathroom rights” in the United States, with some states passing legislation to make people use the bathroom that matches their birth gender. LGB has evolved into LGBT, then LGBTI, the “I” standing for “intersex,” defined in 2015 by the UN Commissioner for Human Rights as anyone born with “sex characteristics… that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies.”
A year ago many people had little idea how to pronounce cisgender, still less what it meant (answer: someone whose gender identity matches their biological sex). Now they are scrambling to get with the times. Sexual and identity politics are battleground issues. They are our civil rights movement, or, less optimistically, our culture wars. Whatever the fluid personal morality of Donald Trump, under his presidency these battles can only intensify.
The ferocity of the argument is striking. Some argue that transgender freedoms are inalienable components of liberty; others that they are an abrogation of rights (hence the controversy over American bathrooms). For every person arguing that talking about gender is essential, another insists—as Lionel Shriver did in Prospect in May—that our preoccupation with gender identity is a step backwards. In a world facing climate change and meltdown in the Middle East, agonising over bathrooms, or the words we employ to describe the people who use them, seems to some not only out of touch but an affront.
Jenner’s appearance in Vanity Fair wasn’t universally celebrated. Jenner was criticised for subordinating herself to patriarchal ideas about “acceptable” femininity, while others suggested that to single out the bravery of one white, wealthy, middle-class trans person mocked the discrimination faced by many others. Some feminists cast doubt on whether male-to-female transsexuals have the right to claim female identity. Germaine Greer has been characteristically forthright: in 1996 she protested against the admittance of a transgender fellow to the female-only Newnham College, Cambridge, and has launched increasingly lonely skirmishes ever since. After she suggested in 2015 that “just because you lop off your dick and then wear a dress doesn’t make you a fucking woman,” Greer found her lectures and panel events being picketed and cancelled.
Even within the trans movement there is dispute about whether “transitioning” is a process or a goal in itself. Juliet Jacques, who has documented her progress in a memoir entitled Trans, writes: “I have a male and female side… I had to ask myself: how trans did I want to be?” Why do we have to make gender a binary, divided cleanly between male and female? If gender is an identity, do we have to choose?
The answer is we don’t—and it’s only recently that we’ve begun to think we do. With all respect to the editors of the OED, gender-fluidity is a concept that goes back further than the year Margaret Thatcher won her third term. For as long as we’ve attempted to fix gender, the categories have shifted and shimmered before our eyes.
The Talmud lists six genders. Pre-capitalist societies revered intersex people, regarding them as quasi-divine, a tradition that lingers among the embattled “hijra” community in India, whose protected status as a “third” gender was only recognised in law in 2014. Although gender undeniably has a biological component, how that biology translates into societal norms is hotly debated.
Beginning with the radical 1960s psychoanalyst Robert Stoller—who coined the phrase “gender identity”—sociologists have argued that instead of regarding the terms “sex” and “gender” as interchangeable they are in fact different: sex is biological, largely governed by the makeup of our chromosomes; gender a matter of cultural codes and behaviours. But in recent years these hard-and-fast distinctions have become more mutable. Clinicians have suggested that sex is a kind of continuum, with a degree of middle ground between “male” and “female,” which can be adjusted via means of hormonal treatment or surgery.
The academic Jacqueline Rose suggested recently that it might be useful to think of our new obsession with gender definition in Freudian terms as “a return of the repressed”: we should acknowledge, she argued, how gender-fluid we have been all along.
Viewed from a cultural angle, what’s surprising is that we should think of any of this as new. Just look at the kinds of things humans have painted, performed or put in theatres over the last several thousand years. History suggests that there’s barely been a period where gender roles have not been played with or contested.
Ironic as it may seem, religion was indirectly responsible for the swapping of gender roles on stage. Some of the oldest theatre in the world is from south and east Asia, an outgrowth of ancient shamanic practice, in which female participants were usually banned. Ancient Greek theatre—performed in honour of the cross-dressing god Dionysus—was all-male, requiring men to impersonate women. So too was much Roman drama. Similar rules held sway in the Japanese Kabuki tradition and the forms that evolved into Chinese opera, as well as in Javanese and Indonesian drama.
If you travelled back and visited the theatre in late-16th century England, you would notice first that everyone on stage was male. Women were not allowed to act in England until after 1660; though aristocratic ladies appeared on stage in courtly entertainments, this titillating innovation was not for the great unwashed.
The result? A riot of state-sanctioned Elizabethan transvestism, with men and teenagers playing male and female characters and (sometimes) people who defied taxonomy altogether. This began as a necessity: theatre companies had little choice but to recruit 12- or 13-year-old boys to dress up in farthingale skirts, wigs and makeup to play young female leads, with older men taking mature roles. But gender soon became an obsession. Numerous Elizabethan plays—one scholar has counted more than 80—feature boys dressed as girls, girls dressed as boys, men disguised as women and heroines yearning to be heroes.
Although the idea of Glenda Jackson as Lear would have astonished Shakespeare, the concept of cross-dressing itself would have seemed unsurprising. As the critic Stephen Orgel suggests in his ground-breaking book Impersonations (1996), Shakespeare was the patron saint of gender-bending. Often it’s female characters who strain against the limitations imposed by society’s view of their sex, whether it’s the forbiddingly powerful Joan of Arc and Queen Margaret in the early Henry VI history cycle, or Lady Macbeth, who calls upon “spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, [to] unsex me here.” Does Lady Macbeth want to transform herself into a man? No: she wants to be something else, beyond the limits of gender. It’s no accident that the witches also hover in this dangerous sexual no-man’s-land: “You should be women,” says Banquo doubtfully near the start of the play, “And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so.”
Shakespeare’s cross-dressing characters ask probing questions. In The Merchant of Venice, the heroine Portia and her sidekick Nerissa save the day when they dress up as lawyers to save Antonio after his ill-advised deal with Shylock. After their success, they compound their victory by conning their husbands-to-be out of rings they swore never to relinquish. Given that “ring” was a synonym for “vagina” (thanks again, OED), the joke is firmly on the men, trapped by the shackles of masculinity.
Mind-bending as that moment is, it hardly compares to the confusions that Shakespeare conjures in his comedies Twelfth Night and As You Like It. In Twelfth Night, the heroine Viola disguises herself as her identical twin Sebastian, only to find both men and women falling in love with her/him; it’s as if she steps into a hall of mirrors, each reflecting a different aspect of her sexuality. In As You Like It, things are even more deliciously androgynous. The heroine Rosalind dresses, again, as a boy, partly as a way of protecting her identity in the Forest of Arden. But when she encounters the man she’s already fallen in love with, Orlando (who doesn’t recognise her), she uses her disguise to sound him out, convincing him to speak to her as if she were a girl he wanted to woo. If you think this sounds perplexing, remember that in the original production Rosalind would have been played by a boy—which means that at this moment of the play a boy dressed as a girl imitates a girl while dressed as a boy.
All this topsy-turvydom put puritan city fathers and preachers in a bind: on the one hand, for women to exhibit themselves on stage was “whorish”; on the other, to suggest that gender was as mutable as the garments we wear—that it was, as Rosalind and Viola discover, a costume you could slip on or off—called into question God’s purpose. They compromised by condemning the theatre altogether. In the colourful words of pamphleteer John Rainoldes, “what sparkles of lust to that vice the putting of women’s attire on men may kindle in unclean affections.” Another puritan, Philip Stubbes, fretted that cross-dressing in the theatre would incite titillated audience members to “play the sodomites or worse.” Whatever the truth about Shakespeare’s own sexuality—this is a man wrote 126 love sonnets seemingly addressed to a man—the playwright clearly saw gender as a series of playful possibilities rather than innate restrictions.
“Play” is surely the word. Theatre historians have long puzzled over the fact that while women weren’t allowed to appear on stage until the 1660s in England they encountered few such problems in continental Europe. One answer might be that seeing boys playing girls was playful at every level—erotically, emotionally, philosophically. It offered any number of convenient fantasies: a way for men to indulge homoerotic daydreams, for women to explore what it might be like outside the bounds of a patriarchal society, and for people who weren’t sure which category they fitted into to explore possibilities that would never be open to them in real life.
In the words of the cultural historian Stephen Greenblatt, who has compared the transvestite theatre of Shakespeare’s time to real-life cases of transsexual behaviour and hermaphroditism, the theatre was a place in which “the double nature of individuals” refracted into something more multiple. Sometimes other reflections intruded too, as in the case of Mary Frith, known as Moll Cutpurse, a criminal who became renowned for smoking tobacco and gallivanting around in men’s clothing. Frith’s chutzpah inspired numerous writers, notably Shakespeare’s younger contemporaries Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, whose The Roaring Girl (1611) was a hit. That same year, Frith appeared on stage after a performance of that work at the Fortune playhouse, apparently as a publicity stunt: a glorious instance of life imitating art that imitated life.
Intrigue also surrounds the long tradition of so-called “trouser roles” or travesti in opera, which have been gender-fluid in every imaginable way. In 1588 Pope Sixtus V issued a Bull banning women from singing in public, based on the ruling in St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians (“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak”). Initially boys and male falsettists were employed to sing high parts, but by the middle of the 16th century they had been joined by castrati, men who’d been surgically emasculated to preserve the fragile beauty of their unbroken voices.
By modern standards this pioneering transgender surgery was unimaginably brutal—one manual recommends that the only way to anaesthetise the patient was to press the jugular vein firmly, perhaps adding opium if available—but the reward could be a shot at fame and fortune. According to one estimate, by the end of the 16th century, some 4,000 children were being castrated annually in Italy alone, far more than could hope to find jobs trilling psalms and motets.
Secular composers leapt at the opportunity, where the talents of castrati helped drive the newly developing art form of opera. They became closely associated with the role of the primo uomo (leading man) in the Baroque period, and performers such as Senesino and Antonio Baldi were feted all over Europe. Handel was a particular devotee: Giulio Cesare (1724) has no fewer than three castrato roles, and Radamisto (1720), Tolomeo (1728), Ariodante (1735) and Serse (1738) were all sung by famous castrati. Even when female singers became stars, castrati were often paid more, and composers continued to pay court. Although Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s most famous travesti role, that of the sexually precocious page-boy Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, was originally performed by a woman, he also wrote for both soprano and alto castrati in operas including Il re pastore, Idomeneo and La clemenza di Tito. And while Gioachino Rossini’s numerous travesti roles were likewise composed for female singers dressed up as men, the composer later wrote admiringly of the “purity, the miraculous flexibility” of the castrato sound.
Musicologists have been hard put to explain the fascination, particularly given that Handelian trouser roles are, by contemporary standards, butch: Serse (based on King Xerxes I of Persia) is the most macho of warriors; and though later characters are often boys on the brink of full manhood, they hardly lack virility. Nor is the effect meant to be funny. The Italian singer Alessandro Moreschi, who died in 1922, was the only castrato known to have made solo recordings, which you can find on YouTube. Listen to his unearthly breath control and the strong purity of his sound and you hear something miraculously other. It is defiantly not—pace Germaine Greer—a mere drag act.
“Shakespeare, whatever his own sexuality, saw gender as a series of playful possibilities rather than innate restrictions”
Although imposed castration is now mercifully illegal, memories of the castrato sound linger. You can hear it in Benjamin Britten’s reimagining of the magical King Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960), written for the countertenor Alfred Deller, whose silvery voice has a luminous, unearthly intensity. And it is perhaps even more present in the travesti role of Octavian in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (1911), a work that contains more cross-dressing and assumed identities than the average Christmas pantomime. Although composed for a mezzo-soprano, Octavian is a full-blooded bloke; as his/her voice wraps exquisitely around that of the young girl Sophie in their closing love duet, “Ist ein Traum / Spür’ nur dich” the effect is tantalisingly ambivalent and also fully sincere. Female? Male? Something in between? Transported by the gossamer beauty of the moment, we no longer mind.
On-stage playfulness is one thing—but does what happens in the theatre or on screen have any connection with the grim real-world situations in which many transgender people find themselves? For the past three years Chelsea Manning, the American soldier who as Bradley Manning was imprisoned for leaking classified information to Wikileaks, has been battling to transition to female identity. In July, she attempted suicide. She is far from alone, as depressing figures about the number of transgender people who suffer mental health issues or societal stigma testify.
For many people whose sexual identity is in flux, or who feel trapped in a body that is not their own, that lack of resolution is a burden; for others, even to contemplate transition is an unimaginable luxury. It’s true, too, that while we’ve indulged the idea of men playing women for centuries, the reverse is rarer: the implication being that female identity is something that anyone can take on because male identity is the only one that matters.
But perhaps play-acting offers a space for our wildest imaginings. The philosopher Judith Butler has argued perceptively that to call something “performative” isn’t to imply it’s put-on: by performing, we enact who we are. All of us are constantly on show; the question is what roles we take on and how we play them.
Perhaps we’re at last beginning to catch on to what—not to get too essentialist about it—feels like a truth about how we really are. Over the past four decades, questions about gender fluidity have travelled from the cultural margins to the mainstream. In 1978, when the playwright Caryl Churchill wrote Cloud Nine—a joyously fleet satire on gender identity full of Shakespearian cross-dressing—many critics were confounded. In 2016, those same questions are being debated in Hollyoaks and EastEnders. The transition wrought by Jill Soloway’s Transparent is not simply that of the lead character, as Mort becomes Maura; it is ours, too, as we see transgender transformed from a po-faced “issue” to something both funny and profound. The series has won plaudits off screen, too, with a “trans-firmative action program” that has seen at least 80 transgender people employed by the show.
And lest anyone doubt that seeing transgender characters on stage or screen has an effect, the latest British figures show that applications by people wanting advice on gender reassignment have soared; according to research done in 2009, the UK’s trans population may already be half a million strong.
Theorists—Jacqueline Rose is one—have occasionally fantasised about a world in which gender boundaries cease to exist. They become simply an aspect of our identity; we can interpret them as we wish, or not at all. Part of me wonders if we’re already there. A few years ago, I was in Beijing sitting in a “tea-house,” a Chinese opera house not much larger than a living room. The Zhengyici theatre was built in 1688 on the foundations of a temple, and with the crimson paint and gorgeously decorated frieze in saffron and azure shades across the ceiling, it wasn’t hard to transport oneself back to the late 17th century. Purely by chance, I’d booked a rare performance by the Zhengyici’s traditional opera company: the performers were all-male. Many had come out of retirement especially for this show.
The star of the evening was a middle-aged male performer playing the qingyi role (“green robes”) of a mature or married woman. Resplendent in robes rippling with chrysanthemums and plum blossoms, face painted porcelain-white, eyeshadow persimmon-pink, he drifted across the stage, singing tenderly of lost love. He was definitely not a panto dame, still less a woman; yet he was also not quite a man. S/he was simply a person, transfigured and translated by music three centuries old. As I left the theatre, I reflected that our future might look a little like our past.