Saturday, August 30, 2008

Two kinds of cross-dressing in young adult fiction

As I've mentioned before, teaching A Room of One's Own forced me to face up to the overwhelming prevalence of the girl-in-drag-has-adventures meme. It is everywhere, from Shakespearean comedies to Mulan.

Several YA books that I've mentioned on this blog wholeheartedly embrace the idea that a girl should embrace her Inner Dude by making it her Outer Duds. In Boston Jane you're practically clubbed over the head with it. In Philadelphia, Jane wears corsets and is exaggeratedly feminine; out west, she loses the corset and Finds Herself (TM). In The Shakespeare Stealer, a girl is shown, without a trace of irony, making it in the Globe Theater by cross-dressing (in order to cross-dress yet again on the stage). And don't even get me into Alanna.

I find this device deeply irritating when it's used in order to mock women for being oppressed. This is the case in Boston Jane, and to some extent in Mulan as well (although Mulan actually does some interesting things with the performance of gender). Such narratives are merely another spin of the patriarchy wheel: "girls are stupid and useless, and if you want to avoid being stupid and useless you have to become an exception to your gender."

So I was interested to read Mary Hoffman's City of Stars, about a fifteen-year-old girl named Georgia O'Grady, who travels in her sleep to Talia, the Renaissance Italy of a parallel dimension. She's a loner at school and is bullied in particular by her older stepbrother Russell. Russell's taunts are truly vile, and insistently sexual. This fifteen-year-old girl loves horses, practically the quintessential little-girl obsession, but Russell spins it as a cheap Freudian substitute for frustrated sexuality, constantly accusing Georgia of both out-of-control desire and sexual failure (he actually calls a fifteen-year-old a "spinster"), simultaneously female and insufficiently feminine. Especially given that he's her older step-brother, the fixation on Georgia's body and on her sexuality is extraordinarily creepy.

So: she puts on drag.

Not drag in the sense of "drag queen," but drag in the sense of a sexual masquerade: she effaces the social markers of her femininity. With her short hair and baggy clothes that hide the shape of her body, Georgia announces that she withdraws from the femininity game. She knows she cannot win it and she doesn't intend to play.

But unlike in the spunky-girl narrative, merely wearing trousers does not solve Georgia's problems. She doesn't suddenly come into dudely awesomeness, complete with spitballs and weaponry. Instead, she travels to to another world, where she becomes embroiled in a complicated political situation marked by magic. There she dresses as a boy, since the demands of femininity are even stronger in this world, and there is no hope of avowing femininity with such short hair. Nonetheless, all of the friends that Georgia makes there know her to be a girl in boys' clothing (and haircut), not a boy or even an honorary boy.

Georgia eventually saves the day in a public event under the name "Giorgio Gredi," and the ability to pose as a boy certainly helps her in the "city of stars." But the real difference in this alternate world is not that she acts boyish -- she acts the same as she does at home -- but that she has a chance to interact with people who are not vile sexists. Putting on drag at home is a defense; putting on drag in Talia is mostly fallout from the situation at home. Georgia has her adventures in boys' clothing, but those adventures allow her to re-embrace femininity from a place of safety rather than anoint her an honorary XY.

I'm partly struck by the way the masquerade in City of Stars echoes the masquerade in Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle. Like Georgia, the protagonist of Howl's Moving Castle, Sophie, starts out under a sexual threat, though it's much more euphemized here than in City of Stars. Sophie, the eldest of three daughters in a fairy-tale universe is constrained by what's expected of women and of eldest daughters.
"What made me think I wanted life to be interesting?" she asked as she ran. I'd be far too scared. It comes of being the eldest of three."

When she reached Market Square, it was worse, if possible. Most of the inns were in the Square. Crowds of young men swaggered beerily to and fro, trailing cloaks and long sleeves and stamping buckled boots they would never have dreamed of waring on a working day, calling loud remarks and accosting girls. The girls strolled in fine pairs, ready to be accosted. It was perfectly normal for May Day, but Sophie was scared of that too.
Ho-hum, it's just another day in patriarchy-land, with the usual catcalls from drunken men.

Sophie is suddenly freed from the sexual threats of her world by being magically disguised not as a man but as an elderly woman. In her pseudo-old age, she is no longer expected to be a sexual victim; instead she is free to be catankerous, eccentric, and bossy, something her apparent old age lets her get away with. As an elderly woman, Sophie's even mistaken for a witch, a category seen as repulsive yet powerful.

It's an interesting twist on girl-in-drag-has-adventures; although elderly women are not free from the threat of sexual violence, that threat is more socially acknowledged as inappropriate, unlike the harassment of young women, which is "perfectly normal." Sophie escapes into a marginalized category, and its similarity to Georgia's escape into androgyny is revealing.

In books like Boston Jane, a particular model of masculinity itself is powerful, desirable, and laudable, and is therefore the thing to be emulated. The way to kick ass is to approximate masculinity.

The sexual masquerades of City of Stars and Howl's Moving Castle, in contrast, are not attempts to emulate masculinity but to seek the kind of exemption from the threat of sexual violence that masculinity (anxiously) entails. These sexual masquerades are recognized as unsustainable but crucial stopgaps that allow the young female protagonists the respite from sexual threat that is necessary to develop selfhood. Undercover as a boy or as an elderly woman, these protagonists get a chance to build up reserves of experience and strength.

Of course I have mixed feelings about how femininity manifests at the end of the novels as heterosexuality and empowerfully normative beauty; surely there is more to achieving a secure home environment than a boyfriend and a halter top. After all, in City of Stars, the crucial resolution at home is similar to that in Talia: thanks in part (but not entirely) to Georgia's opportunity to spend some time around people who aren't vile sexists, Georgia's parents wake up and stop her being surrounded by vile sexists. In Howl's Moving Castle, something surprisingly similar occurs: Howl regains his heart and stops his predatory womanizing. So it's a bit disappointing that, in the end, both protagonists get makeovers.

But partly I think these endings recognize the difficulty of these radical positions. The woman who is rejected as beyond the pale of unfemininity is not resisting femininity by choice. She may embrace her position as a position of resistance, but because others have constructed her very body as unassimilable to society, she is abjected (the "radically excluded," as Kristeva famously puts it).

Georgia's drag is a sign of her abjection, of absenting herself from the game of gender by trying to become androgynous (which here means boyish, on which more could be said). Sophie's drag is also imposed, by the Witch of the Waste, and similarly represents Sophie's desire to exempt herself from the sexual economy. It is a radical position, yes, but also a painful one and a dangerous one. This drag is not the stuff of Butlerian parody but rather of self defense, and existing as a marginal figure (of ambiguous gender, of old age) carries with it its own problems.

The two protagonists therefore undertake the dangerous performance of femininity by drawing on a period of differently but equally dangerous resistance through sexual masquerade. Masquerade supplies not only a period of subject-formation in which the protagonists are allowed a sense of personal integrity (to wit: the notion that they own their bodies) but also the means of removing vile sexists from the vicinity.

Though I'm ambivalent about these endings -- I find them too easy -- I can see a certain logic to them. These protagonists have made femininity safe for themselves. That it takes magic and/or trips to an alternate universe in order to accomplish it registers the precariousness of that safety.


Beni said...

This is definitely not a children's book, but, Natalia, have you ever read, Mean Woman (or Mina Cruel) by Alicia Borinsky? I think you might find it interesting, lots of cross dressing, loads of gender archetypes with a tinge of magial realism, overlaid with the rise of the Peronistas.

Natalia said...

I haven't read it -- if I get a chance I will; thanks for the tip, Beni.