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CROSS-DRESSING: THE PROBLEMS OF GENDERING THE PAST
A. Initial questions:
What is cross-dressing?
What does it conjure up for you?
Why do you think people cross-dress?
Are all cross-dressers homosexual?
Are the two necessarily linked?
Is there a different aspiration when men dress up as
women to when women dress up as men?
What do you think has been the attitude to cross-
dressing in Western society over the past 200 years and how do you think it may have changed?
Can you imagine how this attitude may have affected how cross-dressing in ancient contexts was
viewed?
B. Ancient Egypt
Queen/Pharaoh Hatshepsut of Egypt:
Look at these four portraits from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and from outside her tomb.
Hatshepsut was the fifth pharaoh of the 18th dynasty in Egypt. Identify the main features/attributes of these
portraits and then find out what you can about the way pharaohs were normally depicted (especially
attributes), then answer the following questions:
What is ‘male’ in these portraits?
Are these attributes symbols of something other than ‘maleness’?
Why do you think Hatshepsut had herself portrayed with these features?
C. Ancient Greece:
First read these passages from Aristophanes’ Thesmophoria:
(
Mnesilochus and Euripides go to visit the poet Agathon
)
MNESILOCHUS. … Whence comes this effeminate?
What is his country? his dress? What contradictions his
life shows! A lyre and a hair-net! A wrestling school oil
flask and a girdle! What could be more contradictory?
What relation has a mirror to a sword? And you
yourself, who are you? Do you pretend to be a man?
Where is the sign of your manhood, your penis, pray?
Where is the cloak, the footgear that belong to that sex?
Are you a woman? Then where are your breasts?
Answer me. But you keep silent. Oh! just as you choose;
your songs display your character quite sufficiently.
AGATHON. Old man, old man, I hear the shafts of
jealousy whistling by my ears, but they do not hit me.
My dress is in harmony with my thoughts. A poet must
adopt the nature of his characters. Thus, if he is placing
women on the stage, he must contract all their habits in
his own person. … If the heroes are men, everything in
him will be manly. What we don't possess by nature, we
must acquire by imitation. … Besides, it is bad taste for
a poet to be coarse and hairy. Look at the famous Ibycus,
at Anacreon of Teos, and at Alcaeus, who handled music
so well; they wore headbands and found pleasure in the
lascivious dances of Ionia. And have you not heard what
a dandy Phrynichus was and how careful in his dress?
For this reason his pieces were also beautiful, for the
works of a poet are copied from himself.
EURIPIDES (
to Agathon
). But listen to the cause that
brings me here.
AGATHON. Say on.
EURIPIDES. Agathon, wise is he who can compress
many thoughts into few words. Struck by a most cruel
misfortune, I come to you as a suppliant.
AGATHON. What are you asking?
EURIPIDES. The women purpose killing me today
during the Thesmophoria, because I have dared to speak
ill of them.
AGATHON. And what can I do for you in the matter?
EURIPIDES. Everything. Mingle secretly with the
women by making yourself pass as one of themselves;
then do you plead my cause with your own lips, and I
am saved. You, and you alone, are capable of speaking
of me worthily.
AGATHON. But why not go and defend yourself?
EURIPIDES. 'Tis impossible. First of all, I am known;
further, I have white hair and a long beard; whereas you,
you are good-looking, charming, and are close-shaven;
you are fair, delicate, and have a woman's voice.
(
Agathon refuses, and Mnesilochus must oblige. First he
is shaven, then clothing is brought
).
EURIPIDES. Agathon, you refuse to devote yourself to
helping me; but at any rate lend me a tunic and a belt.
You cannot say you have not got them.
AGATHON. Take them and use them as you like; I
consent.
MNESILOCHUS. What must be taken?
EURIPIDES. What must be taken? First put on this long
saffron-coloured robe.
MNESILOCHUS. Now some rings for my legs.
EURIPIDES. You still want a hair-net and a headdress.
AGATHON. Here is my night-cap.
EURIPIDES. Ah! that's capital.
MNESILOCHUS. Does it suit me?
AGATHON. It could not be better.
EURIPIDES. And a short mantle?
AGATHON. There's one on the couch; take it.
EURIPIDES. He wants slippers.
AGATHON. Here are mine. … Try them on. Now that
you have all you need, let me be taken inside.
EURIPIDES. You look for all the world like a woman.
But when you talk, take good care to give your voice a
woman's tone.
MNESILOCHUS. I'll try my best.
EURIPIDES. Come, get yourself to the temple. (
The
meeting begins, the women decide to punish Euripides
but Mnesilochus tries to talk them out of it by giving
them some home truths about the real nature of women.
The women attack and a struggle ensues
.)
CHORUS. Cease wrangling! I see a woman running
here in hot haste. Keep silent, so that we may hear the
better what she has to say.
CLISTHENES. Friends, whom I copy in all things, my
hairless chin sufficiently evidences how dear you are to
me; I am women-mad and make myself their champion
wherever I am. Just now on the market-place I heard
mention of a thing that is of the greatest importance to
you; I come to let you know, so that you may watch
carefully and be on guard against the danger which
threatens you.
'Tis said that Euripides has sent an old man here today,
one of his relations ... so that he may hear your speeches
and inform him of your deliberations and intentions.
CHORUS. But how would a man fail to be recognized
amongst women?
CLISTHENES. Euripides singed and depilated him and
disguised him as a woman. (
They decide to check the sex
of everyone present, and Mnesilochus tries to escape by
going to the toilet, but to no avail
)
FIFTH WOMAN. What shall we do?
CLISTHENES. Watch him closely, so that he does not
escape. As for me, I go to report the matter to the
magistrates, the Prytanes.
(
Mnesilochus is chained to a post and guarded by a
Scythian and a Prytanis is summoned
)
MNESILOCHUS. Prytanis, … grant me a slight favour
before I die.
PRYTANIS. What favour?
MNESILOCHUS. Order the archer to strip me before
lashing me to the post; the crows, when they make their
meal on the poor old man, would laugh too much at this
robe and head-dress.
PRYTANIS. 'Tis in that gear that you must be exposed
by order of the Senate, so that your crime may be patent
to the passers-by.
MNESILOCHUS. Oh! cursed robe, the cause of all my
misfortune! My last hope is thus destroyed! (
Euripides
comes to save the day by making a deal with the women
)
EURIPIDES. Women, if you will be reconciled with me,
I am willing, and I undertake never to say anything ill of
you in future. Those are my proposals for peace.
CHORUS. And what impels you to make these
overtures?
EURIPIDES. This unfortunate man, who is chained to
the post, is my father-in-law; if you will restore him to
me, you will have no more cause to complain of me; but
if not, I shall reveal your pranks to your husbands when
they return from the war.
CHORUS. We accept peace, but there is this barbarian
whom you must buy over.
EURIPIDES. That's my business. (
He returns as an old
woman and is accompanied by a dancing-girl and a
flute-girl.
) Come, my little wench, bear in mind what I
told you on the road and do it well. Come, go past him
and gird up your robe. And you, you little dear, play us
the air of a Persian dance.
SCYTHIAN. What is this music that makes me so
blithe?
EURIPIDES (
as an old woman
). Scythian, this young
girl is going to practise some dances, which she has to
perform at a feast presently.
SCYTHIAN. Very well! let her dance and practise; I
won't hinder her. How nimbly she bounds! One might
think her a flea on a fleece.
EURIPIDES. Come, my dear, off with your robe and
seat yourself on the Scythian's knee; stretch forth your
feet to me, that I may take off your slippers.
SCYTHIAN. Ah! yes, seat yourself, my little girl, ah!
yes, to be sure. What a firm little bosom! 'tis just like a
turnip… .
EURIPIDES. That's so! (
To the dancing-girl
.) Resume
your dress, it is time to be going.
SCYTHIAN. Give me a kiss.
EURIPIDES (
to the girl
). Come, give him a kiss.
SCYTHIAN. Oh! oh! oh! my goodness, what soft lips!
'tis like Attic honey. But might she not stop with me?
EURIPIDES. Will you give a drachma?
SCYTHIAN. Aye, that I will.
EURIPIDES. Hand over the money.
SCYTHIAN. I have not got it, but take my quiver in
pledge.
EURIPIDES. You will bring her back?
SCYTHIAN. Follow me, my beautiful child. And you,
old woman, just keep guard over this man.
EURIPIDES (
aside
). Hermes, god of cunning, receive
my thanks! Everything is turning out for the best. (
To the
Scythian.
) As for you, friend, take away this girl, quick.
(
Exit the Scythian with the dancing-girl
.) Now let me
loose his bonds. (
To Mnesilochus
.) And you, directly I
have released you, take to your legs and run off full tilt
to your home to find your wife and children.
MNESILOCHUS. I shall not fail in that as soon as I am
free.
EURIPIDES (
releases Mnesilochus
). There! 'Tis done.
Come, fly, before the archer lays his hand on you again.
(
Exit with Euripides
).
What are the female aspects the cross-dressers in this play take on?
What kind of dramatic effect is this intended to have?
What was male cross-dressing associated with in this text?
What image do we get from this play about the Athenian attitude to male cross-dressers in the 5
th
cent.
BC?
E. Ancient Rome:
In Cicero,
Phil
2.44 he attacks Mark Antony in the following way:
“Shall we then examine your conduct from the time when you were a boy? I think so. Let us begin at the beginning.
Do you recollect that, while you were still clad in the
toga praetexta
[the toga of the Roman boy], you became a
bankrupt? That was the fault of your father, you will say. I admit that. In truth such a defence is full of filial affection.
But it is peculiarly suited to your own audacity, that you sat among the fourteen rows of the knights, though by the
Roscian law there was a place appointed for bankrupts, even if any one had become such by the fault of fortune and
not by his own. You donned the
toga virilis
[the toga of the Roman man], and promptly it became the
toga muliebris
[the toga worn by Roman prostitutes]: at first a public prostitute, with a regular price for your wickedness, and that not
a low one. But very soon Curio stepped in, who carried you off from your prostitute trade, and, as if he had bestowed a
stola
[a Roman matron's robe] upon you, settled you in a steady and durable wedlock.”
How does Cicero use dress imagery to paint a bad picture of Antony?
What do each of the costumes Cicero figuratively dresses Antony in symbolise?
What does the use of female dress tell us about Roman attitudes to cross-dressing?
Why do you think prostitutes were often described as wearing what was really male dress?
Suetonius describes Caligula’s dress in the following way:
“In his clothing, his shoes, and the rest of his attire he did not follow the usage of his country and his fellow-citizens;
not always even that of his sex; or in fact, that of an ordinary mortal. He often appeared in public in embroidered
cloaks covered with precious stones, with a long-sleeved tunic and bracelets; sometimes in silk and in a woman's robe;
now in slippers or buskins, again in boots, such as the emperor's body-guard wear, and at times in the low shoes which
are used by females. But oftentimes he exhibited himself with a golden beard, holding in his hand a thunderbolt, a
trident, or a caduceus, emblems of the gods, and even in the garb of Venus. He frequently wore the dress of a
triumphing general, even before his campaign, and sometimes the breastplate of Alexander the Great, which he had
taken from his sarcophagus.” (Suetonius,
Caligula
52)
What is the context of cross-dressing here? I.e. was it the only example of ‘aberrant’ dress behaviour
that Caligula engaged in?
What does this passage reveal about why Caligula cross-dressed?
Why would Suetonius emphasise cross-dressing in his biography of Caligula?
How does it compare to the extracts from his biography of Vespasian below:
“After assuming the garb of manhood he for a long time made no attempt to win the broad stripe of senator, though his
brother had gained it, and only his mother could finally induce him to sue for it. She at length drove him to it, but
rather by sarcasm than by entreaties or parental authority, since she constantly taunted him with being his brother's
footman.” (Suetonius,
Vespasian
2.2)
“He enjoyed excellent health, though he did nothing to keep it up except to rub his throat and the other parts of his
body a certain number of times in the tennis court, and to fast one day in every month. This was in general his manner
of life. While emperor, he always rose very early, in fact before daylight; then after reading his letters and the reports
of all the officials, he admitted his friends, and while he was receiving their greetings, he put on his own shoes and
dressed himself.” (Suetonius,
Vespasian
20-21)
Now read an extract from N. Kampen, “Omphale and the instability of gender” in: N. Kampen (ed.),
Sexuality in Ancient Art, 233-244 (available from E-Reserve in the library – see link on course webpage)
and answer the following questions:
What is Hercules normally depicted as wearing and holding? What is he wearing and holding in these
pictures?
Why, in the myth, do Hercules and Omphale swap clothing?
What does the exchange of garments by Hercules and Omphale symbolise to a Roman audience? I.e.
what characteristics does Omphale gain when she dons Hercules’ dress, and vice versa?
Why would an early 3rd century AD Roman woman want to depict herself as Omphale/in Hercules’
dress?
How was this mythological episode used as propaganda, especially by Augustus?
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