Disentangling genre and gender

from title page of 'The Roaring Girl', 1611
Moll Cutpurse, from title page of ‘The Roaring Girl’, T. Dekker and T. Middleton, 1611

A  recent conference on “Genre and Gender” organized by research group IMAGER / UPEC was a great opportunity to reflect on these categories. The CFP stated some of the issues which would be discussed during the three-day conference:

What this conference proposes to discuss is the question of identity at the crossroads between sexual gender and literary genres. Indeed etymologically, the term genus covers two meanings to be found in the dictionary: one concerning origin and the other, category. Genus designates that which separates, divides, identifies and delimits. Paradoxically, in defining itself, genre seems unable to do without its opposite, identity cannot be imagined outside an original division. Historically, subjects as well as texts could not be conceived of outside categories: we distinguish between men and women, tragedy and comedy, poetry and the novel.

This opening reminded me of some of the issues I had written about in my books on King Lear and The Winter’s Tale, as I had to take a look at the question of genre, if only to explain why determining genre for most early modern drama was mission impossible. To summarize sir Philip Sidney, Elizabethan playwrights couldn’t care less. But what’s wrong with a bit of ‘mongrel tragicomedy’?

Nobody likes surprises

Determining a text’s category, identifying it, separating it from others is what academics do… what years of studying impel us to do. Deep down, it is a response to our basic need to calibrate our expectations. I often say that nobody really likes surprises. Not that surprises are bad: Aristotle claimed it was at the root of any philosophical endeavor, as the mind hitting an obstacle attempts to find a way to work around it. But we are creatures of comfort and change is bad. Or so our instincts tell us until we weigh the evidence. This is why we prefer to know what to expect.

What happens when a comedy turns out to be gloomier than we expected? Modern audiences have trouble understanding why Romeo and Juliet is a ‘comedy’ despite the deaths of the two young lovers. Many other plays in the Shakespearean canon similarly defy generic expectations. And despite our educated awareness that literary genres are only shortcuts to designate ‘a certain type’ of work, a name that works like a nickname, we can’t help a) trying to define a work’s genre, and b) criticizing the inadequacy of the term when we talk about the work in detail.

Why bother, then, with genres? Because we’re told they exist, they structure the world around us, they give us hints as to where we can expect to find certain items: films and music are listed by genre, bookshops are divided according to genre (although genres change according to time/culture: Anglo-American bookshops will have sections for ‘Biography’ and ‘Self-help/Self-improvement’ literature; French bookshops will have more detailed sections on ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Literary studies’)… only fluid, rapidly changing online platforms like Amazon can afford to avoid foregrounding genres, relying instead on our the crowdsourcing of shopping habits to suggest books ‘related’ to our tastes. In short, genres are only an approximation which we use for heuristic purposes.

‘You are betroth’d both to a maid and man’

Gender, on the other hand, has become a more pressing concern over the past few decades, as contemporaries fight against prejudice and intolerance. There are signs everwhere that gender is a social construct (as opposed to, say, biological sex, which can be described in physiological/anatomical terms) and we can easily see to what extent gender-as-a-construct has evolved over time. An entertaining (and yet serious) blog by sociologists analyzes 21st century images in this light, pointing out gender expectations in everything from clothes to Christmas cards. A recent blogpost reminds us that cowboys could wear pink without fearing for their manhood. Early modernists know young boys wore dresses until they were “breeched”… a tradition that existed until fairly recently.1

As with genre, early modern audiences were somewhat aware that gender is a social construct, subject to change. This was noticeable in plays with plots involving crossdressing.2 Twelfth Night is an entertaining example of this, as Viola dresses as her twin brother Sebastian, and manages to seduce the figure of authority, Duke Orsino, in the guise of his manservant Cesario.3 In the play’s dénouement, the Duke expresses his surprise at his servants’ likeness with his/her brother by using terminology reminiscent of (blasphemous) religious vocabulary (think: Holy Trinity, the Nicene creed, etc.), and Renaissance visual arts:

DUKE ORSINO One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons,
A natural perspective, that is and is not!

The visual effect is of the essence and film adaptations of the play often manage to portray this well.

What I find fascinating is that, as recalled by Orgel, sexual identities in the early modern era were mostly thought to be a contingent matter. Anatomists still believed in the Galenic theory of homology, in which “male and female were versions of the same unitary species […] the female genitals were simply the male genitals inverted, and carried internally rather than externally”.4 Males were simply ‘completed’ females: they had had time to mature enough in the womb to become men. If there was a difference between the sexes on the stage, “it is a difference we would regard as utterly superficial, a matter of costumes and mannerisms; nevertheless, the superficies produce a difference that is absolute”.5 In other words, what was shown through clothes and gestures contributed to defining genre, more than any anatomical trait. This explains why Duke Orsino wants Viola/Cesario to change his/her dress before embracing her as his lover:

DUKE ORSINO Give me thy hand;
And let me see thee in thy woman’s weeds.

One can understand how transgressive crossdressing could be in a context where one’s ‘habit’ or dress was a token of one’s identity (as member of the working class, the gentry, the nobility, the female sex, etc.). This explains why it was scandalous for many to crossdress.  According to anti-theatricalist Philip Stubbes,

Our Apparell was given us as a signe distinctive to discern betwixt sex and sex, & therfore one to weare the Apparel of another sex is to participate with the same, and to adulterate the veritie of his own kinde. Wherefore these Women may not improperly be called Hermaphroditi, that is, Monsters of both kindes, half women, half men.6

Junior (1994)
Junior (1994)

A famous real-life seventeenth-century crossdresser elicited this kind of reaction: Mary Frith, also known as Moll Cutpurse. Her fame even brought her once onstage, and transformed her into a character in a play. The UPEC conference flyer featured the title-page of the Roaring Girl, with an engraving of the title character, Moll-cutpurse (pictured above), dressed as a man (with breeches), smoking a pipe and holding the most phallic weapon of all, a sword.

Four hundred years later, we can still be fascinated by women who become men, or men who become women. At the conference, a paper read by Michael Davidson on “Pregnant Men” gave much food for thought, linking the debate on gender with disability studies — a field I am unfamiliar with, alas —, quoting examples of the issues posed by a movie such as Junior (1994) in which the character portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger (!) becomes pregnant.

Shortly after the conference, I received word that a distinguished Shakespearean colleague in the US was about to undergo medical treatment to transition from being a man to being a woman. A brave decision, given most people’s still instinctive reaction to such changes. Although crossdressing is now fully accepted as a spectacular trick (one thinks of Tootsie with Dustin Hoffman, or Barry Humphries’ Dame Edna, or Eddie Izzard, the ‘travesty exécutif‘), cross/transgender is still considered… well, transgressive.

  1. A great article discusses breeching in The Winter’s Tale: Susan Snyder, “Mamillius and Gender Polarization in The Winter’s Tale”, Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 50, Spring 1999, n. 1. []
  2. See Stephen Orgel, Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s England, CUP, 1996, for a brilliant introduction. []
  3. Ah, onomastics! Viola/Cesario: there’s a pair of names the analysis of which gave birth [sic] to many a commentary. []
  4. Orgel, Impersonations, 20. []
  5. Orgel, Impersontaions, 18. []
  6. Anatomy, ed. Furnivall, p. 73 (sig. F5v), quoted by Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), p. 92. []

One thought on “Disentangling genre and gender”

  1. Chère carnetière, cher carnetier,
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