One of the plot twists that I find most interesting comes when women–for whatever reason–perpetrate masculinity. The ability of a story to develop intriguing plot twists is by no means found singularly in character cross-dressing. Yet, when characters find themselves in a position where cross-dressing seems to be their only resort, audiences then find themselves waiting anxiously for the moment of disclosure; such a moment seems not only plausible, but inevitable. One reason for the inevitability of disclosure lays in the expectations of the heterosexual social construct: it is expected that regardless of the reason for cross-dressing, the time will come when the cross-dresser must step into the socially accepted world by donning the proper gender specific attire and accepting the social role assigned to their sex. However, history has revealed many women and men who have challenged genitally assigned social roles without ever accepting heterosexual expectations.
I digress…it is my distinct impression that women were not allowed to be actresses during the early days of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (“Men” is the tell-tale key, I believe). Without women to play female roles the job would have fallen to slender adolescent or young adult males with little or no facial hair (or, shaved cheeks). With this in mind, I return to Shakespeare’s cross-dressing female characters. Such character development quickly becomes a tangled testament to the genius of Shakespeare: men portraying women pretending to be men. Add to this image the fact that these male actors played heterosexual women who pretend to be heterosexual men and from there the next leap is but a tiny jump.
Why don’t we take a trip down Funky Road: Imagine a female passing as a man in order to be an actor during Shakespeare’s time. This “passing woman” auditions for a part, only to find the director thinks “he” would be best able to portray a woman due to “his” slender features and lack of facial hair. “He” is chosen to play Portia or Nerissa in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Now, wrap your mind around the reality of this situation: a woman passes as a man who is playing a woman who passes as a man. (Yeah, try saying that five times really fast).
For Shakespeare to challenge gender roles by having female characters portray males is to say something about Shakespeare’s personality. Considering the obstacles still associated with gender identity, Shakespeare could easily be referred to as progressive. I have to wonder if Shakespeare’s inclusion of passing women was a subtle commentary on the life of actors and the fact that women, who were barred from acting because of their gender, were intelligent enough to cross the gender divide in order to achieve their goals. If Shakespeare’s inclusion of cross-dressing females took into account the possibility of real-life passing women within his company, then truly Shakespeare was a genius at subtlety, for certainly one could consider such character roles as tailored for passing women. Of course, there is always the possibility that Shakespeare knew that for the success of his plays female roles would be required.
Merchant of Venice
The quick synopsis of Merchant: Portia is the wealthy daughter of a deceased father who has set up a marriage “lottery” (Shakespeare 78). Bassanio, in pursuit of Portia and her wealth, starts a chain of events which ultimately lead Portia and her handmaid/confidante, Nerissa, to don male attire. By taking on the male personas of a doctor and clerk sent to interpret the law, these two women are able to infiltrate the Venetian court where Shylock is asking for one pound of Antonio’s flesh in payment for Bassanio’s debt. As payment for saving Antonio, the doctor (Portia) and the clerk (Nerissa) tell Bassanio and his man, Gratanio, to hand over their newly acquired wedding rings. Portia and Nerissa return to Belmont (Portia’s home) only moments before Bassanio and Gratanio arrive. In this situation Portia and Nerissa, who passed as the male doctor and clerk, have now reached the long expected point of disclosure. They inform their husbands of their trickery and receive a light-hearted reception. When the end of the play roles around Bassanio tells Portia “Sweet doctor, you shall be my bedfellow;/ When I am absent, then lie with my wife” (Shakespeare 177). Gratanio then tells Nerissa, “But were the day come, I should wish it dark,/ Till I were couching with the doctor’s clerk” (Shakespeare 178). These lines are convoluted with latent homoeroticism, especially, when one recalls men portrayed Portia and Nerissa.
Now, revert back to the earlier discussion of women passing as men portraying women who are passing as men. One could argue that Shakespeare (knowing women passed as men) had the foresight to toy with the homoerotic message which was tempered by the overall reality of passing women (who would technically be playing those heterosexual roles).
Just One of the Guys
The movie, Just One of the Guys begins with the main character, Terry Griffith’s femininity being highlighted through both the opening scenes and music. The camera slowly traces the curve of her body focusing on her panties, under shirt, and long hair. When her alarm goes off it plays “girls got something boys ain’t got, drives them crazy, gets them hot, girls got something boys ain’t got.” From here Terry goes through very feminine primping procedures prior to hopping in the car driven by her boyfriend, Kevin. Later at school, Terry overhears two male teachers discussing her body: she confronts the teacher who is responsible for reading the students’ news articles. She assumes her article was denied because she is female and determines that if she were a male the article would be accepted for publication. At this point Terry decides to don male attire in order to chase publication and the summer job of her dreams at a rival high school.
Terry enlists her brother, Buddy, to assist her in throwing off the shackles of femininity by teaching her to walk, talk, and act male (including an amusing scene where Terry learns to scratch her non-existent balls). After many moments of sexual awkwardness between characters who know Terry is female (her best friend, brother, and boyfriend) and those who assume she is male (her crush-Rick-and the students of the rival high school), we enter the realm of disclosure. Terry’s revelation comes near the end of the movie, where she informs Rick that she is in fact a woman and has romantic feelings for him. At the time of her disclosure they are at the high school prom and she is wearing a tuxedo. An angry Rick storms off with the girl who accompanied him to the prom. Terry chases after Rick, then grabs him by the shoulder and spins him towards her. She forcefully kisses him while they are standing in front of all the prom attendees, by all appearances Rick has just been kissed by a guy. His immediate response is: “It’s okay everybody, he has tits.” An incredibly awkward silence is followed by Terry bumbling through excuses to leave.
Comparing Disclosure Scenarios
While Portia and Nerissa obtain male clothing and thus male identities, neither is so fully immersed in their masculine roles as to take on such a significantly male action as ball scratching, a task taught to Terry by her brother, Buddy. All three women foray into the masculine world, never intending to stay longer than the duration needed to accomplish the tasks they have set for themselves. It is interesting that in both stories the decision to “become male” is rooted in the feminine reactionary response to the common masculine interchange, while the “decision” to disclose the reality of their gender is slightly more complex.
In Merchant, the women (Portia/Nerissa) set out in purposeful treachery to deceive their husbands and the world through the act of becoming men. Ultimately, the wives become the men who free their husbands from the usury contract written and signed by the “real” men. In essence, it is through feminine guile that the bounds of the masculine contract is broken. Once the contract is broken the women surreptitiously return to Portia’s house in Belmont; their husbands return only moments later. Immediately, the women harass their men regarding the missing wedding rings. At this point disclosure is a certainty, as the women explain their deceit. The husbands respond with amused references to treacherous wives and masculine counterparts. Whereas, in Guys, Terry is confronted with the changing condition of masculine expectation as she is told that guys can be sensitive too. Regardless of her gender, it is apparent that the flaw with Terry’s writing is that it lacks emotion–a trait usually attributed to females–the fact is highlighted by her learning this when in male attire. From here she travels the road to masculinity where she falls for a sensitive guy who is in direct contrast to her boyfriend the masculine trophy-seeking-typical guy. Through her forays Terry essentially becomes more feminine, so much so, that by the end of the movie she has written a very emotionally moving piece that is accepted for publication, won the summer job of her dreams, and ditched the trophy-seeking-male for the more sensitive male. With Terry the most interesting point seems to be the idea that she attains an aspect of the female persona she lacked, only after passing as a male.
It is perfectly acceptable for women to cross-dress, so long as they are heterosexual. Females may use male clothing to disguise themselves, but only temporarily and with the condition of reverting back to their feminine clothing once said reason comes to fruition, thus continuing the perpetuation of heteronormativity. It is also important to note that in both Merchant and Guys, the women never fully discard their heterosexuality. When portraying men they automatically assume heterosexual roles and when returning to their feminine selves they are heterosexual.
Through both stories readers recognize the need to transcend gender bounds, yet, only temporarily and only for good reason. Passing women of Shakespeare’s day would have had good reason for passing, but would have been rejected for assuming male lives, rather than male roles. In more modern times evidence points to continued acceptance in temporarily transcending gender roles, but once again the key remains in the return to genitally assigned social roles. Thus, Portia, Nerissa, and Terry are completely acceptable in their forays into masculinity because they each return to wearing female garments and accept their societal roles as women.
Just One Of The Guys. Dir. Bill Scott. Perf. Joyce Hyser, Clayton Rohner and Billy Jacoby. 1985. DVD. Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.
Midnight Star. “Girls Got Something Boys Ain’t Got.” Midnight Star Productions: Solar Records. 1985.
Shakespeare, William. Merchant of Venice. Ed. M. M. Mahood. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 2003.