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Any context where an individual wears clothing that is socially designated for a different gender than the one they are assigned. The tag includes instances where clothing is used as an overt symbol rather than an overall presentation.

LHMP entry

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night draws on two prominent motifs of Italian theater: a cross-dressed heroine who provokes female desire, and the ideal of the Italian actress, who combined beauty and rhetorical skill. Shakespeare and other English playwrights backed off somewhat on the lesbian eroticism, but retained the image of a female character claiming power through performance and improvising, as manifested in Viola/Cesario’s ambiguous teasing banter with Olivia.

Actresses were an integral part of the early modern Italian stage, though the focus in theater history on commedia masks has tended to sideline that point. But female stage participation in Italy, not only transformed theater there, but had ripple effects elsewhere, including England.

In the era before, women were accepted on the professional stage, they performed in less formal venues – squares, fairs, street corners, inn courtyards, and such – the venue of mountebanks. Typically, this was not as the primary performer, and therefore we must search more carefully for the evidence. The underlying purpose of these vaudeville-like mountebank performances, was to sell non-professional, medical treatments: folk or “quack” remedies.

Even scholarship that examines women’s participation in English theater has tended to overlook the role of ordinary women except as audience. One notable exception is studies of Mary (Moll) Frith who, in 1612, is recorded as having appeared on the stage in men’s clothing, playing the lute and singing. This may have been directly connected with performance of the play The Roaring Girl in which she appears as a character, and which advertised her forthcoming appearance on stage in its epilogue.

Early systematic research into the many types of dramatic performance – civic, religious, and popular — written beginning around 1895 was curiously oblivious to the extensive participation of women, while more recent work has solidly established that presence. This oversight was not so much deliberate as a byproduct of how early research was conducted, in particular, a presumption that civic pageants formed a unified and uniform tradition, with the best known examples focusing on male guild performers.

Despite the prominence of the word “tribadism” in the article title, it has only a small focus on this topic. The overall focus is on the public reputations and images of actresses in late 18th century French (especially Parisian) society, and particularly how those reputations and images had political overtones. Prominent actresses participated in a public economy of “pop culture” that would be familiar to people today, including the availability of souveniers and being the focus of gossip rags.

From the topic, one might think this chapter would focus primarily on the male homoerotic potential of boy actors dressing as female roles on the early modern stage, but the choice of plays that Orvis chooses to examine clearly bring in female themes as well.

Frangos looks at representations of female same-sex desire in Delarivier Manley’s “New Cabal” in the satire The New Atalantis, specifically focusing on female masculinity (to use Halberstam’s terminology). [Note: I’m afraid this article got off on the wrong foot for me because it stakes a claim that desire for “the representation of men in women” is the primary form that desire takes in this depiction, but leans heavily on one passage that I believe Frangos has drastically misinterpreted.]

Ovid also composed one of the longest texts dealing with love between women from the Roman period—the story of Iphis, also from the Metamorphoses. In brief, a poor man of Crete tells his wife they can’t afford to raise their expected child if it’s a girl. So a girl child would be killed. The child being a girl, at the recommendation of the goddess Isis, the mother conceals its biological sex and raises it as a boy. The name Iphis is given and noted as being a name that might be borne by either gender.

Legs, as a feature of cross-dressing, are legible primarily in the context of actresses playing male roles. The clothing of the day meant that women’s legs were normally concealed. That meant that, on stage, women’s exposed legs both represented masculinity and were potentially a powerful erotic stimulus. The dramatic fiction that cross-dressing actresses were “men” in their roles gave license for women to find them desirable, as well as for others to deny the same-sex aspect of that desire.


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