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gender disguise f>m

Gender disguise is a major context for exploring homoerotic potential in literature and was a significant tool for establishing same-sex partnerships in real life examples. The most common version is a female-assigned person who presents as male and has access to a male role in relation to a woman. Not all such partnerships may have included sexual activity, but many demonstrably did. Literary examples generally indicate whether the disguise is meant to be situational or is meant to signal transgender identity. Real life examples are rarely clear on this point, due to the legal and social pressures and consequences, and therefore the likely distortion of self-reported motivations.

LHMP entry

[Our heroine Alithea -- in male disguise to go adventuring, as you may recall -- has run up a temporary Debt of Honor while gambling and is maneuvered into taking a temporary loan to pay it off from a beautiful and lovely young widow, Arabella. Arabella has withdrawn to her country house before Alithea is aware of the strategem. Arabella -- in the persona of the Chevalier de Radpont -- writes to her offering to come visit in order to settle the debt, Arabella tells the Chevalier to wait on her return as she has a rule never to allow male visitors at her country home. She notes:]

In February, Anne strikes up a new friendship with a Miss Pickford whom she begins to suspect shares her inclinations with regard to her close friend Miss Threlfall. Like Anne, the neighbors comment on Miss Pickford for being an intellectual and somewhat masculine in effect. They nickname her Frank. In conversation, Anne makes coded references to subjects and authors to sound her out on sexual topics.

The article begins by defending the use of the term "lesbian" by citing Brooten's evidence for a medieval sense of a woman who "behaves like a man" and "is oriented toward female companionship for sex" while raising several issues with that usage. But the author is examining a similar apparent contradiction in medieval texts to the one found by Brooten in early Christian texts: an acceptance (to some degree) of female same-sex unions combined with hostility toward female appropriation of male roles.

Female same-sex desire is generally presented in early modern drama in fictitious constructions: the desire is either mistaken or misdirected. Only in this last chapter do we see examples where knowing desire from one woman to another is presented positively, and may even be celebrated as an ideal over heterosexual desire. Things aren’t always straightforward, even so. Although the desiring woman may believe the object of her desire is a woman, not uncommonly the scenario is defused by involving a gender-disguised man.

Some writers object to examining cross-dressing dramas from a homoerotic viewpoint, noting that the act of changing clothes does not change orientation. But Walen emphasizes that the female homoeroticism in cross-dressing plays is situated, not necessarily within the sexual orientation of the characters, but in the dramatic tropes enabled by the cross-dressing motif. It is the audience, more than the characters, who experience the female-female desire.

This chapter focuses on the creation of homoerotic tension in a more asymmetric aggressive context, especially those involving a older experienced woman seducing a younger innocent, including those where the seduction (or assault) is triangulated around a male character that one or both women have a connection to. This motif stands in contrast to more idealized, egalitarian relationships such as those in Shakespeare’s As You Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Lyly’s Gallathea.

Images of women-loving-women were established enough in 16th century England to appear as a character type that was not so much defined as simply assumed, and therefore was available for reference both explicitly and obliquely. Within this general type, there were clear distinctions made between the motifs of desire between women and sexual acts between women. This chapter explores evidence for this character type in non-dramatic sources that were available to early modern English playwrights and their audiences.

There are as many as 80 early modern dramatic works that feature cross-dressed heroines, with overt motivations ranging from following a (male) lover, avoiding rape, scandal, or death, traveling freely, or as a deliberate expression of gender non-conformity. In roughly 30 of these plays (written between 1580 and 1660), the cross-dressing also precipitates female homoerotic desire in some fashion. This raises the question of how and why this motif was employed.

I. Dramatic Constructions of Female Homoeroticism

The book opens with what has become a familiar lament that the scholarly consensus spent entirely too long proclaiming that female homoeroticism was not attested in early modern literature (largely because no one was actually looking for it, or considering it of importance when they found it), but that the last decade or so has been beginning to remedy that misapprehension.

This chapter begins with a look at allegorical images of what appear on the surface to be female same-sex erotic embraces. Images such as "Peace and Justice embracing" on the frontispiece of Saxton's 1579 atlas (in the cartouche above Elizabeth's head), or various paired embracing nudes in paintings representing Justice and Prudence or Faith and Hope raise questions of the public use of female homoeroticism for symbolic purpose.

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