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"If I were a girl—and I am net": Cross-dressing in Alain Berliner's Ma vie en rose and Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion Keith Reader "Between the sexes, in the no man's land between straightforward homosexual or heterosexual preference, is the theatre of mobile desire."1 CRITICAL ATTENTION has recently been much focused on the gender and wider societal implications of cross-dressing. For Marjorie Garber in Vested Interests this perhaps frivolous-seeming activity is a touchstone for all manner of cultural insecurities and anxieties, calling into question as it does the binary forms in which notions of identity have habitually been couched. That questioning is of course a leitmotif of deconstructive thought and queer theory, one which Jacques Derrida's interrogation of the supposed primacy of speech over writing and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's exploration of "the instability of the supposed oppositions that structure an experience of the 'self'"2 in their very different ways go to exemplify. It is in this context that we may understand Garber's assertion that the theme of cross-dressing represents "an undertheorized recognition of the necessary critique of binary thinking."3 She describes the transvestite as the "uncanny supplement that marks the place of desire" (Garber 28)—a conjugation of terms drawn from Sigmund Freud, Derrida and Jacques Lacan, which in different ways call into question the binary, "either-or" view of identity dominant in Western culture. Cross-dressing for Garber does not theorize this questioning so much as in a quite literal sense act it out, in which respect it is perhaps the supreme example of the notion of gender as performance so influential in current thinking, largely thanks to the work of Judith Butler. It also harks back— as Butler implicitly does—to the concept of the carnival articulated by Mikhail Bakhtin. For Bakhtin, "[a]ll the images of carnival are dualistic,"4 but this dualism is subject to continual inversion and reversal, and the ambivalent laughter it induces "embraces both poles of change, . . . deals with the very process of change, with crisis itself (Bakhtin 127). If the laughter provoked by cross-dressing manifests a crisis of identity, its affinities with the Bakhtinian carnival are plain. The term "crisis of identity" is to be understood in a twofold sense—a crisis surrounding the gendered identity of the cross-dressed individual and a crisis that calls into question the 50 Fall 2002 Reader notion of identity itself. That notion is likewise called into question by Butler, for whom "[fjhere is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very 'expressions' that are said to be its results."5 Bakhtin and Butler further have in common that their work is often subject to a widespread, and strikingly similar, misunderstanding—what I might call the voluntarist fallacy. This consists in implying that gendered identities (for Butler) and socially defined identities of virtually any kind (for Bakhtin) can be put on and discarded—like, precisely, garments—at will. A close reading of their texts will reveal the erroneousness, however comforting , of such a view. Alex Hughes emphasizes that for Butler "[g]ender performances ... are expressive of constraint"6—a constraint underpinned by a normalizing, heteropolarized system. This is not to say, however, that drag merely goes to reinforce the polarity it appears to challenge, for at the same time as being "a practice that somehow idealizes dominant heterosexuality and its norms" (Hughes 145) it also challenges and subverts those norms from within, performing "neither an efficacious insurrection nor a painful resubordination , but an unstable coexistence of both."7 That instability is surely what determines the uneasy laughter with which drag performances are generally greeted—a laughter which Garber's otherwise comprehensive and sophisticated study, curiously, all but ignores. The systemic constraints of the Bakhtinian carnival are plainer still to see, for in all its manifestations it is necessarily, if not precisely, limited in time. Any slave who had sought to prolong the role-reversal of the Roman saturnalia into the following day would have found out the hard way that that was not a viable strategy. The carnival in this respect might indeed...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-0234
Print ISSN
0014-0767
Pages
pp. 50-59
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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