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Reviewed by:
  • Into the Closet: Cross-Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children's Literature and Film
  • Thomas Crisp (bio)
Into the Closet: Cross-Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children's Literature and Film. By Victoria Flanagan. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Building on her doctoral dissertation and published articles and critical essays, Victoria Flanagan's Into the Closet is a recent addition to Routledge's Children's Literature and Culture series, a collection of titles "particularly concerned with the transformations in children's culture and how they have affected the representation and socialization of children" (Zipes xi). Based on the premise that little critical attention has been given to media representations of cross-dressing in children's and young adult culture, Flanagan draws primarily on literary analysis and theories of gender to explore three broad categories of cross-dressing in children's literature and film: male-to-female, female-to-male, and transgendered. She asserts that within these three models a number of discourses are produced, ranging from the re-inscription of gendered norms and bodies to the disruption and deconstruction of gender categories.

Flanagan argues that because each form of cross-dressing representation in children's literature and film varies, no singular set of theories can be employed as a lens through which to consider all manifestations. She nods to a number of scholars (including Bahktin's theories of "carnival" and the "grotesque" and Lacan's theorizing on the "phallus") but draws primarily on the work of Judith Butler and Marjorie Garber. In Gender Trouble (1990/2006) Butler famously used drag to expose gender as "performatively constituted by the very 'expressions' that are said to be its results" (34). Flanagan argues that because "drag is popularly perceived to be a male, homosexual activity, it is a term that I have preferred to abandon when examining texts produced for children and adolescents," which actively work to distance themselves from sexuality. She prefers "cross-dressing," a phrase she argues is "relatively neutral" and "allows for multiple interpretive possibilities" (5).

Flanagan explains the paradigmatic structure of the three models of cross-dressing in chapter 2, before reiterating and expanding upon each in subsequent chapters. She writes that female-to-male cross-dressing, the most commonly represented in children's literature, is generally equated with subjective agency: cross-dressers often outperform biological males and provoke "a reevaluation of traditional masculinity and femininity based on the heroine's lack of conformity with such categorizations" (22). Although Flanagan spends time in chapter 2 exploring the Song of the [End Page 67] Lioness series, the Russian folktale "A Riddle for a King," and the French salon tale "The Subtle Princess," an analysis of the Disney film Mulan dominates the discussion. While Mulan allows for a rich exploration of female-to-male cross-dressing, it feels out of place in a chapter otherwise centered exclusively on literature (as opposed to being placed within chapter 6, which is devoted to representations in film). In subsequent chapters narratives such as Monstrous Regiment and Rose Daughter allow Flanagan to explore both "successes" and "failures" of biological females' performances of "masculinity." Chapter 3 expands female-to-male cross-dressing representation, focusing on children's literature retellings of the life of Joan of Arc. Similar in spirit to essays exploring the cultural construction of icons like Helen Keller, Rosa Parks, and Anne Frank, Flanagan suggests that the iconic status of Joan of Arc (as more legend than human being) has resulted in interpretations of Joan's life depicting her as a saint and patriot—images in contrast to that of "a cross-dresser who challenged the gender status quo" (71). With insightful focus on visual and verbal narrative structures, she concludes that such retellings "re-create only the uncontentious aspects of her life . . . her transgressive behavior is reconstructed in retellings as valid, legitimate, and even heroic" (96–97).

Male-to-female cross-dressing is the second paradigm introduced in chapter 2 and is more fully explored in chapter 5. Unlike the female-to-male paradigm, male-to-female cross-dressing is generally played for laughs: forced to wear "women's clothing," cross-dressed males are inadequately disguised and their unsuccessful performances...


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