- Into the Closet: Cross-Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children's Literature and Film
There is a long and interesting history of cross-dressing in children's literature and film, ranging from "The Counterfeit Marquise" in seventeenth-century France to the 1998 Disney film Mulan. Victoria Flanagan, in Into the Closet: Cross-Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children's Literature and Film, tries to unpack both the contemporary concepts and discourses of cross-dressing as well as how these conversations are to be read in the realm of children's literature and film. Theoretically based in Judith Butler's ideas of gender behavior and subversion as well as Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of the carnivalesque, Flanagan explores both female-to-male and male-to-female cross-dressing in a variety of children's texts. Additionally, Flanagan reserves the final chapter of her book for the growing body of adolescent works that deal explicitly with transgender issues. The book examines a very intriguing topic that deserves this sort of full-length study, although there are weak moments in the text.
Flanagan is interested in exploring how the treatment of these issues in children's texts can challenge restrictive gender roles; she finds the most potential for challenge in texts that deal with female-to-male cross-dressing. She focuses the analysis in her initial chapters on Tamora Pierce's novel Alanna: The First Adventure and Disney's film Mulan. Flanagan argues that the title characters, Alanna and Mulan, both use cross-dressing as a means to an end rather than as a permanent statement about gender identity. In doing so, they work to undermine "natural" assumptions about masculinity and femininity that are culturally and discursively constructed. Flanagan notes these tales "equate cross-dressing with subjective agency, whereby gender transgression becomes a means through which a feminine subject can resist the interpellating discourses of traditional femininity" (43) and are therefore successfully disruptive in a way that aligns with Butler's claims from Gender Trouble. Flanagan offers an intriguing detailed analysis of the two characters, but she overlooks the heterogeneity to which both texts adhere. Both Alanna and Mulan end their respective sagas in heterosexual relationships, calling into question whether the challenge to feminine gender roles is truly subverted or merely made permissible as a childhood dalliance.
In contrast to these potentially liberating tales of female-to-male cross-dressing, Flanagan finds that the ways in which male-to-female cross-dressing is represented in children's literature are much more restrictive for male characters. Flanagan turns to Bakhtin for her theoretical support and groundwork in the sections on male cross-dressing. She examines classic as well as modern examples of cross-dressing in this section, with [End Page 241] texts as varied as The Wind in the Willows, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the more recent Bill's New Frock by Anne Fine and Ross MacDonald's picturebook Another Perfect Day, these texts all highlight the way femininity remains "an elusive concept" (142) that generally is treated with hostility and derision by those who find themselves in women's clothing. Flanagan argues that the agency behind the male cross-dressing is also considerably different from the agency seen in female cross-dressing. While Alanna, Mulan, and other female characters choose to dress as men in order to meet some goal unattainable by women, the male-to-female cross-dressing is widely presented as either comedic or a form of punishment, reaffirming traditional female stereotypes.
Flanagan follows up this evaluation of male cross-dressing in literature with a chapter on cross-dressing in film, one of the strongest sections of the text. In the chapter "(Mis)Performing Gender through a Lens" she notes, "male cross-dressing films replicate the general cultural construction of male cross-dressing as an amusing joke" but films such as Sorority Boys, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective add questions about the cross-dresser's sexual identity to the question of male cross-dressing unlike the...