Friday, March 15, 2013

Don’t Dis the Diss—Part II: Walk like a Man, Talk like a Man

Despite my title, no, this entry is not about being a woman in academia. Instead, it is about the topic of my dissertation: eighteenth-century female cross-dressers.

If that sounds like a confusing mouthful, let me break it down a little. First of all, literary studies of the eighteenth century focus on a time period slightly longer than the actual seventeen hundreds. The Long Eighteenth Century can encompass nearly 150 years, anywhere from 1660 to 1837, with the ascension of Queen Victoria to the throne. My own dissertation takes the Restoration into account, but most of the texts I analyze were written and published roughly between 1700 and 1801—more true to the idea of the eighteenth century I suppose. It may also be useful to mention here that my focus is on British literature almost exclusively, despite the fact that there were women dressing in men’s clothes all over Europe and North America at this time. Probably in the rest of the world, too.

But I digress, as usual. Specifically, I am looking at literary representations of women who wore men’s clothes, whether they are actresses (who were finally allowed onto the English stage starting in 1660), novel characters (usually ladies who dress in men’s clothes out of necessity or pleasure), female soldiers (women who passed themselves off as men in order to join the army or navy—these are historical figures), female husbands (women who passed themselves off as men in order to seduce other women—usually their stories are elaborations on facts), or female pirates (pretty self-explanatory). Their stories were highly popular in the eighteenth century, and some of the real life passing women were quite famous. Female soldier Hannah Snell returned from duty, collected her pension, declared she was a woman, and eventually performed military drills on stage in her uniform. You could even buy a printed engraving of her to hang up on your wall if you so fancied. Female soldiers like Snell were often considered heroes who virtuously protected their female bodies from the sexual advances of men, showed considerable bravery in the field, and were often thought of as even more valorous than the men they fought alongside.
Hannah Snell! Don't you just want her pic on your wall?

Female husbands, on the other hand, were considered wicked cheats who pulled the wool over innocent women’s eyes, stole their money, and maybe even indulged in unnatural pleasures with the help of a dildo (not lying! It’s true!). These women were often castigated and, if caught, were publicly whipped and/or put in prison for deception. Similarly, female pirates Mary Reade and Ann Bonny cross-dressed in order to pillage and destroy as pirates, and to have affairs with the dashing pirates they met (women were often not allowed aboard ships for superstitions reasons. Also, being the only woman aboard a ship full of sex-starved men was not a good idea either). These women were also considered hussies and criminals.
Female Pirates Ann Bonny and Mary Reade.

 Novel depictions of cross-dressing were similarly ambiguous. Moll Flanders cross-dresses in order to steal; she doesn’t like the disguise, though eventually it saves her life because no one can identify her after a job goes wrong. Her male disguise is only one of many, however, and we don’t get the sense that Defoe thinks that dressing as a man is any worse than passing herself off as a lady. By the time Elizabeth Inchbald pens A Simple Story in 1791, Miss Millner’s ambiguously-gendered masquerade costume causes a stir over its unseemly show of leg while illustrating her ambiguous moral standards. (Showing leg was taboo for most eighteenth-century women, especially ladies.)
Showing leg was often associated with prostitution for women, as in this James Gillray print from the late 1700s.

In my dissertation, I consider these representations as part of a continuum. When I read more closely, I began to see a pattern in the way that the cross-dresser’s body appeared in the texts. Eighteenth-century narrative can be remarkably coy about people’s bodies; the cross-dresser’s body, which would seem to be at the forefront of her story and how she manages her male costume, only ever appears in fragments. The narratives I explore bring up certain appendages or body parts only when there is a question about the cross-dresser’s gender. In each chapter I explore a different appendage in order to further establish how gender functions in the eighteenth century.

What has made my dissertation so much fun is exploring precisely how eighteenth-century Brits felt about beards, breasts, penises, dildos and legs, and then comparing those attitudes and cultural representations to the representations in literature. Upon inspection, it becomes clear that although many writers, physicians, moralists, newspaper writers, and the general public felt that beards and penises denoted maleness and breasts denoted femaleness, these assignments were not always so clear. Although both men and women have legs, the texts I explore suggest that they only signify sexually on women—even as their exposure comes primarily when women don breeches.
Actress Peg Woffington was famous for her "breeches parts" on stage. She often dressed in men's clothes to recite epilogues to plays, such as this one "The Female Volunteer." Sexy, eh?

Ultimately, these appendages lose their ability to signify one gender or another. The texts try to maintain gender dichotomies, but cannot. Instead, their ambiguity becomes the way through which the cross-dresser appeals to other women. Her body is at times exposed, at times hidden, but either way, she is very attractive to other women. These relationships between the cross-dresser and the women she comes into contact with form the second half of my analysis. I argue that although not all the relationships between the cross-dresser and her accomplices are sexual, there is always a little bit of sexual tension—just enough that we, as readers, learn how to read for these nuances. Call it eighteenth-century gaydar, if you will. The cross-dresser’s gender-ambiguous body is attractive to and attracts other women. Whether they know she is a woman or not doesn’t matter; the reader always knows.

Whether she was on the stage, on a ship, or in another lady’s bed, the female cross-dresser is an intriguing figure in the eighteenth-century. In a time when readership is growing and women are increasingly picking up paper and quill, the figure of the female cross-dresser comes to represent the freedoms and restraints that women of the time faced. This is not to say that there weren’t other kinds of women who tested the boundaries of social norms, or other kinds of women who engaged in Sapphic practices…it’s just to say that our understanding of women’s lives and desires, and their representations in literature, are incomplete until we look a little more closely at the female cross-dresser.
Female Husband Mary Hamilton from Fielding's The Female Husband gets whipped in punishment for her crimes.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Don't Dis the Diss -- Part I

So, I made a resolution to post a blog entry once each week, and it’s only March and I’ve failed miserably. I blame it on my dissertation, and for that reason, this post is all about that very special piece of writing in my life.

The dissertation is a strange thing. For many of us, it is a mythological beast of sorts—the unicorn of grad school. Just when you think you see it in its entirety, it dissolves into the forest of commentary, criticism and revision. In some ways, perhaps a dissertation is more of a hippogriff. It is an unwieldy fusion of degree requirement and serious research project; a not-quite-book but more-than-term paper.

Finishing the dissertation and applying to jobs bring a whole new layer of anxiety to the graduate student. We begin graduate school happy to have gotten in, privileged to join the ranks, but often also with a sense of smugness. We were encouraged by someone, by several people, at some point in our young and impressionable lives, to get a PhD. To go to graduate school. Because we were smart, maybe even very smart. Unfortunately smartness is pretty easy to come by in graduate school. By the time you make it into a PhD program, you are no longer the smartest person among your peers. Everyone is the smartest person, and there are very few compliments or encouraging comments to go around, especially once you finish your coursework and start working on your dissertation project.

Academia is full of egos, so you have to make sure to stroke your own as often as you can, or find someone who will stroke it for you on a consistent basis. We also have to delude ourselves a little bit about the job market—surely, we say to ourselves, we will get jobs! We will not be those sad sad phds you hear about who gave up on academia and now drive a truck for a living, or, god forbid, live off of food stamps while adjuncting somewhere! We tell ourselves over and over again that what we are doing is worthwhile, honorable, and maybe even necessary. After all, someone has to educate college students about the beauty of Shakespeare’s language, the humor of Chaucer’s tales, the beauty and the wit of Woolf’s prose, and the complex symbolism of the Bront√ęs, Hurston, Morrison, Faulkner and so many others.

Of course, that’s not really what the dissertation is about. I remember very clearly attending my own undergraduate English department graduation ceremony back in the day. The English department ceremony included the PhDs, MFAs and MAs in addition to the BAs. The PhDs went first. I remember this one female student particularly because my senior seminar professor was hooding her. I don’t remember the exact title of this young scholar’s dissertation, but I know it had something to do with a medieval woman writer I’d never heard of.

“How lame!” I thought. “Why write a dissertation about some piece of literature no one has every heard of!?” At some point I’d also heard jokes about over-specialized dissertation topics, topics so obscure no one had seemed to have heard of them. It all seemed so…ridiculous! Why bother in that case? Why not write about all your favorite novels or poems or plays or authors?

And yet here I am, nine years older and wiser, with the knowledge that the dissertation, “Why Jane Austen is Amazing,” and dissertations similar to that, have pretty much already been written. A dissertation has to make a significant intervention into a complex, some might say bloated, field of inquiry that is specific enough that you can do the research on it in 3 years, more or less. Anything bigger, more all-encompassing, or more complex will take longer than the six long years it already takes to do a PhD in English “quickly.” (The national average is somewhere around 9 or 10 years.)

At the same time, people often naively ask me, “What could possibly be left to say about ________?” (fill in the blank with a well-known author or work). Theoretical and social ideologies are changing constantly, meaning that our interpretations are changing constantly as well. The study of literature is all about looking for patterns of signification and for new ways to understand ourselves and the world around us as portrayed through literature. In the past, different literary schools attempted to justify why some works were “Literature” and others weren’t; others traced the psychoanalytic resonances in literature; still others inspected works of literature for signs of class struggle or representations of racial inequality; others analyzed the structure and narrative of works of literature as well as the ways in which readers responded to these works; and others search for the representations of unusual men and women, non-normative sexualities and gender configurations, and how literature creates a space for understanding these ideas and developments now and in the past.

Given the ever-changing mindset of literary scholars, as well as the constant re-evaluation of past works of literature and the discovery of ever more under- or un-studied works by both canonical authors as well as newly rediscovered ones, the stream of knowledge to be produced in literary studies is probably endless.  Just as scientists will keep studying space and sub-atomic structures and the deepest trenches of the oceans in order to keep searching for what we still don’t know about the material world, so literary scholars will keep studying creative works to identify and analyze what we still don’t know about the human condition.

But I wax poetic. The dissertation is often an un-poetic creation. It is Frankenstein’s monster, in a way. We piece it together, learning how it works as we go along. For most of us, this is the longest piece of analytical writing we have ever done (unless this is your 2nd PhD, in which case, go away). It’s difficult, at times; at other times, things seem to go swimmingly. Then you get your committee’s comments, and for a while you might feel like you are right back where you started. But you have to keep plugging along, because they aren’t paying you enough to linger (or at least not where I go to grad school). Plus, somewhere in the future is the end of the rainbow with the ultimate pot of gold: a job as a real live professor of English literature where you will get to continue your research (hopefully on a reasonable salary) while you inspire young minds, engineer new syllabi, and become the intellectual equal of the people you admire.

The dissertation is not a book; it is not “publishable” as such. It might have been, in the past, when dissertations were longer, people spent longer in graduate school, and the state of the academy was quite different (for ex. you could start a tenure-track job while still working on your dissertation). Now it is a significant research project that will eventually become your first book (maybe. It might also just turn into 3-5 articles). How that process works, I’m not quite sure. I imagine it involves some time in an archive, among other things…

For now, the defense copy of my dissertation is done and I await my defense date. Then there will be final revisions and the official submission to the Graduate School. In the meantime, I am thinking a lot about what it means to have written it. Of course I am proud of it. It’s nearly 250 pages long. It has a 17 page works cited list. I have spent 3 years working on it, while also teaching, working on scholarly articles, attending conferences, writing letters of recommendation, attending meetings, and applying for 60+ jobs.

On the other hand, the dissertation still feels unfinished; maybe it will always be that way. Maybe even once it’s a book, it will still feel unfinished. Writing, when done well, is a lengthy process. I’ve missed writing creatively in the last 6 years, but the PhD sucks up nearly all your time and energy for that. On the other hand, I’ve enjoyed writing my dissertation, coming up with new ideas and ways of interpreting these works, and discovering strange and sundry literary marginalia to expose to the world…

I do know, however, I’m ready to be finished with graduate school and move on.

Stay tuned for Part II, in which I reveal the topic of my dissertation & revel in the details!