“Cross-Dressing” in Re-enactment

Recently a friend of mine produced a report for their MA about “cross-dressing” in re-enactment. It looked at the question as to whether individuals should be allowed to “cross-dress” in re-enactment or in living history, and it showed some cross-re-enactment issues that I think have to be addressed.

The first is the term “cross-dressing”. It’s used a lot in re-enactment to describe women dressing as men, and (less common in re-enactment) men dressing as women. Unfortunately, whilst my group is very open to gender issues, not everyone in re-enactment knows about the problem with this term. Personally, I thought it was an out-dated term, and only heard people use it when I started re-enactment. Specifically, when I heard about the English Heritage rule that there is no “cross-dressing” allowed in living history any more. The problem is that it buys into the idea that there is a gender binary, when it is in fact very fluid – like sexuality. When linked to the livinghistory.co.uk forum discussing this (and no, I will not link as it is a vile discussion), it became very clear that influential members in that community did not understand this concept.

It was interesting the number of older, male re-enactors who personally objected to women being on the battlefield. There seemed to be a consensus of “well, if she makes an effort to look male, then it’s ok – she’ll be far away from the audience anyway, so any femininity won’t be noticed”. Ok, let’s deconstruct this view.

1. “makes an effort to look male”. What does this even mean? What constitutes as “male”? This is based on a social construct of masculinity. Does this also mean that feminine men shouldn’t be on the battlefield? Then there are those who look masculine without much effort. For clarity, take Brienne of Tarth from Game of thrones.

Brienne of Tarth

I think it’s safe to say that she would “pass” as male without much effort. And to balance this, would they object to these males taking to the field? From the sounds of it, they probably wouldn’t – so why allow feminine males on the field and bar masculine women?

2. “she’ll be far away from the audience, so they won’t notice it, so it’s ok”. This seems to assume that no matter how much effort you put in to appearing masculine, the audience will always magically notice if it’s a women. So we shouldn’t even bother then? This also completely ignores the fact that the majority of re-enactment involves helmets, headgear, and quite frankly very unflattering armour for protection. Under all that, I would be amazed if any women bothered to try and be masculine. In some cases (like Anglo-Saxon or Viking re-enactment), you can only see the eyes of the re-enactor! How are you meant to discern their gender, let alone their sex, from that?!

There was even a view expressed on the forum that they liked fighting against women, because they gave light hits, and tired easily, so you wouldn’t get hurt, but would be able to easily win the fight. Please tell me what isn’t sexist about this? Yes, the comment about light hits should be a compliment, but the context of the comment makes it sound like women in re-enactment are weak – I can hit just as hard as any of the men in my group, and lots of the guys are perfectly capable of soft hits. And don’t get me started on the comment about women getting tired easily. I don’t think it needs to be said how sexist that view is.

At least there seemed to be some sort of agreement about women in combat – it’s fine, they want to have fun too, and it wouldn’t ruin the overall aesthetic. However. As soon as women portraying men in living history was discussed, the shit hits the fan. Now, the EH rules are that there shouldn’t be any “cross-dressing”. Looking at re-enactment in general, men tend to want to portray men and do fun things like being a merchant, being a guard, being a wealthy knight in shiny maille, smithing, so on and so forth. Women in re-enactment have interests that are a bit broader. There’s the typical embroidery, spinning, weaving, cooking and cleaning, but it seems a bit silly to assume that all women would like doing these activities in living history. Personally, I like it, but I would like to try smithing, and guard duty is a lot of fun. And some of the men enjoy doing these as well, but you have to be dressed appropriately to do any of these activities. Men can get away with doing more of these activities than women (especially in my period). It just seems to restrict what women can do disproportionately to what men can do. As soon as the public get close, it seems to be unacceptable to be working on maille whilst dressed as a male, because (shock, horror) you don’t have the correct genitalia. How is this fair? I want to do everything the guys do, but because some old, cis  (men whose sex – genitalia – matches up with what they identify as – men or women), white men have decided that it wouldn’t be appropriate, I’m not allowed. Imagine being told that you can’t do science or, you know, drive a car because it wouldn’t be appropriate. Oh, wait, that happens elsewhere and we’re in uproar about it. And before you say that’s a different case – no it isn’t. It’s telling a specific demographic that they can’t do something because of a small physical difference from those in power. Granted, driving a car is more of a necessity, and re-enactment doesn’t have as dire a consequence if we can’t do it, but it IS the same mindset.

English Heritage’s excuse for this is that it “confuses the audience”. Now, I find that this just insults the audience. I’m pretty sure the audience are clever enough to realise that whilst I myself am not male, this is something men would have done. They understand that we are PORTRAYING something from history. We are, essentially, actors. Yet this same problem isn’t raised when it happens in films (like Cate Blanchett in I’m Not There), even when it’s whitewashing the race of the main characters (see The Impossible for the most recent example of this). Because of risk assessments (where you have to assume the public are stupid), re-enactors seem to give the audience a lot less credit than they should be given. The people who attend the shows I go to are either kids who don’t care if I’m a woman – in their eyes, I’m dressed as a knight, so I’m a knight – or academics or amateur historians who understand that this is a portrayal, and we will never get to “true” historical attitudes or accuracy.

All of these reasons pale in comparison to what the trans re-enactment community must feel about this (yes, they exist). Because of this outdated view from the cis white men in charge of shows that gender is fixed, not fluid, it leads to a fundamental misunderstanding about the plight of the trans community. I don’t have the figures for the UK to hand, but in the United States, 41% of transgendered people said they had attempted suicide. The average for the United States is about (unless my maths is wrong) 0.1%. Think of that for a second. More than HALF of the tras community has not only thought of suicide, but tried to carry it out. Do you see the discrepancy?

So why is this? Well, it’s partially due to unhelpful views like “gender is fixed”. No, gender is fluid. You can have more than one, and you can flick between them in the blink of an eye. Even genitalia isn’t fixed – many children are born with ambiguous genitalia. Some girls are born with large clitorises, and some boys are born with very small penises. Just to point out: THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THIS (a rant may come soon regarding surgically changing children’s genitalia, but it’s for a different post). Despite this, there are surgeries out there who will perform “correctional” surgery on these children, and can cause untold harm. But I digress.

I like to think that transgendered individuals have this figured out, but they live in a world where many people haven’t. This means they are misunderstood, and may develop psychological problems because of societal pressures. For example, with living history, do they follow their true gender (and therefore their true personality), or do what they are told and follow the role their genitalia dictate? If anything, I would say it is immoral to make transgendered people do the role as dictated by their sex. Those who are uncomfortable with their bodies would already find it hard – imagine having a shower and having to wash those areas of your body that you don’t even feel are your own – without being reminded during their hobby about the discrepancy between their sex and gender. A hobby (especially re-enactment) is supposed to allow you to escape from your normal life and do something different from the norm, not remind you of the outside world in the harshest way possible. Yes, they could surgically transition, but some don’t want to have surgery (let alone those who are discriminated against by the medical community, so don’t feel like they can approach their doctor about it. There is enough on that for another post, so I’ll leave it at that). Some are happy having a different gender to their sex. They have to deal instead with people expecting them to be feminine or masculine as defined by their genitalia, and not themselves.

Unfortunately for now, the view about this seems to be “if you don’t like it, do a different hobby”. This attitude needs to change. Re-enactment is where I found the most lovely, understanding people, and my entire friendship circle focusses on re-enactment. The group I am with is one of the most open, welcoming groups ever, and it seems a shame that other groups aren’t as welcoming. I even came across a group (who I shan’t name for fairness) who categorically say no women at all. It seems to me that attitudes within re-enactment need to change and drastically need an update. Hopefully my group will lead in example, and make re-enactment the realm not just for old, cis, white, wealthy men, but for everyone else who wants to have some fun, or are interested in history.

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4 comments on ““Cross-Dressing” in Re-enactment

  1. and why do you have to dress like a man to be a smith? theres eveidence across the medieval period for women doing all kinds of metal work either alongside thier husbands or because they were widowed. Ok. so it would have been unusual, but if you’re doing living history isn’t it more interesting to tell people about the women who did do “male” jobs?

    • Yes, it would be interesting, but as you said this is not the rule. Most of the women in my group would like to try being a smith (or any manly chore), but if they all portrayed female smiths, it would be even less authentic than if we were portraying men. This is not what really gets to me. I hope you can tell in my piece that I am most annoyed because of the impact on trans people, and the fact that it is a restrictive policy based on someone’s sex. It’s discriminatory, plain and simple, and is based on outdated ideas of sex and gender.

  2. there is very limited eveidence for women passing as men throughout history, much of it falling more into the myth than fact category – theres far more evidence for women doing typically male jobs whilst dressed as women, so I have to disagree withyour first statement on principle.

    There are two reasons I don’t agree with you on the trans argument.

    1 – the clue is in the name of the hobby. it’s called reenACTment for a reason – it has a strong element of theatricality, and contains a lot of acting.

    There are notable exceptions – certain globe productions, pantomine, kabuki – but these are specialist arenas. Male models who look like girls are irrelevant because fashion is an entirely different art form and they are its latest fad, most of them will be old news before they’re even old enough to retire

    A casting director, looking for an actor to play mike, the burly six foot hunk, looks at headshots of burly six foot men, they do not – even if they are trans themselves – start by flicking through headshots of petite female actors. Actors do not get to choose the parts they play (not unless they’re A-list anyway), they play the parts assigned to them.

    This holds true for village hall amdram just as much as proffessional theatre, if it didn’t every stage would be packed with multiple hamlets and ophelias becuase no one really wants to play polonius or gertrude ( also the play would be crap, I once saw a production of romeo and juliet with three romeos and three juliets, calling it terrible would be polite)

    re eneactment is a hobby, yes, but it’s one within which a certain degree of professionalism is required. The client is the casting director, what they say goes and bitching about it is unprofessional.

    In theatrical terms re enactment is already more trans friednly than mainstream theatre because it does allow a certain degree of routine cross dressing. Turn on your tv, outside the areas mentioned above the only cross dressing depicted in drama is for purposes of disguise or the specific depiction of a trans character. When women are routinely playing men in eastenders and men are playing women in emmerdale, when casting becomes blind to gender, then and only then will there be a valid case for reenactment discriminating against trans people

    2 -I think your argument somehwat trivialises the status of someone who is truly trans, because a woman playing Bob for the weekend has about as much to do with the real issue of transpeople as does a rugby team getting into drag for a laugh. Your main argument is that girls aren’t allowed to dress up as boys, but most of the women who dress as men in reenactment are not transgender, they just want to dress as men so they can fight. very few of them would class themsleves as trans.

    For most cross dressing women in re enactment, “Bob” is a feminist issue, to do with thier entitlement to be equal with men. I don’t get it myself, since I’ve always subscribed to the Gaskell school of feminism whereby a woman is not the equal of a man, rather she is his superior in every concievable way. We had masculine dressing as a school of feminism in the 80’s, and we’ve grown up and moved past it.

    Nor do I agree that Bob provides a positive role model for little girls, becuase there’s a very loud subtext in that argument that suggests there is something wrong with being female.

    There isn’t. I’ve always found that argument creepy. yes, girls can do anything boys can do and usually do it better(recent olympics proved that), but they dont have to pretend to be male in order to do so.

    It’s more positive to show women being women in history and beating the men at thier own game whilst still being female, and there are plenty of examples.

    I’ve been active in Uk reenactment for almost 30 years now, and things have changed a lot. I will admit that I’ve never fought, never been Bob, but I’ve also never been a passive camp follower either, I’ve been femme sole, a living historian and independant artisan. As far as I’m concerned I have always focused on being a positive female role model in historical context. What I find most interesting about the Bob phenomenom is that by dressing as a woman I have encountered far more blatent sexism and belittlement of my chosen role from the Bobs of our little world than I ever have from even the most macho of male warriors.

    • bigfoot says:

      I think perhaps you’re missing the crux of the argument, which is that this is a hobby and it’s about choice. If a woman wants to play a male role because that’s what they really want to do as a hobby then they should be allowed to don a beard and get on with it and bollocks to anyone who wants to tell them what they can and can’t do with their hobby and spare time. It doesn’t trivialise trans issues as this directly impacts on the role trans people play and what they can contribute within reenactment.

      And as for thinking that women are superior to men?… Well, men have been thinking they’re superior to women for thousands of years and it’s caused nothing but misery, war and brutality, shaping the patriarchy and oppressions of society we live in. Reversing this so the other sex is in the identical position in a matriarchy as opposed to a patriarchy is continuing the same problem: people thinking they’re inherently better than others by birth, by entitlement, by existing. That’s how nationalists and royalists, racists and sexists think. It’s the same shit repackaged. I’m a feminist, because the sexes are equal, as are the genders in all conceivable ways, but they are not treated or viewed as such and are oppressed for it, and this is wrong.

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