“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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Return to Crafting

I haven’t done any crafting for re-enacting in a while. I’ve been caught up with other longer-term projects (mainly a cushion that I’ve been tapestry embroidering for over a year), university work, and I pretty much have a full set of men-at-arms kit anyway. At the moment I just need to make padded hoes and attach the maille, buy a proper full-face, and adjust my maille shirt so that I have full knight’s kit. Basically, I’m pretty set for a character, I just need to get a higher status character so that I can fully participate in the knight’s tourney’s that we have all Summer.

However, I have found an excuse to fit in more crafting! I have a module on Roman Luxury Arts & Crafts, and I had to do a presentation on clothing. What better excuse to make a Roman Early Imperial tunic?

In terms of making it, it was ridiculously simple. You basically take two rectangular pieces of cloth measuring roughly 1m x 1.5m, put them together, sew them up the shorter sides whilst leaving holes for the arms, and then across the top whilst leaving a hole for the head. Ta-da! You now have a Roman tunic – all you need now is a belt to cinch it in at the waist!

the more high-status ones had two thin purple stripes as well, one on either side of the head-hole, but to make that authentic you have to actually weave that into the fabric, and I have neither the time nor the money for that….

Hopefully this will re-ignite my crafting bug and I’ll finally get on with my padded maille legs…. Wish me luck!