Into the Closet, part 1

Victoria Flanagan's book Into the Closet: Cross-Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children's Literature and Film has been on my to-read list for awhile.  This post will only cover up to the end of chapter 2; I'll write about the rest of the book in a different post.

What I'm noticing, having read Flanagan's other work, is that she has solidified some interesting ideas here, especially in chapter two, about three models of cross-dressing.  I'm currently only interested in two of them:  female-to-male (FTM) cross dressing and transgendered cross dressing.  The FTM model is specific to children's literature, which Flanagan points out has relatively little sexual content.  Remarkably, these sorts of books show females cross dressing quite easily, "passing" as male immediately and without fanfare.  "The majority of children's texts that feature a female cross-dressing theme spend little or no time describing the newly adopted attire of the cross-dressing character.  Their central concern is whether the character can act like a boy." (p. 27)  This, too, female characters accomplish both easily and heroically, and in fact she "incorporates both masculine and feminine behaviors into her gender performance" (30) such that:  "The female cross-dresser's successful performance of masculinity disrupts the presumption that gender is biologically decreed by dissecting masuclinity into a series of behaviors and gestures that can be learned by a female subject just as easily."  (p. 31) 

The transgendered model is what Flanagan uses to talk about books that include sexuality, puberty, or anything about coming-of-age, basically anything that pushes beyond the (as she describes it) asexuality of childhood and gestuers toward adulthood "where the many dilemmas of contemporary adult transvestism and transsexualism begin to encroach on an otherwise simple and straightforward story of gender disguise." (p. 28)  Alanna (the Tamora Pierce character) is the prime example here, with the story of her getting her period pushing her character toward adulthood.

These are my current thoughts:  while Flanagan's model is an excellent starting point, I see problems inherent in separating childhood female cross-dressing and the resultant "liberatory and fluid conceptualization of gender"(xvi) from the next stages of life, those that involve puberty, young adult sexuality, and coming of age.  I want to argue that gender and sexual orientation are inextricably linked.  One way to do that would be to reveal that sexuality and sexual content are also present in children's books, albeit indirectly in many cases.

If I could re-read Alanna by Pierce and show that there is sideways sexual content, homophobia, or other evidence of biological sex, gender performance, and sexual orientation being tied together in inextricable ways, that might be something worth writing about in the article I'm editing.

More to come on chapters 3-8!



Quotes I'm mulling over:

"By disengaging itself from the sexually oriented world of adult transvestism, the construction of female cross-dressing favored by children's texts allows them to reclaim it as their own, refashioning female cross-dressing into a clever strategy for the interrogation of traditional gender categories." (p. 20)

"She [the FTM cross-dressing protagonist] has nothing to lose--in terms of socially constructed gender status--by deciding to discard her femininity temporarily in favor of masculinity.  Her cross-dressing enables her to improve her gender status (becasue masculinity is traditionally regarded as superior to femininity), and therefore does not pose a threat to her femininity.  She ultimately resumes her original gender position as a heroine, having redoubtably proved herself as a hero.  Her final victory is her ability to bridge the distinctive literary traditions of masculine and feminine success, ingeniously weaving them together in order to deconstruct and interrogate their modes of operation." (p. 21)
     [I'm thinking of the sexual threats to both Charlotte and Mary/Bloody Jack...  stepping out of gender identity is stepping into both power and vulnerability, specifically sexual vulnerability.]

"A person's gender, as these children's books and films demonstrate, is principally based on how that person behaves rather than who he or she is inside." (p. 30, cites Culler)
     [There's a "real person" problem here... mixing postmodernism and liberation doesn't necessarily work...  Flanagan tackles that somewhat:]
"The concept of 'agency' is similarly problematic here because an ideological distinction must be drawn between the humanist definition of agency, wherein people are viewed as individuals who have the capacity to act reflectively and purposively, and Butler's postmodern concept of agency, which is specifically located in actions that disrupt and vary the normally reiterative nature of gender performance." (p. 42) 
     [p. 48 also touches on "who they actually are" vs. prescribed gender... do we exist outside of prescriptive norms that we embrace or resist?]