13 September, 2016

In Defense of Gender Cross-Dressing in Dramas

Cross-dressing in fiction is a staple, whether it be Shakespeare, Bollywood, or your pick of Asian dramas, and normally takes the form of women dressing up as men. We even see it in western film, though interestingly enough it often takes the form of men dressing up as women, Mrs. Doubtfire being an example, but really it's used as a story device in many cultural traditions (and has been for a long, long, long time). It's used so often that I think that people get tired of it (mostly because it seems so obvious that the person isn't who they claim to be), but let me pose one reason why I think we still need it, and why it won't go away any time soon: societal views on gender.

If you live in a country that enjoys relatively decent gender equality (though no country enjoys gender equality fully), and no oppression of sexual minorities i.e. the LGTBQA community, the trope might seem annoying and outdated. But the cross-dressing trope allows for both exploration of sexual and gender identity and refutation of restrictive societal norms that relegate women to a sub-human status, or don't allow men to express aspects of masculinity that cultures frown upon.

But before we jump into the story device as often used in film and theatre, I do want to say that this does happen in real life. Most often it is women dressing up as men, to work, for safety, and to escape rigid and oppressive gender roles. One such example is Sisa Abu Daooh, an Egyptian woman who after her husband died, dressed and lived as a man so she could support her family. If the world were really such a marvelous place for women to flourish and be safe, this wouldn't need to happen. This is likely the reason why cross-dressing as a narrative tool even became so popular in the first place. And added to that, there are countless female authors, George Elliot and the Brontë sisters who went by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell so that they could actually get published. This wasn't just a trope or plot device for them, it was how to achieve their dreams. You can also read here about other women who have passed as men in history.

We see it in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and in the modern Hollywood take on the story, She's the Man, and the Bollywood take, Dil Bole Hadippa! In each of these settings, to be a woman means to be looked down on, unsafe, and not taken seriously. To prove that they are worth just as much as men, each woman takes on a male identity so she can fulfill who she is. Twelfth Night also has reference to the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which was all about reversing and turning upside societal roles, gender roles, order etc. And in the role of men dressing up as women, one example we have is Mrs. Doubtfire, where under the guise of being a woman, a father can nurture and take care of his children. Men are often not expected to be nurturing in their roles as fathers and are expected to be emotionally cold or distant. Another example of women dressing as men, is that of the film Yentyl, which also features a woman dressing up as a man so that she can learn the Talmud, something restricted to men. I could go on, the narrative device of cross-dressing is widely used. And here are some reasons why: (this will focus largely on women cross-dressing as men)

1. It allows women to be seen as people and not as how society dictates what a woman should be. Too often women are relegated to unimportance, whether by law or just in dismissive comments. Women are often treated as less than animals, or have acid thrown on them, or are beaten, abused, raped, mistreated, I could go on. That doesn't mean to say that there aren't men that that happens to, because that does happen, but violence against women is a global issue. While cross-dressing, a woman can then be free to pursue a safer existence and to have people see her and not just a role society thinks she should be playing. The person as an individual is allowed to flourish and show their character so that society can embrace who they are, and then recognize the importance of a person, and not what genitals they have. In a strange way, cross-dressing and hiding as a man in actual fact allows the woman, the person, to be truly seen for who they are. Hiding thereby becomes the tool for true self-realisation and also the revealing of someone's true identity.

2. It allows women to be seen as equals to men. Without the trappings of societal gender roles, they can act and say how and what they would want without men stopping or opposing what they are saying. If you are a woman reading this, even in a fairly gender equal country, haven't you been dismissed before just because you are a woman? Hasn't your opinion been shut out or accounted as not important? Or are people surprised that you are doing a job normally seen as something only men would do? Have you been told to quit studying or not to go to university because your job is to stay at home and have children? (Please don't misunderstand me, I hold motherhood in high regard and think highly of women who stay home and work to raise their children. There's nothing wrong with that choice, and personally, I would have loved to have done that, but that chance has not been afforded me). When a character dresses up as a man, they can take their place in society and do what they would like to do. Even in comedies and not particularly serious dramas or films, even if they are just pure fluff, I really do think there is still this cry for women to be seen as equals to men.

3. It helps reveal that woman can do things and be strong and powerful. Yes, I really enjoy seeing women succeeding and being strong (though this doesn't have to be physically strong) while being women and overcoming whatever obstacles are set in the heroine's pathway, but it can also be something encouraging to see woman excel in fields often relegated to men. The story of Hua Mulan, is such a case. Whether you're a fan of the Disney cartoon, or the real life peasant who disguised herself as a man and took her ailing father's place in the military. She served in the military for twelve years. It is unfortunate that women have to cross-dress, whether in real life or in fiction, to be seen as strong, intelligent, powerful and for those character traits to be positive. Without the protection afforded by cross-dressing, the woman is instead dismissed as intense, overbearing, and intimidating. The opposite side of this is also that men who are softer, kinder, and less prone to being physically imposing and strong, are then often called effeminate, whereas they just might not want or desire to be that sort of man. We see this often in stories of men who want to become dancers or artists, or pursue fields that traditionally in this time period, haven't been particularly "masculine". This just ends up hurting both men and women.

4. In conservative societies that struggle to discuss homosexuality or sexual identity, it provides a platform to discuss the taboo, and hopefully change perspective. By having a character cross-dress, the concepts of what is masculine or feminine, the way society has dictated them, basically get thrown out the window. Even if the drama or film chooses to resolve with a heteronormative coupling, questions about sexual and human attraction are brought into doubt, and that what was previously seen as taboo, can be seen as normal because of love. Obviously this can be frustrating for the LGTBQA community when the ultimate resolution is heteronormative, but it is a way for topics that are taboo in some cultural communities to be more openly talked about. Not everyone lives in an open-minded society. I wish it weren't so, but I would rather taboos be somewhat spoken of than not at all. In dramas like Coffee Prince, Choi Han-Gyul's impassioned speech that he doesn't care whether Ko Eun-Chan is a man or not, but that he loves him, speaks to this idea that people fall in love, and not their respective sexes or genders.

5. One disadvantage in women dressing as men is the sacrifice of femininity and thereby the assertion of masculinity being superior. This is actually also a critique often used against feminism, that in women desiring equality with men, that they want to become men. Obviously this isn't accurate, as equality does not mean being identical, but it is true that in the search for equality, often women have to assert themselves or develop traits that suppress their femininity. Now a woman doesn't have to be traditionally feminine to be a woman, but there is also nothing wrong with wanting to be a woman that embraces femininity. In the case of cross-dressing when a woman assumes male clothing, she has no choice but to leave any vestige of femininity behind and adopt completely male characteristics and mannerisms. So in this way it denies the equality of men and women and instead asserts that to be equal one must be masculine. This is not a comfortable idea, and unfortunately is a result of the male dominated society we live in. Generally though when men dress as women in the narrative device, they normally gain freedom from the partriarchy's diktats on how a man must think and act to be a man.

Those are only five reasons/observations, but hopefully somewhat important ones. I know that often within a drama it may seem obvious that that person is actually a woman disguised as a man, and that the person being deceived seems like an idiot for not seeing it, but that's not really the point, is it? The point isn't to convince the audience that the person can pass as a man, but rather can the men around that woman see her for who she truly is, and not her sex. And thereby in turn, can we as an audience embrace gender equality more fully, or feel our own catharsis if we live in societies where as woman we may not be able to enjoy full participation or equal rights.

We are a diverse group of people who watch Asian dramas, and we do not all have the benefit of lifestyles where women enjoy freedom to marry whom they choose, or whether or not to get married, or whether they can choose to have children, or not, or if they can even drive. And even those who may enjoy relative freedom as women, aren't you even looked down on because you watch dramas in the first place because they are seen as a thing that "silly women" do? Cross-dressing in dramas speak to all of that - the desire of women, of people to be seen as who they are, and not their sex.

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