"CULTURAL BINARISMS": THE PLIGHT OF THE TRANSVESTITE

A Final Project for ENG 341, American Lit. to 1865: Gender and Sexuality

 

METHODOLOGICAL INTRODUCTION

The tendency to establish rigid social codes of gender-determined behaviors is apparent everywhere--though specifically present in literary texts. Women are expected to, in essence, be women and act, dress, and behave in a manner that distinguishes them from men. While these constructs are rigidly defined, they are easily and recurrently transcended. In her, Vested Interests: Cross-dressing and Cultural Anxiety, Majorie Garber demonstrates the concept of "cultural binarisms", illustrating them to be the social and historical obsession with polarizing individuals, male or female, into either "one" group or the "other." In her essay, she concentrates her discussion on the importance of dress in the construction of gender and its power in undermining it. Garber writes that gender boundaries--which she defines as blurred social concepts--can be transcended by the cross-dresser. Additionally, the appearance of a transvestite character indicates that a "category crisis" is present, but not limited to gender identity. This "category crisis", is resultant of the "binarisms" which have been disturbed. Herman Mann's account, The Female Review: Life of Deborah Sampson, the Female Soldier, reinforces Garber's assertions about the cross-dressing figure in literature-- once Sampson puts on men's clothing, her identity is changed. She is, therefore, able to transgress the limited capacities of a woman and access her desires to see the world. Mann addresses several instances of "binarisms"--including gender, class, and status--throughout his text. Through his character of Deborah Sampson, he is able to display a separate, but relevant issue of a socially and politically evolving country entering the New Republic.

The position of Deborah Sampson's character, as a woman and orphan, places extreme limitations on her abilities. Mann frequently expresses that Deborah has in her possession, "tokens of a fertile genius and an aspiring mind: a mind quick of perception and of strong penetration." (Mann, 55) However, she is unable to go to school in "considering her age, when contrasting her privileges with those of other children, who had parents to take the charge of their education." (Mann, 60) Already, Mann has set up Deborah as embodying manly virtues--a strong intellect and the desire to cultivate it--that exceed the cultural expectations of female abilities. Also, Mann not only addresses the contrasts themselves, but also italicizes them-- highlighting the distinctions that he intends to make and continues to do so throughout his text. In this way, Deborah Sampson is already being placed apart from the "others"-- establishing preliminary "binarisms" that will be carried throughout the account and separating Deborah as an exception.

Throughout her childhood, Deborah's desires exceed her opportunities. Mann states that, despite her limitations, Sampson is able to collect books from the "other" children and learn on her own. (Mann, 61) This important point signifies, also, the desires of New England to break from its rulers and become its own individual country, while not having the immediate ability to do so. Deborah, like the changing country, must take what she can until further opportunities arise to become a free individual. Mann asserts that she eventually decides to cross-dress as a means of satisfying her curiosities and desires. He writes: "There remained no other method for gratifying the roving propensities which had now acquired full possession of her mind, but this,--to enlist as a soldier in the Continental army." (Mann, 117) According to Garber, "each [transvestite] is `compelled' by social and economic forces to disguise himself or herself...to embrace transvestitism unwillingly, as an instrumental strategy." (Garber, 70) In this way, the transvestite is normalized and forced back into a "cultural binarism." Here, Mann passes off Sampson's motives to dress and live as a man as being a last and only hope of ceasing her curiosities. This characterization plays directly into the societal norms which Mann seems to grasp whole-heartedly--therefore minimizing the presence of the transvestite.

In The Female Review: Life of Deborah Sampson, the Female Soldier, Herman Mann writes from a male point of view about and supports a woman who, during the Revolutionary War, decides to cross-dress as a male soldier and fight for her country. He considers Deborah to be full of virtues and talents, and to be at a great disadvantage because she is a woman. Therefore, he concludes that she deserves to have the opportunity, as an exception to the rules of gender, to fight in the war. However, Mann repeatedly stresses that Deborah is an exception because of her overwhelming virtues and environmental confinements. At least twice in his narrative, Mann removes his focus from Deborah and reinstates what he knows to be socially correct. He advises other women against cross-dressing and leading their lives as Deborah: "I cannot desire you to adopt the example of our Heroine, should the like occasion again offer; yet we must do her justice." (Mann, 119) Mann's tendency to return to the cultural norms in his narrative is a natural reaction of an author dealing with a cross-dressing character in his/her text. Garber asserts:

Whatever discomfort is felt by the reader or audience.. is smoothed over and narravitized by a story that recuperates social and sexual norms, not only reinstating the binary (male/female), but also retaining, and encoding a progress narrative (Garber, 69).

Thus, Mann inserts his own personal commentary to make excuses for Deborah's male presence. He says on one occasion, presenting a disclaimer, "Ladies at a civilized ball may be insensible of this scene." (Garber, 204) In this way, he upholds the "cultural binarisms" present in his world, while "our Heroine" is able to transcend them as a female soldier.

In her book, Cross-dressing and Cultural Anxiety, Garber continuously suggests that cross-dressing upsets a rigidly conceived order of gender--resulting in a "category crisis." Garber defines category crisis as, "a failure of definitial distinction, a borderline that becomes permeable, permitting border crossing from one apparently distinct category to another." (Garber, 17) In Sampson's case, this is characterized by her ability to transcend gender boundaries--which here, serve as the "distinct categories" that are being destroyed--by dressing as a man. This, consequently, establishes a conflict based around gender identity, or "category crisis" of gender.

Furthermore, Garber identifies the cross-dresser as being an indicator of a crisis elsewhere. Thus, Deborah Sampson, as the transvestite figure in Mann's account must serve as an indicator of a gender crisis as well as another crisis in the text. This conflict is characterized as,

an irresolvable conflict or epistemological crux that destabilizes comfortable binarity, and displaces the resulting discomfort onto a figure that already inhabits, indeed incarnates, the margin. (Garber, 17)

Garber asserts that the presence of the cross-dresser in a literary text not only serves to destroy gender boundaries, but also highlights other conflicting "binarisms" within the text. Thus, Mann uses the character of Deborah Sampson as a manifestation of another crisis.

In her introduction, Garber states, "transvestitism was the specter that rose up... to mark and overdetermine this crisis of social and economic change" (Garber, 17). The Revolutionary War, in which Sampson fights, signifies the social, political, and economic dissonance of a turning point in American history. New England was soon to become the New Republic and a variety of new social standards made way through the public. One identifiable and relevant change was what Anthony Rotundo documented as a shift in the ideals of "manhood" from the Puritan piety and gentility to the New Republican concept of rugged individualism. Rotundo points out that the newly established ideas of individualism were only available to male individuals (Rotundo, 17). Through her gender-bending adventures, Deborah Sampson destroys preconceived notions of gender--becoming a female individual and soldier--and in doing so, indicates the struggles and weaknesses of a changing country.

Mann alludes to this conflict, in part, through his repeated mentions of patriotism and liberty: "liberty gives us such ascendancy over old habit, that unless it bind us to some apparent and permanent good, its iron bands are subject to dissolution" (Mann, 111). Here, Mann's statement is ambiguous. He could easily be talking about gender constraints or the American Revolution. Just as Sampson (liberty) is destroying the binds of gender (habit), America (liberty) is breaking from the control of England(habit). Also, Mann states about Sampson's desire to become a soldier: "and in the end, perhaps, [she would] be instrumental in the CAUSE OF LIBERTY, which had for nearly six years, enveloped the minds of her countrymen" (Mann, 233). This statement makes a direct comment on the state of his country and Sampson's impact on its freedom. In this way, he connects her desires of cross-dressing and living as a man to his desires of witnessing American Liberty.


LINKS:

 

 


By Miriam Aronoff, Reed College, 1998.


 

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

De Erauso, Catalina. Memoir of a Basque Lieutenant Nun. Beacon Press: Boston, 1996.

Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-dressing and Cultural Anxiety. Routledge: New York, 1992.

Mann, Herman. The Female Reveiw: Life of Deborah Sampson, the Female Soldier. Boston, 1797.

Rotundo, Anthony. "Community to the Individual: The Transformation of Manhood". American Manhood, 10-30.