On cross-dressing and queerness

Earlier this month, the March newsletter from the Sirens Conference arrived in my in box ((I had a fabulous time last year at Sirens, and if you're interested in issues around women in fantasy fiction, I strongly encourage you to go! It's totally YA-friendly, and this year's guests of honor are Justine Larbalestier, Laini Taylor, and Nnedi Okorafor. I am SO BUMMED that I won't be there this year [barring unforeseen time and money falling from the sky], but I still read the newsletter. *sob*)), and to my pleasant surprise, it included a review of Ash! And what a lovely, smart (and extremely flattering) review it was, too! You can go here to read it if you'd like. One part that jumped out at me was an analysis of a particular scene in Ash, and I've been thinking about the reviewer's perspective for days. And then S. Jae-Jones blogged about cross-dressing, and I thought: OK, this is a sign. I'm just going to blog about this.

Spoiler Warning: If you haven't read Ash, there are lots of spoilers in this post!

I hesitated because you know the rule: Authors aren't supposed to respond to their reviews. But in this case, I'm not really responding to the review, but rather to an assumption that I think underscores many readings of cross-dressing. OK, here's that part of the review I've been pondering (emphasis mine):

My favorite scene is towards the middle of the book, in which Ash wears pageboy clothing, and sees herself as a boy "with a proud profile and dark, long-lashed eyes." In this carefully crafted moment, Ash confuses her gender and class roles in favor of seeing herself as someone else. Someone who is not meekly following the unreasonable demands of her family. At the same time, it seems troubling that she sees herself as powerful when she is a man, but I think this is a trick. Ash is really learning that appearances do not make a person powerful because power lies in emotion and knowledge.

When I first read this I thought: Wow, what an amazing analysis of that scene! I'm constantly surprised and delighted by the meaning that readers find in Ash, and I thought this was a very interesting interpretation — especially the part where "it seems troubling that she sees herself as powerful when she is a man."

The review immediately notes that she thinks this is "a trick," but I want to focus on the "it seems troubling" part. It struck me that this interpretation of cross-dressing seems based in a predominantly heterosexual reading of the scene (and in that case, yes, it would be troubling). This isn't unusual; I think that a lot of times, when cross-dressing comes up in fiction, it is engaged with on a heterosexual level.

In this understanding of cross-dressing, a heroine, temporarily disguised as a male, is allowed to taste the freedom of masculinity without ever truly straying from her inner femininity. She may, for example, struggle with menstruation while disguising herself as a man. Her feminine body is always in danger of being revealed through bathing or through accidents, etc. A lot of the time, cross-dressing heroines in fiction wind up falling in love with a man who awakens in her a desire to throw off the masculine mask and reveal her natural (read: feminine) body and being.

I personally hate this kind of cross-dressing story. Why? Because it ultimately underscores heteronormativity. The woman is a woman; she can never be anything other than woman, and that always involves loving a man.

But for me, I appreciate cross-dressing for its queerness. Lesbians have often cross-dressed to disguise their femininity (from the straight public, not from each other) in order to carry on relationships with other women. Out of that necessity was born the butch/femme cultures of the 1940s and '50s, and also a specific eroticism based on female masculinity.

For me, when Ash puts on the boy's clothing and sees herself in the mirror, I see her as reappropriating masculinity for herself. Reappropriating masculinity is, I would argue, different than seeing oneself as powerful only when appearing as a man. It is actually about taking masculinity and reinterpreting it through a female experience. Part of that reappropriation leads to shifting one's perspective about what is erotic.

When I wrote that scene, I knew that it was an erotic experience for Ash. She gains a new awareness of her body when putting on trousers, and the whole night is about the freedom to look — to gaze — on others, including Kaisa, the woman she ultimately falls in love with. ((In an early draft, Ash spent a lot more time cross-dressing. There was a whole story line that I cut in which she dressed as a boy and went to the palace to research whether or not her father actually left her stepmother in debt. This ultimately became irrelevant to the story, but the cross-dressing helped me to understand that Ash's perspective on who she was falling in love with was changing.))

I think that when a cross-dressing narrative is also a queer narrative, the heterosexual interpretation doesn't really work. The heterosexual cross-dressing narrative raises the specter of potential same-sex eroticism, but ultimately vanquishes it in favor of a traditional heterosexual union. It is a heteronormative story in the end. Even though the lady was disguised as a man, her true heterosexuality was never altered by wearing men's clothing.

But a queer cross-dressing narrative does more than flirt with homoeroticism; it foregrounds it. After that scene, Ash is increasingly conscious of her attraction to Kaisa. And, I might add, Kaisa (who is basically cross-dressing the entire time) helps Ash to cross-dress ((Admittedly they're not disguising themselves as men, but they are women wearing pants in a society where women typically don't.)) a bit, too, by providing her with a riding outfit that also involves trousers.

Anyway, Ash isn't really about cross-dressing (bummer!), but I just wanted to point out that cross-dressing in a queer context has a different set of meanings than it does in a straight context. One of the primary differences is erotic. For a clear example of this, read Sarah Waters' Tipping the Velvet, which is all about queer cross-dressing.

I'm all for cross-dressing, as long as it's in a queer narrative. And yes, someday I'm going to write a real, honest-to-goodness queer cross-dressing story! It's been waiting on the backburner since before I wrote Ash, but I haven't felt like I was ready to write it yet. Soon!