Review: Vested Interests

Vested Interests by Marjorie Garber

I try to do my best to shy away from social binaries. The proper way to see such things, in my experience (limited though it is), is as a spectrum. The binary of sexuality, of course, is spectacularly easy for me to dismiss and dismantle, being an X on the Kinsey scale. Seeing gender as a spectrum is easier for me than, say, for my parents’ generation, but I still have a lot to learn about seeing gender outside the binary. Vested Interests, though, came to my attention when I was still in high school, trying to figure out just why my devotion to trousers was such a subject of consternation for my mother. The subtitle being Cross-dressing & Cultural Anxiety, it sounded like it could clear things up.

Vested Interests examines cross-dressing throughout history and various cultures, attempting to understand why we’re so fascinated with it and why it recurs so often. Marjorie Garber runs through historical figures, theater (especially Shakespeare and Asian theater), and popular culture to piece together the reason for our cultural anxiety about cross-dressing.

The book was published in 1992, and Garber makes plenty of references to pop culture. While I certainly can’t blame her for including it, it only serves to underscore the dated nature when the most modern film discussed is Tootsie.

Right off the bat, Garber establishes the transvestite as a third gender. This isn’t to say that all transvestites identify as genderqueer, but to say that a transvestite upsets the gender binary by being able to leap the gender binary and occupy the space between. Instead of the “either/or” of the cisgendered man and woman, this third gender has no limits and no standard identification. It is a realm, so to speak, where anything is possible. While Garber never mentions the concept of a gender spectrum, she certainly implies it by situating this third gender between the polar opposites of male and female. The unbalance the transvestite causes the gender binary can also influence or serve as symptoms of other binaries–class, race, and so on and so forth.

This possibility is Garber’s final conclusion on the subject, but it’s introduced very early on in the book. Since it was introduced so earlier and feels very ephemeral, I kept waiting for a more substantial conclusion. It’s not that I find it unsatisfying, but that, from the pacing, I thought Garber was going to further than she did.

Garber works steadily through various mediums of popular culture to demonstrate her hypothesis about transvestites. As a Harvard professor of English and a prolific writer about Shakespeare, I would expect nothing less than stellar work on her chapter concerning theater. But it’s her dissection of Peter Pan, rather than Shakespeare’s cross-dressing heroines, that really grabbed me. I don’t want to spoil her fantastic conclusions, but the integration of Peter being played by a woman into the story itself being contrasted against Captain Hook’s effeminacy was fascinating.

Garber is also at her best detailing the lives and careers of historical transvestites, especially those who lived as the opposite gender to their birth sex. I was particularly struck by the story of the Ladies of Llangollen, who escaped arranged marriages to set up housekeeping in Wales during the late 1700s and early 1800s, and wore a peculiar blend of masculine and feminine clothing. Garber presents them as much beloved and tolerated in their village (if not by their families!) and their home was often open to writers and other celebrities of their times. I found the image of a pair of little old British ladies in top hats hosting several writers in domestic bliss utterly charming.

One of Garber’s best points is the idea of clothes as class signifier, and how the transvestite subverts that. While I’m sure we’re all aware of the Bible verse that forbids wearing the clothing of the opposite sex (Deuteronomy 22:5, for the curious), you might not be aware that medieval English law forbade anyone from dressing above their status. This is the cause the transvestite is a symptom of for that time period–if you can disguise your gender, you can certainly disguise your class. (This, incidentally, is why Malvolio in Twelfth Night is rebuked towards the end–not only is he utterly ridiculous, but he’s dressing above his station.) Garber also associates the transvestite with the feminization of the other as carried out by the West, suffered by Jews, Asians, the Middle East… the list goes on.

Garber’s style is a little too academic–towards the end, she heavily relies on Freud, and she throws terms fast and heavy at the reader without explaining them. A dictionary is a good aid for this one! It’s definitely not the most accessible text on cross-dressing out there, but it is certainly thorough. The organization also feels a bit off. The chapters tend to mix fictional and historical transvestites together, so that the play M. Butterfly dominates the chapter on spies. I would have preferred chapters on historical transvestites followed by chapters on fictional transvestites, but this is largely a matter of personal taste.

Still, Vested Interests is an interesting read. I’m watching Twelfth Night in sections, and I can’t help but see things a lot differently now. I wonder if Garber will ever update it–I’m sure she has something to say about “metrosexuality” and Lady GaGa’s spectacularly constructed public persona.

Bottom line: While it is dated and very academic, Vested Interests is a thorough and eye-opening look into the role of transvestites throughout history and popular culture.

I got this book by swapping on SwapTree.

2 thoughts on “Review: Vested Interests

  1. What an interesting book. Yet again, I’m adding to my TBR list when I’m on a book buying ban. When I lift the ban, I’d better be prepared to do some serious damage to my bank account. 🙂

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