Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Making Sex and The Roaring Girl

Since my last post dealt with Butlerian gender performativity, I wanted the next few texts I read to explore that concept in order to enable me to compare and contract how the theory is expressed in both primary and secondary texts. For some background about the social construction of gender in the Early Modern period, I went to Thomas Laqueur's Making Sex: Body and Gender From the Greeks to Freud (1990). In his chapter on Early Modern anatomical thought, he first establishes that the British Renaissance was a renaissance of classical modes and thinkers, and that the thinker who influenced Early Modern anatomy the most was Galen. Galen offers the one-sex model of anatomy.The Galenic model says that male and female genitals are the same except for their orientation: male ones go down and female ones go up. Women are "inverted men" (Laqueur 89). Otherwise, they're the same. This is important when discussing social construction of gender in EM England for several reasons. First, by calling women "inverted men," Galen establishes a male default from which femaleness is a deviation. Second, there being one primary sex does not suggest a binary model the way most of us think of gender (There's male and there's female and they're opposites and that's it), but instead provides an opportunity for that inversion to change (and indeed there are stories of women getting so overheated that their genitals spontaneously popped out, making them men), creating less of a gender binary and more of a gender continuum. This tracks with how people thought about men and women in the period not just theoretically, but practically. When young children were born, both boys and girls lived at home with the women of the house, and children of both sexes wore shifts (think long nightgowns). Men mostly occupied the public sphere, and young boys joined this sphere through school, apprenticeship, or service to a monarch around the age of six or seven. The physical marker of this social change was called "breeching"--when boys wore pants, or breeches, for the first time. These clothes were an easily visible physical representation of a social transition. Before this happens, boys are considered closer to women in their makeup because of clothing--all of which was considered an outward representation of an inward state, as evidenced by the seriousness with which sumptuary laws(laws governing who could wear what fabrics or styles and who could not) were taken. Boys were also considered to be closer in physical makeup to women due their residence in the domestic sphere( as in As You Like It: "As boys and women are, for the most part, cattle of [the same] color"(3.2). Hanging around women too much was considered a feminizing force (see the complaints from the Roman soldiers about Cleopatra's effects on Antony is Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra). Gender was scary in the EM period because it was visibly and socially malleable even as religious and scientific sources said it was natural and stable.

Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker's The Roaring Girl (ca. 1610) is a play that points out just how scary this malleability can be, and how wide the social implications of that malleability can spread. It is a fictionalization of real-life cross-dressing thief Mary Frith, who is Moll Cutpurse in the play--"Moll" being shorthand for prostitute and "Cutpurse" referring to the fact that her method of choice for her thievery involves cutting her victims' pursestrings with a large sword. In the beginning of the play, young lover Sebastian is telling his beloved Mary (who is also "a moll" though not the "mad Moll" of the play's title, and the link between the name Mary and prostitution suggests the need for the virgin/whore dichotomy to stabilize gender) that his father has canceled their betrothal because he is now dissatisfied with her 5000 pound dowry and thinks she is a social climber. In order to distract his father from the fact that he still loves Mary and is seeing her in secret, Sebastian says he is in love with Moll Cutpurse, which makes his father devise a plan to break up their (nonexistent) union, thereby enabling Sebastian to see Mary undetected. Though Moll does not desire to enter into the institution of marriage herself because she thinks it "is but a chopping and changing, where a maiden loses one head and has a worse one in th'place," she supports and participate in the plan to rejoin the lovers, enabling them to marry by convincing Sir Alexander (Sebastian's father) that she has run off with Sebastian, causing Alexander to say that he'd like anyone but Moll to marry his son, which allows Mary to enter into her union with Sebastian as originally planned. I think that quote is so great because, in one pithy statement, she attacks the commercialization of women, the importance of virginity to a woman's worth, and the church's role in patriarchy.

The thing that seems to differentiate this play from a number of cross-dressing comedies of the period like As You Like It or Twelfth Night (or even Book III of Spenser's Faerie Queene, though that's not a comedy) is that Moll cross-dresses because she knows men's clothes endow those who wear them with social power. This is in keeping with the way Butler says gender formulations should be questioned. The play's great number of fashion metaphors, the first of which appears in Middleton's epistle to the audience, shows this. She doesn't do it in service of her own desire to enter into traditional marriage, as Rosalind, Viola, and Britomart do. She wears pants, yes, but she doesn't try to pass as a man. By wearing pants but also doing nothing to physically disguise her womanhood, she confuses the people around her by being two things at once, or "not all man and not all woman" as Sir Alexander says. This destabilizes the stringent ways such people think about gender. At the play's end, Sir Alexander respects Moll and admits that public opinion about people can be wrong, so Moll is able to affect real change.

I think The Roaring Girl is a better protofeminist play than As You Like It or Twelfth Night for another reason as well: the way it exposes constructions not only of gender, but also of class. In embodying traditional pastoral escapism in their cross-dressing adventures, both Rosalind and Viola play at being of a different class. By the time their plays end, though, they are both married to men with high social stations. Everything is stable and playtime is over. These two plays could be said to explore class through Celia or Maria, but both those women are limited by their class positions. They don't get to move around to different social positions, they just tag along while Rosalind and Viola slum it. Conversely, the three merchant ladies in The Roaring Girl have their own plots that work to question the stability of class and the way it overlaps with the stability of gender, as in the fabricated affair between Mistress Gallipot and Laxton.

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