Cinematic cross-dressing intersects two discourses, drawing on meanings of performance and on the construction of gender identity and sexual difference. Not only do the clothes worn by the cross-dresser signify gender, but also in the ability to successfully wear the clothes assigned to a particular gender. For the cinematic cross-dresser it is the conflict between performance and construction of gender that marks the cross-dresser as ambiguous. Cross-dressing highlights gender as a construction, and subverts this construction by calling attention to the artifice of gender identity. Cross-dressing is therefore often found in slapstick comedy, as humour lies in the juxtaposition between the bizarre and the conventional. Underlying the slapstick comedy is often a parody of idealised gender traits, such as masculine bravery and strength, and feminine equanimity and beauty. Unsurprisingly, one of the most longstanding tropes in slapstick is that of the male cross-dresser and the dandy performance. Such tropes may suggest how, in a given society, we define, and laugh at, gender. However, comedy cross-dressing predominantly only flows one way, from male to female impersonation. Men impersonating women tend to imitate feminine characteristics to generate comedy, whereas when women impersonate men they often portray a more flattering homage to masculinity.
As Corinne Holt Sawyer remarks in her 1987 essay Men in Skirts and Women in Trousers, “a woman who dresses like a man is just being sensible, but the man who dresses like a woman is either insane, or he is intended to be comic, because there is no reason so compelling that a man in his right mind would willingly accept such a demotion in status!” More broadly, it says something about the privileged position of masculinity, in that through cross-dressing, the slapstick film allows men to be laughed at, whilst keeping their masculinity safe from ridicule.
The cross-dressing and dandy performances score highly in Italian comedies of 1910s. In films such as Cretinetti che bello! (1909), Il candidato femminista (1910), and Madamigella Robinet (1913), comedians such as André Deed and Marcel Fabre famously impersonate a number of cross-dressers and dandies. Although the two characterisations differ in their articulation of sexual difference, both accentuate the performance aspect of clothing. The comedy of the cross-dressing and dandy performances is foregrounded in the distance between the gendered body and gendered clothing, and the relationship to the normative male role. Slapstick requires stereotypes that must be based on clearly visible and recognisable diversions from a norm, and male effeminacy through the dandy performance, dramatically diverges from normative masculine performance. In Cretinetti che bello! (1909), the Cretinetti character plays the role of the dandy, a representation of masculinity, which is itself outside of societal norms. In this sense, the dandy character represents sexual ambiguity and a threatening homosexual potential, depending on the subjectivity of the audience. Cretinetti’s appearance is predicated on assumptions of sexual difference, although he may dress as a man he is cross-dressing to some extent.
This is epitomised by the long time he takes to get dressed, admiring his new clothes, which are more extravagant than other men in the film wear. He dresses himself in a very tall hat and changes into extraordinarily long-pointed shoes, accompanied by an extravagant monocle and very long cane, he finishes his outfit by applying powder to his face. As he walks out of his apartment the women he meets (all cross-dressed men) remark on his beauty. Such characterisation becomes the joke of the film, the dandy performance can only be admired and adored by men who themselves are in positions of ambiguity as cross-dressers. His performance diverges from the norm and hence functions as a measure of normative ideas of masculinity, confirming the primacy of hegemonic masculinity.
The source of humour in this film is the element of surprise that the male cross-dressers bring. The film does not focus on the cross-dressed men, unlike in other films of the period such as Madamigella Robinet (1913). The audience does not see the cross-dressing transformation as with the dandy, so it could be easy to assume that these were just very ugly women. It is only as the film continues, as the cross-dressed men, unable to fully deny their masculine identity, get into fist fights and wrestle with their fake breasts, that we realise these are men dressed as women. Herein lies the comedy, the cross-dressed performance is an inadequate imitation of the feminine, through parodying female characteristics, such as clasping hands to their fake bosoms, their masculine identity remains protected, men are not being laughed at it. It is instead the incredulity of the feminine which is the joke. The cross-dressing performance is used as a strategy to confirm hegemonic masculinity. Peter Lehman confirms this in his 2001 book Masculinity: Bodies, Movies, Culture: “central male figures who literally and symbolically lack phallic power fear ridicule; laughter plays an important part in their actions. Indeed, the linkage of humour and lack of masculinity might even account for some central elements of the comedy film genre tradition.”
Male cross-dressing is constructed in film as humorous because, aside from the visual absurdity, the performance of wearing feminine clothing is an emasculating experience for the male. Cross-dressing (briefly) denies men of their masculinity, because through the feminine performance, men lose control over their bodies. Images of an out of control male body, be that through wearing fake breasts or walking in high heels, mark the performing male body as less powerful and disrupts expectations of hegemonic masculinity. The hegemonic construction of masculinity within such films considers ambiguous sexuality a threat to masculine identity, thus putting on a dress is accordingly treated with panic and suspicion. The male cross-dressers’ inadequate attempt to mimic femininity is presented as the ultimate masculine humiliation. The physical difficulties associated with simulating femininity is reliant upon a patriarchal representation of the feminine as inferior to masculinity, both as monstrous in its construction and unnatural in its performance. As such, the final scene of the film is telling in its destruction of the abnormal representation of masculinity by the monstrous feminine. The cross-dressed men attempt to cannibalise the dandy, and literally dismember him, pulling off his arms, legs and head.
The cross-dressed body is presented as an amusing, but also a grotesque permutation of both masculine and feminine identities, made even more amusing by the cross-dressers’ coarse attempt to achieve and maintain his feminine performance. The monstrous nature of the cross-dressed male body is a consequence of the indignities it has to suffer to achieve femininity. In effect, it is femininity that is responsible for reducing the masculine body to this monstrous form. Any trace of femininity is deconstructed into protuberant body parts and uncomfortable artifice made abject through the cross dresser’s incompatible performance. Despite their feminine disguises, cross-dressers are seldom convincing. Their masculine subjectivity, physicality and behaviour, are maintained while cross-dressed, and thus achieve very little understanding of the feminine position. The primacy of the cross-dresser’s masculinity is never effectively hidden or discarded, and it therefore retains an ideological superiority over femininity. Individual elements of masculinity and femininity are exposed and contrasted against each other within the cross-dresser, but his gender identity is always primarily masculine, rather than a heterogeneous combination of masculinity and femininity. As such, in Cretinetti che bello!, it is not a man dressed as a woman which we laugh at, instead it is the absurd and inferior other of femininity. Masculinity remains superior, even in its imitation of the feminine.
About the Author:
Emma Morton is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick. Her research explores the cinematic representations of national and racial identity in early Italian cinema from 1905-1914. Next academic year she will be assisting on the Silent and World Cinema undergraduate modules at the University of Warwick. She is currently due to speak at the Postgraduate Conference ‘Reclaiming the Screen: Addressing Overlooked Women in Film and Television’, held at De Montfort University in June 2019.