Unzipping Gender: Sex, Cross-dressing and Culture, by Charlotte Suthrell. Berg, 2004.

by Samantha P.

UnzipBook“How does culture shape notions of sexuality and gender? Why are transvestites in the West so often seen as ‘deviant’ or ‘perverse’, while they are accepted in other societies? What are the implications for the categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’ when considering transvestism?”

Author/researcher Dr. Charlotte Suthrell attempts to answer these questions which are posed on the back cover of her book, “Unzipping Gender”, sub-titled “Sex, Cross-dressing and Culture.”

The book, itself, is the author’s doctoral thesis based upon field work conducted on two continents and over a four year time span. From an academic viewpoint it makes fascinating reading. In particular, the last two chapters give the reader much thought provoking material for discussion.

Chapter One starts by examining the ongoing debates and discourses on sex, sexuality and gender. Contending that gender lies at the intersection of culture and biology, Dr. Suthrell examines current doctrines concerning cross-dressing, its prevalence, and its uses. Her study is focussed exclusively on male-to-female cross-dressers, excluding so-called “drag queens” and stage personalities in cross-dressed roles.

Chapter 2, entitled “Clothing Sex, Sexing Clothes: Transvestism, Material Culture and the Sex and Gender Debate”, starts with the author’s claim that “Clothing as an artefact, with its clear gender divisions, illustrates, as few other things can, the socially constructed nature of gender which goes beyond biological sex.” (p. 14). Then, for purposes of her study she goes on to define transvestism as “the deliberate and conscious wearing of clothes which, in that particular society, are perceived as the domain of the opposite sex, usually to knowingly create an image of the self as a person of the opposite sex.” (p.17). Having thus defined and delineated the scope of her studies she moves quickly to her field work.

Chapters 3 and 4 describe her interviews with subjects from two widely diverse cultures, one representing the West (the UK), and the other the East (India), to illustrate the stark difference between the way the two cultures regard cross-dressing males.

In Chapter 5 she expands upon the interviews and case histories to show that “belief systems are a crucial part of the underlying structures which shape the sex, gender and sexuality discourses in each society.” (p. 123). It is here that she states “one of the reasons why sex and gender are so powerful as systems of control is that they are considered so normal and natural that they are rarely opened up to be questioned in a radical fashion,” which this book does. (Italics are the author’s.) (p.124).

But it is in Chapters 6 and 7 that she really digs her teeth into her study and where she massages her data in an attempt to wring out basic truths which call into question Western society’s current approach to transvestism.

Because her study is about material culture and the use of clothing as an artefact of gender, only rarely does she dig into transgenderism. Although she states that transvestism is primarily a gender phenomenon, rarely is the term “transgender” used in her discourse. Arguing that cross-dressing cannot be satisfactorily separated from issues of sex and sexuality she observes that “in our society, there seem very few things that one needs to be gendered for except sexuality; sexual relationships are one of the only places where gender is the key defining object — clothing being one of the few others.” (p. 144). (Italics are the author’s.)

Although this reviewer’s perception is that transgender individuals seem not wanting to be represented by any specific social group, preferring to speak for themselves, Dr, Suthrell contends that s/he, [the transvestite], “is also performing a social role for the whole of society, whether this is viewed as a social imperative, a transgression, or a striking out for balance and wholeness.” (p. 164). That is something to think about!

However, the sad fact, so clearly delineated by Dr. Suthrell, is that: “Within the Western context, it therefore starts to become very clear why transvestites have no place in the scheme of things. Women’s economic and social position in the UK may have altered significantly in the last century, as parallelled by clothing changes, but not much has really changed for men — and underneath the surface improvements, at the level of structural symbolism (particularly regarding presumptions and truisms of what men and women do and are), little has changed for either sex.” (pp. 169-170).

The book is very aptly entitled “Unzipping Gender” as opposed to “Gender Unzipped,” for although Dr. Suthrell has gotten the zipper moving, it still has a long way to go. Let’s hope that as society continues to move the zipper further it doesn’t get stuck on a broken fingernail in the process.

Whether for academic study or just for general knowledge this book is an excellent read.