Vested Interests: Cross-dressing & Cultural Anxiety, by Marjorie Garber. Harper Perennial, 1992.

by Samantha P.

VestedBookThis is not a book for casual reading. To me, it seems more a text book; a reference work for someone enrolled in university, studying sociology and the effects that cross-dressing as presented in stage, screen and television productions have upon audiences in general. It does not deal with issues concerning aspects of transgender, although the author does mention, briefly, several people who are transsexual.

The language as used in this 390 page fine-printed tome is quite complex, not for the uneducated. For example: “When this gesture of reassurance, which has a certain context within the semiotics of drag, was conflated with white sexual fantasies about black men’s bodies and appetites, the result was “proof” of erotomania.”

Chapter after chapter uses the stage, from Shakespeare to the modern, and film, likewise from old to new, and personalities from the Chevalier d’Eon to Liberace and Elvis, to show how audiences look through, as opposed to at, the cross-dressed actor. Being constantly confronted with cross-dressing situations in the entertainment world, we either choose to ignore it or laugh at it. In most instances we do not acknowledge the fact that it is there at all. Indeed, we look through the cross-dressed actor, not at him or her. Hence in Peter Pan, she argues, we don’t see a cross-dressed Mary Martin, we see only Peter Pan, the boy. We refuse to acknowledge the fact that the actor is cross-dressed.

However, she also makes the point that when an audience is laughing at a cross-dressing comedy situation, “what really is at stake here, it seems to me, is a subconscious recognition that “woman” in patriarchal society is conceived of as an artifact — and that the logical next step is the recognition that “man” is likewise not fact but artifact, himself constructed, made of detachable parts.”

Contending that without cross-dressing there would be no society, she also states that there is a general and pervasive fear of transvestism as a powerful agent of destabilisation and change, the sign of the ungroundedness of identities on which social structures and hierarchies depend.

It is not until the last chapter that she really gets down to brass tacks, dealing with the subjects of “Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in Bed” and “The Primal Scene of Cross-dressing”.

In her concluding paragraph she sums it all up with the statements: “Cross-dressing is about the phallus as constructively veiled. Cross-dressing is about the power of women. Cross-dressing is about the emergence of gay identity. Cross-dressing is about the anxiety of economic or cultural dislocation, the anticipation or recognition of “otherness” as loss.”

Bedtime reading? Definitely NOT!