Cross-dressing in the Early Modern Period: Pornographic Voyeurism or The Female Daring?

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Cross-dressing in the Early Modern Period: Pornographic Voyeurism or The Female Daring?


K.B. Oliver



“I spoke to you of amazon before… but I could give you many examples of women on our own ships who did men’s services and were exceptionally brave. Of these I could tell many amusing stories only they would take up too much paper. I could also tell you how I myself have discovered women in soldier’s clothing in our armies and made them change their dress. During my days in the army a girl in the Calvary was caught plundering and suffered herself to be hung without making her sex known. This the sergeant on duty told me; he had her undressed after she had died and felt sorry about it. And are such women not also amazons?”

- Nicolas Wisten Amsterdam statesman and amateur geographer, 1641-1717



In the early modern period, the concept of a female cross-dressing was simply pornographic. The female body was wrapped in constructs of cloth and culture, any deviations from the rigid social barriers separating the sexes was viewed as titillating or downright sensual. Early novels such as Ormond or The Secret Witness, written by Charles Brockden Brown in 1799, describes female cross-dressing narratives, which were written from the perspective that imbued a sense of pornographic voyeurism. This voyeurism not only allowed males to fantasize and scrutinize the disrobed female body, but it also provided a forum in which females could fantasize about the feminine body as a vehicle to converse about gender constraints and gender insubordination. Furthermore, transvestite narratives demonstrated the idea of female daring – someone having the courage, or perhaps desperation to break free of society’s ironclad restraints, an idea that was particularly threatening to a misogynistic society of the early modern period. In current western culture, where the differences in gender clothing selections have been significantly narrowed, rationale for dressing in menswear might appear to be as simple as “women can conduct their daily lives more easily in pants” or “why shouldn’t women dress in accordance with a pragmatic rationale, rather than as a result of a specific gender role”. In the early modern period, however, choices in how men and women conducted their lives was vastly more regimented than it is today, and women might have had other reasons and motivations to cross-dress than a desire to wear clothes better suited to assist the wearer in conducting specific tasks. Rudolf M. Dekker and Lotte C. Van de Pol exemplify motives and traditions of cross-dressing women in the early modern period in their book The Tradition of Female Transvestitism in Early Modern Europe. In the 119 cases of women living as men during the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries, Dekker and Van de Pol determined that “passing oneself off as a man was a real and viable option for women who had fallen into bad times and were struggling to overcome their difficult circumstances.” they go on to write “the pressure which led to the decision of cross-dressing could be both material, such as poverty, or emotional, such as a patriotic fervor or love for another woman, or a combination of these.” Martinette de Beauvais, a character in Charles Brockden Brown’s novel Ormond or The Secret Witness, epitomizes these motivations as well as representing the pornographic voyeurism that was created with the inclusion of a transvestite female character. The novel is set in post-revolutionary America. The plot follows Constantia Dudley as her family goes bankrupt due to a conman named Thomas Craig , whom embezzles their money and leaves them in debt. The Dudleys are then forced to move to Philadelphia. The depressed mother dies, and the father develops cataracts leaving Constantia in charge of the home and the main caretaker of her father. Due to their debt, they have to live frugally and are self-quarantined due to the fear of the yellow fever that is spreading. Two significant characters enter the novel at this point, Ormond (the characterized ‘rake’ or ‘libertine’) and Martinette de Beauvais (Ormond’s sister). Martinette exemplifies the daring female in that she not only is a cross-dressing woman, whom participated in the American Revolution as well as the French revolution but also masquerades as other women.

“I was delighted to assume the male dress,” stated Martinette one time when addressing Constantia, “to acquire skill at the sword, and a dexterity in every boisterous exercise. The timidity that commonly attends women gradually vanished.” Similar to Dekker and Van de Pol’s stated rationale for this behavior, Martinette asserts reasons why women might cross-dress, e.g., “hundreds of my sex have done the same. Some were impelled by the enthusiasm of love, and some by a mere passion for war; some by contagion of example; and some, with whom I myself must be ranked, by generous devotion to liberty.”

In the analysis of Brown’s novel in relation to the culture and society in which it was written, one must ask the question: was this novel created for the purpose of social change as a type of feminist manifesto or was it simply pornographic voyeurism? The inclusion of a character like Martinette could, as Stephen Shapiro asserted in the article In a French Position: Radical Pornography and Homoerotic Society in Charles Brockden Brown’s Ormond or the Secret Witness, allow women a vehicle in which to discuss gender roles and “informed the women who could read, or listen to a reader, about the existence of female daring.” This acknowledgement of a powerful woman who took her life into her own hands, could act as a tool of social change. Yet with the yin comes the yang: Shapiro continued in the article, “on the other hand, they [characters like Martinette] also provided a pornographic thrill to the male reader since the generic conventions of transvestite narratives require a scene of the disrobed female body as a moment of visual confirmation of her gender.” This pornographic voyeurism is, to a lesser extent, still existent today, as can be seen with powerful female women like Jennifer Aniston.

Aniston, a successful actress and a major supporter of philanthropies like St. Jude’s Children Hospital, was photographed in GQ magazine in January 2009 in men’s underwear, a white collared t-shirt, and a man’s hat. This type of sensual cross-dressing is purely for the purpose of male stimulation and thus increases the pornographic association with female cross-dressing. Martinette’s character might have been reflecting this scandalous voyeurism for the book’s purpose. The importance of this reflection on Brown’s book is that first it demonstrates a tradition of cross-dressing, and secondly, it illustrates society’s feeling and conventions towards cross-dressing and the way that socially constructed notions get popularized and so immerse themselves in the folds of the already-constructed society. David Halpern suggests, in the article Is There a History of Sexuality?, that “instead of concerning our attention specifically on the history of sexuality, then, we need to define and refine a new, and radical, historical sociology of psychology,” where scholars and students of the history of sexuality can look at the “intellectual discipline designed to analyze the cultural poetics of desire, …. Whereby sexual desires are constructed, mass-produced, and distributed among the various members of human living-group.” Ormond or The Secret Witness is a great medium in which to explore the shared processes by which sexuality is constructed. Pornographic voyeurism and the female daring were both ideas that emerged from the act of cross-dressing but when implemented into society via the popularized novel; they gained associations that were socially constructed. The desensitized audiences today do not necessarily see the scandal in the cross-dressing female or the disrobed female body, but in a time where ankles were considered sensual, the idea of a woman showing off her legs in trousers was ravenously arousing. Whether viewed as a prototype feminist or as an archetype playboy model, the female cross-dresser exemplified the differentiation in the notions of sexuality in the early modern period. Whatever the case is, the women who participated in cross-dressing were, without a doubt, brave and daring, whether they may have also been desperate and looking for any avenues other than gender traditional ones like domestic service or prostitution. In the end, as Nicolas Wisten stated, “are such women not also amazons?”