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Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety: 04/26/16

Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety by Marjorie Garber

Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety by Marjorie Garber is a history of cross-dressing with the focus being primarily on the 20th century. I originally read it for a class on gender rolls in films on both sides of the camera (the portrayal of gender and the roll gender plays in the viewing experience). This time I read it to see how the idea put forward in the book play out in a greater social and cultural context.

I can remember feeling frustrated the first time I read this. Like so many modern art forms — especially the ones that fall into the realm of "popular cultural" are controlled and analyzed by a very small portion of the overall population: cis-gendered straight white males (whom I will call here the "dude-bros"). From that population, there's a loud, over-sexed, over-privileged subset that believes the entire world and all cultural things they enjoy are made for their own enjoyment, with no consideration of how anyone else might experience the same things.

So when it comes to analyzing anyone else (which is pretty much, everyone else), any divergence from the "normal parameters" as outlined by the dude-bros is often time analyzed within the constructs created by said dude-bros, or by people mostly interested in understanding them. For film viewing, that results in most films being seen in terms of a "male gaze" which is a sexual one. The idea is this: movies need male protagonists so dude-bros can identify with them and live out sexual fantasies through seeing what the cinematic dude-bro does to or with the women on screen. Even if the protagonist doesn't touch any of the on screen women, the dude-bros in the audience are given a peep show.

Thus the argument goes, the corollary to the male gaze, must be that women who watch films must identify with the women, and desire to be as gazed upon as their cinematic counterparts. The rest of the film industry plays into this ridiculous notion with actresses being asked only about their dresses and make-up at big events, while the male actors are asked about their careers.

Now of course, this book isn't about an antiquated and sexist / misogynistic view of how films work. Instead, it's about people who don't play into the normal gender roles in how they dress or present themselves. But here's where I had problems with the book this time — in the way cross-dressing is still discussed within a cis-gendered framework.

Basically this book is only looking at people who use clothing of their non-birth gender for a very limited number of reasons. Women dress like men to pass as men and gain otherwise unattainable power. Men do it for sexual gratification. Because men are always about sex. And women always want to be men. There is no discussion of non-binary or trans people who have reasons well beyond such simplistic notions as sex or power.

Three stars

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