Funny-peculiar/ Funny-ha-ha

“But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading
‘Cause you think that being a girl is degrading”
~Madonna, What It Feels Like For A Girl

One of my female friends once told me that seeing me cross-dressed made her feel better about being a woman.

I was quite taken aback by this; baffled even. She grew up in a conservative, religious family in the USA and spent her formative years surrounded by a sexist culture. From what I gather, masculine things were coveted; feminine things were seen as inferior. So, seeing me coveting feminine things – even if it was just clothes and makeup – and not feeling that it was anything to be embarrassed about, was a bit of an eye-opener.

I never felt that cross-dressing was a matter of comedy. It can be great fun, in all sorts of ways, but I’ve never felt that the mere act of a man putting on a skirt should raise a chuckle. The man has to do a helluva lot more than that if he wants to be funny. But why should cross-dressing be funny?

Men and women are treated differently. This is especially apparent in the workplace, especially to trans employees who have experienced life as both male and female. And it’s no great surprise that women come off worse. I mentioned at the end of my last blog post that if you want to cross-dress and present yourself in a feminine way, then women’s issues should be of interest to you. I should probably qualify this: it depends on your motivation (something for another blog – I promise!), but if you’re coming out, going out in public, it’s something to consider.

via Cyanide and Happiness: http://explosm.net/comics/3722/

via Cyanide and Happiness: http://explosm.net/comics/3722/

Cross-dressing is often popularly viewed as either a mental problem (such as Norman Bates in Psycho) or comedy fodder. Sometimes, it’s because the perceived ‘weirdness’ of cross-dressing is seen as humourous in itself. Sometimes it’s because male comedians want to portray female stereotypes (or defy them), or for female comedians to play up male stereotypes (I’m sure someone, somewhere, found these funny?).

Presumably, it’s all to do with status-based comedy (something I’m very familiar with from my improv days), in which (high-status) men ‘degrade’ themselves by becoming (low-status) women. What man in his right mind would want to do a thing like that? See – weirdo, right?

I can’t say I’ve ever really subscribed to the idea that women are ‘low-status’; I grew up in Britain in the 1980s when the head of state and head of government -the two most powerful people in the land – were both women. All but one of my bosses at various workplaces have been women.

It’s a matter of personal taste, of course. I enjoy cross-dressing in films or other shows when it creates humorous (or dramatic) situations – for me, Some Like It Hot will always be entertaining – but not when I’m expected to shriek with delight simply because [famous actor] is wearing a skirt [insert multiple exclamation marks]. Pantomime dames never entertained me, even when I was a kid.

When I cross-dress, I don’t do it to be sexy, or for comic effect (I’ll crack jokes whilst cross-dressed for comic effect, though). I don’t see cross-dressing as degrading or humiliating (and if anyone does, that’s their problem, not mine). I’m aware that it’s very much an activity for a minority, but I don’t think it’s weird. I just do it because I think I might look good and I’ll feel good; that’s all.

I think my favourite cross-dressing character is Lord Flashheart in Blackadder. I first saw him when I was nine years old, staying up late to watch a piss-funny comedy show that my parents were wondering if they should be allowing me to see at such a young age. In Rik Mayall’s show-stealing portrayal, Flashheart is a sexy, red-blooded, bride-stealing buccaneer; the centre of attention and greeted by loud cheers wherever he goes. And he also feels more comfy in a dress. But that’s just something he adds at the end:

 

 

Playing with myself

Computer games allow anyone to be an epic hero... or heroine.

Computer games allow anyone to be an epic hero… or heroine.

Perhaps the easiest way to ‘cross-dress’ is electronically. Games, whether online or single-player, can give players the chance to inhabit a world as almost anything they like (a sort of second life, as it were). Not just games: countless internet forums, blogs, and social media allow you to interact with the world, presenting yourself with a female avatar and identity. Would you want to?

With controversies such as gamergate, the latest manifestation of the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory (and regardless of whatever you might think it’s supposed to be, that’s how it’s turned out), you might be forgiven for thinking the online world isn’t a great place to be a woman. (Unless you’re pretending to be a woman in the hopes of entrapping narcissistic, middle-aged politicians.) I’m not particularly active on social media, but I’m optimistic that, ultimately, demographic changes and social pressures will put an end to the harassment.

Virtual cross-dressing?
What I’d like to focus on instead is the idea of virtual, recreational cross-dressing; a male gamer playing female characters. Very often this doesn’t make much difference to the actual gameplay, unless playing online.

Alien Isolation (2014) allows you to play engineer Amanda Ripley, skulking around a space station hoping to avoid a monster. The game itself failed to frighten me in the least; it just annoyed the hell out of me (like this reviewer, my opinion appears to be a minority view). Amanda could have been anyone – hell, it could’ve been Amanda’s father for all the difference it would make – but that’s not the point. Playing a female character like this is important as a role model.

Does that sound a bit sappy? Well, consider that maybe, just maybe, role models do matter. For example, although the character of Uhura in Star Trek didn’t have a hell of a lot to do, her mere presence counted for a lot.

(l-r) This is how Twist appears in 'Star Trek Online', 'Mass Effect', 'Skyrim' and 'Star Wars: The Old Republic'...

(l-r) This is how Twist appears in Star Trek Online (as ‘Captain Twist of the USS Hanky-Panky’), Mass Effect, Skyrim (I have no idea why she would have a boob window in a land of snow and mountains), and as a gunslinger in Star Wars: The Old Republic‘…

I still find playing a female character can give a refreshingly different feeling to a game, even if it doesn’t make any difference to the story or the way the game is played. Usually, when it does, it just changes romance options. A lot can depend on the strengths of the actresses giving voice to your character, too (I prefer playing a cocky female smuggler to a bland, male Jedi in The Old Republic, for example, and the female Commander Shepard in Mass Effect comes across as more interesting than the male default option, even though the dialogue and play options are largely the same).

Once in a while you can find a gem. No One Live Forever (2000) and its sequel, A Spy In HARM’s Way (2002) were comedy-action-roleplay games set in a world of 1960’s spy kitsch – think Austin Powers made into a game, but far wittier. (Any resemblance between protagonist Cate Archer’s hairstyle and my wig are purely coincidental.) It’s also a good, early example of a computer game passing the Bechdel test – there are at least two women, who talk to each other, and don’t talk about a man.

What about male-to-female cross-dressing characters in games? The only example that comes to mind is the non-playable bad-ass brothel madam in the reboot of Thief (2014), which was too dark and gritty to serve any comedic purpose. (I’d recommend skipping this game, and try the dated yet still far superior originals it is supposed to be derived from.)

twist-sr3

Saints Row: The Third is a game that really allows me to be me – in this case, seeking out people to take my photo…

[Update, July 2018]: In a recent Steam sale I bought Saints Row: The Third which includes in its options the ability to create trans characters (eg, male voice with female body and vice versa). And with various costuming options I was able to replicate myself fairly closely. Even more eerily, one of the various side-quests involves getting people to take my character’s photo while she poses for them, which is kinda what I do in real life… In any case, I heartily recommend the game (as well as Saints Row IV) – it’s great fun and refuses to take itself seriously.

It would be a fair point to say that playing female characters in games, or using female avatars doesn’t really count as cross-dressing – it doesn’t involve actually dressing up, nor making any effort to change your appearance. Yet, I can’t help but feel it could offer an outlet, no matter how tenuous, for many would-be cross-dressers who are unable to come out, or even to indulge in private.

It’s also a fair point to say that much of what I’ve written here relates to feminism or ‘women’s issues‘ rather than cross-dressing. To that, I would say that if you want to present yourself in a feminine way, then feminism and women’s issues should be of huge interest to you, for selfish reasons if nothing else…

However you present yourself to the world, stay classy and keep it legal!

However you present yourself to the world, stay classy and keep it legal!

Fringe theories

Once again, I’ve been involved with the annual Skeptics on the Fringe, introducing some interesting and intelligent speakers in their areas of study or interest. Two in particular relate to issues I’ve blogged about (or will blog about in more depth).

The first was Nathan Gale, a law graduate who works for the Scottish Transgender Alliance. Nathan’s talk addressed the idea of the ‘gender binary‘ which still prevails, taking care to dismantle the notions of sex, gender and gender roles that most people still cling to.

Although awareness of trans issues is growing, there remains a lot of confusion about it, and it’s not as simple as one person wanting to change their body from one sex to another. Nathan made the point that hardly anyone benefits from perpetuation of the ‘binary’, and was optimistic that the time was right to get society at large to embrace the idea that sex and gender isn’t clear cut.

I’d like to think that Nathan will get to see these changes in people’s understanding, but I’m not sure it’ll happen quickly. This month’s news also saw British boxing promoter Kellie Maloney ‘come out’ as a woman (under duress), but there are still columnists who insist that they are a better judge of what makes a man or woman than she is – that you have to have been regarded by others as female since birth. It’s true that the media has a rather sordid history (particularly in the tabloid press) of the way trans issues and people have been treated.

In the middle of the run of shows, I introduced Dr Kate Cross (who, like me, has probably performed more improv comedy than is advisable; but I felt comfortable enough to turn the humour up to eleven on stage). Kate’s area of research was in sex differences; are men and women really so different? If so, how?

The answer to a lot of these questions turned out to be “it depends“. For a whole bunch of traits, the overall averages may be slightly different, but when you look at the Bell Curves there are huge overlaps between men and women. (Generally speaking, men are slightly more impulsive than women; I couldn’t possibly comment.)

If anything, the recorded personality differences have been decreasing over time, so in effect, we’re all becoming more similar. (Again, I couldn’t possibly comment…)

Relating all this to cross-dressing…

So men and women are slowly becoming more alike (in personality and activities), and trans issues are oh-so-slowly becoming more mainstream? This takes me back to a question I was asked after Nathan’s talk. If it was acceptable for men to wear skirts and dresses – if everyone did it – would I still feel the same compulsion to cross-dress?

Bloody hell, I have no idea.

My first reaction was “probably not”, but now I’m not so sure. I first felt the inclination when I was six, but I have no idea what brought it on – all I knew was that I probably shouldn’t let anyone know about it. (There’s an argument to be made that part of the allure of cross-dressing – for some people – is precisely because it has to be kept secret, like other fun activities that society has yet to come to terms with.)

And I’m confident my legs look better in tights and a skirt than they do bare under shorts – that they seem better suited to ‘feminine’ rather than ‘masculine’ presentation. I think it would be great if men could get away with brighter, bolder, more colourful designs that women do (and I’d dearly love to ditch wearing ties to the office and save them for moments when I wanted to wear them).

Another thing to consider is that if men and women all dressed alike, ‘cross-dressing’ wouldn’t actually be ‘cross-dressing’ any more.

Emcee and mistress of fun...

Emcee and mistress of fun…

Keeping up with modern life and reality

Why are some people fine with cross-dressing (and ‘alternate lifestyles’ generally), while others freak out at the idea? Just what is wrong with these poor souls who can’t accept it?

The difference between the two mindsets became apparent in the reactions to the  2014 Eurovision Song Contest winner, Conchita Wurst (the transgender stage name of Tom Neuwirth). Described by mainstream media as a ‘drag act’, Conchita is perhaps better described as an example of genderfuck  – and certainly not transexual, like previous Eurovision winner, Dana International.

It seems highly likely that Conchita was deliberately playing on people’s reactions (an excellent analysis here); in Conchita’s words,

“Over the years I tried to fit in, and I changed myself in every way you can imagine. I just wanted to be part of the game. And then I realised: I create the game.”

In other words, Conchita knew that, as the ‘bearded lady’ she’d be controversial; she was banking on it to raise her profile.

You’d think that for a competition with a substantial gay fanbase, and the appearance of transgender performers in previous years (like Ukraine’s Verka Serduchka in 2007), a bearded lady wouldn’t really have that much impact. But that would be to underestimate the forces of social conservatism. The voices raised against Conchita (and Verka, and Dana) include nationalists and religious leaders, tinged with xenophobia and homophobia; a perfect storm of in-group loyalty, out-group hatred and moral disgust.

The Orthodox Church has spoken out against bearded men wearing dresses. Without any sense of self-awareness or irony, it seems.

The Orthodox Church has spoken out against bearded men wearing dresses. Without any sense of self-awareness or irony, it seems. Don’t they look happy, though?

I suppose a lot of this stems from thinking that things were better in the past – specifically when you were a child and had a simple understanding of the world; and that as you get older (and in theory develop a more realistic understanding of how the world works), anything new won’t seem as good as the stuff you’re used to.

This could work for information as well as culture and technology. Remember when the International Astronomical Union reclassified Pluto, saying we shouldn’t really call it a planet? There were some who, having been brought up to believe that Pluto was a planet, absolutely hated the idea that what they were taught as kids might have been wrong. And that was just astronomy.

Before we’re even born, people want to know if we’re going to be a boy or a girl – and depending on the plumbing of our lower abdomen, we’re raised according to one of two things, with all the stereotypes and expectations culture imposes on us. From the start, we’re conditioned to believe we are one thing or another, and that ‘the other’ is foreign to us. This ‘gender binary’ may seem instinctive, but I suspect it’s likely to be something reinforced by religious culture, based on a specific, desert-dwelling, bronze-age mythology that got a bit out of hand.

There are other cultures around the world and throughout history which recognised three, four or even five ‘genders’:

Terms such as transgender and gay are strictly new constructs that assume three things: that there are only two sexes (male/female), as many as two sexualities (gay/straight), and only two genders (man/woman).

So, if you’ve been brought up to believe that there are only two types of people, and that anything else is ‘wrong’, it will be quite hard to accept the idea that gender is a range with male and female end-points, rather than a binary (find out where you lie on the range here!). It’s entirely possible that before we’re born our genitals can develop according to a male, female or intersex template, and our brains could develop in what might be called a more or less ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ way. Trying to force someone to be something they are not can’t turn out well.

I’d say that socially conservative types are keen to emphasise differences between people that support their agendas (sexual, racial, linguistic, national, etc), because they’ve been brought up to see the world a particular way and can’t bear the thought that their cherished notions from childhood might be mistaken. That’s why they freak out at anything that goes against them; they just don’t know how else to react. Do they deserve sympathy? Well, only if they don’t have the power to make life very difficult for anyone who doesn’t fit their simple worldview.

But that’s a topic for another blog post…

I'd like to caste people out of their blissful ignorance with a bit of tasty, tasty knowledge...

I’d like to cast people out of their blissful ignorance with a bit of tasty, tasty knowledge…

Playing the part?

Recently, a number of friends have been sharing an interview of Dustin Hoffman in which he talks about preparing for his role in Tootsie (good film; if you haven’t seen it, try it – you might like it):

A couple of things he said struck a chord with me.

First was his desire to ‘pass’ as a woman without people realising he was a guy, or thinking he was a freak. I share this to a large extent, but with a crucial difference. I don’t mind people realising I’m a guy if they think I’ve done a pretty good job of crossdressing. I’m not a female impersonator, I don’t walk or talk ‘like a woman’, I just think the clothes are a great way to dress up and look and feel more interesting and glamourous than I do when I’m in my work shirt and tie or slobbing about in my trousers.

The second was when he talks about wanting to look beautiful and, upon realising that wasn’t going to happen, having an epiphany: there are plenty of women who don’t fit typical ideas of ‘beauty’, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less interesting or engaging for it. (I’ve mentioned before my pet theory that for some crossdressers, looking feminine isn’t necessarily the goal, looking young is.)

I had a similar experience when I realised there were a whole load of clothes I’d never be able to wear (halternecks, backless or strapless designs) because my body – or the engineering works I use to give myself a more convincingly feminine appearance – won’t let me. There will be countless women who feel can’t wear these clothes for the same reasons; somehow they just won’t suit us, or we’ll never look as good as the models and mannequins. I’ve also talked about the epiphany I had that dressing up in sexy clothing isn’t about wanting to have sex, or even to look attractive; it’s about feeling confident.

I really do feel that crossdressing would make for an interesting lesson for guys, not so they can learn what it’s like to be a woman (I’m not sure that’s possible), but so they can experience what it’s like to be seen as a woman.

The most interesting part of the Hoffman interview was when he admitted to himself that he probably wouldn’t have been interested in getting to know his female alter-ego if he met her at a party, even though, on the inside, he felt she was an interesting person. This got me thinking. Would I, as a guy, be interested in talking to Twist? I look at the things I wear as Twist – bold, bright colours, short skirts, tight tops, a bit of cleavage – and I’d have to say probably not. Maybe I’d think she was a shallow party girl who didn’t have anything worth saying? If I met her amongst friends, I’d probably wait and see (knowing we had shared interests would help).

Take the question further: if my friends didn’t know me underneath the makeup, what would they think of Twist? Loudmouth? Attention-seeker? Maybe a bit self-absorbed? I’ve already written that when I’m Twist I’m apparently a bit different to my male self. I think part of this is because I am used to getting certain reactions as Twist, and I’ve developed a way of behaving or interacting that encourages and reinforces those reactions… which, in turn, encourages and reinforces the behaviour.

It can be a trap, and people may not always realise that the clown, or the apparent life-and-soul-of-the-party is always fully aware of what’s going on, despite themselves. Another interview I re-watched recently was with Oliver Reed in 1990. It was his second appearance on the chat show Aspel, after a car-crash first appearance when he staggered on stage with a pitcher of alcohol, three sheets to the wind, and not-quite-singing Wild One. The first 90 seconds are the most revealing and quite touching:


(NB: he had one of the most mellifluous voices, didn’t he?)

We tend to dress or behave in ways we think we’re expected to. We can call it habit or we can call it ‘just the way we are’; but I think these only make sense if you’re not in the least bit introspective. We don’t live in a vacuum and like it or not, the way we are can be shaped by the reactions of others.  If we don’t like the person we’re becoming, we don’t have to play the part we and they have created for ourselves; we can experiment. When I was younger, I felt a bit shabby and scruffy, so I started wearing a (cheap) light suit jacket to feel smarter, and it worked. If I feel life is getting a bit dull or humdrum, I can dress up as Twist to brighten things up for myself. In both cases, I relied on the reactions of others.

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut, feeling yourself to be dull or disregarded, or resentful of those who are getting all the attention (whether they’re enjoying that attention is another question entirely). If putting on makeup, or dressing up can boost your confidence, then I heartily recommend it, no matter what you choose. What does anyone have to lose?

Conversely, if people come to associate you with liveliness, parties and good times, and you feel a pressure to be outgoing all the time, you don’t have to live up to it. As Oliver Reed put it, “I have to get away with my nervousness in different ways.”

Don’t we all. We can act the clown, we can hide away, we can put on a suit, or we can put on makeup and a short dress. If it makes you feel better than you did before, you’re probably doing something right.

This entry was a bit serious, wasn’t it? Don’t worry; I’ll talk about my breasts or something next time…

Postscript: the idea of changing yourself by changing your clothes was the theme of a show called The Week Of Dressing Dangerously. Not caring what others think of you can be a confidence-booster, rather than a statement of apathy.
Here, a shy young woman was encouraged to go out in public wearing two outfits she would never contemplate by herself, in attempt to bring her out of her shell (annoyingly, split over three badly edited videos, none of which show the before-and-after):




(As I recall, she became more outgoing and confident and dumped her useless boyfriend…)