Having it both Ways

Adam Phillips

  • Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety by Marjorie Garber
    Routledge, 443 pp, £25.00, May 1992, ISBN 0 415 90072 7

Describing the two sexes as opposite or complementary, rather than useful to each other for certain things but not for others, promotes the misleading idea that we are all in search of completion. Bewitched by the notion of being complete, we become obsessed by notions of sameness and difference, by thoughts of what to include and what to reject in order to keep ourselves whole. But maintaining this icon of ourselves confronts us with a paradoxical question: if we have an identity what are we identical to? It is as though we need to know where we are by never being anywhere else. And one fundamental means of orientation, of self-recognition, is the difference between the sexes, despite the fact that in practice they keep leaking into each other. Once you stop pointing to body parts and start talking, the apparent differences between men and women begin to dissipate. So if we aren’t different from the opposite sex, what are we?

The one thing we never know about people when we meet them is their history, but the one thing we cannot help knowing, or assuming, is their sex. It is not clear, though, as common sense and psychoanalysis tell us, what we think we know, what we imagine the signs are telling us. Marjorie Garber suggests, in this exhilarating book, that with the idea of fixed sexual identity, of being too knowingly male or female – terms, she remarks archly, ‘that overwhelmingly proclaim their own inadequacy’ – we may have got ourselves into something we are always trying to get out of. Indeed, what she calls the ‘pitfalls of gender assignment’ that Vested Interests is so loosely and lucidly about, make one wonder why it is so difficult to imagine a person now not preoccupied by difference, a person for whom the problem of difference – of identity itself, and the war between purity and danger – has disappeared. Vested Interests implies, with a light but well-researched touch, that our most intense erotic attachments are to our categories. That we hold ourselves together by keeping things apart. Garber wants us to wonder what our lives would look like without this project, without our endless concern about the categories of male and female. She wants to find out what we can do without, and what we might do then.

Her last book, the underrated Shakespeare’s Ghost Writers – like Vested Interests, about people of uncertain status, ghosts as liminal creatures that confuse categories – asked why we need to hold on to Shakespeare, why he has such a grip on our imaginations. Vested Interest asks, as an echo, why we have made a fetish of sexual difference, why we have turned it into the indispensable preoccupation that keeps us and gets us going? The implication of both books is that there are some disillusionments we think we cannot bear, some things we are unable to mourn. Mourning is painful not only because it is an acknowledgment of loss, but because it confronts us with the knowledge that we never were the possessors of what we have lost, but rather, the inventors, which is different. Through the figure of the transvestite – the opportunist with no alternatives – Garber shows that our categories are themselves ghosts, or ghost-writers, and not the reassuring commodities which we, and a long philosophical tradition before us, pretend that they are. We don’t own them, nor do they own us: we are simply attached to them. Because of the ‘power of the transvestite to unsettle assumptions, structures and hierarchies’, the transvestite ‘tells the truth about gender’. Anti-essentialists like Garber, of course, cannot help occasionally falling back into the old language but what distinguishes Garber as a critic is that she obviously likes all the things she demystifies and invites us to relinquish. Her truth is not told with sadistic relish: she really wants to have it both ways.

It is a convention of modern theory to show that the exception does not prove the rule, but proves that the rule is an exception; the anomaly and the marginal no longer consolidate the norm – they displace it. The transvestite, in Garner’s view, disclosing the truth about gender by performing a category crisis for us, reveals the repressed norm of ‘blurred gender’. Not that the sexes have some things in common but that they are radically confused. Blurred gender is the terror that any secure sexual identity – or rather, representation of sexual identity – is trying to conceal. So despite her perhaps surprising statistics – 6 percent of Americans are cross-dressers, 1 percent trans-sexuals – it seems both mysterious and entirely obvious that we are not all, as far as we can tell, wearing each other’s clothes. Garber, of course, cannot completely avoid the new pieties of the contemporary academic sexual enlightenment – that it is both more truthful and better not to know who you are, that it is preferable to slip, shift or float than to know, stop or stay – but her book is unusually attentive to the way in which any theory can serve as a fetish.

For Freud, psychic life, for both sexes, was organised around the catastrophe of castration; for some modern Freudian critics like Garber, it is organised around the catastrophe of certainty, of fixed and exclusive definition. In the moral world of Vested Interests undecidability and transgression are implicitly virtues, and like all the virtues, particularly when insisted on, they can easily begin to sound like fetishes, those things we need to believe in to avert a worse disaster, words to whistle in the dark with. Perhaps our fantasies of catastrophe are themselves fetishes; Garber is certainly mindful of the very real agonies of becoming one sex and the other; that cheap jokes, especially about sexual identity, can be very expensive.

Being blithe about transgression quickly becomes a way of forgetting that people actually suffer, and so of putting the (moral) emphasis in the wrong place. Prometheus didn’t think that transgression was a good idea: he thought that élitist knowledge was unjust. Garber doesn’t promote transvestites as exciting outlaws, nor does she only offer us a new orthodoxy in the guise of a radical alternative. But she admires transvestism in a way that makes her adept at showing how it is diminished and undermined by more anxiously coercive forms of interpretation. Transvestites are pathologised (as suffering from a ‘developmental disorder’, often assumed to be homosexuality), normalised (as people in what she calls a ‘progress narrative’ going through a stage towards the rude health of heterosexuality), seen through – but not seen. Determined not to blank them out through interpretation, to snub their accounts of themselves with an apparently more sophisticated vocabulary, Vested Interests lets a lot of remarkable people – fictional and non-fictional, so to speak – speak for themselves. Because embarrassment is one of the hearts of the matter, it must have been tempting to be too careful, to trample the subject with sensitivity. Fortunately Garber has not tried to write an unprovocative book, so Vested Interests is full of good quotable lines, is written, in other words, in the spirit of Colette’s winning observation, which Garber also quotes: ‘The seduction emanating from a person of uncertain or dissimulated sex is powerful.’

Through chapters with titles like ‘Cross-Dress for success’, ‘Fetish Envy, a tergo: Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in Bed’, Garber makes a powerful and seductive case for the transvestite and trans-sexual as a focal point for the way in which one category crisis always leads to another. ‘The possibility of crossing racial boundaries,’ she writes apropos of representations of racial stereotypes in the media, ‘stirs fears of the possibility of crossing the boundaries of gender, and vice versa.’ Wherever you find the transvestite, no other categories are safe: ‘The appearance of a transvestite in a cultural representation,’ she writes, ‘signals a category crisis.’ So in Peter Pan, the subject of one of the most telling chapters in the book, ‘category crises are everywhere,’ – crises about class, gender and the differences between adults and children. This simple point, that one category always suggests another, leads Garber to some terse and revealing formulations: ‘Why is Peter Pan played by a woman?’ she asks. ‘Because a woman will never grow up to be a man.’

For Garber, ‘one of the most important aspects of cross-dressing is the way in which it offers a challenge to easy notions of binarity, putting into question the categories of “female” and “male”, whether they are considered essential or constructed, biological or cultural.’ It is the reassuring bind of binarism that it shrinks the repertoire; but the either/or world also produces its own kind of violence as a protest against such limited alternatives. There may be a timidity in the ease with which we choose our public toilets. The different signs on the doors, Garber suggests, satisfy ‘a desire for cultural binarism rather than for biological certainty’. The way out is clearly not through these doors. The transvestite always makes a mockery of these distinctions – these familiar little signs – by always going through the wrong door. Or, to put it another way, the transvestite always gets it right whichever door he chooses. It is as though the most terrifying world is the world in which it is impossible to make a mistake.

The theoretical mistake that Garber knowingly avoids, and that would have made her book complicit with what she is trying to undo, would have been to suggest that the transvestite was merely a combination, a third sex as some kind of synthesis of the other two. (In other words, Vested Interests reveals the sense in which to be intelligent or intellectually respectable now, a theoretical book doesn’t have to use the word ‘Hegel’.) All the super-ordinate critical positions, all the views from outside or above that claim exemption, are a kind of covert longing for this third sex that will be able to tell us the difference. Garber – like all the most interesting cultural critics, a closet theologian – is keen to clarify her sense that the transvestite is not merely a third term that confirms the other two like a god, giving them his blessing, but is ‘rather something that challenges the possibility of harmonious and stable binary symmetry’. The transvestite can make men and women look distinctly odd, peculiar in their ‘naturalness’, absurdly trapped in their codes of difference. The transvestite, Garber writes, ‘as a “third” is a mode of articulation, a way of describing a space of possibility. Three puts in question the idea of one; of identity, of self-sufficiency, of self-knowledge.’ And the advantage of this version is that it also puts into question the idea of using difference – in this case between the sexes, but it can be, as Garber insists, between races or classes – as a way of locating whatever we imagine, or wish, ourselves to be lacking.

When we start thinking of difference like this, difference as penis envy, as it were, we soon find there is no difference left, only more of the same in what we thought were foreign parts. Once we experience the other sex as all we are deprived of we begin to experience them as depriving us; thinking of the sexes as making each other whole is grounds for murder. With Garber’s figure of the transvestite a space of imaginative possibility is opened up that begins to dispel the more militant, appropriative forms of identity that have become second nature. God may be dead but fantasies of self-sufficiency (or invulnerability) are not. Instead of God now, the third sex who knew the difference, or the heterosexual couple who have everything between them, a complete set of genitals, we can have the transvestite who, by crossing over, can unsettle us by provoking what Freud calls ‘the laughter of unease’.

Transvestism, in Garber’s compendious account, which can take in Elvis and Liberace as comfortably as it can take off cod pieces in Renaissance drama, is remarkable for its diverse and apparently contradictory functions. The transvestites’ power to unsettle is proof, if we needed it, of how precarious our categories are, and how uncertain we are as the makers of categories. It is part of the originality of Vested Interests to show how dressing up and cross-dressing reveals something of the bizarre logic of our senses of identity; and how a world of entitlement – of privileged positions and secure identities – conceals an underworld of (sometimes desperate) improvisation. So transvestite magazines, for example, are particularly useful, Garber suggests, for women who don’t cross-dress because they are full of good tips – ‘If you have a large frame, avoid frills and busy prints’, and so on (and off). The How-to Guide becomes the best form of social critique; these magazines reveal ‘the degree to which ALL women cross-dress as women when they produce themselves as artifacts’ (this echoes Gloria Steinem’s famous remark, which Garber quotes: ‘I don’t mind drag – women have been female impersonators for some time’). But if a man can show us how to really be a woman – that is, how to perform as a woman – perhaps a bit of cross-dressing every so often can reassure a man that he isn’t really gay, or worse, really a woman. The Bohemian Club in San Francisco, ‘the most exclusive club in the United States, with 2300 members drawn from the whole of the American establishment and a waiting list 33 years long’ – members include, to mention only the more exhausted, Henry Kissinger and Ronald Reagan – has an annual retreat with its own musical comedy show, artfully entitled The Low Jinks. It has an all-male cast and an all-male audience; the biggest crowd-pleaser, one witness reported, was Bubbles Boobenheim, a drag artist dressed as a showgirl, ‘who rubbed her prosthetic behind against the elevator doors at stage left’. Although it is easy and obvious to see this as misogyny and homophobia, which always go together, Garber remarks in her droll way that it is ‘nonetheless curious that the means chosen to neutralise the threat of femininity and homosexuality should involve using a version of the poison as its own remedy’. It is indeed curious, although Garber doesn’t quite spell it out, that I am confirmed in not being a woman if I can pretend, or enjoy others pretending to be one; that what I really am is what I am unable to imitate. My true identity becomes something which, by definition, I cannot perform. The performance anxiety of becoming one sex or another depends upon such unpromising distinctions. There must be a reason, Garber intimates without making a meal of it, why men so often need to believe that being a man and being ridiculous are incompatible. But ideas are incompatible in a way that performances are not; the logic of language is not the same as the logic of gesture or tones and movements of voice.

Performers, therefore, are inevitably the stars of Vested Interests because they make a living from their parts. Among the most engaging chapters in the book are those on Shakespeare, boy actors on the Elizabethan stage and Michael Jackson, all of whom confront us, in Garber’s view, with the radical undecidability that underlies our outrage for disorder. Michael Jackson ‘in performance erases and detraumatises not only the boundaries between male and female, youth and age but also that between black and white’: he ‘internalises cultural category crises, and in internalising them ... makes possible a new fantasy of transcendence.’ This would seem like the smart fan straining to legitimate her pleasure were it not for the fact that it fits so well with some of the things Jackson says about himself: although he doesn’t, of course, put it quite like this.

If Michael Jackson is one of the heroes and heroines of Vested Interests then the villains are the trans-sexual surgeons, aided by some psychoanalysts, who are seen to be violently reinforcing the problem they claim to be resolving. Vested Interests is at its most unsettling in Garber’s discussion of the ‘resistance to or neglect of, the female to male trans-sexual’ and of ‘what happens when technology catches up with cultural fantasy’. Because ‘women are regarded as having not sexual but cultural desires’ little attention has been paid to giving them, in a literal sense, what a very small but significant minority have wanted. Phalloplasty, the ‘building’ of a penis for a woman, was first done as an operation in 1936. The resistance to this operation, Garber suggests, convincingly, was ‘a sneaking feeling that it should not be so easy to “construct” a man – which is to say, a male body’. The problems of phalloplasty make, as it were, disarming reading: it can fall off and it does not get hard. So the trans-sexual, as Garber puts it, ‘gets the name but not the game’. ‘In sex reassignment surgery,’ she concludes, ‘there remains an implicit privileging of the phallus, a sense that a “real one” can’t be made, but only born.’ From Garber’s point of view, there are good political reasons why we are not very good at making penises: because we don’t want to, because if you can make it it’s not so real (and ‘real’ here means that which one is obliged to submit to). Those who believe in trans-sexual surgery and those who are appalled by it both believe they have privileged access to some deeper truth. Playing God in this context – doing the operations – certainly confirms that there is no higher authority, so the only appeal we can make is to each other. But the making of bodies is always going to be associated with the unmaking of bodies and there are real terrors here.

Garber is surely right that ‘if trans-sexual surgery literalises the construction of gender it is worth asking why this culture fetishises sexual difference.’ It would certainly be a relief to drop either/or distinctions of which sexual difference is the paradigm (the other one, presumably, is the difference between being alive and being dead that sexual difference can distract us from thinking about). We could then stop talking about children ‘separating’ from their mothers, or adolescents ‘leaving’ home, or men and women needing to ‘differentiate’ themselves from each other; instead we could talk about people every so often finding the requisite distances to do all those things that too much closeness seems to prevent. People don’t have to stop being children, they just have to be able to be adults as well. If we cultivate unbearable choices we create impossible lives.

There is, as Garber shows, an erotics of uncertainty; so the fear of relinquishing the idea of difference may be the fear of the death of desire. There is no shortage of superstition about what keeps us going, but Garber’s account of ‘the real political energy to be obtained from reversing – rather than disseminating – gender signs’ gives us a new way of thinking about the political connections between difference and desire. What she calls ‘the anxiety of artifice’ – the performance art of sexual difference – becomes the anxiety of culture. Even when we are undressed there are vested interests at work.