Gillian Bennett

  • The Woman who Pretended to Be who She Was: Myths of Self-Impersonation by Wendy Doniger
    Oxford, 272 pp, £17.99, January 2005, ISBN 0 19 516016 9

In a show earlier this year on Channel 4, a downtrodden-looking woman was exhibited to members of the public who were asked to guess her age. When, as invariably they did, they overestimated it, a team of image-management professionals – cosmetic surgeons, celebrity hairdressers, make-up artists and the doll-like ‘stylist’ who presented the show – got to work transforming her. With the aid of botox, eyebrow lifts, a snappy hairdo, pointed boots and denim, she was made-over and re-exhibited to the public, who duly assessed her age as ten years younger. Miraculously, the outside now corresponded to the inside where, we were led to believe, a younger, trendier – though up to now invisible – person had always been hiding. To achieve this result, you can be pretty sure that the poor woman was made over not once but twice: once downwards as they put her in her worst clothes, stood her in strong sunlight and forbade the use of make-up, and once upwards, using the plastic surgeon’s skills, soft focus and professional make-up. But now Plain Jane has become Beautiful Barbie, she can fulfil her potential and let her true self emerge from the shadows.

This is one of the masking patterns which Wendy Doniger discusses in her fascinating book, a sequel to The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade (2000). From an impressively wide range of sources, from Hollywood movies to Indian myths, she selects stories of women (and occasionally men) who use masks they have assumed, or which have been thrust on them, to reveal themselves. They are thus pretending to be who they are, and through this imposture-that-isn’t-an-imposture they secure the love, sex or position they were originally cheated of.

It’s not a new theme. Many familiar folktales rely on just this sort of mask-on-mask complexity. Cinderella, too, was masked down, then masked up to win her prince. In the version we are most familiar with (the 17th-century French one retold by Charles Perrault), the king’s beautiful daughter is transformed into Cinderella by being clothed in rags and made to do menial tasks, then retransformed into a beautiful princess by the fairy godmother’s magic arts and a glamorous gown. By means of the second transformation, in which she pretends to be herself, she wins the prince’s heart and regains her social position.

The plots of many of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies depend no less on masking and pretence followed by unmasking and reward. Rosalind masks down when she pretends to be a boy, and teaches Orlando how to love her so that when she masks up again she can be transformed into what she always was, an ideal bride. As Doniger points out, a further layer of masking would originally have been added, since Rosalind would have been played by a boy and the situation would have been boy-as-Rosalind playing Rosalind-as-boy. Similarly, Viola, who is a girl pretending to be a boy, acted by a boy pretending to be a girl, can be herself as she can’t be when dressed as a girl, and thus unmask her true self and win the man she loves.

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