September 2, 2010 at 6:51 pm EDT | by Kathi Wolfe
Challenging gender norms, from Shakespeare to Gaga

Hey, Lady Gaga! You’re hotter than 110 degrees in the shade and appearing, dressed as a man in the September issue of Vogue Hommes Japan. Your fans, especially in the LGBT community, love your playfulness and outrageousness. But, when I saw the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Free for All production of “Twelfth Night,” which runs through Sept. 5 at Sidney Harmon Hall in Washington D.C., it dawned on me. You didn’t invent gender bending. Long before you, even pre-Madonna, performers, writers and playwrights have tweaked genders in their work, and their art has influenced queer and straight culture and been infused with a gay sensibility. Going back to William Shakespeare.

There has been much speculation about whether Shakespeare, who lived from 1564 to 1616, was queer. People during his time didn’t identify as gay as we do, and we don’t know if Shakespeare, who was married and had children, had male lovers. Yet, because many of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets are addressed to a man, it’s hard to resist believing that the playwright and poet experienced same-sex love and attraction.

Whatever his love life, Shakespeare would feel at home with the gender bending in queer and hetero culture – from hanging with drag kings to attending a matinee with the blue-haired ladies of the revival of “La Cage aux Follies” now on Broadway. Since women weren’t allowed to be actors in his era, men played both male and female parts during productions of his plays in Shakespeare’s lifetime. This made transgressing gender boundaries a necessity from the get-go for Shakespeare. The bard frequently pushed the envelope even further by having his female characters (from Portia in “The Merchant of Venice” to Rosalind in “As You Like It”) disguise themselves as men.

“Twelfth Night’s” delight emerges from its elements of disguise and mistaken identity. I won’t go into all of the plot complications except to say that Viola, the protagonist of the play, ends up in Illyria off the coast of the Adriatic Sea after a shipwreck. Viola is grief-stricken because she thinks that her twin brother Sebastian has died. To survive, she masquerades as “Cesario” and, as this imaginary personage, becomes a page to Duke Orsino. Orsino is in love with Lady Olivia. When Olivia rejects him, Orsino gets “Cesario” to intercede for him. Olivia, who thinks that Viola’s a man, is smitten with Viola. To add to the mix, Sebastian turns up alive.

“Twelfth Night,” with its combination of wit and farce, is the Elizabethan equivalent of “I Love Lucy” meets “Sex and the City.” If you’re queer, it’s Halloween on octane.

Yet, there’s a serious side to gender bending. LGBTQ people, especially, get it when Viola (pretending to be “Cesario”) tells Olivia, “I am not that I play.” Historically, because of homophobia, we’ve often had to disguise who we really are and to reveal our true selves in secret code to those who we trusted. On another level, many of us enjoy (at least on occasion) playing roles not expected of our gender.

Many other performers and writers have engaged in gender bending before and after Shakespeare – from the ancient Greeks to Josephine Baker in Paris in the 1920s to Monty Python to Eddie Izzard. In September, the Classic Stage Company in New York will stage an off-Broadway production of playwright Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel “Orlando.” Woolf based “Orlando” in part on her good friend and sometime lover Vita Sackville-West. Orlando, a man in Shakespeare’s time, wakes up in Constantinople as a woman.

Breaking gender boundaries is fascinating and liberating for artists and audiences alike, because, as Woolf writes in “Orlando,” “illusions are the most valuable and necessary of things.”  Sometimes illusion and play are the most effective ways in which we can create change.

A friend who identifies as gender queer said to me recently, “attitudes toward gender are so hard to break through!”

This is true. Yet, things are slowly changing. Take Proposition 8. Judge Vaughn R. Walker in his Prop 8 ruling said the same-sex marriage ban “exists as an artifact of a time when the genders were seen as having distinct roles in society and marriage.”

Shakespeare would be cheering Walker on.

  • Thanks for putting Lady Gaga in perspective. And don’t forget the Chinese opera where the role of the Dan (a woman’s part) is played by a man. We in the Western world know Shakespeare but this gender bending in theater has a much larger scope.

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