Gender as Ambiguous and Performative in Twelfth Night and in the Case of John/Eleanor

As I made my way through this week’s readings, I couldn’t help but draw connections between the case of John/Eleanor Rykener and Twelfth Night. Despite the fact that the John/Eleanor case is nonfiction from the late 14th century, while Twelfth Night is fiction from the early 17th century, I think that the common theme of crossdressing calls for some analysis of these two together.

I find both the ambiguity and the performative nature of gender in each of these sources to be particularly worthy of discussion.

As I noted in response to Adam’s post on Friday, Twelfth Night deals heavily with what Casey Charles calls a masked but “decided anxiety about what is feared to be the actual fluidity of gender” in sixteenth- and seventeeth-century Europe (Charles 124). That is, if Viola can transform into Cesario, and Cesario into Viola, and if Cesario is indistinguishable from Sebastian, then what is gender? How set and defined (i.e. not fluid, unambiguous) can gender possibly be? Moreover, Charles explains that Viola/Cesario “collapses the polarities upon which heterosexuality is based by becoming an object of desire whose ambiguity renders the distinction between homo- and hetero-erotic attraction difficult to decipher” (6). Ambiguous or fluid gender, then, has consequences for desire as well.

Similarly, in the Rykener case, there seems to be an ambiguity and fluidity to John/Eleanor’s gender. John/Eleanor was presumably raised as John, yet lived a sizeable portion of his/her life as Eleanor, whether as a prostitute, an embroideress, or a tapster. John/Eleanor reported having sex with men (“as a woman”) for pay, and with women (“as a man”) not for pay. And, as Ruth Mazo Karras and David Lorenzo Boyd point out, John/Eleanor’s gender was so ambiguous that court officials seemed unable to classify him/her either as a prostitute (defined most simply as a woman who had sex outside of marriage, though also with implications of selling oneself—hence a classification only applicable to woman) or as a sodomite (101). Furthermore, John/Eleanor’s gender ambiguity, much like Viola/Cesario’s, carries with it implications for sexual desire, as we can see when Carolyn Dinshaw questions the motivations of the men who solicited John/Eleanor: “…are those clerks really unsuspecting, or might they want a feminized man, or a phallic woman? Might they want something that’s not a woman but not a man either, something that seems to them neither fully masculine nor fully feminine? Is this what makes them ‘ignotos’—not only unsuspecting, bur profoundly unknown themselves, because what they want is unheard of?” (Dinshaw 110-111).

In light of this apparent ambiguity of gender, a whole host of new questions arises for Viola/Cesario and John/Eleanor. What makes gender—clothing? behavior? biological sex? personal preference? sexual positions? Who defines gender? Must one fit completely into the “male” or “female” categories, or are there spaces between or outside of this dichotomy? Both Twelfth Night and the Rykener case seem to deal with questions like these using the idea of gender as performative. In Twelfth Night, Charles argues that “the effects of Viola’s cross-dressing point to the socially constructed nature of gender in Shakespeare’s play” (122); her success in presenting herself as Cesario “consequently points to the constructedness and performative nature of gender itself” (123). In the case of John/Eleanor, Karras and Boyd point out that the court document does refer to Rykener as a man when s/he is the penetrative sexual partner (i.e. when s/he has sex with women), but it “repeatedly treats Rykener as a woman” as well, gendering him/her female whenever s/he takes on the “passive”/“penetrated” role (109). It seems that, for Rykener too, then “gender was seen as performative”: “it was behavior and not intrinsic nature that made one a man or a woman” (109).

What do you all think about this whole gender ambiguity / gender as performance idea? What implications might it have for sexuality?