Tuesday 14 May 2013

Why Men Wear Frocks - Part Three

In case you are wondering, I am carving up Grayson Perry's documentary, Why Men Wear Frocks, into arbitrary, bite-sized chunks. In this next segment, Perry meets transsexual Charlotte, and later considers the history of crossdressing.
Perry: Although I've been dressing up as a woman all my life, it's never made me feel any less a man. But some men feel so alienated from the whole business that they don't see themselves as men any more. I was on my way to meet Charlotte, who is a transsexual, or TS. He's been taking female hormones which he buys over the internet, and is contemplating gender reassignment surgery-- the chop. Transvestites and transsexuals don't always see eye to eye.
Throughout this documentary, Perry has met with all sorts of people, and been comfortable and relaxed in their presence. In this interview, there is a noticeable tension hanging in the air; it's hard to know whether that comes from Charlotte, or from Perry himself. Rather than laughing about shared viewpoints, they slightly bicker. And notice his somewhat impolite use of pronouns in the intro above. Charlotte is a young slim person with long hair, earrings, breasts and minimal makeup. She is wearing a T-shirt and jeans. Watching Charlotte is like watching one of those optical illusions where the image looks first one way, then the other.

Applying the autogynephilia template, I consider that Charlotte is an autogynephilic. That means that Perry is right in all of the conversation which follows, and I can understand Charlotte's irritation with his line of reasoning. (If you speak American, read "hood" where Perry says "bonnet").
Charlotte: I wouldn't feel that aggrieved not to have a penis.
Perry: Really? I would be horrified.
Charlotte: It's not the be-all and end-all of things though.
Perry: (pauses) No.
Charlotte: It's a case of having the balls, or lack of them, to go further.
Perry: So you think it's quite a macho thing to do then, to have a sex change?
Charlotte: No, I said "or lack of them". It's a very brave decision. You're assimilating being brave with being a man.
Perry: (pauses) Often I feel with the whole transsexual phenomenon, that it's a problem principally with men, that most transsexuals I think are men (pauses)... and it seems that they're dealing with their problems in a very male way.
Charlotte: (hesitates). Erm... Explain a male way for me.
Perry: Quite a mechanical way, quite a rational way. It's like, lift up the bonnet, change the wiring, slam down the bonnet, off you go.
Charlotte: What if it's not the bonnet end of things, what if it's the black box that controls everything else?
Perry: You do strike me as quite a typical male in many ways. The way you talk is quite forthrightly...
Charlotte: (interrupts) I'm just being assertive. Don't attach that to being a man.
Perry: So would you say that transsexuals then are, instead of putting on the clothes, they're using the surgery in the same ways that a transvestite uses the clothes?
Charlotte: I'd have said it was an interesting split between the two, but sort of, yeah. It's not the be-all and end-all of things, but generally it makes them happy. Me being sort of down that road, it would make me happy as well.
Just a couple of comments. First, taking hormones which you buy from the Internet is madness. You don't know whether you're getting pure drugs or stuff cut with talcum powder; real hormones, or worming tablets for camels. The endocrine system is like an orchestra: if you start messing with one part of the orchestra, soon you will ruin the whole symphony. If you want hormones, see a doctor! Second, I have no idea what happened to Charlotte, and it would be interesting to find out if she ever completed her transition, or what she is up to now.
Perry: Oh dear! Here come all the difficult questions. Does a bloke really have to chop off his penis to truly feel like a woman? And is it all a bit old-fashioned and sexist to make such a big deal of the differences between men and women in any case? Is the transgender community a glimpse of the future? Or a bit of a blast from the past?
Perry: To know whether transvestism has a future, you need to know a bit about its past. Until the later part of the 19th century, crossdressing in ordinary life was an overwhelmingly female to male activity. Typically it tended to be a woman just trying to get on in a man's world. But in the Victorian age, the traffic started to switch direction. Since then transvestism has become an overwhelmingly male to female behaviour. So what was it about the Victorian age which led to the flowering of transvestism? Peter [Farrer, historian] had talked about the intoxicating rustle of silks and taffetas, but it had to be about something more. It had to be about the emotions the clothes gave you access to. Dr. Oriole Cullen showed me round the Victorian costume collection at the Museum of London. For her, it's a vital scholarly resource; for me it was an erotic treasure trove.
Fanny and Stella, Victorian entertainers
Throughout this segment, we are shown dozens of photographs of Victorian transvestites. All of them have taken great care with their appearance, their hair, their clothing, their posture. And then they have their picture taken, professionally. And some of them are dazzling; their pictures made all the more extraordinary by being over a century old. These people are just like me! Someone must have found those photos and collected them all together.

And it's interesting that, once again, Perry links clothes with the emotional impact they create.
Perry: The growing gender distinctions of the clothes reflected what was going on in society generally. As the Victorians increasingly corralled all the softer emotions, vulnerability, innocence, gentleness, beauty into an exclusively feminine realm, men were cast as stoical, butch, practical providers, and dressed accordingly. Is it any wonder that some men started to want to cross over? For me, what the Victorians wore is the most striking example of how clothes can come to symbolise complex emotions. But from a transvestite point of view, it's been downhill all the way since then. Walk down any high street in Britain, and you'll be hard pushed to find visions of femininity to latch onto. Perhaps transvestites are the last Victorians, the last people to believe in the symbolic dimension of women's clothes.
I find it interesting that Perry should link transvestism to Victoriana in this way. One day I found myself listening to this BBC podcast, created by comedian Phil Jupitus, who explores the theme of Steampunk. If you haven't heard of Steampunk, where have you been for the last 200 years? It's a combination of the Victorian aesthetic with modern technology; imagine your computer as a thinking engine powered by steam, and you get the idea. Steampunks hark back to the Victorian era, in terms of engineering, civilisation, scientific inquiry... and clothing.

Kaeldra-1. Do ya feel steamy, Punk?
I have always loved Steampunk, even before it had a name. As a student, I spent hours in an old corner of the University library poring through real Victorian science and medicine texts. In those days, a scientist could reasonably hope to master more than one discipline, and many did, making contributions to several fields. (These days, it is sometimes said, scientific expertise is divided finer and finer. We will all go on knowing more and more about less and less, until we all eventually know everything about nothing at all). I used to imagine myself sitting in on meetings of the Royal Society, puzzling over some ancient fossil bone, or peering down a microscope at some fascinating beetle.

In Victorian times, science and engineering and mathematics were expanding enormously, and they built great cathedrals of science: museums and universities and observatories, in all the major cities of the Empire. Scientific instruments were not merely purposeful, they were beautiful: craftsman-made of brass and mahogany. For the first time ever, science was exciting, and sexy. I suspect for many scientists, like me, it has never been quite the same, and I suspect I am not the only one who would love to trade in his laptop for a slide-rule; his biro for a quill pen and a bottle of iron-gall ink; and his car for a coach and four-- at least for a short time.

Of course, this is all a rose-tinted illusion. The Victorian era was riddled with disease, squalor, poverty, misery, slavery and enormous human suffering, on a scale never before seen. But still it grips us.

The Steampunk movement encompasses people of all ages and stripes; it is not confined to the young, or the alienated. Jupitus finds one Steampunk who talks about drugs: "Do we have drugs in Steampunk? I don't think so. Tea, perhaps. Or snuff!" For many Steampunks, it is about the costume play; for others, it's about the history; for others (like me), the science. If you browse through the forum at Brass Goggles here, you find many examples of Steampunks crossdressing. Interestingly, as Perry remarks above, many of the girls seem to enjoy dressing up in male attire, though not unexpectedly, there seem to be a fair few boys who want to dress up in female attire too. Phil Jupitus interviewed one in his documentary; though since it was radio, we couldn't see the costume!

Though I adore Victoriana, I am not really a Steampunk. I've never been to a gathering; never worn a pair of goggles. Though I have once driven a mainline steam locomotive, and I did once strip down a magnificent brass Victorian microscope, clean it, polish the lenses, and reassemble it. So I suppose I do have some credentials. If being a crossdresser makes me one of the last of the Victorians, put me down for that! God save the Queen!

For the final in this series, click here.


  1. "Though they dress as women they are not doing so for the attention of men." I enjoyed this documentary, but at that point I sort of wanted to tell him: Newsflash! Neither do most women!

  2. Correct on all counts. We do not 'frock-up' in order to be the total or best women we can be. We do so simply because it brings out a hiddenj side within us,m a side that longs to see the light of day and ultimately, to feel fabulously free.
    Ruby Lace