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Gender-Bending in Twelfth Night and To Kill a Mockingbird
There is a lot of tension between sex and gender. And of course it is. Gender is essentially biology, male and female manifestations, or more precisely, the physical parts that come with being male or female. Gender, on the other hand, is the social norms, roles, and ideals associated with one’s identity, often prescribed by which of the physical parts you own. It is a “social construct”, not founded in actual physical make-up.
William Shakespeare’s famous “transvestite drama,” Twelfth Night effectively exemplifies gender as a social construct. Finally, the play centers on, among other things, a young female sorority twin named Viola who decides to cross-dress to get a job and enter Duke Orsino’s court. After all, a girl must eat, and after a nasty shipwreck separates her from her faithful-dead twin, she must find work.
During Shakespeare’s time, cross-dressing (except on stage, where male actors always played female characters) was a big no-no. Of course, women were expected to follow and adopt strict rules regarding femininity, appearance and behavior. It was a scandal if you deliberately wore pounds upon pounds of layered skirts with a pair of Elizabethan breeches.
Obviously, Shakespeare’s play was considered morally corrupt in this regard, depicting women as breaking away from their rigid gender roles. Yet, feminist scholars are quick to point out that it speaks to women’s lack of freedom or agency at the time. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet we see exactly how oppressive and damaging a patriarchal society can be to a woman’s psyche; Ophelia—who epitomized prevailing notions of proper feminine behavior—felt like a pawn in the hands of the men in her life, trapped by her circumstances, and eventually committed suicide. Through time and literature, we have seen women who, unlike Ophelia, had to assert their beliefs against society’s expectations or claim the measure of happiness they deserved, and faced severe rejection, opposition, and social condemnation as a result. Sophocles’ Antigone, Henry Adam’s Esther and Kate Chopin’s Edna are good examples.
In Shakespeare’s world, if a woman felt she had no life, she had to impersonate a man to survive (or marry, which also happens at the end of the play). Most importantly, however, Viola’s entire performance as Justin Bieber-ish (women love him and “his” slightly androgynous body) as Cesario speaks to gender as a performance. After all, the actor playing Viola on stage during that time was a man, making the whole act a man and acting like a woman. If that gender doesn’t bend, nothing will. Hence, gender becomes something that can be imitated, and imitated well, especially in the case of Viola-as-Cesario, who is so skilled at acting like a man that he attracts the attention of Olivia, the Countess Duke romantically. Following up.
This idea of gender is also present in a great literary work, almost 400 years after Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night.
That piece of literature is Harper Lee’s famous classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. In the novel Southern Racism, Morality, and Justice, we are guided by the tomboy Scout, who is freed from the feminine norms of propriety and decency at the usual southern belles. She mostly has her father, the wise, fair lawyer Atticus Finch, to thank for that. Scout is like Viola, in a sense, both of their behaviors ignore what their gender demands. Like Scout, Viola must wear women’s clothes and act like a woman. A Scout is also supposed to be polite, elementary, and proper—no rough-and-tumble, fanatical climbers in between. In fact, she hates femininity. This is something she chooses to object to, considering it beneath her for most of the novel. Shakespeare’s Viola does not directly come out against gender or being a woman (this is the Elizabethan era after all) but her choice to dress as a man represents a rejection of feminine norms and suggests the demands society places on her.
Both Viola’s and Scout’s rejection of such norms (however temporary or forced) implicitly supports this gender theory as performance. For both characters, one can do or act and instantly switch to the opposite gender, which can be changed nowadays but not so easily or painlessly. Consider Scout’s ruminations on how the women of the town—including her aunt—Dawn, are symbols of modesty and strength after the tragic death of the falsely convicted Tom. During that time, Scout imitates her Aunt Alexandra and adopts polite manners, serving meals to the grieving women like a good hostess. She says: “After all, if Aunty can be a woman at a time like this, so can I.” Gender performance, indeed.
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