02 March 2007

(shhh...) Wagner was.....
A Cross Dresser!

The above-linked Guardian article is truly disappointing. It has to work really hard to build up the salacious lather it's striving for, over the 'discovery' of some letters in which Wagner went into baroque detail describing women's clothing. And for the big climax the article 'reveals' that Wagner ordered some custom-made dresses, about which he had very specific requests and concerns. He himself said these were for his wife, but she never noted their receipt in her diary....so....maybe they were for him!

A few comments on this nonsense:
  1. As to the detailed and flowery language: um, it's Wagner we're talking about. What the the hell would you expect?
  2. As to the fact that he might have worn dresses, or liked 'girly' things. I see no reason for historians not to write about this, but how is it news? (I know, the weather is news, so I guess anything can be.)
  3. Finally, there's the fact that the article consistently turns 'cross-dresser' into some sort of 'secret' identity. One Wagner might have tried to hide, but that we, today, can reveal. It's not an account of Wagner wearing women's clothing (because we aren't even certain that he did that); instead, it's a CSI-style investigation of his possible identity. Maybe he WAS a cross-dresser? Or perhaps he was a martian?! If they were giving this salacious account of his potentially being gay, then the homophobia of it all would jump right off the page. But if it's 'merely' 'gender deviation' then it's OK to make the whole thing out to be perverse and deviant. But the idea of gender-deviation as perverse or wrong is of a piece with homophobia: both are products of heteronormativity. In both cases we have this rigid effort to uphold gender binaries, and this is, in a way, made easier by the so-called acceptance of homosexuality not as a practice or a way of being in the world, but as a 'sexual orientation'.
But, to revert to a liberal language that I'm trying hard to avoid above (and that I'd never use in formal writing): who gives a shit if Wagner liked wearing dresses? Why is that so damned threatening, and therefore morbidly interesting, and therefore newsworthy? Why do we work so hard to separate masculinity from femininity?

It's too bad that Rebecca herself isn't nearly as girly as the heteronormative order would like her to be, because, nonetheless, I'm heading upstairs to raid her warddrobe and get myself dressed up!!!


tenaciousmcd said...

Maybe I have too adolesecent a sense of humor, but anti-Semitic, proto-fascists in drag is FUNNY. Same for J. Edgar Hoover, even if that's probably not true either. I know we're supposed to be very sensitive and yet also somehow non-challentely oblivious to things like cross-dressing, but come on. If Aristophanes and Shakespeare can find entertainment in this sort of gender-bending gossip, I certainly don't want to bust up the party.

fronesis said...

Really, that Guardian article was supposed to be funny?

If so, then I completely and utterly misread it. I took it as a serious piece exploring the life and history of Wagner as a famous and serious composer. Didn't occur to me for a moment that it was a joke - nor did it read that way to me. Indeed, I've never found the Guardian to have much of a sense of humour, but maybe I'm missing the point. It was written by the arts correspondent.

Also, I didn't see how they were making fun of him because he was an 'anti-semitic proto-fascist'. I quite take your point about J. Edgar Hoover, but for me that's a more serious point because he was such a homophobe - it's hypocritical behaviour that makes it very relevant.

tenaciousmcd said...

I confess to not having read the Guardian article. But that in no way compromises the puerile glee I find in gossipy stories of right-wingers and their private kinks, real or imagined. So Wagner was a precursor to the 80s hair-bands: operatic, cock-rocking machismo dressed up in lipstick and butless leather chaps. Where's the offense in that?

Daniel said...

I enjoyed picturing Sam, in an act of defiance, marching into Rebecca's closet, ripping out a smart little Ann Taylor wool sweater -- possibly in a green or blue -- and putting it on without hesitation. It probably looked quite nice and fitted. Maybe you even wore it to the food store! Don't worry, your secret is safe with me. ;)

Periapse said...

The most forgiving attitude I can muster for the Guardian article is that it was just celebrity gossip.

The more meaty issue: "Why do we work so hard to separate masculinity from femininity?" Evolutionary biology has a reasonable response to that question: it was a matter of species survival. In the modern world, however, that answer no longer applies, and hasn't for centuries. That there are still rigid binary gender protocols in cultures today is, I believe, a social atavism.