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Gender-Bending in Twelfth Night and To Kill a Mockingbird
A lot of stress has gender and gender differences. And there certainly is. Sex is essentially biology, the manifestation of male and female, or more specifically, the physical parts that go along with being male or female. Norms, roles, and ideals, usually attributed to which physical part you possess.
William Shakespeare’s famous “transvestite drama” Twelfth Night effectively illustrates gender as a social construct. After all, the play focuses above all on the fraternal twin of a young woman named Viola who decides to cross-dress in order to get a job and enter the court of the Duke of Orsino. has to eat, and since she was separated from her twin brother who was believed dead after a nasty shipwreck, she must find a job.
In Shakespeare’s time, cross-dressing was prohibited (except on stage, as male actors were always playing female characters). Women, of course, were expected to maintain and adopt a strict code of femininity, appearance, and behavior, and even though they were supposed to wear pounds of layered skirts, Elizabeth deliberately Wearing pants in the morning was an absolute scandal.
Unsurprisingly, Shakespeare’s plays are seen as morally corrupt in this regard, depicting women who deviate from rigid gender roles. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet we see exactly how oppressive and detrimental a patriarchal society is to the female psyche. Ophelia, although prescribing a general notion of proper female behavior, found herself in the hands of men in her life, felt trapped in her situation, and eventually committed suicide. Throughout time and literature, people, unlike Ophelia, have asserted their beliefs against society’s expectations, or asserted their own measure of well-deserved happiness, resulting in grave rejection, opposition, and social condemnation. Sophocles’ Antigone, Henry Adam’s Esther, and Kate Chopin’s Edna are all good examples of this.
In Shakespeare’s world, if a woman found herself unable to make a living, she had to impersonate a man in order to survive (or even marry at the end of the play). But more importantly, Viola’s entire performance as a Justin Bieber-ish (women love him and “his” somewhat androgynous physique) Cesario speaks to gender as a performance. In the end, the actor who played the viola on the stage at that time was a man, and the whole performance ended up being a male role for a female role. If it doesn’t bend the gender, nothing changes. So sex can get Olivia’s attention, especially in the case of Viola-as-Cesario, who is very adept at behaving like a man. Pursuit.
This notion of gender as performance can be found in another classic literary work nearly 400 years after Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night.
That literary work is Harper Lee’s famous classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. A novel about racism, morality and justice in the South, we are led by a tomboy scout. Scout grew up largely free from the female norms of propriety and civility usually imposed on the typical Southern beauty. She is mostly grateful to her father, the wise and lawyer Atticus Finch. Scouts are, in some ways, like Viola, both actions going against the gender demands of their gender. Like Scout, Viola is supposed to dress in women’s clothing and act like a woman. Scouts should also be polite, naive and appropriate. Not a rowdy, belligerent tree-climbing tween like her. In fact, she hates femininity. It is what she chooses to challenge, and what she considers beneath her for most of the novel. Although not (after all, we are in Elizabethan times), her choice to dress as a man suggests a rejection of the norms and demands of women that society has imposed on her.
Both Viola and Scout’s rejection (temporarily or coercively) of such norms clearly supports this theory of gender as performance. But not so easily or painlessly, unlike gender, it is something that can be done or acted and switched in an instant. Consider the Scout’s reflections on how polite and strong the women are. Meanwhile, Scout is polite and courteous, imitating her Aunt Alexandra, and serves her mourning lady like a good hostess. She says: “After all, if Auntie can be a woman at a time like this, so can I.” Gender performance, indeed.
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