Role play: why girls will be boys

February 23, 1996

Alison MacLeod's first novel The Changeling explores the contradiction of the female androgyne. The novel, published next month, is based upon of Ms Macleod's PhD in creative writing at Lancaster University.

Her PhD is a study of the female androgyne in literature - which she defines as women exhibiting physical or behavioural characteristics of men - and adds a new twist to gender studies. Focusing on the female cross dresser, Ms MacLeod argues that she embodies something quite different from her male counterpart.

Male cross dressers, observes Ms MacLeod, tend to parody gender with exaggerated breasts, lots of hair and teetering walks. Female cross dressers on the other hand tend to experiment with roles, identity and status.

"They challenge the very conventions that determine masculinity and femininity; they expose the fictionality of those conventions for suddenly seeing is not believing."

Through her novel, and supporting research, Ms MacLeod uncovers the female androgyne in her various guises - the tomboy, the cross-dressing heroine, the woman warrior, strident feminist or shouting virago. How, she asks, do we consider the female man-woman? Is she simply the principal boy, pretty in her see-through tights and her see-through role? Or is she something more complicated?

"Neither position in itself acknowledges the confusion of the history of the female androgyne," she says. "Her forms are so various that at times she may be simply a woman who dresses for comfort."

Ms MacLeod argues that from Shakespeare's Rosalind to Barrie's Peter Pan the female androgyne's particular construction depends inevitably on who or what is doing the constructing - whether it is the fashion industry, a Renaissance dramatist, an 18th-century balladeer or Sigmund Freud.

In The Changeling, which Macmillan is publishing in March, Ms MacLeod explores the life of an 18th century female pirate Anne Bonny.

As a girl, Anne is dressed up as a boy and brought up as her father's nephew to disguise the shame of her illegitimacy.

The story is based on a true account documented in 1724 and provides Ms MacLeod with the bare bones of a gripping story through which to continue her research.

Trawling through recent media reports, Ms MacLeod stumbled across numerous sightings of the female androgyne. Today she says the media typically presents her as a freak of nature, a curio.

"While we laugh at male impersonators, for they hold onto their manhood even in push-up bras, we are troubled by the female androgyne who threatens our ideas of sexual opposition."

This is a sign of a culture in crisis she believes. On the one hand we embrace liberal ideas of plurality while on the other we still value 18th and 19th-century ideas about gender - "boys will be boys" and so on.

The female androgyne emerges between the cracks, troubling contemporary culture in a way she did not trouble the late moderns when ideas of sex and gender were firmly established.

Ms MacLeod says: "The early moderns, like us, were troubled by her presence. In our post-modern period she is not celebrated - though she is familiar."

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