“At the best of times gender is difficult to determine.” Marlene Dietrich

In language gender is particularly peculiar.

Why, please, should a table be male in German, female in French, and castrated in English?

French children, for instance, are male even if they are girls, in English there seems to be considerable doubt, in German they are definitely neuter.

Even more startling is the fact that the French give the feminine gender to the components of the male anatomy that make him male, and the male gender to the components of the female anatomy that make her a female.

In view of all this let’s keep a stiff upper lip.

Personally, I’m not very good at keeping a stiff upper lip. But when I need illumination, I read, and in the discussion of gender, who better to dispense wit and wisdom than Marlene? There are also the related issues of identity, and further, how appearance impacts perception. Shakespeare took on this thread of ideas several times in his plays, his first cross-dressing female, Julia, appears in Two Gentlemen of Verona, at a time when women weren’t allowed onstage, thus adding another twist; the cross-dressing Julia had to be played by a young man.

In Prince Harry Boy to Man, by William Kuhn, a female reporter impersonates a man in order to be embedded with the troops in Afghanistan, and all sorts of Shakespearean sauciness ensues…

All the above seems ripe for discussion. Won’t you join me?

And once again, thanks for dropping by.

Cheers! V


  1. NotebookM by Lanny Morgnanesi

    Interesting commentary and observations. Much of what we consider contemporary is ancient. My belief is some older cultures actually were more accepting of non-convention than we are today.

    • Yes, and I wonder how our interconnectivity adds another layer of complexity. In older cultures convention was defined by a small group, and now… It’s very interesting. And, going off on a tangent here but I also wonder how developments in AI and robotics will incorporate gender concepts. Gender is so much of who we are and how we define ourselves…and the interface between people and machines is getting closer and closer.

  2. I love Marlene Dietrich’s outfit and what appear to be her pearl cufflinks. As a man, cufflinks are the only jewels I feel safe wearing. When I look at MD and think of her bravery and her radicalism and her chutzpah so many years ago, I wonder why I’m so timid. I once stayed with a group of gay men in a country house in Northamptonshire. In my bedroom some pink beads were arranged on the dresser as a kind of display. I looked at them, loved them, and thought, why not? So I put them on over my shirt when I came down to dinner. The cries of indignation could not have been sharper had I been entering a debate about transgender bathrooms in North Carolina. What’s the point? Even gay men can get into gender trouble, even when they think they’re among friends.

    • There’s a photo I came across of Marlene as she was entertaining the troops, she’s got kind of a white sailor suit on, and over her breasts are big black question marks. It’s always been less transgressive for women to cross gender boundaries in dress, and I don’t know why that is. It must have something to do with the notion of dominance and power…

    • George Kaplan

      Jeepers, how silly! Can’t people have fun anymore? Straight, gay, trans, undecided, it seems everyone is required to act and think in a particular way or you get thrown out of the club or sent to Coventry – wartime Coventry at that. It seems like ammunition for the bigots and legions of the ignorant, and who wants to arm *them*?! Pshaw. Humans… Hah.

  3. George Kaplan

    It’s worth noting that “gender” is often just a squeamish synonym for “sex” and people are not words! I think it’s complicated but sometimes it’s simple too. It is idiotic and retrograde to expect all women to wear or enjoy wearing skirts and dresses but equally if a woman *does* enjoy dressing that “stereotypically feminine” (scare quotes ahoy!) then they shouldn’t be chastized for it by smug people – both women and men – who apparently believe themselves to have the secret to knowing what a “real” “empowered” woman is like. One doesn’t tend to see drag queens dressing in boiler suits, does one? Male drag is an exagerration, a parody, a “travestying” (en travestie) of traditional often glamorous womanhood. Modern queens tend to take the already ludicrous extremes of haute couture and push it to the nth degree which I think is interesting. What is also fascinating that in today’s supposedly forward-thinking age you have those who are too eager to police people’s thoughts and expressions which makes them self-righteous and as dangerously sure of their “rightness” as the bigots they abhor. As I say, complicated.

      • In Plato’s Symposium a story is told of individuals found looking restlessly for their other halves. These beings originally had genitalia from both sexes. When they were whole they were called “androgynes.” A god who was jealous of them cut them in half and forever after they were fated to seek their missing half.

      • Hold the phone, professor! I did not know that, and I LOVE it. Let me see if I’ve got this straight, the ancient classical ideal of humanity was androgynous? I think this goes straight back to what our first comment from Lanny said… So cool!

      • And to you! To see so many familiar faces here is wonderful. Sorry for my late reply, I just got the Kid and his sweetheart on a plane back to Europe, they are entering their master’s year at school, very exciting! xo, S

  4. George Kaplan

    If those words are profanities, then, yes I agree!
    Ah, I didn’t say “glamour” should never be androgynous but I tend to think that those glamorous pictures of Marlene in stereotypically masculine dress aren’t androgynous, she is still a glamorous woman, imagine a big fat sweaty guy in those clothes or in a dress and you’d see the difference. Androgynous would not be the word that sprang to mind in the second case!

  5. George Kaplan

    @William Kuhn: Julie in Victor/Victoria – a woman playing a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman! Hilarious film. Lesley Ann Warren and Robert Preston were the highlights though!
    @Vickie: Yes, Bowie in the glamour portrait cover to Hunky Dory; modeled on Old Hollywood glamour shots featuring Greta Garbo et al. Also Danny La Rue was very consciously a (gay) man impersonating a woman but not expecting the audience to *believe* he was a woman whilst still exemplifying and guying (in two senses!) notions of feminine glamour.

  6. If you’d like an interesting read about the life of a female journalist who inserted herself (and traveled to war in) a “man’s world”, look up Dickey Chapelle.

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