ilthit: (apples are red)
[personal profile] ilthit posting in [community profile] queering_holmes
This post is based on a suggestion in the discussion prompt gathering thread, which is still taking suggestions for new discussions if you have them.

Okay, here goes.

[personal profile] marshtide said:

Kind of following on from the general stuff about queer womanhood that's being discussed at the moment, I'd love some more specific discussion of Irene Adler as a possible bisexual character.

Some commenting re: sexual preference vs gender expression and "sex inversion" followed. The thread is here.

I'm better at making associations and connections than conclusions, but here are some subjects I'd love to see discussed:

1) If Victorian sexologists conflated of sexuality and gender, i.e., a woman who wants women is like a man, would that also work as a woman who is like a man necessarily wanting women? There were popular stories of women dressing up as boys for practical reasons or to follow their male lovers, like Viola in Twelfth Night, Fidelio and Sweet Polly Oliver, but on the other hand people would also be aware of the legend of the bisexual La Maupin for example. Also see point #3. 

2) Do you think Irene Adler may have been inspired by scandalous 19th century crossdressing women? I'm thinking of George Sand. 

3) Have some caricatures of women's rights activists wearing trousers and "reducing" their husbands to the role of the wife. 

4) Pornographers were certainly aware of woman-on-woman sex acts, and I vaguely remember (sorry, I have not prepared this post) reading an excerpt of a courtesan advising a recruit to playfully put on a man's jacket and hat to arouse her client. I've also seen an erotic drawing of a woman in trousers with her excited male lover saying "Miss, may I help you with your trousers?" and the cover of a turn of the century magazine where a beaming man is surrounded by a crowd of women in jackets and trousers, boasting "bifurcated girls". That was in The History of Girly Magazines, and the text claimed that women in trousers were quite naughty because it clearly showed that women had legs. Hum. So, does anyone know if there was a lesbian subculture that engaged in crossdressing or if this would have been more of a game for male-servicing brothels? What do you think Doyle was referencing with the character? 

5) Could Irene or her fellow female (real and imagined) gender rebels from the era compare to modern genderqueer identities? There's no way of knowing which of the many "women" caught "dressing like a man" throughout the history would now be identified as trans men, and how many were in it for the benefits, or could fall into some other category of trans. 

In other words, do you think her crossdressing closer related to "sex inversion" and lesbianism, female liberation, gender rebellion or straight titillation - or other, or all of the above? 

Date: 2010-05-14 10:44 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] valborg
5. I don't think it's possible to compare to modern genderqueer identities. They do not translate, and the time period of Irene Adler had their own ways of understanding gender.

Maybe the people in the lesbian subculture of this time would have identified differently now, but women dressing as men was a significant part of lesbian subculture then. It's definitely possible to read Irene's cross-dressing as being a sign of bisexuality.

Furthermore I've always connected Adler's way or dressing with her career. Genderplay has long traditions in theatre. In opera there is of course breeches parts, just as one example. The play with gender in theatre was mostly 'safe' and yet it managed to titillate both women and men. It was basically bisexual in character. And working with theatre/art might in itself be considered a 'queer' signifier.

But to answer your last question, I'd say that more than anything Adler signals strength and freedom. She doesn't feel like a typical representative of the women's movement, but as an ideal of what women can be.

Date: 2010-05-14 10:53 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] valborg
Oh, and I forgot to say that Eliza Vestris might be a possible model for Adler. (This is pure speculation.) She was a bit before the time of Doyle, but she was an attractive contralto, known to dress like a man on stage. She was active in Paris, London and eventually America. She also worked as a producer. Pretty cool lady, as far as I can tell.

Date: 2011-06-19 01:54 am (UTC)
peoriapeoriawhereart: in red serge Benton looks askance (Default)
From: [personal profile] peoriapeoriawhereart
I think Irene is The Woman much as Holmes is the Master (Detective).

She's the opposite both of the 'demure, correct woman' and of that poisoner. And she rather enjoys playing him (think the old woman is also Irene in disguise?)

Date: 2010-05-14 03:32 pm (UTC)
rydra_wong: Lee Miller photo showing two women wearing metal fire masks in England during WWII. (Default)
From: [personal profile] rydra_wong
I've also seen an erotic drawing of a woman in trousers with her excited male lover saying "Miss, may I help you with your trousers?" and the cover of a turn of the century magazine where a beaming man is surrounded by a crowd of women in jackets and trousers, boasting "bifurcated girls".

I don't suppose I could beg for scans? They sound delightful.

Re: Here we are.

Date: 2010-05-14 08:44 pm (UTC)
rydra_wong: Aimee Mullins crouches to sprint on carbon-fiber prosthetic legs. Text: "3 weeks 4 Dreamwidth." (3W4DW -- mullins)
From: [personal profile] rydra_wong
Oh, that's fascinating (I find "Eugenics -- Art -- Love" especially disturbing). Thank you!

(I appreciate that in context, "Eugenics" means "a handy excuse to show nakedness and pretend it's all about the health of the race", much as naturism and bodybuilding have provided similar excuses at various points. But still, disturbing.)
Edited Date: 2010-05-14 08:46 pm (UTC)

Re: Here we are.

Date: 2010-05-14 08:51 pm (UTC)
damned_colonial: "Physical Culture: The magazine of health" circa 1910. (physical culture 1)
From: [personal profile] damned_colonial
I don't have anything in particular to say to this, but wanted to use this icon as an example.

Date: 2010-05-14 04:58 pm (UTC)
damned_colonial: Convicts in Sydney, being spoken to by a guard/soldier (Default)
From: [personal profile] damned_colonial
Of potential interest, seen just now via [personal profile] oursin's journal: Cross-dressing women in Edwardian musical theatre.

Date: 2010-05-14 05:38 pm (UTC)
my_daroga: Mucha's "Dance" (Default)
From: [personal profile] my_daroga
My take on Adler's cross-dressing was always based on the operatic connections, because that was incredibly common and would have meant that it would have less significance to her, potentially, than a woman not brought up in the theater. By which I mean the transgression was there, but it seems likely to me that she felt it less because it was more common in her world than most women.

One thought I just had, and forgive me for not having it thoroughly thought-out, is that it's possible that Doyle put her in men's clothes because to make her an appropriate "rival" for Holmes she had to taken to some extent the power of a man. For her to be worthy of defeating him, she cannot move merely in women's circles. It's possible that it indicates not only her rebellion--and I'm not sure how Doyle would have thought about that--but his need for her to literally wear the pants.

Date: 2010-05-15 06:46 am (UTC)
marshtide: (Default)
From: [personal profile] marshtide
But conversely one could argue that people would be particularly attracted to that world because of the opportunities for transgression. Basically, that unconventional people are attracted to the theatre because one can express oneself in ways that would be deeply shocking otherwise.

& yes that could certainly be part of it, there is something of that "more than Just Some Woman" thing going on with her.

The way in which that was achieved still carries some interesting cultural signifiers, though! :D

Date: 2010-05-15 08:53 am (UTC)
marshtide: (Default)
From: [personal profile] marshtide
I think one of the things which tips it a bit for me is that she doesn't just crossdress on stage, but also in public, which is an incredibly risky move (and one that could lead to arrest in many places, followed by physical examinations and all sorts).

And I think that, yes, it's partly a game to her, albeit a dangerous one. That doesn't actually preclude other motivations alongside. Then there's the statement that Irene Adler has "often taken advantage of the freedom that it [men's clothing] gives," which is open to all sorts of interpretations - certainly including though not limited to ones linked to a kind of emerging lesbian or female invert subculture. My point here is basically that I think crossdressing actually says as much as a portrayal of a loving relationship with a woman would have, or even more, because in that context loving relationships between women were far more normal, and considered quite pure and acceptable (admittedly more often between fairly upper class or upper middle class women), while the crossdresser was often linked to some kind of sexual deviation. Crossdressing is often the only way in which some kind of queer female identity can become historically visible, so I'm disinclined to let go of it as a marker, despite the inherent complications.

Date: 2010-05-15 08:09 am (UTC)
marshtide: (Default)
From: [personal profile] marshtide
I'll just say that your description right there feels rather the descriptions of sexual inverts that were coming into popularity towards the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th. I absolutely don't disagree with the reasoning behind portraying her with some of those elements, and of course one can read these things all sorts of different ways, but to me, it's pretty interesting and allows more than enough room for a queer interpretation.

Date: 2010-05-16 04:34 am (UTC)
starlady: Irene Adler, winking, partially inked out (irene)
From: [personal profile] starlady
Link to the chapter considering Irene Adler as a crossdresser in Marjorie Garber's book Vested Interests.

What I view as Garber's main point about Adler is that quite aside from cross-dressing in and of itself her career as an American contralto in Europe is "professionally lucrative and socially liminal." Moreover, a singer who has "retired from the stage" was essentially a kept woman; the fact that Irene dares to use that affair against the King is another sign of her refusal to conform to social expectations, I think.

For me the important point about Adler is that she does occupy a liminal position, and she uses it to play both ends against Holmes to her full advantage. My own impulse to read her as bisexual comes out of her position on the boundaries that we know definitively that she does cross; what's one more, essentially? (For the same reason I also consider it completely valid to read her as either black or mixed-race.)

Re: #2, Garber suggests that Irene's hailing from New Jersey is in reference to the actress Lillie Langtry, who was from Jersey in England, also a king's mistress, and a famous performer of Rosalind (who also cross-dresses).

And re: #4, I have to think that Doyle viewed Irene along the lines of an alluring threat (certainly Watson viewed her as a threat, period); the opening lines of SCAN call her "the late Irene Adler, of questionable memory" which might reference her being married but which I think means that she's dead, because I tend to be pessimistic about ACD as a progressive figure.

Date: 2010-05-17 06:33 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] valborg
Cool. This book was already on my to read list, but it just moved up a few notches.

Date: 2010-05-17 07:33 am (UTC)
marshtide: (Default)
From: [personal profile] marshtide
Oh, awesome. Thanks for that info! :D

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