An elaborate theory by Garber (English/Harvard Univ.), insisting that the transvestite is at the elusive heart of Western culture.
In a century-sweeping book, Garber applies current critical thought to the phenomenon of "cross-dressing'' in fact and fiction, high culture and low. Arguing that gender is culturally constructed, she contends that cross-dressing challenges the binary categories of male and female as well as the concept of category itself. It signals "cultural, social or aesthetic dissonances.'' Garber argues that critics have looked "through,'' not "at,'' the transvestite, failing to see what is a Freudian "primal scene.'' Defined here again and again, the transvestite is "the space of desire,'' "a space of possibility,'' a "third.'' Garber plays out her theory in detailed analyses of countless transvestite figures- -Shakespearean heroines, Tootsie, Lawrence of Arabia, M. Butterfly, Madonna, and Laurence Olivier (here portrayed at death as "the triumphant transvestite''). There is no shortage of provocative speculation and information, some worth considering and some--like that about transvestite magazines and the politics of transsexual surgery--not. Unfortunately, the sub-flooring of French critical terms sets Garber's argument on a slippery slope ending up too often in a theoretical mire where "the transvestite is both a signifier and that which signifies the undecidability of signification.'' A discussion of Elizabethan dress codes and costuming concludes with the typically reductive claim that "there is no ground of Shakespeare that is not already cross-dressed.'' Also, when critical terms are rampantly applied--Elvis and Liberace, for instance, labeled, like Peter Pan, "changeling boys''--they quickly lose impact.
Bound for controversy, this study admirably attempts to cross from the academy to popular culture, but theory here acts less as a window onto cultural evolution than as a screen drawing attention its own overwrought, repetitive pattern.