Melanie Taylor explores the construction of masculine identities in “Peter (A Young English Girl): Visualizing Transgender Masculinities.” Tate Gallery London’s Visualizing Masculinities 1992-3 exhibition as her point of departure, Taylor addresses art institutions’ (and scholarship’s) failure to study the ways in which masculinity is and has been projected by those who are not biologically male; hence, the title of the essay. Scholar Judith Halberstam also confronted the issue in her 1998 book Female Masculinity. Various scholarship on gender identity, Taylor warns, has presented erroneous readings of these nuanced depictions of gender that are often anachronistic. Subsequently, the author examines a plethora of scholars’ contradicting ideas and perceptions of the dissident gender depictions, including scholars whose views oppose her own.
Taylor turns to American artists Romaine Brooks and Loren Cameron from the beginning and end of the twentieth century, respectively, to demonstrate the nuances of transsexual masculinity via portraiture that negotiate masculinity itself through transgressive self-fashioning.
Brooks’ 1920s portraits Self-Portrait (1923), Peter (A Young English Girl) (1923-24), and Una, Lady Troubridge (1924), (women in men’s clothing) present intimate, alluring studies that subversively challenge traditional understandings of true gender, by juxtaposing iconography of femininity and masculinity on a single subject’s body, not unlike Virginia Woolf’s Orlando of the same era. The exhibitionist dandy in Brooks’ portraits demonstrates both female and male visual qualities–makeup, bobbed hair, and jewelry, as well as pronounced jaw-lines and the tailored trappings of a fashionable man–that make material the complex visual qualifiers of masculine identity. This upsetting of gender norms questions the “stability and authenticity of masculinity itself” (17), as does Cameron seventy years later.Though through distinctly different (explicit) means, Cameron’s raw, photographed self-portraits of the female body transitioning into a male’s body also demand a renegotiation of the masculine. The reproducible photographs of modified bodies parallels the artistic and medical technologies that had developed since the time of Brooks’ conservative painted portrait and similarly subdued gender crossings. The recognizably bodybuilder musculature and poses immediately satisfy a masculine aesthetic, but the lack of male genitalia, the presence of scarring, scalpel, and syringe in Cameron’s triptych God’s Will ask spectators to rethink the image and the complex gender identity presented. Taylor refers to artist Del LaGrace’s similarly radical photography that, like Cameron’s, challenges standard gender roles. The body in Cameron’s self-portraits, not unlike Brooks’ sartorial methods, has been manipulated and constructed–in this case by hormones and surgery–in order to fashion a particular masculinity.
Both artists’ portraits imply that the presence of a penis is not necessary for masculinity. The monocle present in Brooks’ dandy, Taylor elaborates, has the potential to serve as a surrogate penis; its detachability only emphasizes the triviality and insignificance of the need for a masculine person to be biologically male. After all, according to Domna C. Stanton, the power of the dandy lies in his eye (“phallic eye”). The transsexual identities portrayed both imitate and distinguish themselves from archetypal masculinities, calling into question the very nature and stability of masculinity.
This summary, an assignment for a Gender and Visual Studies course, was written in response to Melanie Taylor’s “Peter (A Young Girl): Visualizing Transgender Masculinities,” published in Camera Obscura 56 (Vol. 19, No. 2 (2004), pp. 1-45). You can find the article itself here.