Bromance Vs. Romance: Cross-Dressing For Love

Dear C Fran,

If you love someone, you have to become them. That’s the thesis of Book One of the oldest and oddest bromance I’ve encountered yet, Philip Sidney’s Old Arcadia, published in 1590.

It’s a fun read. For one thing, the narrative voice is modern; urbane, sarcastic, and touchingly sensitive to the desires of its characters. (Example: when one of the two bros (Musidorus and Pyrocles) decides to dress up as an Amazon to get access to his lady-love, the  narrator gently helps him into his feminine garb, which is lovingly described, and declares that from now on he’ll refer to Pyrocles as “she”:)

Such was this Amazon’s attire, and thus did Pyrocles become Cleophila, which name for a time hereafter I will use, for I myself feel such compassion of his passion that I find even part of his fear lest his name should be uttered before fit time were for it.

The narrator’s as good as his word. From here on out Pyrocles is called Cleophila, and at one point gets called Musidorus’ “he-she-friend.”

1500s Cross-Dressing 101

Thanks to Shakespeare in Love and its ilk, we all know cross-dressing was pretty common in sixteenth and seventeenth-century plays. Shakespeare-wise you’ve got your Twelfth Night, your As You Like It, your Merchant of Venice. There’s Lyly’s Gallathea, where the ladies dress as men to avoid being offered as sacrificial virgins to Neptune. But the cross-dressing, when it happens, tends to be of the women-dressed-as-men variety. Same goes for Ariosto’s Bradamante in Orlando Furioso and Spenser’s Britomart in the Faerie Queene. In the plays, the big joke was in the inversion: it’s a boy playing a girl dressed as a boy!!! Madness!

There aren’t as many instances of men dressing as women. Off the top of my head, I can only think of Jonson’s Epicoene, The Silent Woman (a bizarre little play where a man gets punished for wanting a silent wife by being set up with Epicene, a man dressed as a woman who nodded mutely throughout their courtship and turned into a loud nag the second they married). And, you know, Achilles. But that was much longer ago.

Anyway, back to Sidney. Pyrocles falls in love with a painting of Philoclea and, his reason infected, starts thinking about her nonstop. Like, all the time. His decision to cross-dress isn’t merely—as is usual—an expedient way of getting access to the beloved, but actually amounts a principled stand on what it means to be love someone of the opposite gender and how one’s imaginative energies might end up going about it.

I mentioned that Slate post by Dahlia Lithwick that speculated that women, because they’re forced to hypothetically occupy a male perspective so often, might be more empathic and therefore “better” judges because they have a greater capacity to inhabit different perspectives. (The boys in the study she cites often refused to even entertain the idea of pretending to think as a girls.)

The idea seems problematic, at least as applied to jurisprudence. But since I’ve been puzzling over empathy generally, one angle of which includes the sexes’ ability to see from each other’s point of view, I wanna take a gander at Sidney’s argument, in which the logical conclusion of falling in love (for a man, with a woman) is to become one.

The Old Arcadia is sort of a sendup of the scholasticism that characterized young men’s education in the 16th century, in the course of which they had to argue pressing issues like whether day was better than night, or which was more important, friendship or love.

Musidorus and Pyrocles are pals. But, once Pyrocles decides he’s in love and dupes Musidorus into hanging out in the vicinity of Philoclea’s house instead of doing the job they’re supposed to be doing, Musidorus keeps trying to talk him back into his senses in a conversation that ends up pissing off Pyrocles and endangering the friendship.

Dude 1: Love Will Make You Girly. Dude 2: BRING IT ON, BITCH.

The tension between friendship and love gets worked out as a bitterish debate over whether women are poopie-heads or not, but the “not” bit takes an interesting turn. Musidorus says, among other things, that Pyrocles’ love will make him womanish:

For, as the love of heaven makes one heavenly, the love of virtue, virtuous, so doth the love of the world make one become worldly, and this effeminate love of a woman doth so womanish a man that if you yield to it, it will not only make you a famous Amazon, but a launder, a distaff spinner, or whatsoever other vile occupation their idle heads can imagine, and their weak hands perform.

To which Pyrocles, leaving aside the question of whether laundry is a “vile occupation,” offers a pretty rational and rhetorically devastating response that’s worth quoting at length:

Dear and worthy friend, whatsoever good disposition nature hath bestowed on me, or howsoever that disposition hath been by bringing-up confirmed, this must I confess, that I am not yet come to that degree of wisdom to think lightly of the sex of whom I have life. Since … I was … born of a woman and nursed of a woman; and certainly (for this point of your speech doth nearest touch me) it is strange to see the unmanlike cruelty of mankind, who, not content with their tyrannous ambition, to have brought the others’ [women’s] virtuous patience under them, like childish masters think their masterhood nothing without doing injury unto them who (if we will argue by reason) are framed of nature with the same parts of the mind for the exercise of virtue, as we are. And for example, even this estate of Amazons (which I now for my greatest honor, do seek to counterfeit) doth well witness that if generally the sweetness of their disposition did not make them see the veins of these things (which we account glorious) they neither want valor of mind, nor yet doth their fairness take away their force. And truly, we men, and praisers of men should remember, that if we have such excellencies, it is reason to think them excellent creatures of whom we are, since a kite never brought forth a good flying hawk.

In which the following points are made:

  1. Bro, your definition of wisdom is bullshit.
  2. The old “How can I hate women? My mum was one!” chestnut bibbled by Chris Finches the world over.
  3. The desire to dominate women is actually unmanlike because it consists of a cruel and childish brand of mastery, where we have to insult that which we control. (Weren’t expecting that, were you?)
  4. Look at the Amazons. They are awesome. I want to be one. Suck on that.
  5. The Amazons show that if women lacked the “sweetness” and vision to see the flaws in war, etc., they’d be (and are) just as capable of our battle hijinks and courage.
  6. [A reprise of the mum argument:] Fine. If you insist on thinking we’re awesome, logically we had to come from something awesome.

Not bad for 1590, eh?

“Gay” Doesn’t Exist Yet. Choose A) Narcissus Or B) Pygmalion

Pyrocles changes his name to Cleophila—Philoclea’s name in reverse (mirror image ahoy!), and dresses up as an Amazon, even showing a little leg through the cutouts in the leather buskins (boots) which “in some places open … show the fairness of the skin.” He—or, as the narrator rightly reminds us, she—wears a mantle fastened by a jewel with the following insignia:

an eagle covered with the feathers of a dove, and yet lying under another dove, in such sort as it seemed the dove preyed upon the eagle, the eagle casting up such a look as though the state he was in, liked him, though the pain grieved him.

For starters, what exactly is this visual asking us to imagine? How do you depict an eagle dressed in a dove’s feathers? How detailed was this insignia? Are eagle and dove feathers that different? Wouldn’t this just look like an eagle with a bad haircut? It may look like dove-on-dove love, or dove-on-dove S&M… the point is, whatever the impossible visual might be, we’re being asked to imagine a painful and pleasurable effort to achieve sameness.

Musidorus, seeing his friend in full Amazon regalia, finds in him such “excellent beauty” that he says

Well, sweet cousin … I pray you take heed of looking yourself in a glass, lest Narcissus’ fortune fall unto you. For my part, I promise you, if I were not full resolved never to submit my heart to those fancies, I were like enough, while I dressed you, to become a young Pygmalion.”

In a culture where homosexuality (cue Foucault) doesn’t exist yet as a category, we get Narcissus—self-love, love of sameness—and Pygmalion (the Cyprian king who made a woman out of ivory and pined for love of her until Venus made her real)—love of a statue, or of one’s own creation. (Or perhaps, of a painting, since so far Cleophila has only seen Philoclea’s portrait.)

To which Cleophila (now named thusly in the text) says, in this strange little scene:

“Speak not that blasphemy, dear friend … for if I have any beauty, it is the beauty which the imagination of her strikes into my fancies, which in part shines through my face into your eyes.”

In other words, so good is Cleophila’s imitation of Philoclea through imaginative effort alone that Musidorus, who loves Cleophila (nee Pyrocles) as all bros love each other, is in fact vicariously experiencing Philoclea’s beauty.

Poor Cleophila then wanders through to the desert near Philoclea’s house reciting a poem that begins thusly:

Transformed in show, but more transformed in mind,

I cease to strive, with double conquest foiled;

For, woe is me, my powers all, I find,

With outward force and inward treason spoiled.

What marvel then I take a woman’s hue?

Since what I see, think, know, is all but you?

I don’t know that I’ve ever, in all the romances I’ve ever seen or read, encountered this argument expressed in quite this way. Tootsie might be closest thing, but the knowledge gained was really a happy side effect, not a rational imperative.

Bromance-wise, Musidorus falls in love with Philoclea’s sister Pamela, recants all his earlier claims to reason, but doesn’t follow Cleophila. Instead of trading gender he trades class and dresses up as a lowly shepherd. Cleophila saves Philoclea from a male lion, Musidorus (now Dorus) saves Pamela from a she-bear. Neither bro notices what happens to the other, so taken up are they with saving their lady loves. Book One ends there, with the bros sharply divided not just by love and class but also by gender, even down to the sexes of the beasts they kill.

In the usual formulation it’s one thing to think about someone and quite another to think as someone.  Cleophila equates the two and in so doing drastically rewrites the marital ideal of  “two-becoming-one” in which the ideal isn’t complementarity, it’s mimesis. Conversely, the minute Musidorus tells Pyrocles he would (if he were otherwise) be in danger of becoming Pygmalion, he’s gone from thinking as Pyrocles to thinking about him. Our bromance is in crisis.

In thus abandoning his bro, Pyrocles is manfully (heh) struggling to achieve, not the averaging out of usually gendered qualities that result in a common mean, but in a really concrete (and rather painfully effected) equality, with equality, here, defined as sameness. This all seems a little batty, but also sort of contemporary, no?