Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Before Binary: A History of Ideas about Sex and Gender

Thomas Laqueur. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Harvard University Press, 1990.

This week’s book recommendation isn’t the usual book about singing or opera, but instead a look at the history of ideas about gender and sex. It’s easy (as far too many people do) to think that our current ideas about gender are the same ones people have always had. Laqueur provides ample examples to prove that this is just not the case. 

This is especially relevant to opera, not only because we currently have more people openly identifying as trans and non-binary, but because there is a long history in opera of castrati playing both men and women (and on occasion abstract concepts like “Music”), but also women playing boys and men (not just the commonly cited example of adolescents like Cherubino and Octavian, but also heroic male leads like Tancredi. In addition, there are traditions of men playing women, often for comic effect (the stepsisters in various incarnations of Cinderella, for example) but not always (as in the 17th century Venetian tradition of tenors playing nurses. 

This is, therefore, a relevant and timely topic for opera singers, directors and producers to consider. This is also the book I find myself recommending the most. (Especially to those who insist that gender is strictly binary.) Below are some quotes from the book and summaries of its contents. These are from notes I took for a still-unfinished research project.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed below are neither mine nor Laqueur’s but are interesting in terms of many sexist attitudes and concepts that persist into the post-modern world. 

It might seem perfectly obvious to us that men are different than women but the construction of how those differences are defined and described is not consistent across history. (p. vii)

Galen in the 2nd century AD described women as essentially men in whom a lack of vital heat resulted in “retention.  Their bodies were like men’s only with some organs on the inside rather than the outside.  This view persisted in western though for hundreds of years. (p. 4)

Doctors well into the Renaissance continued to believe in “the humors”.  The humors existed on axes of hot/cold and wet/dry.  Imbalances were believed to cause disease. (p. 112)

Stories of women spontaneously sprouting a penis and becoming men exist in the medical literature of the 16th century.  Note: none of these stories involve women becoming men. (p. 123)

In Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, he expresses anxiety that a man who spent too much time around women could become like them.  And vice versa.  Music according to Castiglione’s misogynist Lord Gasper is a hobby for women which is effeminizing for men. (p. 124)

Henrika Schuria in 17th century Holland was “a woman of masculine demeanor who had grown weary of her sex”. She dressed as a man, enlisted in the army, and successfully passed in the masculine role she was caught in the act of taking the man’s part in sexual intercourse. (p. 137)

Michel de Montaigne tells in his Travel Journal of a group of girls in Chaumont-en-Bassigni who dressed as males.  One of them came to Vitry where he worked and lived and even became engaged to a woman.  They fell out but he then married another woman.  Montaigne consistently uses to third person pronoun to refer to this person as the gender presented at that moment in the story.  (p. 139)

Paolo Zacchia in his Questionum medio-legalium, a major Renaissance medical-jurisprudential text, claims that women can turn into men but not vice versa because there is no room inside a man for a penis to invert into the female organs. He also argues that nature trends toward the more perfect (the perfect being male).  (p. 141)

These antiquated ideas about the single-sex model of the body as well as stories of women becoming men, women giving birth to rabbits and monsters and all sorts of nonsense persisted in popular lore long after those practicing medicine and science had moved on from them. Books like Aristotle’s Masterpiece and Nicholas Venette’s The Art of Conjugal Love perpetuated these myths and legends. (p. 151)

The concept of sex as fixed and polarizing only becomes popularized in the public sphere in the 18th century and especially in the post-revolutionary 19th century.  (Note: this is the era in which the last castrati retire from the stage and opera moves from opera seria to grand opera and character types become associated with specific voice types.) (p. 152)

There is much more, of course. It makes for fascinating reading, especially at a time when gender is such a hot topic. People insisting that their limited understanding of this topic has always been the standard model are simply wrong. (And the claim that their binary model is scientific is just laughable.) There’s much here worth discussing, since this is significant in every era of opera from travesti roles to castrati to 21st century trans singers cast in leading roles. None of this is as new as some would have us think. I would put this on the required reading list for everyone (whether they are involved in opera or not)!