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Priscilla Ball: Prominent Sociologist, Aussie Bloke Chime in on the Origins of Cross-Dressing

With the Priscilla Ball just around the corner, many male students have been asking their amused female classmates about women’s clothes. For example, “What is the acceptable length of a short skirt?” And, “How does one match shoes with a dress?” But the far harder questions are: “Why does the Australian party involve cross-dressing?” And, “What is it with Australian men and cute frilly frocks?”

Not one to shy away from a challenge, this Harbus correspondent takes a hard look at Australian masculinity.

My first interviewee was Jayee (NJ), a sophisticated New Zealander who had strong opinions about her Aussie cousins. Jayee’s explanation surprised: “Mike, it’s quite simple, Australian men cross-dress because they are so hairy, smelly and disgusting that the closest they will ever get to a woman is to dress up as one and go to a party with their mates.”

Could it be that simple? Certainly, I hadn’t had a girlfriend since I was dumped by Katy in grade 4. Then again, there are some Australian guys at HBS who have had distinctly different luck; Oliver (OC) for example. Girls flock to him like moths to a flame. I was sure there was more to the cross-dressing fetish.

Perhaps history could tell me something. Australian census data indicates that in the early stages of Australian settlement, there were six men for every woman. This unnatural ratio arose because only a small portion of convicts were female, and sane free women weren’t inclined to live in a desolate colonial outpost.

Could cross-dressing have arisen in response to the lack of women in colonial Australia I wondered? Maybe cross-dressing is an Australian tradition? I decided to phone Granddad. After all, if cross-dressing is a tradition, he was sure to have been running around in a skirt when he was my age. There was a long pause at the end of the line.

“Michael” said Granddad, “I was worried when you decided to study in America. You are an impressionable young lad and there are no morals in America. Just look at all the pansies on American TV. It’s disgusting. Are you coming home for Christmas? I am going to give you a good boxing around the ears for asking questions like that”

Clearly, historical tradition was a dead-end.

It was time to call in the experts. I emailed a prominent sociologist at my alma mater in Australia. Surprisingly, I received a response. Her theory went something like this: “Women have increasingly appropriated traditionally male attributes as social norms have evolved. To recover their power, men must prove their masculinity through the erotic ritualized display of their bodies. Seen in this light, cross-dressing is actually a display of phallic heterosexual power, not of homoerotic pleasure. Men must go through with it to show their nerve.”

Wow. Who would have thought that cross-dressing is the result of a crisis in masculinity and represents the reclamation of patriarchal power?

Although intrigued by this off-beat analysis, I think that most of what comes out of university arts departments is garbage. This appeared to be a case in point. I was starting to get disheartened. But there was still one person I hadn’t talked too: the Aussie bloke.

The Aussie bloke has a beer gut, is always sunburned and seems to come down with a cold whenever Australia is playing England in the cricket. He often does dumb stuff, usually when drunk and usually resulting in a trip to the hospital. Australian blokes are a rare commodity at HBS. Luckily, I found Dave (NI).

“Maaaaate. Dressing up in a frock is tops. It’s always gets a laugh and the shielas love it; whenever I head down to the pub in a frilly little number I always seem to pick up.”

I couldn’t argue with him, mention Priscilla outfits and people start laughing, even if the laughs are nervous giggles. And the girls do love it; they seem to get as excited about dressing guys up and helping with make-up as they do about the release of a new single by Justin Timberlake.

Dave’s explanation is the only one that stands up, so I’ll go with it.

October 11, 2005
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