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Cross-Dressing and Identity in Understanding Rhetoric

posted: 9.30.13 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

Recently I was honored to be invited by media scholar Henry Jenkins to speak to his graduate class on Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice about Understanding Rhetoric.

Jenkins wanted his students to hear both about making rhetorical theory more accessible to a broader public and also about using visual arguments—specifically comics—as a means for scholarly communication.  Jenkins also assigned a more traditional academic essay that Jonathan and I had published in 2010 in the Routledge collection LGBT Identity and Online New Media focusing on “coming-out” stories on YouTube. In this way, course participants could discuss the contrast between the comics form and the form of the conventional academic article and how our pedagogical personae might be perceived differently as a result.


One of the discussions during the Q&A with this lively group of sophisticated students involved  places in the book in which characters appear in the clothing traditionally associated with opposite gender roles.  Jonathan and I use the clothing metaphor throughout the book as a way to think about what literacy theorist James Paul Gee calls the “identity kit” of discourse.  In our own teaching we have found discussions of fashion, costumes, disguises, uniforms, and regalia to be very productive with our students, who can often relate to personal decisions about different strategies of dress more easily than they can more abstract notions of intellectualized and disembodied rhetoric.


Dressing men as women and women as men has a long history in our culture. One of my own undergraduate professors, Marjorie Garber, wrote Vested Interests, a very well-known book about cross-dressing in Shakespeare’s plays.  Many popular films feature stories that have the protagonist adopt unconventional clothing as part of pursuing a quest, following the pattern of “the hero’s journey” popularized by Joseph Campbell.  Even superheroes in very traditional comics have been known to cross-dress, as in the case of pipe-smoking investigator Richard Stanton who adopts the identity of Madame Fatal or Captain America dodging the Nazis dressed as a matronly grandmother.

Jenkins noted that students often don “academic drag” in their writing to test out unfamiliar identities as they explore different kinds of authorship and try to figure out how to signal their presence as interpreters of evidence to promote their own credibility as authority figures.

Of course, Jonathan and I are well aware that picturing this kind of roleplay comes with certain rhetorical risks.  Depicting difference in comics can be dangerous when the nuance gets lost.  In representing race and gender in this book—while working with the artists, editors, and reviewers at Bedford—we often found ourselves revising the material to appear in the frame.

To help present these segments of Understanding Rhetoric as teachable moments, you might try these in-class exercises about the function of dress that can deepen discussion:

  1. Choose a Hollywood movie (Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, Victor Victoria, Some Like it Hot, Yentl, etc.) in which a male character impersonates a female character or vice versa.  Ask students to look beyond merely analyzing how this deception operates to complicate the plot to focus on how adopting a different gender identity also can allow new ideas to be expressed or performed.  How do such characters speak and write and view the world differently? How does the rhetorical situation change when they switch back or when the deception is revealed? Are there places in Understanding Rhetoric where the clothing that characters put on alters their identity or rhetorical effect? 
  2. In the movie Helvetica, adopting a particular typeface is equated with choosing clothing, on the theory that a font can express what we would call logos, ethos, and pathos much as clothes on the street communicate information about the wearer’s rhetorical intentions.  What do students’ own choices about the way they present their writing say about their public personae? What statements do the type choices in Understanding Rhetoric  make? 

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