Mark Rylance as Olivia in Royal Shakespeare Company’s Twelfth Night (RSC)

March 1, 2023   5 mins

“A man in his natural perfection is fierce, hardy, strong in opinion, covetous of glory, desirous of knowledge, appetiting by generation to bring forth his semblable. The good nature of a woman is to be mild, timorous, tractable, benign, of sure remembrance, and shamefast.”

The diplomat Sir Thomas Elyot wrote these words in 1531 but, with a little tinkering, they could pass for the kind of rigid assertions currently gaining traction among a handful of prominent conservative commentators. Social media influencer Andrew Tate, for instance, has gained a huge online following for promoting conventional roles for men and women, equating male success to wealth, physical strength and a duty to protect a timorous and tractable wife.

It is no coincidence that such views are enjoying a resurgence at the same time that, conversely, certain Left-leaning activists are doing their utmost to advance a social constructionist view of both sex and gender. The result has been a curious theoretical alliance between gender ideologues — for whom outmoded stereotypes are taken to signify an authentic self — and traditionalists who similarly feel that male and female behaviour ought to be strictly defined.

But that Elyot’s ideas about men and women do not seem out of place is a striking reminder that we have been here before. In early 17th-century England, debates about gender proliferated, largely due to a combination of the rise of Puritanism, concerns over cross-dressing, and the accession of a king (James I) who would openly kiss his boyfriends at court. The Puritans were particularly exercised by the influence of the theatre, perceiving it as a decadent distraction from the worship of God and liable to corrupt the soul.

Most famously, the lawyer and polemicist William Prynne produced his Histrio-Mastix (1633), in which he condemned the theatre as the “chief delight of the Devil”. England was unusual in banning women from the stage and Prynne dismissed actresses as “notorious whores”. He saw the male actors in women’s attire as “an inducement to Sodomy”, an affront to scripture and natural law. As for theatregoers, they were “adulterers, adulteresses, whoremasters, whores, bawds, panders, ruffians, roarers, drunkards, prodigals, cheaters, idle, infamous, base, profane, and godless persons”. Who knew the theatre could be such fun?

Inevitably, these anxieties found their way into the work of dramatists. In John Fletcher’s Love’s Cure (c. 1612), the boy Lucio is raised as a girl to protect him from becoming the victim of a vendetta between feuding families. Lucio’s manner of speech approaches what we would now call “high camp”, and one cannot help but imagine a young Kenneth Williams in the role. Here Lucio is complaining to the family servant Bobadilla:

“Go fetch my work: this Ruffe was not well starch’d,
So tell the maid, ’t has too much blew in it,
And look you that the Partridge and the Pullen
Have clean meat, and fresh water, or my Mother
Is like to hear on’t.”

An exasperated Bobadilla exclaims to the audience: “Oh good St. Jaques help me: was there ever such an Hermaphrodite heard of?”

The premise of Fletcher’s comedy is that having been socialised as female, Lucio cannot help but embody stereotypically feminine traits. Eventually, Lucio learns how to fight and his inherent masculinity is restored through marriage. Just as the homoerotic relationship between Antonio and Sebastian in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (c.1602) is contained by the eventual marriage of the latter to Olivia, Fletcher is free to explore gender non-conformity so long as it is “fixed” by the end of the play.

This desire to ensure that sexual orientation and gendered behaviour is aligned with biological sex is similarly prominent in today’s culture wars. In her new book Time to Think, Hannah Barnes has revealed that between 80-90% of adolescents who were referred to the Tavistock paediatric gender clinic were same-sex attracted. Other writers, such as Helen Joyce, have already drawn on studies that confirm a strong correlation between gender non-conformity in youth and homosexuality in adult life. Members of the staff at the Tavistock itself joked that soon “there would be no gay people left” and whistle-blowers revealed that homophobia was endemic.

Such findings suggest that many of the achievements of feminists and gay rights activists over the last 50 years have been reversed. Heteronormative expectations and gender stereotypes are back in fashion, and young people who do not naturally fulfil these expectations appear to be the casualties. It all reminds me of an anonymous pamphlet from 1620 called Hic Mulier: Or, The Man-Woman, which sees gender non-conformity as a problem to be rectified. Women who cross-dress and embody masculine tropes are described as “an infection that emulates the plague”.

A form of reply came in a subsequent publication entitled Haec-Vir: Or, The Womanish-Man (1620), in which a feminine man and a masculine woman discuss their respective conditions.  The pamphlet takes the form of a dialogue, and their ultimate resolution is to swap their identities. Haec-Vir declares:

“We will here change our attires, as we have chang’d our minds, and with our attires, our names. I will no more be Haec-Vir, but Hic Vir, nor you Hic-Mulier, but Haec Mulier: from henceforth deformity shall pack to Hell: and if at any time he hide himself upon the earth, yet it shall be with contempt and disgrace.”

Our culture, then, is clearly not the first to develop an obsession with gender roles and how they might be subverted, although it is perhaps the first to entertain the notion that sex itself is a kind of fiction. “It’s not correct that there is such a thing as biological sex,” claims Dr Nicholas Matte of the Sexual Diversity Studies programme at the University of Toronto. For Amia Srinivasan, Oxford philosopher, sex is “a cultural thing posing as a natural one”. Such faddish ideas have trickled from the most obscure niches of academia into mainstream thought, which is why the women’s rights group Action Aid claimed that “there is no such thing as a ‘biologically female/male body’”.

It is significant that activists who insist that stereotypes of male and female behaviour are suggestive of an innate “gender identity” should also seek to deny the reality of sexual dimorphism. The view that sex is a “spectrum” has even infiltrated major academic literature, including the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. Arguably, such pseudo-scientific notions have much in common with medical discourses of the early modern period, derived in part from the theories of Galen, which saw women as defective men, a mere diversification from what Thomas Laqueur has described as “the one canonical body”. These ideas had the advantage of establishing sex as inherently hierarchical, meaning that patriarchy was not so much a philosophical proposition as a condition of natural law.

According to the prevailing view of the time, men’s genitals were external because they had been forced out by their innate heat. As Helkiah Crooke, court physician to King James I, put it in his Mikrokosmographia (1615), women’s genitals “remain within, because their dull and sluggish heat is not sufficient to thrust them out”. There is even an essay by Michel de Montaigne from 1574 (“On the power of the imagination”) in which he describes a young woman called Marie whose genitals one day emerge from her body as she takes a particularly masculine stride.

The fact that activists are returning to this notion of sex as a spectrum is a sure sign that their movement is fundamentally regressive. But such outright denial of reality is only ever likely to exacerbate the biological essentialism of conservatives who demand that boys and girls behave in their “natural” way. Nor is it persuasive to insist, in accordance with a minority of feminists, that gender is entirely socially constructed. The reality, of course, lies somewhere in between: gender is a product of a complex relationship between biological and cultural factors. This has been true since these debates started raging all those centuries ago. Today, in our new modern era, isn’t it time we moved on?

Andrew Doyle is a comedian and creator of the Twitter persona Titania McGrath