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by Archaeology Newsroom

Transvestism and the carnival

Apokries (the Carnival) marks the reversal or breakdown of social boundaries. Authority is ridiculed. People are no longer who they seem to be. In fact, they are not definable even by gender. The presence of the Arapadhes (The Blacks), the masked faces in the evening, the unusually high activity at night and its associated sense of danger also indicates a reversal of norms. The blatant sexual jokes and satirizing of sexual taboos and the danger sensed by women when walking alone at night “on such days” reflects a sense of uncontrolled sexuality — a time when order gives way to social license. A major aspect of this ritualised social chaos is the masquerading of men dressed as women and women as men. These acts of transvestism are not psychological or cultural maladjustments, but rather means whereby expressions of power and authority are voiced. Men take on the role of the fertile woman, by appropriating her socially recognised power to reproduce. Yet, in so doing their ultimate inability to reproduce is marked. It is perhaps then that the contradiction between the recognised power of female reproduction and the subordinate position of women lead ultimately to the comedy and the buffooning of the transvestite men.

Carnival as remembered by the elderly is a time of danger and laughter. It is a time of social chaos, of excess before the fast of Lent and the reestablishment of a brighter and cleaner social order with Easter. But Carnival may also create a context within which groups can express their dissatisfactions and their dissent. It may be a time when social boundaries are tested, pushed to their limits. Such I feel is the Apokria parade of the women in town. Dressed as men, these women appropriate male public status through the arrogation of male dress and confine their menfolk, in word if not in deed, to home and the caretaking of children. With the end of Apokries ends their dress and also social appropriation of male identity, but not without the lasting sense that women, too, now have “personalities”, they are more and more participating in public acts of display, and they are increasingly finding their own public voice.

Thus, transvestism, is not one act but many. It is part of a social as well as a personal statement. And even within the single ritual context of Apokries it can at different moments in time and under different social circumstances express different social and personal desires and demands.