Cross-gender acting

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Mary Pickford as Cedric Errol in a lobby card for the 1921 film Little Lord Fauntleroy
In this sketch by Marguerite Martyn, the College Club of St. Louis was in rehearsal for “The Amazons,” a play by Arthur Wing Pinero, in which all the parts were played by women, April 1910.

Cross-sex acting refers to actors or actresses portraying a character of the opposite sex. It is distinct from both transgender and cross-dressing character roles.

Traditions of male-only performance cultures[edit]

Many societies prohibited women from performing on stage, so boys and men took the female roles. In the ancient Greek theatre men played females, as they did in English Renaissance theatre and continue to do in Japanese kabuki theatre (see onnagata). In Chinese opera specialized male actors who play female roles (dàn) are referred to as nándàn (男旦); the practice arose during the Qing dynasty due to imperial prohibitions against women performing on stage, considered detrimental to public morality.[1]

Kabuki actor in Japan

Japanese kabuki theatre began in the 17th century with all-female troupes performing both male and female roles. In 1629 the disrepute of kabuki performances (or of their audiences) led to the banning of women from the stage, but kabuki's great popularity inspired the formation of all-male troupes to carry on the theatrical genre. In kabuki, the portrayal of female characters by men is known as onnagata. The practice is detailed in a story of the same name by the Japanese writer, Yukio Mishima. All roles in Noh dramas are traditionally played by male actors; actors playing female roles wear feminine costumes and female-featured masks. The Takarazuka Revue is a contemporary all-female Japanese acting company, known for their elaborate productions of stage musicals. Takarazuka actresses specialize in either male or female roles, with male-role actresses receiving top billing.

Nearly all the characters in Chinese Opera were performed by men; they cross-dressed to play the roles of women. A famous cross-dressing opera singer is Mei Lanfang. From early 20th century, Yue opera is developed from all male to all female genre. Although male performers were introduced into this opera in 1950s and 1960s, today, Yue opera is still associated as the only all female opera and the second most popular opera in China.

In Renaissance England, women were forbidden from performing on stage,[2] so female roles in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporary playwrights were originally played by cross-dressing men or boys. (See also Stage Beauty.) Therefore, the original productions of the above-mentioned Shakespeare plays actually involved double-cross-dressing: male actors playing female characters disguising themselves as males.[3] Academic research into the contemporary attitudes towards the practise have yielded a variety of interpretations. Historian Laura Levine argues that "an all-male acting troupe was the natural and unremarkable product of a culture whose conception of gender was "teleologically male".[4]

Women as men[edit]

Cross-dressing in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain was frequent among actors, and the theater was at the time the most popular form of entertainment.[5] There was a fascination with female cross-dressers particularly (women dressed as men), who were "extremely popular" in the "Golden Age Comedia".[6] Male actors might play the "women dressed as men" parts. Spain eventually found this cross-dressing to be threatening to social order, and passed laws targeting female transvestites throughout the 1600s.[5] Despite the negative reactions and disapproval, it continued to remain very popular in the comedia.[5]

Theatre, operas, plays, ballets and pantomime[edit]

Katarina Karnéus as Serse in a 2009 production of Serse at the Royal Swedish Opera.

A travesti is a theatrical term referring to the portrayal of a character in an opera, play, or ballet by a performer of the opposite sex. More specifically, a theatrical or operatic role in which an actress appears in male clothing is called a "breeches role" ("pants role" or "trouser role"), and roles once performed by a male soprano castrato may instead be performed by a female mezzo-soprano or contralto.

In the late 19th century, one of the most famous actresses was Vesta Tilley, who worked in a music hall from age five well into her fifties. In the late 1890s, she was the highest paid woman in Britain. What made her so famous was her tendency to dress as a man and act out "masculine" scenes and roles.[7] Centuries before, Julie d'Aubigny, aka "La Maupin" (1670–1707), had also been famous for her breeches roles.

In 1904, Nina Boucicault originated the theatrical tradition of cross-sex casting for Peter Pan, continued thereafter by Maude Adams, Marilyn Miller, Eva Le Gallienne, Sandy Duncan, and Cathy Rigby, among others.[8] In 1954 Mary Martin portrayed the title character in the musical Peter Pan. "The boy who would never grow up" is a classic trouser role, as is Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro (by Beaumarchais).

In pantomime plays that are traditionally adaptations of fairy tales and performed around Christmastide, the role of lead male was once commonly played by a principal boy—a young, attractive, female. This practise has fallen out of favour recently, with popular male television and pop stars taking these roles. Conversely, the role of a pantomime dame, a middle aged woman played by a man in drag for comic relief, is still one of the mainstays of panto.

Similarly, Georgy Millyar played a role of Baba Yaga, an ugly old woman with supernatural abilities in a dozen of films, including Vasilisa the Beautiful (1940) and Jack Frost (1964). He used to say that an actress does not ever allow anyone to make her that ugly, while he does.[9]

Modern practice[edit]

In animations and video games, it is not unusual for female actors to voice young male characters. Notable example are Nancy Cartwright voicing Bart Simpson in The Simpsons and Junko Takeuchi voicing Naruto Uzumaki in the anime series Naruto. An example of a male actor voicing a female character is Bob Peterson as Roz in Monsters, Inc..

When the casting director of a production decides to employ cross-sex acting, selecting the actors in this way is sometimes also called "cross-sex casting" or simply "cross-casting".

In film and television[edit]

see also Cross-dressing in film and television (mainly listing characters cross-dressing in the frame of a story, rather than actors cross-dressing to portray a role of the opposite sex)
Title Actor Role Direction Role Language Note(s)
1914 A Busy Day Charlie Chaplin Wife male to female comedic English
1914 Sweedie the Swatter Wallace Beery Sweedie male to female comedic English The first of a series of Sweedie films, made between 1914 and 1916. This short was released 13 July 1914.
1920 Treasure Island Shirley Mason Jim Hawkins female to male dramatic English
1921 Little Lord Fauntleroy Mary Pickford Cedric Errol female to male dramatic English Mary Pickford starred as both Cedric Errol and Widow Errol.
1924 Peter Pan Betty Bronson Peter Pan female to male dramatic English
1932 The Old Dark House Elspeth Dudgeon Sir Roderick Femm female to male dramatic English credited as 'John Dudgeon'
1936 Stars on Parade Arthur Lucan Old Mother Riley male to female musical English The first of 17 films with Old Mother Riley
1936 Sathi Leelavathi M. K. Mani Lakshmi male to female dramatic Tamil [10]
1939 Wilton's Zoo Annie van Ees Jan Grovers (Boefje) female to male dramatic Dutch 45-year-old Annie van Ees plays the 16-year-old Boefje. She had played this role since 1922 in theatre.
1942 Cactus Makes Perfect Monte Collins Ma Stooge male to female comedic English
1949 Kind Hearts and Coronets Alec Guinness Lady Agatha D'Ascoyne male to female comedic English Alec Guinness plays eight members of the aristocratic D'Ascoyne family.
1954 The Belles of St. Trinian's Alastair Sim Headmistress Fritton male to female comedic English Alastair Sim plays both Millicent Fritton and her brother, Clarence Fritton.
1957 Blue Murder at St Trinian's Alastair Sim Headmistress Fritton male to female comedic English
1959 The Mouse that Roared Peter Sellers Grand Duchess Gloriana XII male to female comedic English
1962 Sjors en Sjimmie op het pirateneiland Jos van der Linden Sjimmie female to male dramatic Dutch Sjimmie is played by director Henk van der Linden's daughter in blackface.
1965 Sjors en Sjimmie en de gorilla Jos van der Linden Sjimmie female to male dramatic Dutch
1967 Bhakta Prahlada Roja Ramani Prahlada female to male dramatic Telugu [11]
1976−present various Barry Humphries Dame Edna Everage male to female comedic English
1977 Sjors en Sjimmie en het zwaard van Krijn Mariska Fikkie Sjimmie female to male dramatic Dutch credited as 'Mar Fikkie'
1977 Die Vorstadtkrokodile Birgit Komanns Kurt female to male dramatic German voice dubbed by Oliver Rohrbeck
1978 Monkey (Saiyūki) Masako Natsume Tripitaka female to male dramatic Japanese
1979 Monty Python's Life of Brian Terry Jones Brian's mother male to female comedic English
1980 The Empire Strikes Back Marjorie Eaton Palpatine female to male dramatic English voice dubbed by Clive Revill
original release version only
1981 Göta kanal eller Vem drog ur proppen? Christer Lindarw Queen Silvia male to female comedic Swedish Cameo
1981 Sopor Margaretha Krook Gösta Bohman female to male comedic Swedish Small role
1982 Fanny and Alexander Stina Ekblad Ismael Retzinsky female to male dramatic Swedish
1982 The Year of Living Dangerously Linda Hunt Billy Kwan female to male dramatic English Hunt won Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role
1985 Didi und die Rache der Enterbten Dieter Hallervorden Florentine male to female comedic German
1986 The Golden Child J.L. Reate The Golden Child female to male dramatic English Reate was nominated to a Young Artist Awards
for Best Young Actress[12]
1986 Haunted Honeymoon Dom DeLuise Aunt Kate male to female comedic English
1988 Hairspray Divine Edna Turnblad male to female comedic English
1988 Coming to America Arsenio Hall Extremely Ugly Girl male to female comedic English
1989 Back to the Future Part II Michael J. Fox Marlene McFly male to female comedic English Michael J. Fox plays three characters - Marty McFly,
Marty McFly Jr. and Marlene McFly.
1991 Hook Glenn Close Gutless female to male dramatic English Cameo
1991 Nothing but Trouble John Candy Eldona male to female comedic English
1992−1997 Martin Martin Lawrence Sheneneh
Mama Payne
male to female comedic English
1992 Swordsman II Brigitte Lin Invincible Asia female to male dramatic English Asia is a man who has castrated himself.[13]
1992 Orlando Tilda Swinton
Quentin Crisp
Elizabeth I
female to male
male to female
dramatic English The character of 'Orlando' changes gender, female to male.
1993 The Beverly Hillbillies Diedrich Bader Jethrine Bodine male to female comedic English Bader also plays Jethrine's twin brother Jethro.
1995 Filmpje! Paul de Leeuw Annie de Rooij male to female comedic Dutch Paul de Leeuw introduced the character of Annie de Rooij in 1992 in the third seasons of his television show De schreeuw van De Leeuw. Annie was married to Bob de Rooij, also played by Paul de Leeuw.
1996 A Very Brady Sequel RuPaul Mrs. Cummings male to female comedic English
1996 The Nutty Professor Eddie Murphy Mama / Granny Klump male to female comedic English
1999 Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo Big Boy Fluisa male to female comedic English
1999 Tyrone Coolio Cherone male to female comedic English Coolio also plays Cherone's brothers, Tyrone & Jerome
1999 Liang Po Po The Movie Jack Neo Liang Po Po / Liang Xi Mei male to female comedic Chinese and English an 85 year old granny played by Singaporean filmmaker and actor Jack Neo.
2000 Nutty Professor II: The Klumps Eddie Murphy Mama / Granny Klump male to female comedic English
2000 Kevin & Perry Go Large Kathy Burke Perry female to male comedic English
2002 EvenHand iO Tillett Wright Toby female to male dramatic English
2003 Girls Will Be Girls Jack Plotnick
Clinton Leupp
Jeffery Roberson
Evie Harris
Coco Peru
Varla Jean Merman
male to female comedic English All the female characters in this film were played by males.
2004 De duistere diamant [nl] Peter Van Den Begin Tante Sidonia male to female comedic Dutch
2004 My Nikifor Krystyna Feldman Nikifor female to male dramatic Polish Feldman won 2005 Polish Film Awards for best actress
2005 Diary of a Mad Black Woman Tyler Perry Madea male to female comedic English
2005 Alatriste Blanca Portillo Emilio Bocanegra female to male dramatic Spanish
2006 Madea's Family Reunion Tyler Perry Madea male to female comedic English
2006 Black Christmas Dean Friss Agnes Lenz male to female horror English
2007 I'm Not There Cate Blanchett Jude Quinn female to male dramatic English Jude Quinn is stylized after Bob Dylan
2007 Hairspray John Travolta Edna Turnblad male to female comedic English
2007 Norbit Eddie Murphy Rasputia male to female comedic English
2007 St Trinian's Rupert Everett Miss Camilla Fritton male to female comedic English As in the earlier St. Trinian's films, a man plays the character of the Headmistress, Miss Fritton.
2007 Negima!! Yukina Kashiwa Negi Springfield female to male dramatic Japanese Live action adaptation of the manga Negima! Magister Negi Magi. The main character, Negi Springfield, is a 10-year-old mage.
2008 Meet the Browns Tyler Perry Madea male to female comedic English
2009 Madea Goes to Jail Tyler Perry Madea male to female comedic English
2009 St Trinian's 2: The Legend of Fritton's Gold Rupert Everett Miss Camilla Fritton male to female comedic English
2011 30 Rock Margaret Cho Kim Jong-Il female to male comedic English Cho was nominated to an Emmy for her guest role
2011 Jack and Jill Adam Sandler
David Spade
Jill Sadelstein
male to female comedic English Sandler plays both Jack and Jill Sadelstein
2012 Cloud Atlas Hugo Weaving
Ben Whishaw
Zhou Xun
Susan Sarandon
Nurse Noakes
Yosouf Suleiman
male to female
male to female
female to male
female to male
dramatic English
2014 Black Butler Live Action Ayame Goriki Earl Kiyohara Genpu female to male dramatic Japanese
2014 Mrs. Brown's Boys D'Movie Brendan O'Carroll Agnes Brown male to female comedic English
2014 Peter Pan Live! Allison Williams Peter Pan female to male dramatic English [15]
2014 Predestination Sarah Snook The Unmarried Mother female to male dramatic English The character changes gender, female to male.
2015 Bon Bini Holland Jandino Asporaat Judeska, Gerrie male to female comedic Dutch
2016−2019 Baskets Louie Anderson Christine Baskets male to female comedic English Emmy Award for Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series
2018 Suspiria Tilda Swinton Dr. Jozef Klemperer female to male dramatic English/German One of three roles played by Swinton in the film
2019 The Twentieth Century Louis Negin
Emmanuel Schwartz
Annie St-Pierre
Lady Violet
J. Israël Tarte
male to female
male to female
female to male
comedic English Film deliberately intended to come across unrealistic and dreamlike; also utilizes colour-blind casting in two other roles.

Meta examples[edit]

Video Game examples[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Guanda Wu (2013). "Should Nandan Be Abolished? The Debate over Female Impersonation in Early Republican China and Its Underlying Cultural Logic". Asian Theatre Journal. 30 (1): 189–206. CiteSeerX doi:10.1353/atj.2013.0008. ISSN 1527-2109. S2CID 161652350.
  2. ^ Globe Theatre Female Roles
  3. ^ Maclennan, Ian Burns (1994). "If I were a woman": A study of the boy player in the Elizabethan public theatre (PhD thesis).
  4. ^ Howard, Jean E. (1988). "Crossdressing, The Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England" (PDF). Shakespeare Quarterly. 39 (4): 419. doi:10.2307/2870706. JSTOR 2870706. Retrieved October 21, 2012.
  5. ^ a b c Watson, Brian. Crossdressing, Crossculture: Conceptions and Perceptions of Crossdressing in Golden Age Madrid and Tudor-Stuart London (Thesis). p. 5-6.
  6. ^ Seagraves, Rosie (August 2013). "SHE AS HE: CROSS-DRESSING, THEATER, AND "IN-BETWEENS" IN EARLY MODERN SPAIN": 1. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  7. ^ Steinbach, Susie L. . Understanding the Victorians. London: Routledge, 2012. 192-193. Print.
  8. ^ Pilkington, Angel M. "Peter Pan: Myth and Fantasy", Archived 2009-01-08 at the Wayback Machine Midsummer Magazine, 2000, reprinted at the Utah Shakespearean Festival website, 2007
  9. ^ Актеры советского и российского кино (Actors of Soviet and Russian cinema) (in Russian)
  10. ^ Sathi Leelavathi (PDF) (press book). Coimbatore: Manorama Films. 1936.
  11. ^ "Yesteryear Telugu diva recalls unexpected film debut 50 yrs ago". Manorama Online. October 1, 2018. Retrieved 2019-08-29.
  12. ^ "Awards for J.L. Reate", IMDb. Retrieved 10 September 2011.
  13. ^ Hammond, Stefan; Wilkins, Mike (1996), Sex and Zen & a bullet in the head, Simon and Schuster, p. 80, ISBN 978-0-684-80341-8
  14. ^ Orlando is a drama film and the film's press kit reads "[The director's] research has shown that Crisp's portrayal of Queen Elizabeth may be more than simply an interesting political or comic move", Press kit, Retrieved 12 September 2011.
  15. ^ "Allison Williams in 'Peter Pan' continues a cross-dressing tradition". Los Angeles Times. 2014-07-30. Retrieved 2019-08-29.