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-gender acting refers to actors or actresses portraying a character of the opposite gender. 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][2]

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 form. 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 Japanese 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.

In ancient China, nearly all the characters in Chinese Opera were performed by men, so that all the male actors, who played the role of a female were crossdressing. 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 it was illegal for women to perform in theatres,[3] 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. Academic research into the contemporary attitudes towards the practise have yielded a variety of interpretations. 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""; she also suggests that contemporary protests against the practise (believing it made young actors "effeminate") reflected "deepseated fears that the self was not stable and fixed but unstable and monstrous and infinitely malleable unless strictly controlled.[4]

Women as men as well[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.[7] 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.[8] 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-gender casting for Peter Pan, continued thereafter by Maude Adams, Marilyn Miller, Eva Le Gallienne, Sandy Duncan, and Cathy Rigby, among others.[9] 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.

Modern practice[edit]

In animations it is not unusual for female actors to voice young male characters. One example is Nancy Cartwright voicing Bart Simpson in The Simpsons. An example of a man voicing a female character is Bob Peterson as Roz in Monsters, Inc..

When the casting director of a production decides to employ cross-gender acting, selecting the actors in this way is sometimes also called "cross-gender 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 Short comedy. This short was released 7 May 1914.
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 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
1936 Stars on Parade Arthur Lucan Old Mother Riley male to female 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.
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 Millicent 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 Miss Fritton male to female comedic English
1959 The Mouse that Roared Peter Sellers Grand Duchess Gloriana XII male to female comedic English
1967 Bhakta Prahlada Roja Ramani Prahlada female to male dramatic Telugu [11]
1977 Sjors en Sjimmie en het zwaard van Krijn Mariska Fikkie Sjimmie female to male dramatic Dutch In the titles Mariska's name is abbreviated to more male sounding Mar Fikkie.
1977 Die Vorstadtkrokodile Birgit Komanns Kurt female to male dramatic German A disabled boy, Kurt, was played by Birgit Komanns, who was wheelchairbound in real life; Kurt's voice was dubbed by Oliver Rohrbeck
1978 Monkey (Saiyūki) Masako Natsume Tripitaka (Tang Sanzang) female to male dramatic Japanese Maria Warburg provided Tripitaka's voice in the dubbed, English version.[12]
1979 Monty Python's Life of Brian Terry Jones Mandy Cohen (Brian's mother) male to female comedic English
1981 Göta kanal eller Vem drog ur proppen? Christer Lindarw Queen Silvia male to female Swedish Cameo
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[13]
1986 Haunted Honeymoon Dom DeLuise Aunt Katherine "Kate" Abbot 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 Hall has a minor role, as girl trying to pick up Akeem and Semmi at a bar.
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 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.[14]
1992 Orlando Tilda Swinton Orlando female to male dramatic English Orlando is a man the first 2/3 of the film
1992 Orlando Quentin Crisp Elizabeth I male to female dramatic[15] English
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 Minor role as the High school teacher
1996 The Nutty Professor Eddie Murphy Mama Klump, Grandma 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 en Jerome
2000 Nutty Professor II: The Klumps Eddie Murphy Mama Klump, Granny Klump male to female 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 Mable "Madea" Simmons male to female comedic English
2005 Alatriste Blanca Portillo Emilio Bocanegra female to male dramatic Spanish
2006 Madea's Family Reunion Tyler Perry Mable "Madea" Simmons male to female comedic 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 Dagey 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 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 Mable "Madea" Simmons male to female comedic English
2009 Madea Goes to Jail Tyler Perry Mable "Madea" Simmons male to female comedic English
2009 St Trinian's 2: The Legend of Fritton's Gold Rupert Everett Miss Camilla Dagey Fritton male to female comedic English
2011 Jack and Jill Adam Sandler Jill Sadelstein male to female comedic English Sandler plays both Jack and Jill Sadelstein
2011 Jack and Jill David Spade Monica male to female comedic English
2012 Cloud Atlas Hugo Weaving Nurse Noakes male to female dramatic English
2012 Cloud Atlas Ben Whishaw Georgette male to female dramatic English
2012 Cloud Atlas Zhou Xun Talbot / Hotel Manager female to male dramatic English
2012 Cloud Atlas Susan Sarandon Yosouf Suleiman female to male dramatic English
2014 Black Butler Live Action Ayame Goriki Earl Kiyohara Genpu (Ciel Phantomhive) 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 [16]
2015 Bon Bini Holland Jandino Asporaat Judeska, Gerrie male to female comedic Dutch
2018 Suspiria Tilda Swinton Dr. Jozef Klemperer female to male dramatic English/German One of three roles played by Swinton in the film
2019 Dream Girl Ayushmann Khurrana Karamveer Singh male to female comedic Hindi Only in a play

Meta examples[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Huang Tingting (2016-08-17). "Peking Opera struggles to preserve tradition of male actors playing female parts". Global Times. Retrieved 2018-04-24.
  2. ^ 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). doi:10.1353/atj.2013.0008. ISSN 1527-2109. Retrieved 2018-04-24.
  3. ^ Globe Theatre Female Roles
  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. Retrieved October 21, 2012.
  5. ^ a b Watson, Brian. "Crossdressing, Crossculture: Conceptions and Perceptions of Crossdressing in Golden Age Madrid and Tudor-Stuart London": 6. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  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. ^ Watson, Brian. "Crossdressing, Crossculture: Conceptions and Perceptions of Crossdressing in Golden Age Madrid and Tudor-Stuart London": 5. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  8. ^ Steinbach, Susie L. . Understanding the Victorians. London: Routledge, 2012. 192-193. Print.
  9. ^ 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
  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. ^ "Maria Warburg". Retrieved 13 January 2012.
  13. ^ "Awards for J.L. Reate", IMDb. Retrieved 10 September 2011.
  14. ^ Hammond, Stefan; Wilkins, Mike (1996), Sex and Zen & a bullet in the head, Simon and Schuster, p. 80, ISBN 978-0-684-80341-8
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ "Allison Williams in 'Peter Pan' continues a cross-dressing tradition". Los Angeles Times. 2014-07-30. Retrieved 2019-08-29.