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Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives.

Edited by Sabrina Petra Ramet (New York: Routledge, 1996. xiii plus 231 pp. $65.00/cloth $18.95/paperback).

This collection of thirteen essays explores issues of gender variety and transformation in many cultures and periods ranging from ancient Sumer to the contemporary transgender movement in the United States, setting these issues within multiple contexts: religious, ritualistic, literary, comic, mythical, practical. The authors come from departments of anthropology, literature, sociology, women's studies, international studies, and religion; none of them is in a department of history, a good example not only of history's "literary turn" but of the "historical turn" of many other fields.

Several of the essays provide excellent introductions to aspects of gender ambiguity and reversal within certain broad cultural contexts, at the same time providing those who are more familiar with these topics with a review of the most current thinking. Cynthia Ann Humes, for example, in "Becoming Male: Salvation through Gender Modification in Hinduism and Buddhism," includes summaries of basic Buddhist and Hindu beliefs and notions of gender, discussing their historical and textual development. She then examines gender reversal in both learned and popular Buddhism and Hinduism, paying special attention to devotional movements like the bhakti which offer a very different notion of gender than classical Hinduism. In "There is More than Just Women and Men: Gender Variance in North American Indian Cultures," Sabine Lang succinctly discusses the issue of her title, providing English-language readers with a summary of her long German book on the topic. Her persuasive explanation of why the word "berdache" should be rejected as a description of men who adopted a female role (based on a discussion at a 1993 conference) should certainly lead to at least minor editorial changes in any number of works. Both of these essays would provide readers at any level with entries into this field, as would Anne Bolin's even more general "Traversing Gender: Cultural Context and Gender Practices," which sets out a gender variance typology using both "traditional" and "modern Western" examples and also explores what's up at the moment in the transgendered community.

In addition to these more general articles, there are also discussions of literary representation of gender crossing - including an article by J.L. Welch on the early Christian text the Acts of Thecla, one by Winfriend Schleiner on European Renaissance literature, one by Sophie Volpp on late imperial Chinese theatre - and of examples of cross-dressing and ritualized gender crossing in specific cultures, including twentieth-century Hungarian (Laszlo Kurti), Soviet and post-Soviet Siberian (Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer), early Christian (Karen Jo Torjesen), and ancient Sumerian (Judith Ochshorn). Israel Burshatin provides a fascinating look at a sixteenth century Spanish surgeon, Eleno de Cespedes, who began life as a woman, had both husband and child, and then transformed herself into a man, complete with a wife and a surgically-assisted penis. Eleno had also originally been a slave whose mother was from Africa, and Burshatin skillfully weaves together issues of race, class, imperialism, and gender, noting that sixteenth-century commentators described a "nation of hermaphrodites" (which is how Eleno would probably be classified today) waiting to be discovered and conquered.

The words "complexity" and "variety" recur throughout the collection, with the authors noting that even in the most heterosexist and masculinist cultures, gender ambiguity and gender crossings in various directions have multiple meanings. They also note that the contemporary emphasis on the sexual aspect of gender identity is itself culture bound, that other and earlier cultures view gender much more as a social or occupational identity; thus a woman refusing to marry or a man doing women's tasks was just as transformative in certain contexts as the most complex surgical procedures today. The collection reminds one that gender as "performance" is not a new idea nor limited to Shakespeare, and it gently demonstrates, by providing numerous examples, that appreciating the comic and play elements of gender ambiguity/transformation does not mean one is trivializing a serious issue, but has often been intertwined with deep religious and symbolic elements. It also demonstrates, with one exception, that one can write about trendy topics for which there is a wealth of theoretical jargon available in clear and vivid language. (The one exception is Fitz John Porter Poole's article on androgyous beings of the Bimin-Kuskusmin of Papua New Guinea, which goes on for pages of seamless jargon in both text and notes, though it would be a fine article to give graduate students as an example of how not to write.)

Merry E. Wiesner University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Wiesner, Merry E.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1999
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