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Episode 1 The Masochistic Crossdresser and the Sadistic Governess: Creating Ladies Under D(u)ress

Arkaz Vardanyan

A Victorian woman holds a birch rod threateningly above her head as another woman in front of her leans back. A crowd of women watch
Illustration by William Adolphe Lambrecht from the French edition of The Mysteries of Verbena House, 1901.

Published in 1893, Gynecocracy encapsulates a pornographic niche in its infancy—sadomasochism with forced male-to-female crossdressing. Literary analyses of Victorian literature have eluded this text thus far in favor of a broader discourse on gender in English fiction. By using passages from the text, this podcast contextualizes Gynecocracy with historical research and applies a queer lens to the feminization of the protagonist. The text shows crossgender play as a tool for the construction of womanhood. This podcast addresses how Gynecocracy’s historical inaccuracies of the governess’s socioeconomic standing emphasize her dominance in a narrative about women’s sexual rule over men. The governess, Mademoiselle, employs psychological manipulation and corporal punishment to convert the protagonist, Julian, from a rebellious young man into a submissive worshiper of women. Instead of subverting gender norms, this podcast argues that Mademoiselle and Julian break some rules of (fe)male propriety in order to abide by the gender binary.

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Arkaz Vardanyan studies the history of human sexuality, focusing on the U.S. and Western Europe in the Late Modern Period. His passion for history intersects with his facilitation experience as he has organized and led workshops for college students and the West Hollywood transgender community. As of 2021, Arkaz works in the Los Angeles Community College District, tutoring students on their writing assignments and developing changes in academic resource programs and methods of tutoring for training and implementation. He uses this experience to create and instruct interactive new classes and facilitate recurring group meetings at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Trans Lounge, guiding discussions on histories and other academic questions of gender variance for the transgender population. Arkaz believes in maintaining accuracy and caution when interpreting the historic record while refusing to turn down the idea of seeing gender variance for what it was in the past.

Further Reading

Adams, James E. “Victorian Sexualities.” In A New Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture, 124-137. edited by Herbert F. Tucker. John Wiley & Sons, 2014.

Allen, Samantha. “Whither the Transvestite? Theorising Male-to-Female Transvestism in Feminist and Queer Theory.” Feminist Theory 15,1, 2014. pp. 51-72. doi:10.1177/1464700113515171.

Bullough, Vern L. and Bonnie Bullough. Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

Jordan, Ellen. The Women’s Movement and Women’s Employment in Nineteenth Century Britain. London: Taylor & Francis Group, 1999.

Kraftt-Ebing, R. von. Psychopathia Sexualis: With Especial Reference to Contrary Sexual Instinct; A Medico-Legal Study. Translated by F. J. Rebman. London: A. P. Watts & Co., Medical Publishers and Booksellers, 1894.

Moore, Alison. “Rethinking Gendered Perversion and Degeneration in Visions of Sadism and Masochism, 1886-1930.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 18, no. 1 (January 2009): 138-157. doi:10.1353/sex.0.0034.

Peterson, M. Jeanne. “The Victorian Governess: Status Incongruence in Family and Society.” Victorian Studies 14, no. 1 (1970): 7-26.

Poovey, Mary. Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Robinson, Julian. Gynecocracy. A Narrative of the Adventures and Psychological Experiences of Julian Robinson (afterwards Viscount Ladywood) under Petticoat-Rule, written by Himself. 1893. Reprint, Birmingham, EN: Birchgrove Press, 2011.

Sala, George Augustus, The Mysteries of Verbena House; or, Miss Bellasis Birched for Thieving [Les Mystères de la Maison de la Verveine]. French Edition, 1901.