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Mapping the site of the gendered body in Potter's Orlando (1992)

by Helena Young

Polyphony, Volume 2, Issue 1

First published April 2020, Manchester



(Title reference: see note 1).

Over the past few years, transgenderism has been brought to the forefront of societal debate, as we begin to recognise the internal destruction that can be caused by external perceptions. Tilda Swinton is a prominent figure in the study of gender theory, thanks in part to her self-described gender fluidity in personal and professional contexts. In Sally Potter’s Orlando, a 1996 adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same name, Swinton plays the part of a man who one day awakens in a woman’s body, questioning themes of gender, sexuality, and identity. This paper, as a response to the critical analysis of Anne Ciecko, aims to investigate these themes, specifically in terms of transgenderism. I will argue that Orlando attempts to locate themselves within a community that refuses to recognise them, to the conclusion that the protagonist’s eventual identity is deliberately ambiguous, in a presentation of gender that rejects the claustrophobic category of ‘androgny’.


Judith Butler (1988) defined gender as an external construct, affirming that `being a man [or] woman’ is not necessarily `an internal reality’, an interpretation which here questions the origin and thus formation of our gendered identities (see note 2). Self-discovery is a theme often prevalent within the literary canon, and indeed, one referenced within the titular quote. Ciecko utilises the verb `maps’ to suggest an interesting connotation concerning the location of oneself amongst the, arguably polar, gendered tropes of masculine or feminine. Orlando (Potter, 1992) (see note 3) posits a character who associates with both categories, and thus arguably, fits within neither. Their ever-changing location, whether geographical, temporal or sexed, is made tangible through the visual artform of film, with Potter utilising mise en scene to establish Orlando’s position within the gendered spectrum. In this essay, I shall examine the presentation of gender in Orlando through Butler’s claim, arguing that as Orlando discovers various gendered roles, or `site[s]’ as Ciecko alludes, Butler’s argument becomes complicated. Orlando’s distress stems from their inability to distinguish their individual character from the engendering of social influence. Orlando depicts not the protagonist’s rejection of the external, but their attempts to align the latter with Butler’s dismissed ‘internal reality’. Orlando’s structure divides his tale into two distinct sections. The first comprises of Orlando within his male body; the second within the female. Thus, its narrative turning point is established as the character’s moment of physical transition, a crucial event, and one Potter has clearly carefully designed. Orlando’s transformation is an extremely intimate scene between the audience and subject, smartly crafted by Potter’s mise-en-scene. Aesthetically, the scene is entrancing to watch, with an almost sacred tone. The shots are lingering and accompanied by an angelic non-diegetic choir. Potter evokes religious imagery as Orlando splashes water over themselves in a form of self-baptism, signifying their new form and entry into the feminine world. This is combined with cinematographer Aleksei Rodionov’s chiaroscuro technique of lighting, evoking the extreme tonal contrasts between light and dark specific to renaissance art, and thus bestowing a reverential and ritualistic tone. In doing so, Potter’s depiction of sexual reassignment redresses the process as a fantastical occurrence, and consequently, Orlando shows no visible sign of distress to find their body suddenly and distinctly altered, their subtle smirk indicating only satisfaction with their newfound form. Framing this event against the film in its entirety, illuminates exactly why its substance is so paramount. As Orlando leaves behind their wig and garments, they are laid bare, and in their nakedness we find a purity of access to Orlando’s identity unadulterated by the accessories and objects that may have previously cloaked the truth. The naturality of the scene’s content is thus formed by the removal of other, significant features within the medium of film: furniture, props, costume - the scene could almost defined by what it lacks, rather than what it contains. Munich (2011) presents her view that costume design is `visual signs in attire’, which presents both ‘strangeness and familiarity’ (see note 4). Indeed, the costume of Orlando is a cryptex of visual cues concerning their social status, cultural influences, and of course, gender. Change in Orlando’s sex, by social convention, requires a change in their attire. Potter makes this clear, with a quick cut following the moment of change taking us to a decidedly juxtaposing set up to the former’s warmth. Whilst remaining within Orlando’s bedroom, here, a use of backlighting dulls the vibrancy of the previous scene. The music is silenced, and the camera is locked firmly into a wide-angle lens. Orlando is all in shadow, and surrounded en masse by a sea of female extras, who bind the protagonist tightly by the physical constraint of their costume: the corset. As a distinctly feminine accessory, Potter here uses the corset as a metaphor for the injustice Orlando will face as a woman. As Aspinall (2012) claimed, the corset’s method of regulation is `the ultimate symbol’ for `female oppression’ (see note 5). Nonetheless, as Orlando themselves states, `same person. Just a different sex’. With the unique experience of having been male, and having once enjoyed their now restricted freedoms, a corset is made similarly binding to Orlando’s previous male status, suggesting a closure to that life, an inaccessibility to the freedom he once experienced. We can thus clearly understand the role of props and costume, and their importance in forming Ciecko’s `map’. The external artefacts that pervade Orlando’s home and even decorate their body begin to represent traits of their personality, or at least, their gendered persona. These are then appropriated to contextualise the protagonist’s character, by both Orlando’s peers, and the audience ourselves. Darker colours are used for Orlando’s masculine wardrobe, whist feminine costumes are pastel-shaded. Orlando’s peers move from the powerful male figures of military and literature, to lowly feminine subjects or solitude, representing her entry into the inhabited female space. Each engendered signal is, thanks to its habitat within our social subconscious, barely noticeable. These artefacts are of course, extensions of their surrounding environments, and thus setting plays a crucial role within Orlando's narrative structure. Each `act’ transpires within a different temporal period, moving swiftly from the Elizabethan reign, to the Georgian and Victorian eras, to contemporary London. This historical evolution allows for plenty of recognisable figures and events, cleverly interwoven into Orlando’s life, such as the depiction of Queen Elizabeth I, played by famed queer figure Quentin Crisp. As an audience, we are thus given a period with which to date Orlando, to contextualise his actions and establish his social position. The fact that Potter chooses such an established figure as Elizabeth I to be played by a male actor, and similarly the female Tilda Swinton to take the role of our male protagonist, gives us some indication that Orlando’s world is not a wholly traditional environment. However, certain symbols pertaining to Orlando’s character remain a consistent presence throughout the majority of their tale. Most notably, their estate, and its lavish contents. The introduction of this stately home within the first act is a crucial design by Potter which enables audiences to find some grounding within the film’s narrative, associating Orlando with a birthplace, a source. As a domestic space, we would assume that Orlando would find some comfort and privacy within its familiar walls, however, as the film progresses, we begin to associate these with confinement, and claustrophobia. Orlando’s attempt to discover their true self, unaffected by the artefacts surrounding them, coincide with their experiences outside of the home, and yet always culminate with their failed return; for example, Orlando’s brief romance with Sasha. As the former becomes besotted with the latter, their differing backgrounds seem irrelevant to their relationship. And yet once Orlando introduces Sasha to their home, the disparity between their cultural ideologies begins to rear itself. Sasha’s declaration that ‘when ice breaks, we must go’ signals her desire for liberty and self-government. Orlando’s opposing insistence that ‘this happiness will end’, meanwhile, signals the couple’s romantic inequality. By enforcing a deadline upon his contentment, Orlando seems focused on a fixed positioning, submitting to his fate and organising themselves based upon outside limitations. ‘Yes, we are together’ he states, ‘but what about tomorrow?’ Determined to pinpoint his emotional position, Orlando’s inability to relocate, both literally and metaphorically, means that his character becomes synonymous with his possessions. We may then come to think of Orlando’s acquisition of a woman’s body as the acquisition of a new possession - of a woman’s body as a kind of restriction upon Orlando’s self. Certainly, throughout literature, the feminine form has historically been ‘idealised, objectified and fetishized’ (see note 6). Orlando’s experiences within their second form differ greatly to their first. Nichter and Bordo (1993) assert that historically the body has been constructed as ‘something apart from the true self’, clarifying this ‘true’ self to be defined as abstract conceptions such as the soul, the mind and one’s will (see note 7). They note that whilst males often ‘cast’ themselves as this self, as ‘the One, the All, the Absolute Spirit’, women are instead given the role of the body, associating them with ‘seduction’, ‘sexual desire’ and age. Orlando’s transformation forces a rich, young male, and self-described writer, into the role of someone who is without a voice, and thus someone who has experienced only privilege within their particular social class discovers the trials and tribulations that women historically underwent. Perhaps this is explanation for the distress Orlando appears to encounter. Whilst perfectly happy within the body of a woman, it is only once having been subjected to the regulations imposed upon women, such as Alexander Pope ascribing writing to be ‘a proper occupation for a man’ that Orlando begins to show dissatisfaction with their body, or rather, how that body is treated. As Orlando’s early feminine identifiers such as dresses and make-up were introduced, suggesting an attempt to conform, we see Orlando begin to reclaim her earlier ‘masculine’ characteristics. Orlando’s agency still only extends so far - she first experiments through orality, voicing the hypothetical ‘if I were a man’, beginning to introduce the abstraction into something concrete, and physical. By the film’s final act, however, Orlando displays both long, womanly hairstyle, and newfound maternal influence as a mother. This, alongside a leathered, male-orientated jacket, and obnoxiously loud motorcycle. Once again, their sartorial choices are illustrating the internal through external expression. We thus come to the heart of Orlando: the duality of masculine and feminine that exists within its protagonist. Potter chooses to include scenes of Orlando first dressing as a male, and later as a female, near identically directed. Close ups focus upon sections of Orlando’s body, deconstructing each separate item so as to break down the clothing process into a ritual, removing its contextual surroundings, and thus exposing the oddity of each step. She thus links the two via an allusion to her own work, and successfully affiliates both scenes in such a way that the rituals become muddled. We see the familiarities between the two and their abject separation, introducing the concept of androgyny. Butler (1988) expounds her original definition of gender further by a similar path (see note 8). She argues that outside forces are only implemented fully upon the subject through repetition, as she describes ‘the act that one does, the act that one performs’ to be ‘an act that’s been going on before one arrived on the scene’. Humanity’s adorning of itself in supposedly opposing uniforms, dependent upon the gender they are perceived to be, is what has led to a traditionalization of gender roles. It is what has led to an ingrained image of the titular ‘real’ woman Ciecko refers to; the physical manifestation of a societal belief. Orlando’s ultimate combination of masculine and feminine attributes appears to be an attempt to place themselves within the centre of the gendered spectrum. Indeed, Pamela Caughie (1991) attests that ‘many feminists have appropriated [androgyny]’, concluding, ‘they want to know who they are’, to ‘distinguish’ male from female, as if androgyny is some definitive mid-point between male and female (see note 9). Orlando’s search to locate themselves appears to lead to an androgynous self-styling. However, we must be careful to note that as they embrace both masculine and feminine facets, the protagonist does not manipulate a perfect balance between the two genders. Orlando's final image is that of Orlando, seated in the grounds of the very home that once trapped them, whilst a voice, sung in an angelic high falsetto, stipulates they are, ‘neither a man nor a woman’. This is a deliberate rejection of Ciecko’s ‘map’, as after detailing the features of femininity and masculinity, Potter takes us to uncharted territory. Orlando must no longer fulfil a certain requirement, is no longer wearing the clothes we recognise or living in the house we associate them with – they have flipped the formula, and rather than allowing outsiders to manipulate the internal via the external, have recrafted the latter to comply with their internal sense of self. The immediate regimentation that Orlando is subjected to following their transition critiques the claustrophobia of implemented gender roles, and the notion that change in sex-specific organs requires a change in behaviour and identity. Indeed, Orlando depicts the obsessive attempts by characters to locate and classify the protagonist’s gender, whether through sartorial, behavioural or legal means. I would argue however, that Orlando’s freedom from these labels does not come from an androgynous combination of both masculine and feminine external identifiers. We may, like Ciecko, choose to believe that Potter finishes her film by ‘transforming Orlando into [a] woman’ by the film’s climax, pointing to their long hair and more feminine signifiers. We may instead choose to describe them as non-binary, pointing to the introduction of more male characteristics. The sole certainty by the end of the film, however, is the somewhat paradoxical truth that Orlando has become impossible to locate. In this sense, Potter’s ‘map’ is knowingly incorrect, its engrained signifiers we use to perpetuate gender stereotypes are held up for audiences to be deconstructed and ridiculed. As the editor suggests a few alterations to alter Orlando’s story, and she delivers an unamused glower to the camera, Potter’s final message is clear: whatever we perceive Orlando to be, only they, in their newfound agency, may decide their truth.



1: A. Ciecko ‘Transgender, Transgenre, and the Transnational: Sally Potter’s Orlando’, 1996: 19).

2: J. Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism And The Subversion Of Identity, 1st edn (Routledge, 1990), p. 15.

3: S. Potter, Orlando, (United Kingdom, France, Russia, Italy, Netherlands: Sony Pictures Classic, 1992).

4: A. Munich, Fashion In Film, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2011), p.~3.

5: H. Aspinall "The Fetishization And Objectification Of The Female Body In Victorian Culture", Brightonline, 1 (2012) [Accessed 7 March 2018]

6: Ibid.

7: M. Nichter and S. Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture And The Body, Contemporary Sociology, 24 (1995), p.~42.

8: J. Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism And The Subversion Of Identity, 1st edn (Routledge, 1990), p.~15.

9: P. Caughie, Virginia Woolf And Postmodernism, 1st edn (Chicago: Loyola, 1991), p.~4.

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