CHICAGO — Jill Peters’ photo series Sworn Virgins of Albania went viral last week. For the fascinating and honest portrayal of women who live their lives as men, the artist visited the mountain villages of northern Albania where she shot burneshas, or “women who have lived their lives as men for reasons related to their culture and society.” They are sworn virgins and must remain celibate or chaste for life; this is part of the oath they take to gain access to privileges normally accorded only to men. The photography project does not go into the individual lives of the burneshas, instead focusing on their masculine appearances, roles, and privileges. Curiously, this tradition looks similar though differs culturally from the hosenrolle, or women dressing as men and playing male roles in Weimar German cinema. In this post I will explore the imagery of such roles without drawing any cross-cultural conclusions. The Albanian countryside is no place for a hosenrolle, and burneshas certainly would appear out of place in German film — but women in slacks are certainly a delight to see, regardless of location or cultural context.
“The most literal and least controversial embodiment of female masculinity in Weimar popular culture involved women dressing and acting as men for the sake of theatrical or cinematic performance, a phenomenon known as ‘trouser role’ or hosenrolle,” writes Katie Sutton in her book The Masculine Women in Weimar Germany. In these roles in films such as the 1925/1926 Der Geiger von Florenz (The Violinist of Florence) in which Elisabeth Berger plays a hosenrolle. After being placed in a Swiss boarding school for bad behavior, she dresses as a boy and becomes selected as a model for a male painter; when he discovers she is actually a woman, he asks for her hand in marriage. In this instance, the potentially queer relationship is subverted, turned heterosexual and somehow ends in a normative marriage.
For the hosenrolle role, clothing is a signifier of gender implying a masculinity that would otherwise not be seen. The hosenrolle woman is accorded male privileges and protections that she couldn’t have if she was read as female in a skirt, dress or even a Marlene Dietrich-esque androgynous attire. Though the tradition of hosenrolle stretches back to the 18th century German stage, it is often times presented as “manipulative” in its execution rather than outright subversive. Yet the hosenrolle, of course, is an experience meant for the stage or the cinema.
The Albanian burneshas are not characters in a movie or a play; they are part of a fading tradition located within the Albanian countryside that exists today but, with modernization creeping in, may soon become obsolete. It leads one to wonder if, indeed, these women were lesbians or something else along the spectrum of sexuality to begin with and rather than marry a man and live a closeted life, they instead became celibate, masculine-presenting women instead. And those aren’t trouser roles that one can slip on and off — it’s a life-long commitment.