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.
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 genre. 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 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 was created in the early 20th century by Ichizō Kobayashi Takarazuka actresses specialize in either male roles (otokoyaku) or female roles (musumeyaku), with male-role actresses receiving top billing. In contrast to kabuki's exclusion of female performers, Takarazuka introduced a theatrical performance platform where women could take the stage. However, despite this opportunity for women to embody roles that represented their sex, as well as a man's, the structure of Takarazuka still reflected the patriarchal control of Japan. The musumeyaku represented fictional recreations of women. As for the otokoyaku, their roles aimed to emulate a model man that women would desire. Jennifer Robertson asserts, “Personal or contrary motivations and desires aside, both musumeyaku and otokoyaku are the products of a masculinist imagination in their official stage roles”.
Many of the characters in Chinese Opera were performed by men; they cross-dressed to play the roles of women. A famous cross-dressing opera singer is Mei Lanfang. From the early 20th century, Yue opera is developed from all male to all female genre. Although male performers were introduced into this opera in the 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, women were forbidden from performing on stage, 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. Historian 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".
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. There was a fascination with female cross-dressers particularly (women dressed as men), who were "extremely popular" in the "Golden Age Comedia". 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. Despite the negative reactions and disapproval, it continued to remain very popular in the comedia.
In contrast to women playing men and vice versa in Spain's comedia, Japan's Takarazuka Revue Company only had female performers for both their male and female roles. Amongst the Takarasiennes, the musumeyaku and otokoyaku role distributions were determined after they graduated from the Takarazuka Music School (Takarazuka Ongaku Gakkō). The musumeyaku and otokoyaku positions of the performers were determined through an evaluation of the performers’ appearance and behavioral performance ability of a female or male. In this assessment, facial and body signifiers (e.g. jaw structure, eyebrows, height, shoulder span) were taken into consideration to determine what females would be fit for the positions. Additionally, behavioral test runs examined the voice, mannerism, and overall persona of the performers.
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. 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-sex casting for Peter Pan, continued thereafter by Maude Adams, Marilyn Miller, Eva Le Gallienne, Sandy Duncan, and Cathy Rigby, among others. 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.
Similarly, Georgy Millyar played a role of Baba Yaga, an ugly old woman with supernatural abilities in a dozen of films, including Vasilisa the Beautiful (1940) and Jack Frost (1964). He used to say that an actress does not ever allow anyone to make her that ugly, while he does.
Cross-gender acting, while not specifically making a statement about crossdressing, helped produce negative judgements and statements about those who did cross-dress in the Renaissance era. In order to maintain a hierarchy between genders, something that was prominent in the Renaissance era, there needed to be two genders that were distinct from one another, where an obvious gap in the work sphere could be identified and followed as a result of this gender distinction. Cross-gender acting disrupted gender distinction, as it was either viewed as shameful for MTF (male-to-female) acting to occur or it would give the male actor added benefits of wealth and social standing in scenarios where men would dress as females who married well-off men. It also allowed females a momentary hierarchy, putting them on equal footing to men when they played the roles of male characters. In instances where boys acted as women, it was because they were seen as objects of desire, much like women, and they were also in a subordinate position in the hierarchy scale.
In order to correctly portray the essence of a female when acting, male actors needed to get the audience to believe that they were females, and to do this, MTF actors needed the audience to desire them. Once male actors stepped into roles of women, it was feared that they would then begin to act like the typical unreasonable female identity which made it appear as though crossdressing was an undisciplined act. While troubling to some, the idea of crossdressing interlaced in MTF acting proved that gender was malleable when it came to England in the Renaissance Era. Through cross-gender acting, it has been proposed that gender is something that is changeable for anyone who desires to be of another gender at any time. It was also believed that the theater was a safe space for crossdressing to occur because it confined the act to a distinct place.
When boy actors were used to portray female characters, it was feared by those who were religious that the boys would become the women they embodied in the plays, and therefore they would transform into objects of erotic thoughts for male spectators, further turning the spectators into homosexuals. This sense of desire came from a failed attempt to represent gender category when cross-gender acting occurred. The female costume intermixed with the boy actors' bodies created a sense of confusion between knowledge and visibility and it was thought that this confusion forced male spectators to translate women's appearances to the bodies of boys. Many times Shakespeare has been criticized for inciting male spectator desire on boy-to-female characters in his plays such as As You Like It where boys played highly sexualized female characters.
In animations and video games, it is not unusual for female actors to voice young male characters. Notable examples are Nancy Cartwright voicing Bart Simpson in The Simpsons and Junko Takeuchi voicing Naruto Uzumaki in the anime series Naruto. Voice actress Tara Strong has voiced multiple young male characters such as Timmy Turner and Ben Tennyson. Instances of male actors voicing female characters have also occurred, including Bob Peterson as Roz in Monsters, Inc. and Brad Bird as Edna Mode in the Incredibles franchise.
In musical theatre, some characters have become synonymous with cross-sex acting. The musical Hairspray frequently sees a male actor portraying the female role of Edna Turnblad, whilst the role of Miss Trunchbull in Matilda the Musical is traditionally a male performer. However, whilst Edna was played by a cross cast John Travolta in the film adaptation, Miss Trunchbull in the film of Matilda was instead played by actress Emma Thompson.
When the casting director of a production decides to employ cross-sex acting, selecting the actors in this way is sometimes also called "cross-sex casting" or simply "cross-casting".
|1914||A Busy Day||Charlie Chaplin||Wife||male to female||comedic||English|
|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||dramatic||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|
|1932||The Old Dark House||Elspeth Dudgeon||Sir Roderick Femm||female to male||dramatic||English||credited as 'John Dudgeon'|
|1936||Stars on Parade||Arthur Lucan||Old Mother Riley||male to female||musical||English||The first of 17 films with Old Mother Riley|
|1936||Sathi Leelavathi||M. K. Mani||Lakshmi||male to female||dramatic||Tamil|||
|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.|
|1942||Cactus Makes Perfect||Monte Collins||Ma Stooge||male to female||comedic||English|
|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 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 Fritton||male to female||comedic||English|
|1959||The Mouse that Roared||Peter Sellers||Grand Duchess Gloriana XII||male to female||comedic||English|
|1962||Sjors en Sjimmie op het pirateneiland||Jos van der Linden||Sjimmie||female to male||dramatic||Dutch||Sjimmie is played by director Henk van der Linden's daughter in blackface.|
|1965||Sjors en Sjimmie en de gorilla||Jos van der Linden||Sjimmie||female to male||dramatic||Dutch|
|1967||Bhakta Prahlada||Roja Ramani||Prahlada||female to male||dramatic||Telugu|||
|1976−present||various||Barry Humphries||Dame Edna Everage||male to female||comedic||English|
|1977||Sjors en Sjimmie en het zwaard van Krijn||Mariska Fikkie||Sjimmie||female to male||dramatic||Dutch||credited as 'Mar Fikkie'|
|1977||Die Vorstadtkrokodile||Birgit Komanns||Kurt||female to male||dramatic||German||voice dubbed by Oliver Rohrbeck|
|1978||Monkey (Saiyūki)||Masako Natsume||Tripitaka||female to male||dramatic||Japanese|
|1979||Monty Python's Life of Brian||Terry Jones||Brian's mother||male to female||comedic||English|
|1980||The Empire Strikes Back||Marjorie Eaton||Palpatine||female to male||dramatic||English||voice dubbed by Clive Revill|
original release version only
|1981||Göta kanal eller Vem drog ur proppen?||Christer Lindarw||Queen Silvia||male to female||comedic||Swedish||Cameo|
|1981||Sopor||Margaretha Krook||Gösta Bohman||female to male||comedic||Swedish||Small role|
|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||Non-Stop Trouble with the Family||Dieter Hallervorden||Florentine||male to female||comedic||German|
|1986||Crocodile Dundee||Anne Carlisle||Gwendoline||female to male||comedy||English||The character is a male-to-female transvestite.|
|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
|1986||Haunted Honeymoon||Dom DeLuise||Aunt Kate||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|
|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||dramatic||English||Cameo|
|1991||Nothing but Trouble||John Candy||Eldona||male to female||comedic||English|
|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.|
|female to male
male to female
|dramatic||English||The character of 'Orlando' changes gender, female to male.|
|1993||The Beverly Hillbillies||Diedrich Bader||Jethrine Bodine||male to female||comedic||English||Bader also plays Jethrine's twin brother Jethro.|
|1993||Iron Monkey||Angie Tsang||Wong Fei-hung||female to male||dramatic||Cantonese|
|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|
|1996||The Nutty Professor||Eddie Murphy||Mama / Granny 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 & Jerome|
|1999||Liang Po Po The Movie||Jack Neo||Liang Po Po / Liang Xi Mei||male to female||comedic||Chinese and English||an 85 year old granny played by Singaporean filmmaker and actor Jack Neo.|
|2000||Nutty Professor II: The Klumps||Eddie Murphy||Mama / Granny Klump||male to female||comedic||English|
|2000||Kevin & Perry Go Large||Kathy Burke||Perry||female to male||comedic||English|
|2002||EvenHand||iO Tillett Wright||Toby||female to male||dramatic||English|
|2003||Girls Will Be Girls||Jack Plotnick
Varla Jean Merman
|male to female||comedic||English||All the female characters in this film were played by males.|
|2004||De duistere diamant||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||Madea||male to female||comedic||English|
|2005||Alatriste||Blanca Portillo||Emilio Bocanegra||female to male||dramatic||Spanish|
|2006||Madea's Family Reunion||Tyler Perry||Madea||male to female||comedic||English|
|2006||Black Christmas||Dean Friss||Agnes Lenz||male to female||horror||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 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||dramatic||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||Madea||male to female||comedic||English|
|2009||Horst Schlämmer – Isch kandidiere!||Hape Kerkeling||Gisela
|male to female||comedic||German|
|2009||Madea Goes to Jail||Tyler Perry||Madea||male to female||comedic||English|
|2009||St Trinian's 2: The Legend of Fritton's Gold||Rupert Everett||Miss Camilla Fritton||male to female||comedic||English|
|2011||30 Rock||Margaret Cho||Kim Jong-Il||female to male||comedic||English||Cho was nominated to an Emmy for her guest role|
|2011||Jack and Jill||Adam Sandler
|male to female||comedic||English||Sandler plays both Jack and Jill Sadelstein|
|2012||Cloud Atlas||Hugo Weaving
|male to female
male to female
female to male
female to male
|2012||Moron 5 and the Crying Lady||John Lapus
|male to female||comedic||Tagalog|
|2014||Black Butler Live Action||Ayame Goriki||Earl Kiyohara Genpu||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|||
|2014||Predestination||Sarah Snook||The Unmarried Mother||female to male||dramatic||English||The character changes gender, female to male.|
|2015||Bon Bini Holland||Jandino Asporaat||Judeska
|male to female||comedic||Dutch|
|2016−2019||Baskets||Louie Anderson||Christine Baskets||male to female||comedic||English||Emmy Award for Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series|
|2018||Suspiria||Tilda Swinton||Dr. Jozef Klemperer||female to male||dramatic||English/German||One of three roles played by Swinton in the film|
|2019||The Twentieth Century||Louis Negin
J. Israël Tarte
|male to female
male to female
female to male
|comedic||English||Film deliberately intended to come across unrealistic and dreamlike; also utilizes colour-blind casting in two other roles.|
Within Japan's Takarazuka Revue Company, their most notable feature, besides their show-stopping extravagant productions, is the role of their otokoyaku character. This is the popular male character played by trained female performers that specialize in exuding the dreamy, heroic, and graceful man of women's dreams. To further explain the role of the otokoyaku ‘male’ character, Lorie Brau contends that, "The otokoyaku does not represent a 'nama no otoko', that is to say, a 'man in the raw', but an idealized, 'beautiful' man-a man without dirt, sweat, roughness, and a need to dominate. The otokoyaku's female following see her as a version of this kind of androgynous, safe beauty rarely found in real men". Therefore, while the otokoyaku presents a male guise that is the “risoteki na dansei” (ideal man) women are attracted to, the otokoyaku also creates an admirable attraction from female fans because they embrace a type of androgynous freedom and non-constrained continuum of gender. As female performers, fans see women breaking the confines of societal female expectations, as well as embracing the femme side of the male-masculine image. However, despite this progressive multi-dimensional role of the otokoyaku, the reality of how far these interpretations could be expressed by the actual female performers was quite the opposite.
With the creation of the Takarazuka Revue Company, Ichizō Kobayashi intended to use the troupe to reinforce the patriarchal status quo of Japan by training his female performers how to be obedient women and “good wives and wise mothers”. Despite the non-conventional female position as the otokoyaku, this too played into patriarchal ideologies. Jennifer Robertson mentions, “Kobayashi theorized that by performing as men, females learned to understand and appreciate males and the masculine psyche”.