Posted by: Lily DeBenedictis | November 13, 2018

Invisibility in “Passing”


The relationship that Cullwick and Munby had is quite the enigma. There are so many facets to speak to and discus. However, one of the most fascinating is about the identity of Hannah Cullwick, or rather I should say the non-identity of Hannah.

Munby and Cullwick’s relationship hid Hannah from society due to her lower status and her instance on always being a servant. Her invisibility relies on this relationship as well. Munby’s fascination with the working-class female body was provided a platform through Cullwick’s form. At his request, she masqueraded her own identity behind the labels of male, female, servant, clean and dirty.


Today, there is a term that the trans community uses which is called “passing. It means that the person is able to “pass” as the gender that they wish to be. This term is problematic in it of itself as it promotes acceptance of a particular standard of beauty and normalizes trans people and the trans experience. Sometimes, people who identify as trans do not want to pass because they do not want to buy into this perception of what is male and what is female.


In these images, Hannah seems to “pass” as male or female in accordance with what society at large understands as such. According to her diaries, Hannah frequently dressed as a male and walked through the streets with Munby with no one the wiser that she costumed. Able to pass as easily as a lady of the house, as a male of status or as a dirty servant cleaning the floors, Hannah slid the scale of social mobility at a time when social. This ability to pass social boundaries is a unique one and addresses this idea of normalizing what the male figure or the female figure is supposed to look like.


While dressing in these different personas, we as the consumers of these images, begin to lose Hannah as an individual. Who was she really? Who is the woman under the costume? To this effect, we can’t really begin to explore the woman under the disguises to more of an extent to what her diaries say. However, what we can explore is this lack of identity. In this course, we have been fascinated by the idea of identity and how a portrait, photograph or advertisement can come to identify an individual, an archetype or a particular market of people interested in a product. This idea has been flipped on its head. Instead of giving the consumer a clearer vision of “who is Hannah” it confuses the viewer and causes us to ask more questions of the subject.


What is important to remember here is that we were never meant to consume these photos in the way that they are being on display now. These were private images were intended only for the visual pleasure of Cullwick and Munby. The interpretation that I have offered here is only one in hundreds who have speculated over these images. Thinking about these images today, there is something so contradictory, confusing yet wonderful and speculative about them which makes them frustrating and fascinating to study.


Works Cited:
Mavor, Carol. Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs. I.B. Tauris, 1995.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: