Friday 9 September 2011

Cross Dressing History Girls

by Caroline Lawrence

Blackadder and "Bob"
Come on. Admit it.

You’ve all thought about doing it.

And some of you actually have done it once or twice, haven’t you?

In at least one of your historical novels you’ve dressed a girl as a boy or – less commonly – a boy as a girl. (Or in the case of one History Girl, a man pretending to be a male impersonator dressed up as a woman.) My guess is that at least half the History Girls who write for this blog have a cross-dressing protagonist somewhere in our books.

Here is just a quick random sampling of cross-dressing in novels by some of us History Girls. (I asked for contributions and hope I've avoided mentioning any that might be considered "spoilers".)

Grace as Dick
In Mary Hoffman's Troubadour, Elinor dresses as a boy to escape a loveless marriage and seek out the man of her dreams. Way back in 1994, Mary wrote Amazing Grace about a girl named Grace who loves to play the boys' parts in pantomimes.

Marie-Louise Jensen’s forthcoming book, The Girl in the Mask, features a girl who dresses as a boy by night in order to enjoy freedoms she is denied as an upper-class girl, including highway robbery.

In The Remarkable Life and Times of Eliza Rose, Mary Hooper dresses Eliza and her pal Nell Gwyn as boys so they can attend a royal entertainment at Foxhall Gardens.

Celia Rees has cross-dressing characters in not one but two of her novels: Sovay and Pirates!

Eve Edwards’ feisty heroine Cat Royal dresses as a boy in several of her adventures, too, but especially in Cat Among the Pigeons where she has to hide out in Westminster Boys School!

Halo is a girl
Louisa Young and her daughter Isabel, writing as Zizou Corder, have just given us Halo, an ancient Greek girl brought up by Centaurs, who has plenty of adventures disguised as a boy.

Teodora Gasperin in Michelle Lovric’s The Mourning Emporium, disguises herself as boy for the first half so that she can become a sailor on the Scilla, Venice’s floating orphanage.

Eleanor Updale is the one with the man dressed up as a man dressed up as a woman in her book, Montmorency's Revenge.

And I might be the worst offender of the lot. Not only do Flavia Gemina and her sidekick Nubia dress as boys in various of my own Roman Mysteries but The Scribes from Alexandria and The Fugitive from Corinth also feature major characters who are cross-dressers.

Cross-dressing is an especially popular theme in comic drama, e.g Plautus, Shakespeare & Molière, and also in historical fiction (e.g. Georgette Heyer & Geoffrey Trease). But I'm going to take you to a new place, one you might never have visited before.

TV Tropes is a fascinating cult fiction site which identifies themes and devices (don't call them clichés) common in popular films, TV, books, myth and especially Manga.
A Funny Thing...

Here are some of the subcategories of Cross-Dressing on TV Tropes:

Creepy Crossdresser - usually a "he" and mainly used for creep factor - e.g. Psycho's Norman Bates; Silence of the Lamb's Buffalo Bill; The Big Bad Wolf

Wholesome Crossdresser - an attractive boy or girl dresses as the opposite sex for sensible reasons: to solve a mystery or escape detection. - e.g. Famous Five's George, LOTR's Eowyn, Boy2Girl by Terence Blacker, and many more.

Those are the two main categories. Here are some sub-categories. 

Disguised in Drag - a man dressed as a woman for purpose of disguise - e.g. Achilles on isle of Scyros; Some Like it Hot's Joe and Jerry; Tootsie;
Hysterium in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (above right)
a distaff counterpart

Distaff Counterpart - a female version of a male hero
e.g. Supergirl; She-Hulk; Batgirl; Toy Story's Jesse, etc.

Harmless Lady Disguise - man wants to become invisible so dresses as lady
e.g. The Scarlet Pimpernel, Willow's Madmartigan, Sherlock Holmes, etc.

Hermaphrodite - someone who feels equally male/female and who may have the sexual organs of both - e.g. Hermaphroditus child of Hermes and Aphrodite; Middlesex; everyone on the planet in Ursula LeGuinn's The Left Hand of Darkness

Transsexual - a person who changes gender to feel more themselves - e.g. Tiresias the blind prophet of Thebes, Boys Don't Cry, Tom from the Cement Garden, Orlando, etc.

Attractive Bent Gender - a boy is very attractive when dressed as a girl & vice versa
e.g. My hero/heroine P.K. Pinkerton in The Western Mysteries; Billy Krudup in Stage Beauty, Boys Don't Cry, etc.

Bokukko - in Japanese, a girl who refers to herself with masculine pronouns - e.g. mainly from Manga, like Takatsuki Yoshino (right) the girl who wants to be a boy

Tomboy - we all know this one: the girl who likes action and doesn't feel particularly "feminine" - TV Tropes excel themselves by listing subcategories of Tomboy such as the Cute Bruiser, the Faux Action Girl and the Badass Bookworm, who is often a "Stealth Tomboy".

Sweet Polly Oliver - a female who dresses as a boy for a specific reason
(the folk song's Sweet Polly Oliver disguises herself as soldier to follow her lover)
half Irish/half Apache
e.g. "Bob" from Blackadder (pictured at top of blog), Yentl, Mulan & lots of History Girls' heroines.

Why do we History Girls love cross-dressers? Is it because we want female protagonists but know that in almost every era except our own, females led pretty boring lives?

Or is there something deeper going on?

I've only blogged briefly, mainly to introduce you to the wacky world of TV Tropes, (and beware, this site is addictive), but I would love to hear why other History Girls like cross-dressing. If you want to blog in more depth about this, pop in the key word CROSS-DRESSING and we'll see if we can get a discussion going. 


Katherine Roberts said...

What a fun post!

Reading this, I just remembered a cross-dresser of my own... Charmeia, the girl who grooms Bucephalas in "I am the Great Horse", pretends to be a boy so she can travel with Alexander's army. But she can't keep it up - once she gets older and grows breasts, she's quickly found out.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Great post, Caroline! Years ago, my daughter enjoyed a Medieval fantasy series called the Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce where the girl dressed as a boy so that she could train to become a knight.

In cultures where girls are so restricted, it makes sense that girls would dress as boys in order to experience more power and freedoms.

catdownunder said...

In more recent history there is a book called "The Runaway" by Ruth Morris - very loosely based on the author's own time roaming outback Queensland in the earlier part of the 20thC.
It is a lovely idea for escaping!

Jon M said...

I love TV Tropes. It has a language all of its own! From a practical point of view, women's fashion from some historical periods would make movement beyond a stately stroll nigh-on impossible!

H.M. Castor said...

Great post - can't wait to explore TV Tropes! Before I do, I just wanted to say that one of my favourite books as a child was Gene Kemp's The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler, which is fantastically cleverly written avoiding (without the reader noticing it) any reference to Tyke's gender until the final chapter. It DELIGHTED me that this roof-climbing, adventurous, scruffy & brave protagonist turned out to be a girl. One of my (male) cousins, however, reading it too, reacted with outrage!

Mary Hoffman said...

Wow, Caroline - you have sussed us all out!

I always wanted to be a boy and this has found its way into my work. But I don't want to be a man.

I shall take up your blog challenge in the next post but one. Thanks for making me think about it.

Juliette said...

I think it's definitely largely down to wanting girls to have adventures as exciting as the boys - but I think there are quite a few historical examples as well? My memory's failing me, but I seem to remember a few stories about women dressed up as men so they could be pirates or similar. There aren't many from the ancient world 'cause the men who wrote the literature never talked about them, but there were one or two Christian hermits who turned out to be women I think.

michelle lovric said...

Caroline, I don't think you're necessarily any of those things - you're just a hardworking writer doing the necessary for your new series.

Casanova, another hard worker, was very interested in cross-dressing.

I once performed an interesting experiment on a writing workshop in Venice. While my six female writers were out collecting material, I arranged on the sofas six full costumes with masks. I stuffed the costumes with cushions so they looked as if they were inhabited. The writers came back, and, after they had expressed a gratifying amount of shock and fright, I told them to choose their costumes and their personae for the evening, as we were going out in the dark to experience the power of a hidden identity. The interesting thing was that among these six female writers, the scuffles were over the MALE costumes. Hardly anyone wanted to be a lady.

H.M. Castor said...

Michelle, I want to come to Venice and attend your writing workshops - that sounds amazing!!!

Caroline Lawrence said...

Ooh yes, night time perambulations through Venice disguised as a man in a mask, led by Michelle Lovric. Sign me up!

Juliette you've reminded me about some Syriac "eunuch" hermits I studied when I was doing Hebrew & Jewish Studies! I'll put them in my next blog. :-)

Jon, great point about lack of movement in women's clothing. I might blog about that, too!

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

...and men's clothes are so much more comfortable. How did women manage before it was OK to wear trousers? As far as practicality is concerned, the male of the species had the better deal.

Yes, please sign me up for a Venice workshop, Michelle.

linda collison said...

Love this post!

Crossdressing is a big theme in my series that began with Star-Crossed, originally published by Knopf as a yA in 2006, and soon to be re-released by Fireship Press as the first book in an adult historical fiction series. Through the character Patricia/Patrick I'm exploring the many motives, rewards, and consequences of crossdressing in the mid-18th century nautical world.

Katherine Langrish said...

And I suppose there's Virginia Woolf's Orlando!

Richard said...

Great post, but that link to TV Tropes will ensure no one gets any writing done for the next six hours after reading it!

Alice and Rapunzel said...

Not to mention tonnes of Tamora Pierce historical fantasy novels (which I love). I always enjoy reading a book when a character has to hide their gender to prove something. Great Post!