Cross dressing is an old and familiar plot trope in romance. We’ve talked about it here before, and there’s a pretty thorough list at AAR of all the cross dressing romances they’ve cataloged.
I joke (A LOT) about how oddly easy it is for heroines to easily pass as boys. So many romance heroines years past puberty have grabbed some boys clothing, possibly from a well-hipped stable lad, I presume, and shoved a cap on their heads and presto! Everyone thinks she’s a boy.
Yet there is an amazing history of “passing women,” women who “passed” as men, often marrying other women and living publicly as males, even practicing male professions such as medicine. Cross-dressing was a favorite plot device of many a writer, including Shakespeare.
NB: I may be incorrect in my terminology here. I *thought* “passing women” referred to women who lived outwardly as men, but I’m also finding references to individuals who “passed” as another race. I’m referring here to gender and if I’m using the wrong term, I apologize.
There are several accounts of “passing women” whose stories are jaw dropping. Murray Hall was a politician who voted long before women had the right to do so, and was not revealed to be a female until after Hall died of untreated breast cancer. Hall refused treatment because his gender would have been revealed. James Barry was a British military surgeon whose gender was also not discovered until after his death in 1865. And musician Billy Tipton was similarly revealed to be female upon his death in 1989.
I’ve been thinking about the history of women who passed as men – and how dangerous it was for them – as I’ve been writing up questions for the book club chat for Darlene Marshall’s Sea Change. The heroine, Charlotte, is passing as a male and practicing medicine on a ship as ‘Charley.’ She’s described frequently as not very curvy, with a square jaw and somewhat plain face, but she also takes very careful steps to hide her secondary sex characteristics: she binds her breasts, for example, and she tries not to be seen without a jacket on, even in the Caribbean (oy).
This is a bit of a different type of cross-dressing heroine. Charley is living full-time as a man through much of the story, without anyone on the ship knowing her gender. Charley is in danger if her charade is found out, especially since her reputation is pretty much obliterated due to all the naked manjunk she’s seen professionally. One of the things I find really interesting about Charley is that she’s aware of the many advantages she attains by passing as a male, but she’s also aware that for every social and economic advantage, there’s an equally increased danger of violent consequences if her disguise is discovered. Charley’s uniqueness as a heroine is giving me a lot to think about.
Cross dressing heroines are often masquerading as boys for a few chapters, or maybe a few scenes or one key scene in particular, such as when Frances in Midsummer Magic dresses as a male so that she will be permitted to watch a stallion mount a mare with her husband (yes, of course, you do know what happened next). (Bow chick-a whinny snort).
The reader fascination with bending gender in romance continues. On Twitter the other night I asked about a book someone had emailed me about – the reader had read the sample and wanted to go read the rest but couldn’t remember the title. In the sample, the heroine is investigating something while disguised as a male and working as a valet to a duke. There’s a scene where the heroine shaves the hero in the bath.
The reader, L, remembered the book after emailing me – she had read the sample online, and the book isn’t out yet: it was Joanna Chambers’ The Lady’s Secret, [AMZ | BN] scheduled for publication on 7 November 2011.
Yet the query via Twitter revealed a few other recent cross-dressing heroines, including
(sorry) Sophie Jordan’s Sins of a Wicked Duke [AMZ | K | BN | K | WORD] which features an orphaned heroine who works in household service disguised as a male so as to avoid the unwanted attention of unsavory nobility who like to force themselves on their household staff. But of course her current employer is puzzled by his own interest in the heroine he thinks is a boy, and she’s totally got it bad for him and is trying to keep that to herself.
I think that’s one of my favorite and yet most frustrating stock moments in cross-dressing romance: when the hero gets all confused because he’s having feelings he can’t identify or control about another DUDE. Commence angst and self-recrimination or anger or something like that. The confusion of the hero questions gender in a way that I find fascinating – though the conclusion is that feelings for what the hero thinks is another man can often be labeled as “homosexual,” when really, it’s bisexuality the hero might be confronting. As Candy wrote back in 2005 about hero archetypes,
I’ve noted before that I enjoy it when taboos involving gender lines are broken, or at least bent and bashed around a bit. It’s part of the reason why I like romances involving cross-dressing. When the characters are feeling what seems, at the surface, to be a homosexual attraction? Love it. Love watching the characters struggle with it. Some people are squicked by the idea that the characters, by evincing this attraction, are not 100% hetero. Most of the people I know who are squicked by this aspect almost always say the hero is showing signs of being gay and they’re worried that he might run off with the footman, when really, he’s showing signs of being bisexual, and tendencies towards monogamy are not, as far as I know, exclusively associated with sexual orientation.
Overall, however, the underlying message is a pretty attractive one to me, even if it’s not necessarily realistic: that it’s the essence of somebody that’s attractive, and not necessarily their packaging, even something as powerful like gender.
Yes. That. Cross-dressing is as much a part of romance as it ever was, and makes for many an adventurous plot, even as heteronormative standards are often impressed upon the narrative (to wit: You’re not gay, that’s a GIRL. Aren’t you RELIEVED that you’re NOT GAY?!) (Cue me gritting my teeth.) As Candy wrote, part of what romance explores is the idea that these two individuals are attracted for reasons that go deeper than the “packaging.” That includes, sometimes, gender. There is often some distinct and unexplained element of attraction, something that makes the hero notice something special about the heroine, and vice versa, even when one or both are not what they appear. I love and am fascinated by the idea that what attracts us toward one another is not exclusive to gender (or race, or class, etc. as romance has also explored a bit) and that individually we are unique and our uniqueness is identifiable by those who care about us, even when we hide parts of who we are.
Do you like romances in which there’s cross-dressing? What are your favorites? What’s the most startling exploration of gender you’ve read in a romance?