Thursday, June 13, 2013

Cross-dressing Heroines

I just finished reading the Leviathan trilogy by Scott Westerfeld. They weren’t the best books in the history of time. I mean, I give him an A+ for world building, B+ for characters (especially Deryn), but C+ for plot and C- for Annoying Historical tie-ins (I got particularly annoyed when they went to Mexico).

But still, I read through them like lightening (Tesla cannon lightening, maybe?). I do recommend them as a fun read, especially because the worldbuilding really was fantastic. See, it's 1914, and the world is split between two philosophies: the Clankers (Germany, etc) who favor machine technology, and the Darwinists, who have figured out how to splice DNA and make crazy animal hybrids - such as the giant flying whale that is the airship Leviathan, which is a flying ecosystem all its own.

Okay, my description makes it sound a bit silly. Just go read the description - Westerfeld does a much better job of selling it.

But what really appealed to me about the series was the main female character, Deryn - she's in disguise as a male midshipman aboard the Leviathan airship.

That’s right, y’all: it’s one of the cheesiest plot devices of all time – and one of my very favorites.

Really, I blame Tamora Pierce. I got absolutely addicted to her Song of the Lioness Series when I was in middle school. Alanna is a ten year old girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to become a knight – and ends up becoming a legend in the process.

Of course, with every cliché, there’s ways to do it right, and ways to do it absolutely horribly wrong. Here are a few of my favorite examples of the girls-dressed-as-boys trope.

The Song of the Lioness Quartet, Tamora Pierce

Ah, Alanna. The reason I came up with lots of stories about women who were both mages and swordswomen. Also the reason for my obsession with purple eyes – until I figured out those were a major cliché of their own.

Pros: can you say strong female character? Alanna spends the first two books in her identity as a boy, but then gets to live as herself for the last two books. She’s strong, tough, resourceful – and loves pretty dresses..

Cons: Alas, she’s a bit of a Mary Sue. Case in point: all the men in her life who are in love with her. I mean, the whole Jonathan/George love triangle was kind of central, but then she had to throw in Liam too. And beyond that, Alanna is an expert mage and swordswoman. I suppose it’s a difficult balance – in such male-dominated cultures, women had to be way better than men in order to succeed. But that doesn’t mean they have to be perfect at all things in life. Give your girl-as-boy flaws. No male character is perfect either. And limit the love interests -that’s annoying whether your character is  cross-dressing or not.

Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld

Pros: Deryn was practically born to be a soldier, minus that whole gender thing. I don’t know why I appreciated that, but it was fun seeing her do every day, ordinary soldier jobs and loving them. Additionally, Alex doesn't start falling in love with her until he finds out she's a girl. I always find it kind of squicky when the male character falls in love before the reveal, because the author often feels the need to have the character wonder if he's "suddenly preferring men"... and that whole thought process has it's major group of issues. 

Cons: Deryn is also a bit of a Mary Sue. And there are inexplicable plot elements that keep placing her at the center of the action: for one, she’s put in command of a mission at some point (?!). No idea why she’d be put in charge given that she was 1) fifteen, 2) a minor officer. Why on earth would she have been put in command, except to make her feel guilt when the mission goes horribly wrong? The girl-as-boy needs to be perfect to the society, not to the readers. Also, readers appreciate spots of realism throughout their fantasy worlds, at least where characters are concerned.

Monstrous Regiment, Terry Pratchett

Pros: Terry Pratchett is one of the few to consider the practicalities. Polly pretends to shave. She learns to, um, answer the call of the wild while standing upright (news flash: it’s apparently possible, ladies! Google it if you absolutely must. I prefer to maintain ignorance on the details). 
All in all, this is one of my favorite Terry Pratchett books of all time - not for my favorite cliche, but because of its discussions of war and politics and idealism.

Cons: There was one big thing about the story that annoyed me, but it’s hard to address without giving away some major, major plot points.


Cons: You'll note I'm addressing the cons first this time. It’s a Disney movie. I mean, it’s pretty much all cons, realism-wise: Really? No one figured out she was a girl by the terrible, terrible impression of a man she does? Other questions: how much training do they get? I mean, it seems like it’s about a total of three days, and then they’re suddenly pro soldiers? Do they really all only bathe once in that time? And don’t even talk to me about the cross-dressing scene with the guy soldiers, and apparently how the hero is too manly to join in wearing makeup. *

Pros: It's still one of my favorite Disney movies!
“I’ll get that arrow, pretty boy. And I’ll do it with my shirt on!”
“They came up out of the snow. Like daisies!”
Also, my friend and I sing this aloud to each other on a regular basis.

What are your favorite stories of cross-dressing characters?

*(“You gotta be a man to wear tights!”)


  1. I loved Mulan too despite the flaws. I loved how she tries really really hard to impress the match maker. It wasn't that she didn't want to be a normal girl; she just wasn't very good at it. And to be honest, she wasn't a great soldier either, but she was clever.

    Every time I think of cross dressing I always think of Shakespeare because he used it so often. My favorite cross dressing Shakespeare play was Twelfth Night.

    Great post!

    1. Mulan is probably my favorite Disney movie of all time, actually. I know there's a sequel, but I'm afraid to watch it.

  2. I love a character Gender flip. I like how it gets you to see the differences and similarities between genders. it has it's pitfalls, but can be used to tell some of the best stories. As you like it is my favorite Shakespearean example.( although Twelfth Night is super brilliant also)

    What I don't like is when they have men dress up as women in order to shame them. I don't like when men dress up as women in order to humiliate or embarrass them, as if wearing a dress was something less than. Girls dress up as boys to find freedom, and boys dress up as girls in order to be humiliated. Guess that says more about society as a whole.

    1. Yeah, exactly. I did here recently of a romance novel where the hero does like to cross-dress, and apparently the heroine accepts him for it (hero is in disguise for some reason). I haven't read it, but it sounds interesting. Review here:

  3. Disguising a character as another gender is always an intriguing character and plot ploy. It never fails to entertain me, and there's inherent tension and often comedy. Will s/he be discovered? What will happen then?

    I enjoyed this post a lot.

    1. Thanks! I've got to say, I love it best when there's romance involved too, as long as it's handled right. Good times all around.

  4. In general, I think for me, I really enjoy books with a good dose of subterfuge, which the whole disguise thing really plays into. I think C. Lee is exactly right about the tension that's created by these types of situations.

    Great post!

  5. In other news, I hate it when I embed a video, and it posts just fine, and then the next day Blogger is all "Haha, j/k, no video for you!"


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