Mr. Rochester disguised as a Gypsy woman sitting at the fireplace. Illustration by F. H. Townsend in the second edition of Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel Jane Eyre.

Cross-dressing as a literary motif is well attested in older literature but is becoming increasingly popular in modern literature as well.[1] It is often associated with character nonconformity and sexuality rather than gender identity.[2]

Analysis and function of the motif

Female characters who cross-dress as men are also frequently portrayed as having done so to attain a higher social or economic position, a phenomenon known as the social progress narrative.[3] Assuming a male identity allows them to travel safely, pursue jobs traditionally only available to men, and find heterosexual romance by breaking away from the all-female social world of the private sphere during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[3] These characters are generally described as heroic, courageous, and virtuous.[2] Craft-Fairchild (1998) argues that the motif of female-to-male cross-dressing symbolizes women's discontent with their relegation to the domestic sphere of society. However, the discovery of the characters' assigned sex is often met with disapproval, indicating the endurance of traditional expectations of femininity.[2][3]

Male-to-female cross-dressing is much less common in literature, and it is often used for comedic value or as a form of punishment for a male character. When it does appear, characters are often negatively feminized or portrayed as villains, in contrast to the heroism among female-to-male cross-dressers. The most well known example of this concept is the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood.[4] Male-to-female cross-dressing is also almost always more closely linked to a character's sexuality and that of their partners than in female-to-male cross-dressing.[3]

The following is a partial list of literary works that address the motif of cross-dressing:

Ancient and medieval literature

In the myth of the Trojan War, Achilles' mother Thetis wanted to keep him from joining the Greek forces (and thus dying in battle as was prophesied), so she dresses him in women's clothes and hides him among a cloister of women. When the Greek envoy arrives to fetch him for battle, Odysseus is suspicious of Achilles' absence and concocts a scheme to reveal the deception: he offers gifts to all the women, including among them a sword and shield. Then he has an alarm sounded, and when Achilles instinctively grabs the weapons to defend himself, the ruse is revealed and he must join the Greek army and fight at Troy.

In Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, Bradamante, being a knight, wears full-plate armor; similarly, Britomart wears full-plate armor in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene. Intentionally or not, this disguises them as men, and they are taken as such by other characters. In Orlando Furioso, Fiordespina falls in love with Bradamante; her brother Ricciardetto disguises himself as his sister, dressing as a woman, persuades Fiordespina that he is Bradamante, magically changed into a man to make their love possible, and in his female attire is able to conduct a love affair with her.

Early modern literature

William Shakespeare made substantial use of cross-dressing for female characters who took on masculine clothing to carry out actions difficult for women. In The Merchant of Venice, Portia and her maid dress as men to plead in court on the merchant's behalf, and are quite successful in their ruse; in the same play, Shylock's daughter Jessica dresses as a man to elope with her Christian lover. Twelfth Night, or What You Will deals extensively with cross-dressing through the female protagonist Viola. She disguises herself as Cesario and immediately finds herself caught up in a love triangle: she loves Duke Orsino who loves Countess Olivia who loves Cesario. Luckily, all is resolved when Viola's presumed dead twin brother Sebastian comes along. We only see Viola as Viola in one scene; for the rest of the play she is dressed as Cesario. When Rosalind and Celia flee court in As You Like It, Rosalind dresses, for their protection, as a man. However, as a way to further complicate the situation for comedic effect, Shakespeare has Rosalind's male character "Ganymede" dress as a woman to help a male friend, Orlando de Boys, practice wooing Rosalind, with whom he is smitten, while at the same time fending off the affections Phoebe has for "Ganymede". In other words, it is a man, (the actor), dressing as a woman, dressing as a man, dressing as a woman.

In Arcadia, Sir Philip Sidney has one of the heroes, Pyrocles, disguise himself as an Amazon called Zelmane in order to approach his beloved Philoclea.

Lord Byron in his Don Juan, had Don Juan disguised as a woman in a harem.

Modern literature

See also: List_of_wartime_cross-dressers § As_a_major_plot_device_in_fiction

"The current popularity of cross-dressing as a theme in art and
criticism represents, I think, an undertheorized recognition of the
necessary critique of binary thinking, whether particularized as
male and female, black and white, yes and no, Republican and
Democrat, self and other, or in any other way."
Marjorie Garber, 1991[1]

In Giannina Braschi's mock diary, "Intimate Diary of Solitude/el diario intimo de la soledad" (the finale of the Latin American trilogy "Empire of Dreams/el imperio de los suenos") the heroine Mariquita Samper is a cross-dressing Macy's makeup artist who plots a literary revolution to kill the narrator.

Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn disguises himself as a girl at one point in the novel, not very successfully.

In Anthony Powell's From a View to a Death, Major Fosdick's penchant for going to his room and donning a black sequin evening dress and a large picture-hat ultimately leads to his unraveling.

In Terry Pratchett's novel Monstrous Regiment, he has an entire regiment of females (of assorted species) dressing as males to join the army, satirizing the phenomenon of crossdressing during wartime.

In Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Éowyn disguises herself as man under the name Dernhelm to fight in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields outside the city Minas Tirith, and confronts the Witch-King of Angmar, Lord of the Nazgûl.[5]

In Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness series, the main character, Alanna, disguises herself as a boy for eight years in order to become a knight.

As a theme

As a minor plot element

See also


  1. ^ a b "from Vested Interests: Cross-dressing & Cultural Anxiety (1991)", Marjorie Garber, 1991. Retrieved 21 September 2011.
  2. ^ a b c Craft-Fairchild, Catherine (1998-01-01). "Cross-Dressing and the Novel: Women Warriors and Domestic Femininity". Eighteenth-Century Fiction. 10 (2): 171–202. doi:10.1353/ecf.1998.0007. ISSN 1911-0243. S2CID 162232302.
  3. ^ a b c d Boag, Peter (2011). Re-dressing America's Frontier Past. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0520270626.
  4. ^ Jones, Christine A. (2016). "Cross-Dressing." In Haase, Donald and Anne E. Duggan. Folktales and Fairy Tales: Traditions and Texts from around the World. Greenwood Publishing. pp. 241-243. ISBN 978-1610692533.
  5. ^ Leibiger, Carol A. (2013) [2007]. "Women in Tolkien's Works". In Drout, Michael D. C. (ed.). J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia. Routledge. pp. 710–712. ISBN 978-0-415-86511-1.
  6. ^ Peralta, Ederlyn (June 10, 2014). "Live-Action Korean & Taiwanese Adaptations of Manga You Might Not Know About". Anime News Network. Archived from the original on October 27, 2018. Retrieved August 6, 2021.

Further reading