Cross-dressing girls

I recently had a conversation with Oyceter about the conventions of romance in which I confessed that I love books where a girl has to pass as a boy. I’ve loved them ever since I was little. The book that set me off was These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer.

I don’t think the appeal of these books is mysterious. First of all, almost all of the books I loved were historicals. Most were (in one way or another) about how constrained the girls’ lives were. About all the things they couldn’t do and all the things they had to do, like marrying someone erky just because their father ordered them to. So for a girl character to be able to run around and get into sword fights she pretty much had to pretend to be a boy. I adored girls getting to have as much fun as the boys. It beat reading the books about boys’ adventures and pretending to myself that they were secretly girls. I always hated the books where the girl characters were only there to be rescued. I still do.

And not only does the convention allow for girls to do boy stuff it leads to also sorts of excellent misunderstandings. There’s a reason Twelfth Night is my favourite Shakespeare.

Holly Black and I once bonded over how much we love girls-passing-as-boys books. And now I know Oyceter loves them too. What about you guys? What are your favourite examples? I’ve just started reading Hana-Kimi and am enjoying it greatly.


  1. jaida on #

    Ohhhhh hana kimi is the best. It’s the first manga i ever bought in its entirety in japanese, and ohhhh how i struggled through so I could actually read it.

    i think my love affair with the whole girls-passing-as-boys thing (I also like boys passing as girls! but that’s a different story) began with tamora pierce’s lioness quartet. so so so good.

  2. Rebecca on #

    i liked those books pretty well when i was younger. and i liked the merchant of venice bit with portia. can’t say that i totally loved them any more than other types of books, but then, there were probably more books with girl heroines available when i was growing up, so i didn’t feel the need to have cross-dressing that much.

  3. Justine on #

    Hey! I’m not that old. There were heaps of books with strong active girls when I was growing up! I was talking about the historicals! Sheesh!

  4. Lissa on #

    I think I mentioned this one to you at Dragon*Con, but since you asked:

    One of the best series i’ve read lately are the Bloody Jack books by L.A. meyer. it starts with Bloody jack: being an account of the curious adventures of mary jacky faber, ship’s boy. It’s rollicking good fun and not only does she dress as a boy and have lots of fun – in the subsequent books, she dresses as a girl and has just as much fun!!

  5. Rebecca on #

    *hides* didn’t mean to say that you’re ollllld. just that you’re older than me. 😉

  6. Oyce on #

    Oh!! Ohohoh! I just started watching the kdrama Coffee Prince that I mentioned in the comments, and I love it so far! Here’s a little snippet.

  7. Edward Willett on #

    I think Terry Pratchett took the girls-disguised-as-boys notion to the ultimate level with his book “Monstrous Regiment.” (Come to think of it, I used the trope a bit myself in my YA fantasy “The Dark unicorn,” too).

  8. Erin on #

    My favorites are ‘Twelfth night’ (shakespeare) and ‘the horse and his boy’ (lewis)

  9. hillary! on #

    I don’t think I have ever really read these types of books… how sad! I feel left out!

  10. janet on #

    My favorite is probably still the very first girl-passing-as-a-boy book I ever read: Mistress Malapert, by Sally Watson. It’s set in Elizabethan England, and the heroine, Val, runs away to be an actor and ends up in Wm Shakespeare’s troupe. She even plays the part of Rosalind in As You Like It.

    It was originally published in 1955 and was out of print and hard to find for many years. A few years ago, some fans of Sally Watson’s brought seven of her books back into print:
    Her novels were all published between 1954 and 1969. They are a bit romance-heavy for my current tastes, but I still love them. They were probably also the first historical novels I read.

  11. hillary! on #

    OK the best I can think of is *Pirates!* by Celia Rees, but that doesn’t really count.

  12. Laini Taylor on #

    Though they’re not the main characters, I like the female dragon captains in the Temeraire books by Naomi Novik. It’s unthinkable in the Napoleonic age to have women in the military, but some of the dragons insist on woman captains. Smart dragons! I can’t think of any other non-Shakespearean ones right now!

  13. Holly on #

    The first tamora pierce series about alanna has her pretending to be a boy at first.

  14. lili on #

    alanna all the way. particularly all the bits where jonathan is falling in love with ‘alan’ and he’s all freaked out about it.

  15. sherwood on #

    Always loved them–including Enchanted Isle of Yew, by L. Frank Baum, when a fairy female takes the form of a male–and the princess falls in love with him/her.

    Wrote ’em, too…but they really only work as comedy of manners, that is, when gender perceptions have a great divide.

  16. Aislinn Ai on #

    ohhh… girl-dressed-as-boy adventures are the best. partially because of the i-can-do-anything-you-can-do-better factor, but also, i think, because of the excitement of the secrecy of it all. there are usually high stakes– if anyone discovers that the girl is a girl, she’ll get kicked out of knighthood/get thrown overboard/get fed to a dragon/not be able to play in the final game/lose the respect of the people who think she’s a boy (though this last one usually ends up not actually happening).

    Hana-Kimi is good, but it always seemed too similar to girl got game to me. i think girl got game is better, personally.

  17. sarah-la on #

    i’ve always loved the Alanna quartet (and the rest of Tamora Pierce’s books) but I really love Twelfth Night. I really haven’t found any good historical novels with cross-dressing girls that really shone out to me. But from the above list, it seems that I’ll be making a trip to the bookstore in the near future. =)

  18. Rebecca on #

    I love the myth of pope joan (there’s a lovely play by renowned feminist playwright caryl churchill that features her as a character in a lengthy opening scene. it’s called top girls). of course there’s always joan of arc. and the perhaps fictional mulan. i’ve only heard, and not read, about female pirates that dressed as men, but that sounds like a bawdy good time.

    as you like it and merchant of venice, which have both been mentioned make me very happy, too. while not directly cross-dressing, or historical, i love the entire Y: The Last Man series. it has a lot to say about gender, it’s in comic form, and it has a fabulous story (created by brian k. vaughn who has taken over the task of being faith’s puppetmaster in joss whedon’s lovely comic version of buffy’s 8th ‘season’). and who can forget the ms. streisand in yentl? a woman so dedicated to her faith that she will cross-dress just to learn talmud? i seriously adore the movie.

  19. Sash on #

    does your fascination stretch to film, or is it restricted to novels? Are you secretly munching popcorn in front of Yentl?

  20. Justine on #

    Sash: No, it doesn’t stretch to movies. I mostly sit there thinking, “She’s a girl! How can everyone not see that she’s a girl?” Though Hilary Swank was pretty convincing in Boys Don’t Cry.

  21. sylvia on #

    Tamora pierce’s alanna books (the lioness quartet), as several others have mentioned, are a great example of this. i read a wonderful based-on-a-true-story ya book a while back — can’t remember the title, of course — about a jewish girl who was the sole survivor of a shipwreck, masqueraded as a christian in order to work as a kitchen-maid, then ran away, dressed as a boy, and ended up in new france.

    i’m a classical musician type, and some of my favourite opera bits are from the “trouser roles” – cherubino in le nozze di figaro, for instance – where female mezzos, usually, play teenage boys. (so much slashy subtext! yay!)

    i know i’ve read and loved other books that use this device … but i’m buggered if i can remember any of them at the moment. sigh.

  22. Sabrina on #

    I’m right up there with holly and others on alanna and tamora pierce in general. i started reading them a number of years ago, but i still enjoy them. and i just got into hana-kimi. i’m also taking a university course on medieval women writers and we read the roman de silence a few weeks back. it’s about a daughter, silence, who’s raised as a boy so she can receive her inheritance. i really enjoyed that one.

  23. Veronica on #

    Twelfth Night is your favorite Shakespeare? But Viola does nothing. All she does is go back and forth and whine about how the problem is too hard for her to solve. Maria is the plot dynamo in 12th Night.

    Rosalind in As You Like It is much better, though I actually think she’s far more passive than Celia.

  24. jennmonk on #

    i am so happy to see that so many other people love the tamora pierce books. they were the love of my little tomboy heart when i was a child. i, too, am addicted to the girl-disguised-as-boy genre. as you have seen, manga has quite a few of these. if you want a twist on the them, try “W Juliet” and “kill me kiss me.” These two have boys-disguised-as-girls. And, yes, twelfth night rocks!

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