Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Gender-Bending Appeal of the Cross-dressing Hero, part 1: Anna Cowan's UNTAMED

Cross-dressing heroines have long been a staple of historical romance fiction. Donning men's breeches not only allows heroines of the past to ride a horse astride, but to take on identities and infiltrate spaces coded as "for men only." A woman masquerading as a man suggests a rebellious spirit, a willingness to buck social norms, a desire to capture and wield the power culturally normed as "masculine." Though her peers may find her costuming scandalous, the cross-dressing heroine of romance fiction more often finds approval from readers raised to take the equality of women for granted.

What, though, of the cross-dressing male? If a woman donning breeches signals strength and power, what cultural assumptions do we make when a man pulls a dress over his head? As Mindy Hung notes, when it's obvious that the body beneath the petticoats is a male body—broad shoulders, hairy chest, square jaw—the effect is one of emphasizing masculinity rather than adopting femininity; see, even if I try to be a lady, my manliness still shines clearly through.

Jack Lemmon finds high heels a bit difficult to navigate...
With the exception of a burgeoning list of m/m romances featuring heroes in drag, most male cross-dressing heroes are played for laughs—think of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis struggling to manage their high heels as the walk down the train platform in 1959's Some Like it Hot, or Robin Williams in 1993's Mrs. Doubtfire standing at the toilet, peeing from beneath his skirt. Men may don dresses if for some reason they've been stripped of their male power (Jack & Tony hiding from the mob, Daniel Hilliard/Mrs. Doubtfire because his wife has denied him access to his children), but once order has been restored, power returned to its rightful place, heterosexual men typically revert to more gender-conforming garb.

Can a straight woman find a cross-dressed hero sexually attractive? Worthy of love? Two recent romances challenge readers to embrace heroes who perform non-conforming gender not only to hide or to regain power, but because they enjoy the sheer pleasure of taking on a feminine persona.

The traditional cover of Anna Cowan's regency historical, Untamed, published this past May, gives little hint of the gender-bending story inside. Eager to break up the affair between her newly married sister and the rakish Duke of Darlington, Katherine (Kit) Sutherland rashly agrees to the duke's unusual bargain: he'll leave London, and abandon her sister, the Countess of BenRuin—but only if Kit allows him to tag along with her to Sutherland family manor in the country. Kit believes she's got the best of the bargain; more comfortable in her role as axe-wielding pig farmer than society darling (she describes herself as "the dark hobgobling sister. Although perhaps too tall and strong for a hobgoblin. Perhaps the child of a hobgoblin and a tree"), Kit is only too happy to abandon the city, a world to which "she would never be made to fit" (Loc 75).

That is, until she discovers Darlington plans to spend his time in the country dressed as a woman, so h/she can share unchaperoned time—and a bedroom—with Kit. Unfortunately for our heroine, the duke's female "cousin" is not played for laughs. Lady Rose makes for just as compelling a woman as s/he does a man:

Even after nine hours she could not stop staring.
     Across the table, taking tea, was the most magnificent woman Kit had ever seen. She wore the rigid dress of the previous generation, but instead of looking outdated she made you long for the gorgeous, riotous colours of another age. Yellow poppies burst across the wine-red silk that bound her torso, chest and shoulders. They trailed down the skirts that waterfalled under their modest table. She was tightly corseted, her trim figure accentuated by the flare of small hoops beneath her skirts. She looked out the window, offering Kit her profile—the fine, straight nose, the smiling, expressive lips and heavy eyes. She wore a black wig, one thick coil falling over her shoulder on to the white linen tucked around her neck. (800)

Dramatic enough for Jude?
Kit isn't the only one who finds Lady Rose attractive. Kit's less-than-assertive younger brother is relieved to find himself finally attracted to a woman, while Kit's don't-look-too-closely-at-what-you'd-rather-not-see mother is only too glad to have a London gossip of Lady Rose's caliber sharing her parlour. The local squire toadies to the noblewoman, while his daughter schemes to snare her high-ranking male cousin. No one is meant to laugh at Darlington's performance, not even the reader; we're meant to find it as magnetic, as energizing, as is everyone who is drawn into his circle. "If Byron was magnificent, Jude was cataclysmic," muses Kit, an opinion we are meant to share (4235).

Jude, the Duke of Darlington, finds himself drawn to Kit in large part because of her strength: she's survived the physical abuse of a father, acts as financial head of her family, and wields a mighty axe to boot. Darlington, too, has been the victim of abuse—"You may not have noticed this... but I'm not exactly the manly variety of man. My father was a keen observer of the fact, and his response was to lock me into a particular room under the house with no windows" (1087)—but finds himself as a result not a tower of strength, but a mass of suicidal fear, compelled to inflict pain and humiliation on others to ensure they keep a safe distance. Instinctually, he feels that the sharp-tongued masculine Kit can save him from worst self. But Kit turns the tables, urging him to embrace everything that makes him himself, arrogance, insults, and all.

Cowan does not just create a simple inversion of gender roles (although Kit does make for an arresting cross-dressed man, when she returns to London to pursue the fleeing Jude and publicly stake her claim to him). The masculine but passionate Kit doesn't do all the rescuing; the feminine but arrogant Jude isn't the only one to feel fear:

He had been so closed when he first came, she thought, and then frowned.
     She had not wanted to be moved by him. She held herself tightly, and understood for the first time why he did that.
     She had been so closed when he first came. (3605)

When the two finally become physically intimate (after weeks of tense longing), there is no sense that Darlington must first shed his womanly garments, that he must shake free of the feminine aspects of his mannerisms and appearance, in order to be a sexually-appealing partner to Kit. In fact, his appeal seems to lie largely in femininity performed by a male body:

She untied the bow of his laces and began to loosen them with practiced tugs. His hands gripped the seat against the movement, and she wondered whether he felt, as she did, that she was breaking into something tender and unseen.
     She lifted the bodice away from his body and pulled the chemise roughly down around his hips.
     Then she knelt behind him, and traced the red lines pressed into his skin by the bodice and the material trapped beneath it.
     She opened her hands against him, so that the whole surface of her palms and fingers could take in the sensation of his skin, finer and warmer than silk. The slim curve of his waist. His ribs. She leaned closer, helpless, her mouth open an inch from him. She felt how he shivered beneath her hands, how pleasure built between them and made him lower his head until his neck was a vulnerable curve that she had to capture in her palm.
     Was it possible to die of pleasure just from this? (3694)

Heyer's not-quite-so-gender-bending
romance, starring siblings
and Robin/Kate
The novel's climax suggests that through loving each other, both Jude and Kit will come into their own distinct types of power—wily Jude as a politician, master of manipulation; Kit in the more directly forceful role of future captain of industry. And they will continue to clash and quarrel, as they wrestle with one another for power, neither afraid his or her own strength will diminish the other. As Kit's sister Lydia reminds Kit in the novel's epilogue, "Darling, it would be impossible to be married to him and not fight. He'll never give up trying to get the upper hand, and you'll never let him. There's no way to do that peacefully. Besides, is peace really what you want?" (5452)

Cowan's debut novel often runs aground on the shoals of its ambition; the opening London section, in particular, reveals an author not quite in control of her material, doling out hints of myriad secrets in so opaque a manner that confusion rather than enticement is all that's likely to result. Yet I'm a reader who enjoys an ambitiously flawed novel as well as (often more than) a flawlessly executed iteration of the same conventional story. And when a flawed novel demonstrates how nonconforming gender identities can result, at least in part, from childhood trauma but simultaneously refuses to assert that such identities are in need of being "fixed" or "healed," even by love, it's definitely a work that I'll be placing on my "keeper" shelf.

Come back next Tuesday for Gender-Bending part 2: Thoughts on L. H. Cosway's contemporary romance, Painted Faces

Photo credits:
Some Like it Hot: YouTube
18th Century Dress: Chani et Binou
Masqueraders cover: Wikipedia

Anna CowanUntamed
Destiny/Penguin Australia, 2013.


  1. I'm 70% of my way through the book, according to my eReader. Like you, I appreciate that she tried to do something different, and I like the writing, which reminds me somewhat of a sensation novel in content and structure.

    Unlike you, my problem is not with the beginning, other than some awkward phrasing in the first couple of chapters; my problem is that the middle drags and goes around in circles. This creates a trancelike quality that I think Cowan was aiming for, but it also makes one wonder what's been accomplished once one puts the book down. I think the middle could and should have been tightened up.

    It also requires more sustained attention than I'm used to for a book of this genre. As a result, I took a break in July and haven't gotten back to it yet. Nevertheless, I've enjoyed and admired it more than most recently published books in the genre.

    BTW, I don't recognize most of the m/m novels listed in that link, and they don't all have drag artist or cross-dressing heroes. Some of them have drag artists or cross-dressers as side characters.

  2. And now I've finished the book. I liked it very much, and as it turned out, the part I hadn't read yet was probably the best part. It was refreshing to read something so different from the norm, although it was set during a period about which many historical romances are written. But I do still feel like it could have used a little more editing and tightening up in the middle.

    1. Yes, not a perfect book by any means. But one innovative enough to make it worth reading, for certain.

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