Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Gender-Bending Appeal of the Cross-Dressing Hero: L. H. Cosway's PAINTED FACES

Yesterday in the United States we celebrated Labor Day, a holiday dedicated to the social and economic achievements of the American worker. I've had my share of jobs over the course of my life, both ordinary—babysitter; counterperson at McDonalds; college professor—and unusual—one aborted day as a telemarketer; nearly a decade in various positions in children's book publishing; a long but fascinating summer working in a factory that manufactured tampons. But these all seem rather mundane after reading about a career created by the hero of a romance novel I read recently: drag queen. Especially because said hero is decidedly straight.

With the exception of a third-person prologue and epilogue from the hero's point of view, L. H. Cosway's Painted Faces is narrated in the first-person by twenty-five-year-old Freda, who cobbles together a living working part-time in a Dublin charity shop and baking cupcakes every morning for a local bakery. Fred's got a wise-ass mouth, but as far as romantic experience goes, her bark is worse than her bite. She and her first boyfriend parted after "we basically figured out that we just couldn't really stand each other"; her only other boyfriend "turned out to be quite the psycho kettle of fish," stalking her for a whole year after she broke up with him (21). Compared with her flatmate Nora, Fred's not a looker; her rounded figure and comfortable style of dress mean that Nora's the one the men turn to first whenever they hit the Dublin bar scene, a situation which suits Fred just fine, thank you very much.

But when a new man moves into the apartment next door, it's Fred, not Nora, who catches his eye. Telling her she can call him "Vivica" after she introduces herself as "Fred," and his quick Marilyn Monroe gesture and voice when she responds "Cool, if we become friends can I call you Viv?" seem to suggest he's gay. But the way he openly leers at her rain-soaked top ("Did I miss the wet t-shirt competition, again?") points to the opposite.

Eddie Izzard, the only other
heterosexual cross-dresser
Freda knows
In fact, though Nicholas has come to Dublin to work in a friend's new gay club as a drag queen, his sexual tastes turn entirely toward women. And curvy, irreverent, snarky Freda is just the type of woman he prefers. Given her past experience, though, Fred can't help but be taken aback by Nicholas's directness ("You're very pretty, Fred," he says, matter of factly. Then he brings his face closer and traces his lips along my ear. "I'd really like to fuck you." [30]), and refuses his sexual advances. But when Nicholas asks Fred to work for him as his dresser, helping him get ready before his shows, and their friendship develops, Fred increasingly grows to feel that Nicholas is "plunging my black and white world into a vibrant technicolor rainbow" (52).

"I'm not trying to fool people into believing I'm an actual woman.... I think being somewhere in between male and female is just as intriguing," Nicholas tells Fred when she questions him about his cross-dressing (110). And it's this mixture of male and female, or, perhaps, of over-the-top campy gayness and aggressive masculinity, that captures Fred's imagination. She dreams about "Nicholas wearing boxer shorts, high heels and a lacy black bra over his muscular chest. He's wearing make-up too, but not much; a little mascara and some dark lipstick. For some reason I am incredibly turned on by the sight. He's half boy, half girl. All gorgeous" (99). But Fred remains cautious, not willing to risk this wonderful friendship, afraid that for her, sex and love cannot be separated, as they can for Nicholas. For Nicholas may be direct about sex, but expressing emotional intimacy is a far different story.

Cosway's novel acknowledges that Nicholas's urge to cross-dress stems from childhood loss and trauma. But like Anna Cowan's Untamed, Painted Faces never indulges in the "love will fix you" trope, never suggests that the feminine "painted face" that Nicholas puts on is something that needs to be set aside if he is to be psychologically whole. A fitting acceptance for a book dedicated to "all the men who are women and the women who are men, the men who are men and the women who are women. And those of you who are a little bit of both. You colour my world" (3).

Photo credits:
Labor Day: ThinkProgress.org
Eddie Izzard: Eddie Izzard Fans.com

L. H. Cosway, Painted Faces.
Smashwords, 2012.


  1. I would be interested in reading this if it weren't for presenting cross-dressing as a response to childhood trauma instead of just something fun the character enjoys. A het romance presenting androgynous dress and presentation as resulting from trauma? No, thanks. I think this is also why AJH (Alexis Hall, author of Glitterland) was less than enthused about this book when he reviewed it on Dear Author.

  2. My issue with this book was that I thought Freda was made responsible for Nick and his mental well-being. My issue crystalized when Nicholas’ best friend uses emotional manipulation to guilt Freda into accepting Nicholas’ apology or risks his emotional and physical well-being. I think partners can help each other make healthier life choices but it's not fair to expect one person/character to be responsible for another.

  3. I haven't read a lot of romantic fiction since I was about 12 or so. Except a couple of Paranormal ones I bumble stumbled on and most emphatically did NOT enjoy. Not a lit snob or anything, I probably just got unlucky and ran across too much trash. Put me off the whole genre and all its subs. I still have very fond memories of Georgette Heyer. I AM fascinated by ANYTHING that explores gender constructs and stereotypes. The best example of this I have ever seen is Ouran High School Host Club. I have never read the manga, but the anime series is execllent. It deals not only with gender and sexual roles, but also with issues of class and socio economic power. Ouran's gender bending heroine, Haruhi, says in the first episode that gender doesn't mean anything to her, but the series does not catch up with her initial pronouncement until far later. Indeed it embraces the various tropes and stereotypical characters it presents the viewer with and then precedes to ruthlessly deconstruct them. The Prince, the CEO in training, the taciturn jock, the diminuitive, sexually non threatening male ingenue, the homo erotic twins, the crazy otaku, the mobster's son. None of them are entirely what they seem. None are limited to a sketch. They are full of contradictions, deceptions, self deceptions and personal armor. They are REAL people. Anyway. What put me in mind of Ouran when reading this review was mainly Haruhi's father. Haruhi's father is a drag queen by trade. A cross dresser by incliniation. A bisexual by implication. There are no implicit or explicit value judgments made about his career or lifestyle choices in the series. He is merely Haruhi's father. An old. A loving, protective and nurturing parent. Flawed, yes, but not on account of his proclivities. There is never a hint that who or what he is have hurt Haruhi, but on the contrary that they have helped mold the exceptional, enlightened, brilliant person she is. He doesn't need to be "fixed" to be good parent, or a good man. Excitable, dramatic, extravagantly over protective, gentle, loving, understanding, empowering. All of those things. A father. I hate when writers start out trying to examine and decontruct stereotypes and gender roles and then chicken out and fall back on conventional definitions of healthy sexual/gender expression. Boo. Still. This review made me interested in reading for myself and drawing my own conclusions. -Maze

    1. I am also familiar with Ouran HIgh School Host Club. The anime is better than the manga. It's usually the other way around. (The manga is, imo, a little slight and superficial.)

      You're right, Haruhi's father is a cross dresser/drag queen and it isn't depicted as emblematic of anything. Then again, much of Asian culture tolerates far more "girly" looking men as normal than we do, in part out of necessity -- on average, East Asian men look more "feminine" than other men, something that shows up in studies that put them on the feminine end of the spectrum, black men on the masculine end of the spectrum, and white men in the middle.

    2. Thanks, Maze, for stopping by, and recommending OURAN HIGH SCHOOL HOST CLUB. I've been wanting to take a look at romance in manga/graphic novels, but haven't yet had the chance to. It's an area that I'm not familiar with, so I'll have to do my research before chiming in...

  4. lawless523, do you think there is a bone density element to the results of those studies? In other words, being smaller and having fine bones would lead to a perception of femininity versus black men perhaps being bigger with more heavy bones, and white men running the gamut. (As opposed to facial features in general, or mannerisms, creating such perceptions.) It is an interesting train of thought that never occurred to me at all. It's also interesting in terms of martial arts being developed to take advantage of the indigenous traits.
    I'm not familiar with Manga or Anime except in some relation to my son's past interests, but I did live in Hawaii for 4 years in my youth, with constant contact with Asian kids and so somehow your mention of these studies surprised me.

    1. I don't know if it's bone density. Southeast Asian men are, on average, shorter and have finer features and more prominent cheekbones than others. (I'm not sure about South Asian men.)

      This was the result of a study I read about in the last six months or so run on a (mainland) US college campus; I forget if the subjects judging the relative femininity/masculinity of the various photos were men or women or both, but I believe the subjects were all white. As someone who's half Korean and whose father looked far prettier compared to the white men who comprised the rest of his WWII-era Army Air Force squadron, I was not at all surprised at the results. It also reflects racial stereotypes and fears about men of African descent.

  5. This topic is so very interesting, but I feel a bit out of place. I have been a part of the struggle against women’s and LGBT oppression for more than 45 years. It is wonderful to hear of these two novels, and I have definitely added both to my tbr list.

    It is difficult for me to question the authors’ choices as they developed their characters. I find them both inventive and ground breaking as described, but I do not demand perfection. When I actually read them I may have criticisms of their writing style, but it is hard to imagine thinking they did not go far enough or depict such a couple in the best possible way. They are trying to tell a compelling story not portray a relationship that will be the definitive enlightenment for the masses.

    I had a similar reaction to the diminishing of Billy Wilder’s ‘Some Like It Hot’ and Georgette Heyer’s ‘The Masqueraders’ in the preamble to the review of Cowan’s ‘Untamed’—though I do not disagree at all with the evaluation of ‘Mrs. Doubtfire.’ Heyer wrote her cross dressing adventure of a brother and sister in 1923. She did not take the idea very far, but the fact that she had a male protagonist dressing as a woman and simultaneously falling for a woman was way before its time. ‘Some Like It Hot’ played with gender roles and sexual preferences much more than just depicting the comedic elements of men dressing as women. Tony Curtis kisses Marilyn Monroe in full drag, she melts a little and says “Oh, Josephine.” Where it is true she quickly figures out she has just been kissed by Junior that is not her first reaction. We watch her enjoy the kiss given to her by a female friend and confidante. Daphne and Osgood’s relationship and Osgood’s iconic last line—“nobody’s perfect”—definitely push the boundaries of decorum for 1959. Who can forget Jack Lemmon’s reaction to the bracelet he receives from Joe E Brown. We feel his excitement with being desired despite both being the same sex with each shake of the maracas. I would agree that neither gives us the perfect understanding of the continuum that is human sexuality, but they both made a contribution toward changing attitudes.
    If nothing else, they inspired me to write a gender bender story that is much more than just cross dressing. My ‘Mr Darcy Likes It Wild’ takes a hefty inspiration from Billy Wilder’s farce and my favorite scene from Heyer’s ‘The Corinthian.’ In that novel it is not so much that a woman dresses as a man but that Heyer has what appears to be two men openly kissing and not giving a hoot who sees them. To my mind that was pretty ground breaking for 1940—so I took that scenario and upped the ante and the silly factor to be more appropriate for 2013.

    Even the women’s liberation movement debated whether lesbians should be so visible in the early years--not to mention transgender bias. Humans grow and evolve in their attitudes—usually because some less than perfect person took a chance and did something to make us change. Though I was inspired by Heyer and Wilder, I dedicated ‘Mr Darcy Likes It Wild’ to Sylvia Rivera and the other drag queens, transwomen and their comrades who fought back against oppression at the Stonewall Inn back in 1969. The World is a better place because of their bravery.

    I applaud Cowan and Cosway for writing such daring romances and thank Jackie for bringing them to my attention. Beth Massey

    1. Thanks, Beth, for stopping by, and sharing your thoughts.

      Yes, it was reductive of me to suggest that SOME LIKE IT HOT was only played for laughs. (Unlike the film MRS. DOUBTFIRE, which I was completely annoyed about, as the children's book upon which it is based -- Anne Fine's ALIAS MADAME DOUBTFIRE -- did not have the same underlying woman-bashing tone by any means). My apologies to Jack Lemmon, and to everyone who's taken heart from his film's boundary-pushing.

      Just checked THE MASQUERADERS out from the library, and am looking forward to rereading it...

      Both Cowan's and Cosway's novels do have problems. But I'm definitely of your mind, being more forgiving of a book's flaws when it breaks important new ground. When there are hundreds of romance novels about crossdressers and transgendered people, I'll feel comfortable focusing more on those flaws than on taking pleasure the innovations. But for now, celebration seems very much in order.

    2. I don't feel as though I'm demanding perfection, as Beth suggests. A book depicting a straight man who's a cross-dresser as responding to trauma (which to me sounds like he's made out to be broken if not mentally ill because of his transvestism) and having to be taken care of is just flipping the gender stereotypes, not doing away with them.

      I don't see that as progress; it's simply bottling old wine (it's unnatural for men to be feminine, and when they are, it's because of something bad that happened to them/women take care of men) in new skins.

    3. Lawless, I see how you would come to this conclusion after reading only a summary of the book. But it's not the sense I have after reading it. SPOILERS AHEAD HERE; stop if you plan to read the book...

      Nicholas began dressing in women's clothes as a boy, after the death of his mother (trauma #1). It was a positive thing, a way for him to feel closer to a beloved lost parent, especially as his remaining parent was distant and cold. Later, when he was 14, a colleague of his father's discovered Nicholas dressed in women's clothes, and threatened to reveal his secret to his father unless Nicholas engaged in sex with him (Trauma #2). The sexual predator made Nicholas dress in boy's clothes when he abused him, though. I read this as the predator thinking "oh, this boy dresses in women's clothes; he must be gay. The women's clothes don't turn me on, though, so I'll make him take them off before I prey on him."

      Nicholas says that he wears women's clothes because he enjoys doing so. But he also thinks wearing them is a way of rebelling against that second trauma. His depression seems to stem not from his cross-dressing, but from the trauma he experienced as the victim of a sexual predator: "He turned being a boy into something I couldn't stand, so that being a woman was my only escape" and "I perform for the catharsis, because it's freeing. It's the opposite of what Kelvin wanted me to be, so it's also a strange sort of protest. Every time I put on a dress I'm sticking two fingers up at what he did to me" (288, 289).

      Cross-dressing is put forth as a positive response to trauma, both by Nicholas and by the text itself. It's not something that the text urges him to outgrow in order to overcome the trauma. That to me feels like progress, even if it's not the depiction of cross-dressing as just something fun that the character does that you're looking for.

  6. Allow me to say UNF UNF UNF (I've a thing for pretty men in dresses)

    1. Say away (especially since I'm guessing UNF is not your cheer for a Florida college ;-) )

      -- Jackie