“D’you think I want to be a lady?” his sister asked. “‘Walk slowly, Alanna,’” she said primly. “‘Sit still, Alanna. Shoulders back, Alanna.’ As if that’s all I can do with myself!” She paced the floor. “There has to be another way.” (
This article explores the way female‐to‐male cross‐dressing in two young adult fantasy novels ―
The implications for the culturally constituted gender roles are complex and yet easy to read. By masquerading as boys, the protagonists gain freedom and liberty that is inaccessible to them as girls; the masquerade becomes a temporary time and space wherein the limitations of socially prescribed gendered roles can be transcended.
At the same time, the figure queers the ‘naturalized’ patterns of sexual growth. Most children’s and young adult literature endorses the dominant cultural perception that “children are (and should stay) innocent of sexual desires and intentions. At the same time, however, children are also officially, tacitly, assumed to be heterosexual” (Bruhm and Hurley 1). The tension between the conflicting impulses ― to preserve innocence and teach heterosexuality ― underwrites children’s literature. The urgent need to teach about sexuality has to be occluded through the discourses of ‘correctness,’ normality, and growth. A cross‐dressed adolescent amid these discourses complicates the culturally legitimate patterns of sexual desire.
My analysis of these young adult fictions draws on the theories of sexualities, particularly Judith Butler’s contestations of the truth of sexuality and gender. Butler argues that gender is a cultural fiction, a performative effect of reiterative acts, a “repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being” (
1Gender and sexuality figure prominently in the discourses surrounding adolescence since adolescence, by its very definition in most cultures, depends on biological puberty and the accompanying cultural assumptions regarding the age at which adult responsibilities, including marriage and parenthood, can be undertaken. At the same time, adolescent sexuality is frequently marked by discourses of abnormality, pathological states of raging hormones, and deviance.
Too often, the narratives of normative girlhood deal with silence and passivity, with the “transformation of adolescent girls from being outspoken and confident at the age of eight or nine to becoming so concerned with being socially acceptable that they have learned to silence themselves by the age of thirteen or fourteen” (Trites,
Though kingdoms of fantasy, familiar codes of gender and sexuality frame Alanna’s and Polly’s growth in Tortall and Borogravia, respectively. The conventions are similar to those in preindustrialized Western Europe. As the children grow up, they embark on training for their adult occupation. These occupations and training for the life to come are situated along the gendered division of labor. Men head the families and also the world of politics, military, and academics (or magic). Domesticity is the women’s realm. In Tortall, among the royalty and elites, women have a significant though ceremonial social presence; for the poorer people, prostitution and healing are the alternatives to domesticity. For Alanna, the daughter of a land‐owning elite family, the only option is to be sent to study “sewing and dancing” (
Alanna and Polly don the male garb not out of choice or a desire for freedom that boyhood would bring. Their cross‐dressing is due to the lack of choice. Despite Alanna’s skills, knighthood is prohibited for girls. Though there have been female knights in Tortall, they are too distant in the past to be invoked or remembered. Dressing up as a boy is the only way available to the protagonist. Similarly, Polly joins the army to look for her brother, not only due to her sisterly affection but also because her father’s inn can only be inherited by her brother, Paul. Though Polly has been running the inn, it would pass on to her cousin if her brother is not found. Her fellow soldiers face similar situations. Lofty joins the regiment to stay close to Tonker, who also turns out to be a girl. Shufti, on the other hand, is looking for the father of her unborn child.
Such gender switch, since it does not really alter the protagonist’s perception of herself as a girl, has been dismissed by many scholars as a simplistic plot device that does little to challenge the established representations of gender or sexuality. While a girl may dress up and play at being a boy, become the center of sexual attraction from either of the sexes, and discover a certain amount freedom from restriction, they eventually give it up to return to normative girlhood. The narratives of female to male cross‐dressing ― from
To an extent, these objections are clearly relevant to the texts dealing with female‐to‐male cross‐dressing. The cross‐dressed heroine in Robin McKinley’s
Hence cross‐dressing in a child’s world is about temporary role playing, a small time‐off from the codes of gender that delimit a child from birth. It does not disturb the feminine subjectivity that is shown to be already in place. Though the protagonists discover a certain amount of freedom by disguising themselves as boys, the narrative voice in both the texts constantly refers to their ‘real’ nature. In
The narrative voice in
At the conclusion of the narratives, the drag girls, who had taken time off from femininity to play at being men, return to their earlier life once the charade is over. If Borogravia and Tortall are realms of fantasy, then it is clearly not due to the conventions of gender, which are familiar in their repressive nature.
However, it is the figure of the cross‐dressed protagonist, the space and time of adolescent cross‐dressing that has the power to “disrupt, expose, and challenge, putting in question the very notion of the ‘original’ and of stable identity” (Garber 16). It is Alanna’s and Polly’s performances as drag warriors that constitute the element of the fantastic in the two texts. A drag heroine is analogous to the element of the fantastic that Tzvetan Todorov distinguishes from generic fantasy by describing it as the moment of hesitation, a moment “which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world” (25): “the fantastic is always a break in the acknowledged order, an irruption of the inadmissible within the changeless everyday legality” (Todorov 41). A cross‐dressed adolescent therefore functions as an element of the fantastic, as a borderline phenomenon, a sight of strangeness, uncertainty, and ambivalence through which the reader (and not just the protagonist) has to negotiate. Its endlessly open and non‐containable ambivalence poses a dangerous threat to established notions of fixity and conformity, a characteristic that makes the fantastic particularly appealing for explorations of sociopolitical marginality.
A cross‐dressing heroine, therefore, fits in the zone of the fantastic, where there “is a competition for credence in which an assertive ‘anti‐real’ plays against an established ‘real’” (Irwin 8). The category of the ‘real’ gender and its arbitrary nature is brought to fore by the ‘anti‐real’ and fantastic cross‐dressed protagonist. In the process, the distinction between the real and the unreal is undone. Drag, in the contemporary theories of gender and performance, is a fantastical figure:
Hence, gender is produced through repetitive performance of behaviors, physical stylistic gestures, without which the man/woman distinction has no sense. Thus, drag heroines enable the recognition of the mimicry at the base of any structure of identity, and the absence of any authentic source. It is evident in Polly’s careful practice and preparation for impersonating a boy:
Like the fantastic, a cross‐dressed drag performance expresses the ‘anti‐real,’ the unnatural, “that which has been silenced, made invisible, covered over and made “absent’” (Jackson 4). Polly’s exaggerated mimicry reveals masculinity as performance that can be carefully appropriated and practiced. When the Corporal promises tough days of training to the regiment, he uses the notions of feminine weakness and masculine strength: “You’re a sissy little lady until we make a man of you, right? And I dread to think how long that’s going to take. Move!” Polly’s thoughts convert this essentialism towards a masculinity which is about performance and dressing: “I know, thought Polly, as they set off. It takes about ten seconds, and a pair of socks” (40). 2 Like a drag performer, her parody of masculinity points to the fact that, since there is no essential or initial basis of gender identity, a culturally constituted gendered identity can be disrupted, undermined, turned over, resisted, and altered and, as Butler insists, be a subject over which to cause some gender trouble.
Thus, female‐to‐male cross‐dressing in most young adult fiction begins with a gender switch through which an adolescent girl is able to take up the tasks reserved for men in her culture and excel in them. Alanna and Polly repeatedly prove themselves to be brave, skilled in ‘masculine’ sports like swordplay, and cunning on the battlefield. If, as Gayle Rubin in “The Traffic of Women” asserts, the division of work in society is the basis of gender subordination, then such narratives call for a restructuring as the girl protagonists demand roles that are culturally reserved for men in their world. Thus, the narrative focusing on female‐to‐male cross‐dressing highlights the limitations of conventional gender categories and an urgent need to revise them:
As the aberrant figures, in their resistance to the attempts to categorize and fix, cross‐dressed knights‐in‐training like Alanna and the soldiers of the monstrous regiment are the native inhabitants of the realm of the fantastic, which can be understood in terms of the unconventional and the uncustomary. The monstrous regiment, which also includes a vampire and a troll is a befitting name for the regiment of cross‐dressed women. The title appropriates the subversive connotations of the ‘monster’ who is the “harbinger of category crisis” (Cohen 6), “a code or a pattern or a presence or an absence that unsettles what has been constructed to be received as natural, as human” (Cohen ix). Similarly for a culture that had forgotten its woman warriors, the only human point of comparison available for Alanna is that of a male warrior. Hence she is Pierce’s “Woman Who Rides
2Socks stuffed in the trousers become the ultimate signifiers of masculinity in the novel. There are repeated references and jokes equating socks and masculinity.
Pierce’s Alanna belongs to the minority in children’s and young adult fiction whom Jody Norton calls the “transchildren; that is, children whose experience and sense of their gender does not allow them to fit their sexed bodies into seamless accord with a congruent, conventional gender identity” (415‐416). Alanna is capable of being a better knight than her brother since she is more athletic, a better fighter, and more interested in warrior arts like swordplay and archery. Yet, the cultural conventions insist on her confinement to the convent to study magic. The traditional gender codes that derive their force from the bodily sex constrain and circumscribe the trajectory of growth. Bodily difference becomes the center on which gender categories are inscribed. While cross‐dressing in
From the beginning of
Cross‐dressing becomes a greater source of anxiety when associated with the adolescent body. The disguise proclaims clothes and gestures as the prime locus of gendered identity. Linked with the body of an adolescent during the pubertal transformation, crossdressing upsets the clear demarcations of gender and sexuality that adulthood is expected to bring. As Alanna and Polly take up the roles traditionally assigned to men in their culture, their bodies become obstacles. Alanna’s cross‐dressing seeks to arrest the adolescent body during the process of change, change that would make it a part of the gendered acts signification that her culture is prone to. Revelation of her girlhood ― which is marked with the onset of menstruation and other bodily changes ― would make her a part of the cultural discourse that neatly fits her into her binary gender category and hence maps her future for her.
At the same time, masculine coded behavioral patterns coexist with the insistence of her ‘internal’ feminine identity. Though she cries, blushes, and faints (following the behavioral pattern encoded to be feminine), she also loses her temper, bristles, curses, and growls. The emphasis on her physical training, her martial skills, and her actual fighting belongs to a traditionally masculine narrative. These three undo her gender identity as a monolithic construct and render it labile. Even after coming out, she “still prefer[s] the freedom of men’s clothing” (
Thus in the narrative of growth and development, the self emerges as a patchwork. Alanna is a boy as well as a girl, switching from one to the other, performing the two roles with equal ease before moving on to the hybridized role of a woman warrior. Her earlier denial of body accompanies her fear of magic. Just like the arbitrary and confusing nature of gender that derives force from her own body, the magical gift confuses Alana. It also marks her out as a girl. When she uses her magic to save Jonathan, it manifests itself in a “woman’s voice, speaking from eternities away” (
This understanding of gender as a performance comes from the text itself. For instance, one night, Alanna decides to wear a dress because “[t]here was no law that said she had to be a boy on her seventeenth birthday” (
Hence, Alanna’s growth indicates the messiness in constructions of gendered identity, especially when its locus is the transforming and fluid adolescent body. The series constantly evaluates the relations among body, sex, and gender, often disturbing the ‘natural’ assumptions that interlink them. The two scenes revealing Alanna’s ‘true’ identity are crucial moments when the associations between gender and body come undone. Rather than simple revelation by word‐of‐mouth, as Alanna seemed to have envisioned, her femininity is revealed through a dramatic bodily exposure. Fighting alongside the Prince against the ancient Immortals, the Ysandir at the end of
The figure of a girl knight and later a warrior woman points towards a mode of being that undoes the naturalized difference between sexes. Judith Halberstam insists that “masculinity . . becomes legible as masculinity where and when it leaves the white male, middle‐class body” (1). (Though not middle class in the modern sense of class hierarchies, in the social hierarchy of Pierce’s world, the knights inhabit the middle wrung between the royalty and common men.) Alanna’s excellence in the ‘masculine’ tasks reveals the performative and constitutive nature of male heroism, which can be appropriated and rewritten by a woman warrior. This is in direct conflict with the text’s overt insistence that Alanna’s disguise is based on a self‐denial, that she needs to learn to accept herself as a ‘woman’ (without questioning the category) before she can emerge as a woman warrior. The dissociation of the idea of masculine heroism from male body exists in conflict with this requirement to embrace womanhood and the binary categories of gender identity it seems to reinstate.
Pratchett’s Polly Perks, on the other hand, is free of any guilt or anxiety generated by ‘self’ denial. For Polly, girlhood as well as boyhood is a mask that can be donned for convenience. She can see through the illusory nature of gendered roles and understands how they work. As a girl, she takes care to display clumsiness in her swordplay (as expected by the fact of her girlhood). She overcomes it once she becomes a boy. She learns to write but does not do so in company of others since a girl who writes is an abomination. She diligently plans her disguise to the extent of getting a blunt razor in order to shave in company. Yet she keeps the locks of her shorn hair as a reminder of her femininity. Like Alanna, Polly’s boyhood is a disguise distinct from her ‘true’ perception of herself as a girl. Indeed, often when she behaves ― or needs to behave ― in an uncharacteristically aggressive manner she connects it to the socks: “It must have been the socks talking” (27); “‘Excuse m ―’ she began, and then remembered the socks, raised her voice and tried to sound angry” (47); and “The socks were doing the thinking again” (115). It is ambivalent whether this masculinity is donned with the socks and men’s clothes or is a part of Polly’s self ― her thoughts and emotions. Later, when she disguises herself as a barmaid and begs the enemies to let her go, she feels that there was a certain ‘sock‐ness’ in her which was ashamed.
On the other hand, in her earlier life, she remembers how she stuck to the role of a good girl:
Analogous to Pierce’s convent, where girls go to learn magic, Pratchett’s Girl’s Working School, or the “Grey House,” is the place where the ‘Bad’ Girls go to atone for their wickedness. An asylum to discipline and punish the girls who transgress against the Nugganite laws, it teaches the conformity and submissiveness that mark a good working woman. The inmates reside under harsh restrictions, working long hours, and are subjected to physical abuse. Polly recognizes the effects of physical confinement and violence in various forms in Tonker, a girl who maintains that “it boiled you hard and gave you a shell,” Lofty, a shy, quiet girl who turns out to be an arsonist, and Wazzer, who claims to hear the voice of the Duchess who is suspected to be dead.
Just as Alanna saves herself by taking on a disguise as a brave lad training to be a knight, being a ‘good girl’ is Polly’s disguise to escape the Working School. Social signifiers continue to define gendered identity. Language, gestures, behavior, and ellipses in all this semantic communication work as signs of gender. Polly recognizes Wazzer’s gender when she performs a curtsy rather than bow to the picture of the Duchess. Shufti’s language gives her away ― she swears by sugar. Flanagan insists that “
So, even as the texts preserve the gendered subjectivities, these performances confuse the neat distinctions of gender, culminating in queer hybridized forms of masculinity and femininity. These upset the conventional notions of gender and sexuality and call for a revision. Pratchett as well as Pierce misses engagement with one of the central questions lying behind the acts of gender transgression ― what it means to be a man or a woman. Is gendered identity an extension of the bodily sex, or is it a social construction? Despite the frequent jokes that refer to the socks as the substitutes of masculinity, gender for Pratchett, as well as for Pierce, is co‐extensive with the bodily sex. However, at the same time, Polly’s and Alanna’s success implies that gender distinction is a cultural construction rather than an extension of their bodily sex. This confusion overlays the textual constructions of gender as wells as sexuality.
3This turns out to be an ironic observation though Polly is unaware of it at the time. A third of the commanding officers, the men who take over, are women in disguise. 4Yet this idea of ‘progress’ and change is ambivalent. While the commanding officers decide to retain their cross‐dressed male identity, they are referred to as women by Polly and by the narrative voice.
If adolescent growth is marked in terms of the growth away from childish solipsism into intersubjective relationships, then friendships and romance form the core of such development. And since such network of relationships with others precludes a stable identity, a coherent location of selfhood, they are dependent on the constructions of gender and sexuality. At the same time, while “sexual awakening is a common metaphor for empowerment of adolescent literature,” most young adult fiction simultaneously conveys the message that teenage sex “is more to be feared than celebrated” (
The two narratives are marked by a strong and insistent heteronormativity. Despite placing a female‐to‐male cross‐dresser in an intensely homoerotic arena of medieval knight school where boys live and train together, where the pages and squires have to render any services demanded by the knights, Pierce’s series shies away from the taboo of homosexuality as it moves towards a heterosexual conclusion. Indeed Alanna’s uneasiness when she has to dance with other women in the court may hint at the homophobia underlying the text. As she grows, Alanna’s desire to be a knight and go on adventures becomes interlaced with her longing for love and family.
Moreover, Alanna’s sexual and gender difference becomes heroic by the stereotypical depiction of conventional femininity. The court ladies like Delia of Eldrone, who courts Prince Jonathan, is a
Heteronormativity is assumed. Alanna becomes a squire to Prince Jonathan. She learns wielding the dagger from the rogue George Cooper. She also learns Shang fighting, a kind of martial art, from the Shang warrior, Liam. All these men also become her lovers. The series seems to suggest that as Alanna cannot be a man, she must desire them. The relationship is transformed from identification to desire. The erotic triangles strengthen homosocial bonds between Alanna’s lovers. In her reading of the erotic triangles figuring prominently in European fiction, Eve Sedgwick Kosofsky mentions dynamics of power that structure the rivalry between the male lovers, where the “bond that links the two rivals is as intense and potent as the bond that links either of the rivals to the beloved: that the bonds of ‘rivalry’ and ‘love,’ differently as they are experienced, are equally powerful and in many senses equivalent” (48). Heterosexual relationships therefore become the medium through which male bonding is cemented. Alanna strengthens Jonathan’s claim to kingship not only by being the King’s Champion but also by bringing together diverse but powerful figures ― Prince Jonathan, the legitimate ruler of Tortall and George Cooper, King of the Rogues, the ruler of the city’s thieves and criminals, and Liam, the trained Shang warrior who is never known to stay at one place. Although she rejects Prince Jonathan to marry George Cooper, the rogue is converted into a respectable courtier and nobleman. Other romantic couples are also all heterosexual: Myles and Eleni, Coram and Rispah, Jonathan and Thayet, and finally Alanna and George are all matched up.
Like the anxiety that powers the masculine performance, such energetic insistence on heteronormativity often exposes it as not necessarily inevitable or mandatory. Homoeroticism, latent in the knights’ school, is evident in the earlier book. Young Alan is treated with a tenderness by her fellow boys that often borders on explicit homoeroticism. When Jonathan has a bad fever, he calls for Alan (
Hence, cross‐dressing constitutes a transgression that simultaneously reinforces and undercuts the gender and sexual binaries. Though Pratchett’s text does not concern itself with the issues of romance, a heteronormative subtext seems to underlie the narrative. Tonker and Lofty are the only same‐sex couple in the monstrous regiment. They are psychologically damaged. Tonker is full of rage, while Lofty is a pyromaniac and an arsonist. This, the narrative explains, is due to the abuse they suffered at the Girl’s Working School and in their later life. Lofty, Tonker tells Polly, was raped by a miller who employed her. Her child was then taken away from her at the Working School. When Polly sees them holding hands, it seems to be out of fear. The portrayal hints at the stereotype of same‐sex desire as a manifestation of abuse, hurt, and fear. Their relationship lies on the peripheries of the narrative. This kind of transcendence is a political strategy deployed by a young adult narrative when confronted with the issue of homosexuality: “it recognizes the homosexual content of the work but then relegates this content to a peripheral position, emphasizing ― usually with much vigor ― that the novel is ‘really about’ something else” (Fouss 168). It is a conscious political strategy since it relegates homosexuality to the peripheries reinstating the normative codes of ‘correctness’ as the center.
The only person to escape the insistent gender attribution in Pratchett’s text is Sergeant Jackrum, a war hero with sixty years of service, “steeped in deviousness, cunning and casual criminality” (219). His masculinity is, at the same time, shrouded in ambivalence. From the beginning Jackrum is extremely protective of his regiment, which he refers to as his “little lads”: “You make your mark on this document and kiss the Duchess and you’re
While the triumph redresses the gender imbalance in the army and the social organization of Borogravia, it evades the issues of transvestism and homosexual desires that repeatedly resurface throughout the narrative, especially in its humor subplots. Lieutenant Blouse rejects the offer of the regiment to dress up as women since he has noticed little details in behavior that would give them away. For his performance as a woman he draws on the experiences of his boyhood: “Fine old tradition, men dressing up as gels. In the sixth form, the chaps used to do it for a jape all the time” (150). It leaves Wazzer wondering, “D‐does any woman sway that much?” Though the regiment is skeptical, Blouse is able to fool the soldiers at the Keep as a washer woman. The date that Lieutenant Blouse disguised as a washer woman sets up with the guard, the maid’s attraction for Private Perks ― these are routine elements of a cross‐dressing plot. Similarly, Polly dressed as Private Perks in turn dressed as a barmaid knees Prince Heinrich in the groin and renders him immobile ― an incident that makes the regiment famous. Though humorous, these incidents create sexual confusion and raise the possibilities of homoerotic attraction. It may be allayed by knowledge of the ‘real’ sex of the cross‐dressed protagonist. But the cross‐dressed protagonist who is the center of attraction is a manifestation of desires that cannot be fulfilled since cross‐dressing blurs the line between heterosexual attraction and homoeroticism. The unconscious and complicated eroticism generated by the masquerade makes the transvestite a “space of desire” ― “what is left of absolute demand when all possible satisfaction has been subtracted from it” (Garber 75). Alan, in
Butler insists that in repetition also lies the potential of resistance. The re‐enactment of the hero’s story by a cross‐dressed heroine offers space for its critique ― a space that the narratives like Pierce’s or Pratchett’s explore even while they overtly follow the pattern of acculturation. The discomfort and uneasiness that crossdressing arouses is smoothed over by the narrative. The disguise is a need of the hour; Alanna and Polly become boys because they have no other alternatives. By becoming boys they appear to preserve the social and gender distinction even as they challenge it. Similarly, the heterosexual conclusion that follows the unmasking is meant to quell the uneasiness of the reader. Marjorie Garber underlines the ideological implications behind the unmasking of the cross‐dressed protagonist:
Yet the cross‐dressed protagonist emerges as a site of the fantastic wherein “the gaps and fissures are opened up as the constitutive instabilities in such constructions, as that which escapes or exceeds the norm, as that which cannot be wholly defined or fixed by the repetitive labor of that norm” (Butler,