Saturday, 19 January 2008


Thinking about my heroine, Tor, passing as a man...

A man dressed as a woman is comic, which is why we have the tradition of pantomime dames and Dame Edna Everage. Few males over the age of sixteen can wear female clothes without appearing risible. One's heart bleeds for transsexuals, so many of whom are never going to convince anyone they are even a very plain woman. This in spite of going the whole hog with hair, makeup, nails, tights and handbags in a way most women simply don't bother about.

But a girl cross-dressing; different kettle of fish. Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Annie Lennox were all wildly attractive in drag. Plus there's the fact that right up till recent times in the West, men had the power. Dressing like a man borrowed some of that power.

And in fiction... First there are the tomboys, every girl's favourite character in the book (what girl in her right mind wants to be Meg or Wendy?) Jo in Little Women, chopping off her hair and never able to be 'ladylike'; George in The Famous Five, always pleased to be mistaken for a boy, and rowing her dinghy better than Julian or Dick. Or Viola in Twelfth Night, falling in love while inconveniently disguised as a man, and finding Olivia is attracted to her. Shakespeare made full use of the gender ambiguities in the situation, which brings me on to...

Blackadder. The episode where Edmund Blackadder falls for 'Bob', a girl lightly disguised in doublet and hose, working as his servant. He is somewhat disconcerted by this, so goes to see the doctor:

Doctor: Now then, what seems to be the trouble?
Edmund: Well, it's my manservant.
Doctor: I see. Well don't be embarrassed if you've got the pox. Just pop your manservant on the table and we'll take a look at him.
Edmund: No, I mean, it is my real manservant.
Doctor: Ah, ah. And what is wrong with him?
Edmund: There is nothing wrong with him. That is the problem. He's perfect, and last night I almost kissed him.
Doctor: I see. So you've started fancying boys then, have you?
Edmund: Not boys. A boy.
Doctor: Yes, well let's not split hairs. It is all rather disgusting and naturally you're worried.
Edmund: Of course I'm worried.
Doctor: Well, of course you are. It isn't every day a man wakes up to discover he's a screaming bender with no more right to live on God's clean earth than a weasel. Ashamed of yourself?
Edmund: Not really, no.
Doctor: Bloody hell! I would be. But still, why should I complain? Just leaves more rampant totty for us real men, eh?
Edmund: Look, am I paying for this personal abuse or is it extra?
* * *
Blackadder scripts written by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton.


  1. Great scene from Black Adder.

    Agreed that some women look terrific when dressed as men, but that is because they are/were terrific looking to begin with and it just adds another element to their allure not to mention lending a considerable amount of grace and, well, femininity, to the garb and manner of the doofus gender. At least as they are presented on stage and screen they wouldn't fool anyone as to their true gender.
    All of the Violas I have seen have been pretty as all get out. Put 'em in leggings and a tunic and tuck their hair under a silly hat and they are still pretty as all get out. You just can't hide that kind of pretty without a conspiracy of a very talented makeup artist and an extraordinarily talented actress.

  2. Fairy nuff. I remember the scene in Cliff Richard's film Summer Holiday. Travelling through Greece on a London bus, they pick up a girl with her hair up under a hat. This simple ruse persuades everyone she is a boy. When she declares her gender in order to get in a clinch with Cliff, all she has to do is remove the hat. 'Gosh, you're a...girl!'

    It must have been a lot easier to pass as a man in the days when women never, ever wore trousers.

    Trousered legs = male.

  3. She reveals herself as a girl in order to get off with Cliff Richard? The poor deluded child.

  4. Now, Oli, that's not nice or kind...

  5. Who is in the picture on the left?

  6. Greta Garbo, in Queen Christina, where she dresses in male attire to mingle with the common people to discover what they say about her.

    You know, the way royalty does...though not, I feel quite sure, our own dear Queen.

  7. Oh good, it's Greta. I was feeling like Black Adder.

  8. Is that from the Bob episode? It's been a while.


  9. Yes; that episode is called 'Bells', if the enthusiastic website I got it from is right.

  10. That's ringing, um, bells!