When a woman rides as a man

Continuing into our World Fantasy inspired posts, this week we have a meditation on a trope that came up in the panel “Beards and Intrigue: Queering the Historical Fantastic” which I took to calling “Queering Beards” at some point. Sorry, everyone I’ve communicated with verbally about this panel. My verbal communication powers are generally negligible.

Anyway, the panelists in question included: Sara Megibow, one of my dream agents and moderator; Greg Tremblay, voice narrator and cool guy; J Tullos Hennig; and Jessica Reisman. All of them write “queer” books, which I put in scarequotes because in this case the term queer is used as a catchall for the entire LGBTQIA+ spectrum of genders and sexualities. They hit on a metric boatload of interesting topics, but one thing they brought up that I thought might deserve a blogpost was the trope of a woman masquerading as a man.

Sara did an excellent job moderating, but the framing of the question as she asked it and as it was answered bothered me a bit, which is why I felt the need to write about it more. Speaking of The Bone Doll’s Twin as an example, a story where an infant girl is physically reassigned sex at birth by being magically hidden in the body of a boy, and is later, unwillingly, extricated from that body, she asked if the trope of a woman masquerading as a man could be said to be representative of transgender experiences. The panel members agreed that the trope itself was actually a way for predominantly cisgendered women to escape the bounds of their gender in fiction – but something about that didn’t sit right with me. In The Bone Doll’s Twin, the main character is physically a boy for most of her life. While it doesn’t speak directly to the transgender experience on all levels, and was not written explicitly for a trans readership, I clearly remember the main character’s sexual dysphoria as being a key part of her development at the end of the book, and understandably so. There is a lot going on in this story, and analysis of it from a trans perspective could be a worthy blogpost in and of itself for someone with those lived experiences.

The panel was correct, however, in recognizing that this is not a usual permutation of the trope. Two other examples come to mind, one old and one recent. The first is The Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce. This is my personal earliest encounter with the trope of the woman who masquerades as a boy, as the panel pointed out, in order to step past the boundaries of her gender. Alanna is female and a woman. She accepts her womanhood, at the end of the series, once society makes space for her to be both a woman and a warrior. She eventually marries a man, and her sexuality is not, to my remembrance, ever called into question. She is also championed by the Divine Feminine in the form of a goddess. This model is the epitome of the panel’s description, and is mirrored in other contemporary books near and dear to my heart, such as The Blue Sword. This story is not written for a transgender audience, though it may appeal to those questioning the boundaries of gender identity, and certainly functions within feminist critique of what a woman is and can be. To me it is a very different story from that told in The Bone Doll’s Twin.

In contrast, a more recent story that I read which contained this trope is The Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen. I found this to be a very powerful read, personally, in many of the same ways that The Song of the Lioness remains a powerful story for me. However, I felt that Bowen was telling a very different story here as well. Unlike in The Song of the Lioness, Nettie outright rejects her femininity not only in pursuit of ambition, but because she feels a revulsion for her womanness that is clearly articulated. This revulsion is related to her traumas, but not, to my reading, exclusive to it. Nettie’s story is one of self-exploration that explicitly questions her gender representation and sexuality. It uses a pre-identified trope of a woman dressing as a man to pass into forbidden spaces and works to expand that trope by subverting the heteronormativity of it. It is possible that, in another time and place, Nettie might choose transition. Unlike in other stories, even once her biological sex is outed Nettie remains in conflict with her sex and assigned gender.

Therefore, while classic stories such as Song of the Lioness fit within the critique of the panel, as ways to allow women to move in spaces dominated by men and question what women are allowed to be, not every use of this trope is so limited. Both The Bone Doll’s Twin, by explicitly changing the sex of the main character through magic, and The Wake of Vultures, by positing a character who is at minimum genderqueer and questioning of her sexuality, expand the trope of the woman who rides as a man to be something more. I hope that this trope will continue to be adapted and expanded to be more inclusive to other lived experiences.

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