Cross-dressing in Children’s Adventure Fiction: Does it always challenge Gender Stereotypes?

Elizabeth Poynter


Gender identity is nowadays widely agreed to be socio-culturally constructed. Children’s books may have a powerful impact on such constructions, particularly in the mid-twentieth century before the supremacy of television and digital media. Much popular children’s fiction of this period has been dismissed as conforming to, rather than challenging, gender stereotypes. Is this in fact too simplistic a picture? Victoria Flanagan (Into the Closet; Reframing Masculinity) has theorised that in children’s adventure fiction females take on male identities to gain agency, often very successfully, while males perform femininity less successfully and generally with comedic effect. This study of six cases of cross-dressing in British children’s fiction does not support this view. Cross-dressing may be primarily a plot device aimed at heightening the mystery and tension; female cross-dressers may be passive and ‘feminine’, while males may in fact outperform females in the ‘opposite’ gender role and on occasion gain an agency through that cross-dressing which was denied them in their male attire. In all the cases explored here, the cross-dresser was a subsidiary character rather than a protagonist, and this may be key to determining how cross-dressing is portrayed.


Children’s Fiction, Cross-dressing, Gender Identity, Gender Roles

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