I blame Shakespeare.
Oh, the idea certainly predated him—Ancient Mythology, for example, is thoroughly populated with gods who disguise themselves as everything from some woman’s husband to a shower of golden rain in order to win their heart’s desire, or at least get some. And in absolute terms, Shakespeare’s women in disguise far outnumber his men—Portia in The Merchant of Venice; Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It; Viola in Twelfth Night; Hero in Much Ado About Nothing; the list goes on—but it is heroes in disguise with which we treat herein, and, as is the case with pretty much every romantic plot and subplot we see used today, this one has its roots in Elizabethan drama.
Because sometimes—pretty often, in fact—when it comes to Romance, it’s the liar who gets the girl.
In my list of Top 10 New York-Based Romantic Comedies, published in these pages lo, these many years ago, I made mention of how, at the end of You’ve Got Mail, the fact that Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) is able to so easily forgive frenemy Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) for knowingly being her secret pen pal crush is kind of hard to take, but “… you just let it go, let them have their moment, and try not to allow thoughts of their next fifty years of arguments culminating in ‘You closed down my mother’s store!’ enter your head.” It’s like that with so many of these tales; the fact that the hero has been lying to his heroine all this time can only be considered appalling, but on the other hand he really loves her now, and so allowances must be made.
Very often, the lie, the disguise, is given to us as a necessary one, like when Coming to America has Eddie Murphy’s Prince Hakeem posing as a goat herder, or The Prince and Me has the impossibly handsome Luke Mably’s Prince Edvard pretending to be a humble college exchange student, and not the heir to the Danish throne. When no longer surrounded by the aura of their positions, they can be loved for themselves and not their crowns; while initially upset by this subterfuge, eventually their lady loves overcome their objections to being duped, usually long after we, the audience, have done the same.
Another sometimes necessary deception is when our hero must, for one reason or another, don a wig and a dress and pretend to be a (usually) really mannish woman, and which incidentally often ends up furthering his romantic cause in some way. Some Like it Hot, Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, Just One of the Girls, White Chicks, Sorority Boys, Big Momma’s House, all these and more make extensive use of this ultimate in dubious disguises—you don’t see it so much in Romance novels, though. Which is so very not true of the reverse.
Much has been said around these parts about the Heroine in Drag—Historicals are very fond of this trope, as putting a delicately nurtured young lady in breeches and sending her out into the world opens up all sorts of delightful, madcap possibilities that Little Seasons in Bath and sedate sojourns to Richmond Park (with or without accompanying chaperone) simply don’t offer. Georgette Heyer did it. Barbara Cartland did it. Crossing the pond, Kathleen Woodiwiss did it, as did, and continue to do, many, many others. It is a subject that was covered nicely back in 2011 by H&H blogger Cybil Solyn in her post “Chick-in-Pants Heroines: Historical Hotness” (and its comments), and I am not about to retread over old ground on this score, except to perhaps add to its completeness with titles like The Conquest by Jude Deveraux, From This Moment On by Lynn Kurland, and maybe The Rake by Mary Jo Putney, and to dwell a little on one rare use of the Dude-in-Skirts Hero: Heyer’s Georgian masterpiece, The Masqueraders.
In this novel we have not only a Chick-in-Pants scenario (the tall, mature Prudence becomes the beardless stripling, Peter), but also Master Robin flirting with his fan and using feminine expressions like “La!” as the bewitching Mistress Kate. Both cross-dressers find their mates throughout the course of their deceptions, but why does it seem somehow worse, I wonder, for Robin to have wooed the innocent Letitia using knowledge gained under his guise as her best-friend, than for Prue to have earned the stalwart Sir Anthony Fanshawe’s devotion by doing much the same thing? In either case, there is an unfair advantage at play, but when a man calculatedly uses his ill-gotten knowledge to become the very gallant a lady wants, it’s…well, ungentlemanly. It’s like when guys in movies pretend to be gay. Perhaps it’s because in these tales of necessary cross-dressing, a woman may be playing a man, but she inevitably awakens…well, uncomfortable feelings in her unwitting beau, that whole “I’m strangely attracted to this boy” freak out, which gives the lie to their, well, lie, and somehow makes it all seem far less creepy. Whereas, for the most part, the girl in a Dude-in-Skirts story remains completely oblivious to the ruse, and it always comes as such a shock to her when it turns out her new bosom bow and her mysterious new courtier are one and the same.
But skirts and corsets were not the only form of disguise open to the historical gentleman, of course. Some hide in plain sight, acting the fop and the fool when really they are adventurous sorts who spend their nights liberating the falsely imprisoned or fighting on behalf of the oppressed. In Baroness Orczy’s 1903 novel The Scarlet Pimpernel we are given perhaps the world’s first superhero, though to be sure one without superpowers (they probably didn’t even have radiation back then), and certainly one of the world’s first masked vigilantes. To all the world, Sir Percy Blakeney is an aristocratic ne’er do well, privileged and wealthy, lazy and selfish, more concerned with the cut of his coat than with the cut of his jib. But to the terrified French nobility escaping from Madame Guillotine during the height of the Terror, he is the bold, brave and selfless eponymous hero, who is sought here, there and everywhere. Even Sir Percy’s wife, a Frenchwoman herself, has no notion that her husband is this chivalrous savior of so many of her compatriots, so thorough is his disguise. His like turn up everywhere in Historicals, and occasionally even in Regency efforts, such as Kasey Michaels’s delightful…let’s call it an homage…The Secrets of the Heart, though our hero therein, the debonair Christian St. Clair, is equal parts Robin Hood in his role as the valiant, scourge-of-the-gentry, Peacock. But the Pimpernel’s descendents range much further than in his own subgenre: from Zorro to The Saint to Green both Hornet and Arrow, this seemingly over-bred, over-indulged dilettante who is, in reality, a staunch campaigner for truth, justice and the Spanish/English/American way, but who must often hide this fact from even his dearest love, is ever a polarizing figure.
Which brings us nicely to comic books.
At the end of Quentin Tarantinos’s Kill Bill, Part 2, the titular Bill (David Carradine) talks of Superman, and how his disguise as Clark Kent is “Superman’s critique on the whole human race.” After all, “…what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak...he’s unsure of himself...he’s a coward.” Alone of all superheroes, suggests Bill, Superman’s costume is not his tights and cape but his human façade, and while I don’t entirely agree with this uniqueness (what about Martian Manhunter, QT? Or, hell, Wonder Woman?), it does raise a point that is apropos of this discussion—which is rather why I brought it up. Superman hides his true self, the very essence of himself, from the human woman he loves (Lois Lane, among a very few others) time and again, showing her only a semblance of himself, which is almost entirely an invention. And so when Lois eventually—and often—comes to care for Clark, not only does she not know all of him, she hardly knows any of him; he is as much a stranger to her as if they had never met, rather than having spent seventy-five years in varying degrees of closeness across a plethora of incarnations. Peter Parker might not tell Gwen Stacy or Mary Jane that he is Spider-Man right away, but they at least know his true Peter Parker-ness; in this, Superman is very like the aforementioned Sir Percy Blakeney and those he inspired, who present to the world, and their women, a very different man from who they actually are, in order to carry out their secret good deeds.
So does a hero in disguise become less of a liar, and therefore even easier to forgive for their deception, if they are at least honest about their fundamental personalities, if not their names, or job descriptions, or intentions? Or does any of that not matter at all, as long as they end up really loving her (because there’s always a her), and all of their dissimulation is in a good cause?
In How to Marry a Marquis by Julia Quinn, Lord Riverdale masquerades as his aunt’s new estate manager in order to track down a blackmailer. There, he becomes enchanted by her companion, Miss Elizabeth Hotchkiss, and while he does his best, certainly, to appear less than his lordly self, it is only his circumstances and not his charm and character that he attempts to conceal. So we love him. Similarly, and crossing over to the Contemporary side of the aisle for a moment, a fun—and funny!—example of this plot can be found is Elizabeth Bevarly’s Her Man Friday, where hunky Leo is a white collar crime investigator hired to look into the books of a billion dollar company, going undercover as a lowly peon with a fake name and a fetish for ill-fitting tweed. But for all his attempts to slouch and hide his light under a dweeby bushel, it is not long before he has revealed his true nature, if not his mission, to his crush/number one suspect, the lovely Lily. Bedroom fun times and computer-based revelations/accusations/reconciliations ensue.
The fact is, there are many disguises our romantic heroes don, that we constantly let them get away with; what of all the vampires and the werewolves and the demons in Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance, who live as mere normals until forced to reveal their true natures to their beloveds? And there are many lies our heroes tell, which we also let them get away with: what of Cyrano de Bergerac (and his modern interpretations, Steve Martin in Roxanne and Shane West in Whatever it Takes), hiding behind pretty words and, worse, tricking an innocent woman into being with an unworthy other? There are also many motivations that a man may have to lie, and the fact that we let them get away with these is amazing: what of She’s All That, and a bunch of similar stories, where our leading man initially only pretends to care about an irritated-but-actually-quite-flattered young thing, because there is either pride or money on the line?
In real life, would we put up with this outrageous treatment, and/or find it even the least bit endearing? Would the liar get the girl, or would he get a slap in the face and a civil suit lodged against him? Or do these stories actually reflect real life, and the lies we tell each other, and ourselves, every day? Do we really want complete honesty in a relationship, or would the comforting fiction that, for example, Freddie Prinze Jr. had liked us all along, help us sleep better at night?
Thinking further on the matter, perhaps we—and the fictional heroines whose adventures we follow—should all (going back to You’ve Got Mail) try to remember the wise advice of Nanny Maureen: “Never marry a man who lies.” Juliet (going back to Shakespeare) did just that… and look where that got her.
Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.