Friday, 2 October 2015

Fifty Shades Of..... Gender Bias and Sexuality in Historical Fiction

Isn't it reassuring to know that all those heroines of historical fiction, who found that they just weren't maternal, or meek, or submissive enough - that they identified themselves more strongly as masculine, that they cut their hair, or wore breeches, or climbed trees - they were all sweet, frilly girlies, really: because with the right man, you can get better!

Five hundred years ago - three hundred, two hundred years ago - women weren't allowed to identify with masculine gender stereotypes. We conformed, to the Gospel according to St Paul; we learned in all subjection, we were respectful, we covered our hair and our bodies as we were taught, or we paid the price of social ostracism.
You know the old chestnut of the girl who dresses as a boy to follow her soldier lover to war and bring him home safe? Don't get many of them in the 17th century. In fact, I don’t think I know of a single example of a woman who enlists as a soldier during the English Civil Wars - maybe that's because women were following the drum anyway, in the guise of camp followers, or maybe it's because until the creation of the New Model Army in 1645 no one was looking, or maybe it's because 17th century women were more than capable of fighting the good fight in skirts, viz. Lady Derby, Brilliana Harley, Elizabeth Lilburne, I'll stop now but I could keep going all night. The 17th century highwaywoman Moll Frith lived and dressed as a woman - as attested by her nickname, Cutpurse Moll - and anecdote reports that at one point she robbed Thomas Fairfax, shot him in the arm and killed two of his horses. Which must have pleased him no end…

But it's not really till the 18th century that we start to see the "mannish" woman appear - Kit Ross, who followed her man into Marlborough's Army and then decided that she quite liked the Army life and lived as a soldier for the better part of ten years, serving in two different units undiscovered; Anne Bonney and Mary Read, that pair of unglamorous pirate captains, who were as fierce and merciless as any of their masculine counterparts - what's interesting is that most of the 18th century women who disguised themselves as men disguised themselves successfully, and lived within close male communities undiscovered for long periods, but that they also were considered as equals of their male counterparts. Kit Ross was officially pensioned off, despite the discovery of her gender; Anne Bonney and Mary Read were sentenced to an equal punishment to their male counterpart, Calico Jack Rackham.

So, you know, there are hundreds of years of history of women living successfully as men, competing with men, existing forcefully in a male-dominated society. Succeeding, on their own terms, against men. (If piracy is your thing, obviously.) Being acknowledged as comrades and peers, by men. Women in Restoration England were running their own businesses, their own coffee-shops, although they weren't permitting female customers in those hotbeds of political discourse and dissent. Women in 1649 were presenting petitions to Parliament saying…"Have we not an equal interest with the men of this Nation, in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and the other good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood?"

And now, four hundred years later, we're denying this again in mainstream historical fiction.
The tomboyish heroine, that old favourite of romantic fiction, who's not satisfied by a life of conventionally girlish pleasures, and who finds freedom and self-expression as an equal in masculine company - she changes, of course, when she meets the right man. (He "makes" her a woman, as often as not. *shudders*)

All those strong women, who lived and worked and loved as women in their own right, who ran businesses and ships and companies of soldiers in their own right - they just needed a man, to make them want to give up their independence and be hobbled by skirts again?
Seriously?

I was talking to Kim Wright from the arts programme Art2Art on Swindon 105.5 FM earlier on (just thought I'd drop that one right there, me on the radio, not swearing, not once. Hardly. Much. At all) - he had the idea that this sudden gender conventionality in fiction was a reaction against women's freedoms in World War 2, where women were suddenly doing men's work, men's equals, threatening established masculine domains, and the womenfolk had to be groomed a little into getting back into their boxes after the war. And, you know, perhaps the reason for the popularity of that aggressively masculine, Chandleresque stuff was that a lot of women were comfortable within those boxes, too. 

And that's fine, if that's what works for you, but it's not right for everyone. We're still promoting the idea of binary genders - of girlie girls and butch men - and pushing the myth that if you are not a pink princess, or a brave hero, you can't have romance, you can't have adventure, you can't be successful. That to be atypical, in fiction, makes a character a curio, a freakshow. There was a Paul Verhoeven film called "Flesh + Blood" in which Rutger Hauer's mercenary band contained, amongst others, two sniggering and not always very kind best mates, who were rough and tough, who always had each other's backs, who were a pair of loutish young gentlemen always spoiling for a fight.
At the end of the film one of them is killed and you realise, by the response of the other, that these two testosterone-fuelled hooligans were a deeply loving and long-established couple.
And it's not relevant to the plot, it's just a throwaway scene where actually, these two brawling roughs are seen to have a capacity for deep emotion - but it's two men who are in love with each other. 

Does that matter? Yes. They're a pair of aggressive street bravos who've systematically gone through life as their own two-person gang, and now all of a sudden one of them is alone, and we see a vulnerable, frightened side to him. 
Does it matter that it's two men? No. Or it shouldn't. As Het Babbitt points out to Hapless Russell in "A Wilderness of Sin", "There is, in my opinion, an insufficiency of people loving each other in this world, dear. As if it were something to be ashamed of."

Takes all sorts to make a world, as they say in Lancashire, but if you're going to write, the world is at your fingertips. Women, and men, in history fought hard to live outside convention, knowing they faced exposure, ridicule, social ostracism, even death, for disclosing themselves. And they still do, we have not yet come so far. We owe it to readers to write those men and women back into historical fiction, not as plaster saints or  wayward sinners, but as real, rounded human beings. Just lke us.

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Awarded for Excellence in Research by 17th-Century Specialists

Awarded for Excellence in Research by 17th-Century Specialists