"Wondering whether he was to mount the box or enter with his master": Forced-Masc Fantasies In Georgette Heyer
First, the question that led to all this: Where is all the force-masc porn? I’ll leave it to my transfeminine counterparts to talk about the various relationships between force-femme (forcibly-feminized for the newcomer)/“sissy” porn and trans desire; I quite like this interview Torrey Peters did with Wussy Magazine a few years back:
I think the danger of talking about something like forced feminization isn’t necessarily the fact that the subject itself is taboo or shocking (which is a level of pushback so basic that I find it uninteresting), the danger lies in conclusions we have to draw when we honestly reckon with those subjects. For instance, pretty much every queer agrees that trans women are women. But not everyone is willing to look at the ways trans women’s sexuality—by dint of shame, life experience, different bodies, et cetera—might not look exactly like cis women’s sexuality.
When you stop centering cis women’s sexuality as the standard of women’s sexuality and you begin to claim that trans women’s sexuality is equally valid as cis women’s sexuality—it means that women-only spaces, if they want to be inclusive to ALL women, must re-examine aspects of sexuality frequently deemed dangerous or male: namely, sexuality that might involve penises, or working through shame about femininity as seen through the male gaze.
Subjects like forced feminization ask us to question those presumptions, and more to the point, they make the dangerous case that what a majority of women have previously labeled male, or triggering, or traumatizing, might actually be a type of womanhood, one that belongs in women’s spaces and as a part of women’s sexuality. That kind of claim tends to get emotions going and receive a lot of pushback because it demands not just acceptance of trans women into womanhood as it now exists, but a change in how cis women think about and apply the idea of womanhood in general.
I’ve often asked, half-joking and half-in earnest, what the spear-side equivalent of force-femme might be; a number of tangentially-related projects come to mind (the Haze Him gay-on-bro porn of the mid-to-late aughts, Disney’s Mulan, She’s The Man). And I’m not alone! There are, quite possibly, dozens of us!
But nothing quite clicked until I thought of (of course, what else) fan fiction and its considerable debt to Georgette Heyer, the historical-romance novelist who singlehandedly invented the Regency romance, of which girl-disguised-as-boy-style crossdressing is a reliable staple, and who herself had a fabulous Serious Young Man/Sexually Intimidating Auntie Em sort of vibe.
The plausibly deniable part of force-masc fantasy is always historical sexism or situational necessity – Alanna of Trebond can’t train as a knight if people know she’s a girl, Zelda needs to hide the Triforce of Power from Ganondorf and the best way to do so is in twink drag, Terri Griffith needs a journalism scholarship and is sick of getting harassed by her pervy teachers – okay, actually, I’m not just going to link this one in-line, it’s good enough to stop and make you watch it:
Let’s call it The Great Chaste Lie of the Plucky Heroine. “Oh, my, I’m not getting anything out of this fantasy of being buried deep within the bosom of shared manhood! I derive neither aesthetic nor sexual pleasure from the particular form of binding this fantasy requires, nor in adopting a masculine affect, nor from the thrill of being ‘discovered’ and punished, nor from the idea in being tutored and quizzed in the manly arts by a gruff, lantern-jawed paragon of masculinity! No, this is only to avoid detection/find an outlet for my period-inappropriate determination/prove that I’m not like other girls. Purely opportunistic, nothing erotically charged about our big-brother-little-brother, Mister-I’ll-make-a-man-out-of-you vibe, no sirree.”
Let’s start with THE CORINTHIAN, one of Heyer’s earlier Regencies, before she’d quite locked into the formula – swaggering dandy Richard Wyndham spots Penn Creed (aka Penelope) climbing out of her family home down a rope-ladder during his drunken stumble home; the two of them start traveling together so she can avoid a forced marriage as he poses variously as Penn’s uncle, cousin, and tutor.
At the end of the book, Penn’s taken off in the middle of the night, convinced Sir Richard only proposed out of a sense of guilt (You’re wrong, Penn!), forcing Sir Richard to chase after his ward/nephew/cousin and tear him out of a carriage. It’s got every element necessary to the force-masc fantasy: tons of reminders about Sir Richard’s cis massiveness, power, stateliness, address, and competence that alternately threatens, overshadows, envelops, commingles, and eats Penn’s squishy, trans-adjacent, conditional boyishness, running away from school, male sulkiness versus male authority, man-on-boy bullying, more than a hint of open homosexuality that’s not only condoned but demanded by polite society – the people in the carriage don’t just encourage Richard to “recover” Penn, most of them insist on it.
The next instant, Sir Richard’s tall, immaculate person filled the opening, and Pen, uttering an involuntary sound between a squeak and a whimper, turned first red, and then white, and managed to utter the one word: ‘No!’
‘Ah!’ said Sir Richard briskly. ‘So there you are! Out you come, my young friend!’
‘Well, I never did in all my life!’ gasped the woman beside Pen. ‘Whatever has he been and gone and done, sir?’
‘Run away from school,’ replied Sir Richard, without a moment’s hesitation.
‘I haven’t! It isn’t t-true!’ stammered Pen. ‘I won’t go with you, I w-won’t!’
Sir Richard, leaning into the coach, and grasping her hand, said: ‘Oh, won’t you, by Jove? Don’t you dare to defy me, you – brat!’
‘Here, guv’nor, steady!’ expostulated a kindly man in the far corner. ‘I don’t know when I’ve taken more of a fancy to a lad, and there’s no call for you to bully him, I’m sure! Dare say there’s many of us have wanted to run away from school in our time, eh?’
“Oh, no, don’t make me cut off all my hair and shorten my name, I’d sure hate that! Oh, no, don’t take me back to school, you strict lessons-master! Oh my, I can barely get a word in edgewise, I’m falling all to pieces! Gee whiz, mister, all the other men in the carriage sure think I’m the best little lad in all the world – a real corker of a boy, met with universal male approval, and having a universally male experience. This is the worst!!!!!”
‘Ah,’ said Sir Richard brazenly, ‘but you do not know the half of it! You think he looks a young innocent, but I could tell you a tale of his depravity which would shock you.’
‘Oh, how dare you?’ said Pen indignantly. ‘It isn’t true! Indeed, it isn’t!’ The occupants of the coach had by this time ranged themselves into two camps. Several persons said that they had suspected the young varmint of running away from the start, and Pen’s supporters demanded to know who Sir Richard was, and what right he had to drag the poor young gentleman out of the coach.
‘Every right!’ responded Sir Richard. ‘I am his guardian. In fact, he is my nephew.’
‘I am not!’ stated Pen. His eyes looked down into hers, with so much laughter in them that she felt her heart turn over.
‘Aren’t you?’ he said. ‘Well, if you are not my nephew, brat, what are you?’
Aghast, she choked: ‘Richard, you – you – traitor!’ Even the kindly man in the corner seemed to feel that Sir Richard’s question called for an answer. Pen looked helplessly round, encountered nothing but glances either of disapproval, or of interrogation, and raised her wrathful eyes to Sir Richard’s face. ‘Well?’ said Sir Richard inexorably. ‘Are you my nephew?’
‘Yes – no! Oh, you are abominable! You wouldn’t dare!’
‘Yes, I would,’ said Sir Richard. ‘Are you going to get out, or are you not?’ A man in a plum-coloured coat recommended Sir Richard to dust the young rascal’s jacket for him. Pen stared up at Sir Richard, read the determination behind the amusement in his face, and allowed herself to be pulled to her feet, and out of the stuffy coach.
“Well, I hate to do it, personally, but if everyone in this carriage is going to insist that I’m the sexy, dangerous, possibly deviant nephew of this powerful, commanding man, then I guess there’s nothing to be done for it but allow myself to be dragged out of a stuffy coach and into the fresh and free out-of-doors with him! You sure hate to see it, but what can you do??”
She found herself unable to speak. There was an expression in Sir Richard’s eyes which brought the colour rushing into her cheeks again, and made her feel as though the world were whirling madly round her. Behind her, the guard, having let up the steps, and shut the door, climbed, grumbling, on to the roof again. The coach began to move ponderously forward. Pen paid no heed to it, though the wheels almost brushed her coat. ‘Richard, you – you don’t want me! You can’t want me!’ she said uncertainly.
‘My darling!’ he said. ‘Oh, my precious, foolish little love!’
The coach lumbered on down the road; as it reached the next bend, the roof-passengers, looking back curiously to see the last of a very odd couple, experienced a shock that made one of them nearly lose his balance. The golden-haired stripling was locked in the Corinthian’s arms, being ruthlessly kissed. ‘Lawks a-mussy on us! whatever is the world a-coming to?’ gasped the roof-passenger, recovering his seat. ‘I never did in all my born days!’
‘Richard, Richard, they can see us from the coach!’ expostulated Pen, between tears and laughter.
‘Let them see!’ said the Corinthian.
There is no force-masc fantasy more powerful than this! The straightest, hottest guy in the world, God’s own quarterback, doesn’t care that it looks gay when he’s kissing you. Go straight to jail, do not collect $200, it’s all over but the shouting, it’s Chinatown baby, this is it.
Next up we’ve got THE MASQUERADERS, this time featuring a pair of cross-dressing twins, one of each flavor, although we will once again confine ourselves to Peter-née-Pru. (The old covers, by the way, almost always get the vibe wrong, showing a heroine in obviously tailored-for-ladies menswear that strains at the ample bosom and cinches in the feminine waist. Think more Jacques in Young Blades. Also, the native pose of the force-masc victim/hero is not hands-on-hips and straddling the world with pride, it’s more like a twist on the debutante slouch to denote eroticized humiliation and also to keep the chest looking flat. It should be pointed out that, uh, you know, the force-masc fantasy is not a straightforward celebration of unproblematic transmasculinity.)
Another big part of the fantasy is the THRILL OF DISCOVERY, not because the goal is being restored to social womanhood, but because the biggest transmasculine anxiety is one of being thought fraudulent and incompetent, and DISCOVERY is always preceded by SEXY INQUISITION. In what ways are you a boy? Who else thinks of you as a boy? Describe to me, in detail, your most recent acts of boyishness. Arm-wrestle me at once!, etc.
She was peeling the nut, and her fingers did not falter, though she was taken by surprise. What was he at now, pray? She looked up inquiringly, but had sense enough to commit herself to nothing.
‘Some duel when you sustained a wound in the shoulder,’ said Sir Anthony. She was at a momentary loss, and knew herself closely scrutinized. Recollection of the night when she was set on by Mohocks returned to her. She remembered the excuse manufactured on the spur of the moment for Belfort’s edification.
‘True, Sir Anthony, but that took place abroad.’
‘Like so many of your experiences,’ nodded Sir Anthony, and again picked up the decanter. ‘But you don’t drink, my dear boy.’ She thought she had drank a deal too much of this heavy Burgundy already, and deplored the absence of claret. Once more her glass was filled. To refuse it would give food for suspicion in these days of hard drinking. She swallowed some of the deep red wine, was aware of a lazy glance upon her, and emptied the glass recklessly. God send she kept a sober head on her shoulders! If there was to be more of it the next glass must go down her arm. ‘But we drift from the point,’ Sir Anthony said genially. ‘We were talking of Newmarket, and, as I remember, I queried an assertion on your part, child, that you’d no fear of me.’
‘Why, what should I fear in you?’ Prudence asked, and chuckled, ‘You tell me you won’t call me out, and I’m able to breathe again.’
Sir Anthony’s mouth relaxed into a smile of real amusement. ‘I do verily believe, young man, that you’d meet me with perfect sangfroid.’
‘Oh, as to that, sir, I might know some serious nervous qualms. I’m to understand you’re accounted something of a master of the small sword.’
‘You’ve been misinformed. Do you ever have nervous qualms, I wonder?’
Her fingers closed round the stem of her wine-glass; she was looking at the ruby liquid sparkling in it. ‘Often, sir. Why should you suppose me cast in the heroic mould?’
‘I’d a notion you’d a vast deal of courage, my friend,’ placidly replied Fanshawe.
‘Good Gad, sir, why? Because I would fight Rensley?’
‘That, and some other things.’ Sir Anthony drained his glass, and refilled it, glancing at the untouched wine in the glass Prudence still held. He selected a nut from the dish, and became busy with the cracking of it. Now was her moment, while his eyes were bent on his plate. Prudence raised her glass to her lips, as though to toss off the whole; there was a quick practised turn of the wrist, over in a flash, and the contents of her glass were sent down her arm. But quicker even than her own movement, Sir Anthony leaned forward. His hand shot out, and the hard fingers closed round her wrist. Relentlessly her arm was borne down: down till the glass she held emptied its dregs on to the floor. She made no effort to break free; perhaps she breathed a little faster. The fingers were clamped still about her wrist; Sir Anthony was looking down at her hand, watching the wine trickle down her arm, and drip on to the carpet. She sat perfectly still; her eyes were calm, even meditative, resting on Fanshawe’s face.
You remember that scene in 30 Rock where Devin Banks and Jack are trying to destroy each other, and Jack calls over his ace in the hole, the beautiful Winthrop, to get Devin to admit that he’s gay and therefore can’t marry their boss’ daughter?
JACK: Winthrop here wrestled at Yale.
DEVIN: With other dudes, or…?
JACK: Banks here says he can pin you.
DEVON: Oh God, you're so strong! Oh, you're having your way with me. Your back is like a barrel of snakes. Oh God, I'm just your doll! I think I love you. We're joking! It's all jokes!
We barely even have time for THESE OLD SHADES, Heyer’s first(ish) book, in which the boy-captive isn’t even acknowledged as a Plucky Heroine until, like, forty pages in, and the evil (but never evil for you, my precious boy-girl, I have suddenly discovered MONOGAMY and MORALITY as a result of your girlish enthusiasm and boyish good looks) duke who employs our PH, uh, forces him to accept a sapphire chain in a scene that can’t really be described, only experienced:
Avon took the heavy sapphire chain and threw it over Léon’s head so that it lay across his breast, glowing with an inward fire, yet no brighter or more liquid than the boy’s eyes.
‘Monseigneur!’ gasped Léon. He put up his hand to feel the precious chain. ‘Give me your hat. The clasp, Gaston.’ Unhurriedly he fixed the diamond and sapphire circle on the upturned brim of the page’s hat. Then he gave it to Léon, and stepped back to observe the effect of his handiwork. ‘Yes, I wonder why I never thought of sapphires before? The door, my infant…’
Later, in the duke’s carriage, Léon takes offense at the idea of being paid to work for him (How dare you insult me by acknowledging my usefulness in any way, my only desire is to lose myself completely in the sea of your powerful male authority, etc) and they end up fighting about whether or not he’s going to wear it. The duke yawns a lot, Léon’s eyes flash a lot, and it all culminates thusly:
‘I – I am sorry, Monseigneur,’ whispered Léon. He turned his face away, biting his lips. Avon watched him for a time in silence, but presently the mixture of forlornness and hurt dignity in his page drew a soft laugh from him, and he pulled one of the bright curls admonishingly. ‘Do you expect me to apologize, my good child?’
Léon jerked his head away, and still stared out of the window. ‘You are very haughty.’ The mocking note in that gentle voice brought a wave of colour to Léon’s cheeks. ‘I – you are not – kind!’
‘So you have just discovered that? But I do not see why I should be called unkind for rewarding you.’
‘You do not understand!’ said Léon fiercely.
‘I understand that you deem yourself insulted, infant. It is most entertaining.’ A tiny sniff, which was also a sob, answered him. Again he laughed, and this time laid a hand on Léon’s shoulder. Under the steely pressure Léon came to his knees, and stayed there, eyes downcast. The chain was flung over his head.
‘My Léon, you will wear this because it is my pleasure.’ ‘Yes, Monseigneur,’ said Léon stiffly. The Duke took the pointed chin in his hand, and forced it up. ‘I wonder why I bear with you?’ he said. ‘The chain is a gift. Are you satisfied?’
Léon pressed his chin down quickly to kiss the Duke’s wrist. ‘Yes, Monseigneur. Thank you. Indeed I am sorry.’
‘Then you may sit down again.’
PERMISSION TO SIT DOWN AFTER A NECKLACE BLOW-JOB FULL OF SUSTAINED EYE CONTACT AND A MUTUAL STRUGGLE FOR AUTHORITY, SIR?
Georgette Heyer gets it, is all I’m saying. She didn’t get that she gets it, obviously, and all of her books are sexist as hell, but she invented gay transsexuals and for that we and Lou Sullivan both owe her a debt of honor. Congratulations, you’re a boy now; here’s your sapphire. Meet me in the parlor at midnight so we can arm-wrestle and I can humiliate you.