Sweet Polly Oliver is the term the website, tvtropes.com, uses to refer to a female character disguising herself as a man to achieve some purpose. “Sweet Polly Oliver” comes from a folksong about a woman disguising herself as a man in her dead brother’s clothes in order to follow her true love in the army.
The idea for this post comes from the Wheelock Family Theatre’s recent production of the musical, Oliver!, based on the Charles Dickens novel, Oliver Twist. It was a phenomenal watch, and what made it stand out was that the male character of Fagin, the old leader of a group of pickpocketing boys, was performed by a woman (Jane Staab of Wheelock College), and the character was performed as a woman disguising herself as a man! There weren’t a lot of options for unmarried women in 19th century England (or really anywhere else). And a poor, single woman in the streets was likely to end up in prostitution unless she got creative.
I am a fan of the Sweet Polly Oliver and find it riveting to see a female character infiltrating the male ranks, whether it be a bid for survival or as a way of accomplishing more than she could have within the confines of a male-preferential society. And of course, there are always the hijinx that come with fake identities. Here are some of my favorite Sweet Polly Olivers:
Hua Mulan from folksong, The Ballad of Mulan: When the emperor demands that one man from each family be drafted into the army for an upcoming war, the only grown man available in Mulan’s family is her old, infirmed father. Fearing that he would not be able to survive the dangers of war, Mulan disguises herself as a young man and takes his place. In the folksong, Ballad of Mulan, she ends up spending over a decade in battle and becomes a distinguished soldier. In the Disney rendition of the folktale, she becomes China’s savior and her ancestors rock out to Stevie Wonder and 98 degrees’s True to Your Heart, which is a great song by the way.
Alanna from Tamora Pierce’s The Song of the Lioness Quartet: In the fictional land of Tortall, young girls from noble families are sent to the city convent to learn how to become a lady, and young boys are sent to knight school at the royal palace. Not happy with their destinies, Alanna and her twin brother, Thom, switch places. Alanna disguised herself as a boy named Alan in the first two books, and we got to see her grow into womanhood while crushing evildoers and developing her powers.
Viola from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and She’s the Man: Viola lands on the shores of Illyria after a shipwreck separates her from her brother. She disguises herself as the young man, Cesario, so that she may serve Duke Orsino, who rules Illyria. I actually can’t remember WHY she wants to serve this duke, but I guess there weren’t a lot of options for young women who were alone and shipwrecked in 17th century. A couple years ago, a modern adaptation of the story was done, called She’s the Man . After her girls’ soccer team is cut, and she is told that she is not allowed to join the boys’ team, Viola disguises herself as her twin brother and plays for the boys’ soccer team of her school’s rival.
Fujioka Haruhi from the anime, Ouran High School Host Club: When poor, scholarship student, Fujioka Haruhi breaks the $80,000 vase at the ridiculously wealthy high school she attends, she is forced to work as a male member of the Host Club – a club in which a few good-looking male students cater food and attention to female students. Haruhi’s minimal awareness of gender roles and her reactions to the hijinx of her schoolmates are quite interesting to watch.
Zhu Yingtai from the Chinese legend, Butterfly Lovers: Zhu Yingtai, is a beautiful, intelligent young woman whose father has allowed her to attend school, disguise herself as a boy, since this was a time when women were supposed to stay at home. There, she becomes best friends with fellow student, Liang Shanbo, and falls in love with him. Her gender is eventually revealed to him, and he reciprocates her love. However, tragic events befall them and they become star-crossed lovers, reuniting only in death as butterflies. This is the Romeo and Juliet story of China and has several film renditions.
Kim from Patricia Wrede’s Mairelon the Magician: The main female character, Kim, is 17-year-old pickpocketing street urchin in 19th century England. Observing what happens to young women living in the streets, Kim grows up in male disguise in order to avoid being sold into prostitution. Knowing that her body is starting to change and grow and that the male disguise may not be viable for much any longer, she takes on a lucrative job to steal from street magician, who turns out to be a real magician.
Other favorite Sweet Polly Olivers that I’ve enjoyed reading or watching, but haven’t the time to mention include Prudence from Georgette Heyer’s The Masqueraders, Kim Yoon-hee from the korean television drama, Sungkyunkwan Scandal, and Eowyn from J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings.