Historically, it’s not been easy for women living in a man’s world. Both history and fiction have numerous stories of women skirting society restrictions in disguise.
In 17th century Europe, Shakespeare’s plays As You Like It and Twelfth Night gave us two of the most memorable tales of women disguising themselves as men. In 12th century China, The Ballad of Mulan tells us of a young woman who risks her life to take her father’s place as a soldier.
The trope continues to be a popular device, particularly in historical stories, to allow female characters to do things and go places that would’ve been prohibited. Sometimes these shows give us a dramatic tale (like Mulan) and others some humorous escapades (like Twelfth Night). I also enjoy seeing how much effort the show will put in making it convincing – some of these stories force the audience to bring a huge amount of suspension of disbelief as they cast a stunning model and even let her wear makeup!
Here are 12 different stories of heroines in disguise; some are tales of survival, others are humorous. Plus my appraisals of their disguises (or lack of disguise)!
In this fictionalized story of The Ballad of Mulan, Mulan gives us the most sacrificial, heroic story here as she selflessly decides to protect her father and family by going to war in her father’s place. Though her comrades initially shun her after learning the truth, they eventually accept her, recognizing her courage and strength. Even the Emperor of China acknowledges her great deeds!
Disguise Appraisal: 4.5 out of 5. Convincing.
Deokman (Queen Seondeok)
A story about a long-lost princess becoming the ruling queen of her land, (Princess) Deokman first survives years alone by disguising herself as a man and joining the Hwarang warriors. She has many close encounters where her identity is nearly discovered.
Disguise Appraisal: 3.5 out of 5. Decent. At least, she’s not wearing noticeable makeup.
Ra-Oh (Moonlight Drawn By Clouds)
Ra-On grew up disguised as a boy per her mother’s wishes. She later on discovered that her family had been in hiding for years, thus her mother’s pressure for her to disguise herself. She has a romance with the Prince of Joseon, who eventually figures out that the cute little Ra-On is actually a girl.
Disguise Appraisal: 2.5 out of 5. She has such an adorable little babyface, she could pass for a 12-year-old boy. Maybe?
Gwyn (Princess of Thieves)
The daughter of Maid Marian and Robin Hood, Gwyn decides to take on her father’s mission, cutting her hair and pretending to be a man. Along with her father, she helps dethrone Prince John and put Richard’s son and heir, Prince Philip, on the throne.
Disguise Appraisal: 2 out of 5. She’s seriously not even trying.
Viola (She’s The Man)
In a modern retelling of Twelfth Night, Viola dresses up like a boy to cover her brother. She has an amusing love triangle with Duke (Channing Tatum) and Olivia who thinks she’s a boy. Eventually the truth comes out and everyone lives happily ever after. Also…. Amanda Bynes is so freakin’ adorable!
Disguise Appraisal: 4 out of 5. Decent. The sideburns really help and she thankfully doesn’t wear strong makeup... except for the lip gloss.
Veera (Dil Bole Hadippa!)
In this Bollywood Twelfth Night retelling, Veera’s dreams of going to the cricket big leagues, but no one will let a woman try out. So she disguises herself as a man. It gets complicated when she starts a romance with her coach as her “twin sister”. She overcomes everyone’s prejudice in the finale.
Disguise Appraisal: 5 out of 5. She wears a hat and a beard! Nice effort, Veera!
Velvet (National Velvet, 1953)
Such a cute story! Velvet takes in a wild horse and calls him The Pie. With the help of a former jockey, Mi, she starts training Pie. They hire a jockey to take Pie in the Grand National steeplechase, but Velvet can see the jockey’s heart isn’t in it. With the help of Mi, she dresses up like a boy and rides Pie to victory herself.
Disguise Appraisal: 4 out of 5. With her cap pulled low and with Mi’s help, she basically avoids everyone so they don’t notice her.
Eowyn (Lord of the Rings)
Lady Eowyn has always had a thirst to fight in battle for glory. When asked to stay behind in Rohan, Eowyn disguises herself as a man and goes to the battlefield. She’s able to defeat the powerful Witchking who cannot be slain by a man.
Disguise Appraisal: 4.5 out of 5. Under heavy armor and chainmail and with that huge helmet, no one would question who Eowyn is. Of course once she takes her helmet off...
Roberta (Swiss Family Robinson)
Roberta disguised herself as a cabin boy just as her and her grandfather were captured by pirates. With the help of two of the Robinson sons, she escapes to their family’s tree house. She gets caught in a love triangle with the brothers.
Disguise Appraisal: 3 out of 5. I mean, I guess she could pass as a 13-14-year-old. Maybe.
Mi-Nyeo (You’re Beautiful)
Mi-Nyeo dreams of becoming a nun. But after her brother, a newbie idol singer, has to go to the U.S. to fix a failed plastic surgery, she agrees to help him for a month by pretending to be him in a new band. Two of her new band-members quickly figure out she’s a girl – and of course, a love triangle and hilarious hijinks ensue.
Disguise Appraisal: 3 out of 5. It helps to be in a pretty boy band.
Kim Yoon-Hee (Sungkyunkwan Scandal)
While this is a light-hearted youth drama, Sungkyunkwan Scandal deals with some tougher issues, particularly in Yoon-Hee who has no choice but to pretend to be her brother to get jobs to provide for her mom and very ill brother. She even ends up in a prestigious institute for scholars while daily working not to be discovered... and executed.
Disguise Appraisal: 2.5 out of 5. I mean, I think she’s trying... no she's not. She just thinks no one will question her because she put on a guy hanbok, lol.
Kate (After the Ball)
Kate’s the daughter of the CEO of a fashion company. She tries to reconnect with her estranged dad and join his company, but her evil stepsisters (this is a Cinderella retelling hehe) frame her and get her thrown out. She comes back disguised as Nate, a designer, wowing Dad and everyone with her designs. Of course, it gets harder and harder for her to keep her identity a secret – especially from the cute guy in the shop department.
Disguise Appraisal: 4.5 out of 5. She is definitely giving effort with that wig and fake facial hair.
Bonus: worst disguise ever…
Dam Yeo-Wool (Gu Family Book)
Disguise Appraisal. 0 out of 5. Failure. Is this even trying?? WHAT???? Suzy please!