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Harmless Lady Disguise

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Inara: So... explain to me again why Zoe wasn't in the dress?
Mal: Tactics, woman. Needed her in the back. Besides, them soft cotton dresses feel kinda nice. There's a whole... airflow.
Inara: And you'd know that because...?
Mal: You can't open the book of my life and jump in the middle.

See that harmless little lady over there? She's actually a man — a masculine, adventurous man who uses the dress to appear harmless and hide in plain sight.

Men are active, women are passive. That's the way things are, at least according to traditional gender roles.

Thus, if a man wants to become invisible and appear nonthreatening, it can be beneficial for him to pretend to be a woman. In sharp contrast to most forms of regular cross-dressing, this is done as a way of avoiding attention.

Contrast Sweet Polly Oliver, which is something of the inverse of this trope, since those women dress as men in order to openly embrace the male gender role of being active and potentially dangerous.

Many of the examples specifically have a male character disguising himself as an old woman, which is somewhat less reliant on sexist perceptions since senior citizens are (stereo)typically weak and frail (and it's also somewhat more believable that a man could look like an older woman than a younger one).

Subtrope of Disguised in Drag. May overlap with Wig, Dress, Accent or Mugging the Monster.


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    Audio Play 
  • Big Finish Doctor Who. In "The Heavenly Paradigm", an ordinary house in Stamford Bridge, Yorkshire holds a Time Lord depository of forbidden weapons. The little old lady who lives there is actually a Time Lord agent who suffered Rapid Aging during the Time War, and is now waiting out her time till her next regeneration.

  • In The Crunchie Train Robbery, when the outlaws emerge carrying the strongbox full of Crunchies, a respectable looking matron jumps up. whips off 'her' wig and rips open 'her' dress to reveal a marshal's badge.

    Anime & Manga 

    Comic Books 
  • Batman did it in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, as an old female customer at a liquor store.
  • Early Captain America disguised himself as a grandmother and Bucky as a small child and then going to Nazi-occupied France.
  • Crimebuster: * Obscure villain He-She has the left side of a pretty woman, and the right of a tough man. His/her entire strategy for dealing with heroes is to turn so that only the female side is visible, thus making people think that he/she is weak like a woman and either harmless or needs protecting. Yeah.
  • Judge Dredd: In one story the undead superfiend Judge Death escaped from his confinement and murdered an old woman to use her dead body as a disguise. Though he really wouldn't be able to pass for human if someone took a closer look at him.
  • Madam Fatal, a 1940s superhero, had this as his shtick, earning him a spot on Cracked's 7 Crappiest Superheroes.
  • A mob boss "disguised" himself as a woman for years to avoid being killed by The Punisher. His nephew later joined him out of fear of the same fate.
  • Robin (1993): A grounded Tim Drake who cannot get out of the house without his dad noticing spots an internationally wanted criminal who dresses up as a pregnant woman and then leaves as one of their own hostages on a breaking news segment. His frantic hushed calls to the rest of the Batfamily result in the crook's capture when he pulls the same stunt to try and escape the police in Gotham.

    Film — Animated 
  • At the end of Mulan, the villain has the place guarded to stop any soldiers coming in to save the day, but a few of Mulan's male colleagues talk their way in, disguised as concubines. Ugly concubines.
  • In Open Season 2, Elliot (who is a deer) dresses up as an old lady to get pass security to the pet camp where he thinks Weenie is being held prisoner. Somehow the man watching for trespassers completely falls for it, even mistaking another old lady (who was wearing the same attire as Elliot's disguise) for the culprit.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • In Are You Being Served?, Mr. Humphries disguises himself both as Mrs. Slocombe and as a nun to hide from Cesar.
  • Agent Smecker in The Boondock Saints dressed as a tartish woman to get through a mobster's defenses (and it's implied to get through their pants as well.)
  • The existence of this trope in the popular imagination winds up getting the protagonist of Breakfast on Pluto (a possibly transgender Wholesome Crossdresser) in a lot of trouble. Kitten is not a violent person at all, but when a nightclub she visits is bombed, the authorities suspect that the biologically-male Irish person in women's clothing is an IRA operative, and she's arrested and treated very badly.
  • In Dad's Army (1971), Mr. Mainwaring tells General Fullard that German spies are disguising themselves as nuns to avoid suspicion.
  • Used by the villain of The Devil-Doll to bluff his way through encounters with his intended victims and the police, and also as an excuse to carry around his "dolls" (actually miniaturized assassins) in public.
  • After the riot in Doctor in the House (1954), Grimsdyke tries to pass himself off as a nurse to avoid being arrested.
  • Played straight in Lou when the title character, a middle-aged female ex-CIA agent, uses this trope to approach a couple of ex-Green Beret associates of the villain and kill them.
  • Subverted in Suffragette; one of the suffragists, who is actually a woman, disguises herself as harmless lady by using a baby carriage to hide the brickstones she's going to smash windows with.
  • In the Jim Belushi comedy Taking Care of Business, Jimmy Dorsey disguises himself as his own mother to break into a prison. It somehow works.
  • In both the silent and talking versions of The Unholy Three, Lon Chaney is a criminal and burglar who disguises himself as a sweet old grandma as part of a complicated plot to gain entry into the houses of rich folks.
  • Madmartigan's lady disguise ends up serving as this in Willow when the villains are searching the town he's in. It doesn't fool them for long, though...

  • In the world of A Brother's Price women are the dominant sex and men are so rare it's unthinkably dangerous for one to go out alone. Men are also long-haired, makeup-wearing, and don less practical prettier clothing. However, whores in this world do themselves up to look like men and take on male mannerisms - so when Jerin has to go out, he masquerades as a whore.
  • In Fred Vargas' The Chalk-Circle Man, Augustin-Louis Le Nermord spends half his time dressing as an especially ugly old woman, which is part of his creepily elaborate plan to kill his wife.
  • In G. K. Chesterton's The Club of Queer Trades, a curate describes a gang of criminals dressed up as a group of respectable old ladies. Subverted, in that the "curate" himself is lying and in disguise.
  • Discworld:
    • Nobby has occasionally worn women's clothes during sting operations, even when partnered with Angua, a very attractive werewolf.
      • On one occasion, Nobby dressed up as an old lady crossing the street so slowly that traffic stopped... and the other Watchmen start giving the drivers tickets for illegal parking.
      • While in Klatch, Nobby goes in disguise as a harem dancer. The crowd pays for him to keep his clothes on.
    • In Monstrous Regiment, the soldiers attempt to gain access to a heavily guarded fortress by disguising themselves as washerwomen. Subverted in that all of the soldiers save the lieutenant are actually women... who just happen to be disguised as men. It Makes Sense in Context. So when a guard starts laughing at the old "washerwoman disguise" trick, Shufti shows that she's pregnant by pulling up her skirts and Tonker bursts into tears over this cruel treatment of harmless young women who've been forced to walk for days without food while fearing for their virtues every moment, and Polly finishes the poor man off by icily asking if he's seen everything he wanted to see and if he enjoyed himself.
  • In Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twlight, the male heroes disguise themselves as women to infiltrate the slave-mine Pax Tharkas. This causes some issues for Riverwind whose people have a cultural taboo about males dressing in female clothing.
  • In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Barty Crouch Jr. escapes Azkaban disguised as his elderly mother.
  • In The Invisible Library, the protagonist, who is a real woman, often makes use of sexist stereotyping in the worlds she visits to make herself seem harmless, often by combining her oppressed status as women in patriarchy with dressing as lower class (whether that is a disguise is questionable, as the librarians exist outside time and space and thus, any class system). In the first chapter, she is seen cleaning the floors of a school, which is part of a plot to steal a book from there. When traveling a patriarchal world with a new trainee, she pretends to be his secretary, but the resident Great Detective quickly figures out that she is actually the one in charge. There is also a villain who disguises as a woman by much more magical means.
  • In Michael Flynn's The January Dancer, near the end, Hugh at one point is disguised as a woman.
  • The Laundry Files. In a same-sex version, Mo isn't happy when she's picked for a covert assignment because she's a "woman of a certain age", so her superiors believe that no-one will be paying attention to her.
  • In Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey story, "The Article in Question,” a lady's maid turns out to be a disguised male criminal. The noble lady employing the 'maid' is less than horrified to discover she's been dressed and undressed for the better part of a month by a young man. In fact she seems rather pleased.
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel is famous for this, and probably the trope maker.
  • Sherlock Holmes:
    • In A Study in Scarlet is fooled (for a while) by a man disguised as an old woman.
    • Holmes himself pulls off this disguise in order to trail a villain in "The Mazarin Stone".
    "He actually picked up my parasol for me once. ‘By your leave, madame,’ said he –- half-Italian, you know, and with the Southern graces of manner when in the mood, but a devil incarnate in the other mood. Life is full of whimsical happenings, Watson.”
  • The Stainless Steel Rat once took several dozen army deserters through a military checkpoint dressed as women. On bicycles.
  • Starfighters of Adumar has the infamous "Escape Done In Drag". Wedge ordered his three pilots to get him four sets of women's clothing, in which they snuck into a base while a diversion went on. On Adumar, women can take all the combat positions men take, but Wedge and his pilots were male and being hunted by pretty much the entire city, so a group of four women would be less suspect. Hobbie cemented the disguise by doing a convincing scream.
  • Violeta: After the 1973 military coup, Violeta's son is wanted and has to go into hiding. Violeta manages to get false documents for him, including travel documents under the name of "Lorena Benítez". She eventually locates where her son Juan Martín is hiding, clean-shaven, wearing a dress and prepared to pass for "Lorena".
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude: Colonel Gregorio Stevenson disguises himself as an old woman to safely get to Macondo to warn them of their incoming defeat and advise them to surrender, without getting caught and killed along the way.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Used ad nauseam in 'Allo 'Allo!.
  • The A-Team:
    • In one episode, Hannibal dressed as a nun.
    • In another episode, he's dressed as a bag lady as part of a movie he's working on.
    • In yet another episode, he pretended to be Murdock's mother.
  • The title character on Baretta frequently did this. A couple of them can be seen in the opening credits.
  • The first season of Bosom Buddies has two male characters dress as women so they can live at an inexpensive hotel for women.
  • Doctor Who:
    • In "The Highlanders", the Second Doctor disguises himself as harmless washer-woman with a gun concealed in her robes. (It's not like it was even loaded, though.)
    • The Third Doctor infiltrates Global Chemicals disguised as a cleaning lady in "The Green Death". Captain Yates of UNIT compliments his handbag, and the Doctor threatens to slosh him with it (it's a bucket).
  • Mal in Firefly pulled this stunt in one episode, pretending to be Jayne's wife.
    Mal: I swear by my pretty floral bonnet I will end you.
  • In an episode of Grounded for Life, Sean is unable to change a flat tire, so he wears a shawl and pretends to be an old woman while Claudia shows some leg to flag down another motorist to help.
  • In Hogan's Heroes, Newkirk occasionally utilizes a 'little old German lady' disguise to fool the Germans.
  • Robbie Rotten of LazyTown disguised himself as an old lady to give the hero a spiked apple and capture him.
  • The Lone Ranger disguised himself from time to time in order to reconnoiter; very occasionally he dressed up as an old woman.
  • The Magician: In "Illusion of Black Gold", three bikers disguise themselves as old ladies to crash a funeral parlour and stage a kidnapping.
  • Neville Savage of Mission Top Secret once disguised as an old lady with his accomplice pushing "her" wheelchair. It allowed him to pass under the protagonists' nose, but they later find the discarded costume.
  • In one second season episode of Servant of the People, Vasiliy, the President of Ukraine, disguises himself as an old woman.
  • Quark in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Profit and Lace". An extreme example since Quark underwent surgical transformation rather than just donning a disguise, as female Ferengi have much smaller ears.

    Myths & Religion 
  • Classical Mythology: Achilles' mother did this to him in an attempt to keep him from the war. Naturally, the plan fell apart when Odysseus presented all the girls he was hiding among with gifts and Achilles was the only one to immediately go for the sword.
  • The Swedish criminal Folk Hero Lasse Maja used this extensively. (Lasse is a traditional Swedish male name, and his real name. Maja is a traditional Swedish female name, and the nickname he used. It appears he was not a cross-dresser otherwise, he only used his female persona to carry out his schemes.)
  • Robin Hood: In one ballad, Robin was nearly cornered when he exchanged clothes with an old woman. She was captured by the sheriff; he got away and brought his merry men to face down the sheriff.

    Video Games 

  • The Order of the Stick took this a bit further when Roy used a magical belt temporarily to turn female, in order to avoid some assassins, who, true to the trope, just assumed he was a prostitute and ignored him — except for the dwarf, who invited him up to his room. That bit didn't end well for anyone involved. However, while their assumption falls under this trope, Roy just wanted to disguise himself and the belt was the only disguise on hand.

    Western Animation 
  • One of the villains on Dynomutt, Dog Wonder assumed the disguise of an old woman so Dynomutt would help him escape in a taxicab. Blue Falcon wasn't so easily fooled.
  • In the Quick Draw McGraw episode "Bad Guys Disguise" Quick Draw dressed like a widowed woman to get into Bad Guy Territory and arrest a bandit. The bandit fell for the disguise too well and fell in love with Quick Draw.

    Real Life 
  • Old practitioners of Capoeira used this back when the art was outlawed in Brazil. Apparently, the bravest capoeristas would disguise themselves as women (Bahianas) and act as watchmen to warn capoeira circles in case the cops were approaching. Sometimes, those fake bahianas would even pretend to plead on their knees with the soldiers in order to trap them, grabbing the cops' legs and thus allowing other capoeristas to strike freely.
  • There are stories about Jesse James having done this.
  • When Charles Stuart, the Young Pretender, was escaping from Scotland after the collapse of his rebellion, Flora MacDonald smuggled him onto a boat disguised as her maid.
  • Male insurgents in the Middle East have been known to hide under burqas.
    • As did a prime minister trying to escape during a coup in Iraq in the 1950s; he was caught because someone noticed that he was wearing men's shoes.
  • William Wallace disguised himself as a woman more than once.
  • Unfortunately a real tactic among suicide bombers, especially in countries where women wear concealing clothing, which makes disguising IEDs on their person much easier.
  • Ehud Barak dressed in drag and pretended to be another soldier’s girlfriend during Operation Springtime of Youth. The popular Israeli satire show Eretz Nehederet portrayed him once as going Ax-Crazy and demanding his dress to go fight at the slightest hint of an imminent armed conflict.
  • Smaller males of some fish species, such as bluegills (Lepomis macrochirus), have been known to act like females in order to sneak past larger competitors and mate with real females undetected.