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August 3, 2013 6:03 PM   Subscribe

Pantomime (or panto) is a British theater tradition usually performed at Christmas which dates from the eighteenth century. Along with new stories, there are several traditional ones. Whatever the story, there are several stock characters: a principal boy (usually a girl), a principal girl (actually a girl), and an older woman, usually a widow (played by a man). The character of the pantomime dame is one of the best-beloved traditions of British pantomime. All of that is introduction to this fascinating documentary - The History of the Pantomime Dame.

While pantomime is now a family event, one traditional feature of the performance for adults in the audience is the innuendo* which heavily salts the dialogue and songs. However, apparently there is a line - Stephen Fry wrote a version of Cinderella performed at the Old Vic in 2007 which received negative reviews for being too saucy. And for those who want to see and hear a pantomime, here are several performances, including Jack and the Beanstalk with Adrian Edmondson as Dame Dolly. (previously)

*There's a joke in the Widow O'Twankey video which references her being Chinese - Widow Twankey is named after an inferior green tea brand. Pantomime is part of British theater history, but it is problematic, to say the least, in its treatment of race and gender. Please be aware prior to watching the playlist.
posted by winna (78 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
Thank you for this! Pantomime is one of the hardest things for a Yank to understand, I think. Our cultures seem so alike, and then something like this rears its head. My mom first described it to me, her first exposure having been something to do with the Beatles. I've seen references to it in Python, on Are You Being Served and the like, and in movies - never explained, just presented as a matter-of-fact event. Since then, I've done research on a number of folk plays and traditions, and panto is still the one that makes me do the Scooby Doo "RrrrRR?" These days I understand the basic idea, but find it remarkable how it holds on, despite a lot of eye-rolling shrugs from the Brits I know.Looking forward to delving into these links!
posted by Miko at 6:07 PM on August 3, 2013


It's one of those things you start explaining to outsiders and you can feel the mounting incomprehension, whereas if you grew up with it you just know what it is.
posted by Artw at 6:18 PM on August 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


Saucy Panto is my new Gay Edwardian Punk band.
posted by The Whelk at 6:21 PM on August 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


at the heart of british comedy is - men dressing up as women. I have tried to understand this to explain it to foreigners, but i can't. It's not about being secretly gay, or about women being funny or something, it's its own core...but from where and why? (the ugly sisters are always men, who perform a striptease behind a screen and reveal colander breasts etc - or it's widow twanky or somesuch character/s). The prince/equivalent is nowadays a young girl/woman (i'm old, 'girl' means under 30) in tights and a top, a bit for the male voyeur the victorians added (once, that was quite saucy - now every old lady wears jeggings). But any brief history of British comedy shows it's full of men in drag. But not drag, because it's not always about being gay... some kind of weird subconscious obsession..
posted by maiamaia at 6:22 PM on August 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh no it isn't!
posted by Static Vagabond at 6:27 PM on August 3, 2013 [9 favorites]


Oh yes, it is!
posted by idb at 6:31 PM on August 3, 2013 [5 favorites]




Apparently James Joyce drew on panto tradition in the Circe episode of Ulysses. Gender roles are swapped and things get a bit more BDSM than merely saucy, but there's still a lot of humor.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 6:38 PM on August 3, 2013


for a woman who lives in oklahoma i seemingly know a lot about panto. i think it's because a big chunk of my tv viewing is big brother uk (and bbbots, naturally) and panel shows. panto comes up a lot in these two venues.
posted by nadawi at 6:57 PM on August 3, 2013


Here we see a pantomime goose.

Pantomime Horse!
posted by Sys Rq at 7:00 PM on August 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


I've always been fascinated by panto because, as Miko says, for Americans it's one of those 'two nations divided by a common language' moments. It just gets weirder the more you learn about it.

Fun fact from the documentary - the Drury Lane Theater had product placement in performances as early as Augustus Harris' managership beginning in 1879 (street scenes would include advertisements). There's also a history of Edwardian theater on archive.org that has a section on pantomime.
posted by winna at 7:03 PM on August 3, 2013


I definitely have picked up on panto being A Thing but I agree with the above where when I see "them" talking about it in non-disparaging terms I'm always like...you realize this is terrible....right? Like vegemite/marmite. (Yes, I've tried it. Almost died of terribleness.)

But then I think of peanut butter and....some other probably-disgusting American thing and realize everyone does something nobody else can stand.
posted by DU at 7:06 PM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


A relevant Mitchell & Webb sketch: Pantomime Gone Politically Correct
posted by Going To Maine at 7:11 PM on August 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


at the heart of british comedy is - men dressing up as women. I have tried to understand this to explain it to foreigners, but i can't.

This is the hard part for me. Normally I'm completely enthusiastic about other cultures' events and so forth and can enjoy them on their own merits. But the humor that the English find in cross-dressing is in some sort of US-UK uncanny valley. I can see people enjoying it and finding it funny, and yet I just can't see it in a way that makes it funny, in and of itself.

I just watched the documentary, and it's very interesting, but when it comes down to why a Dame has to be "butch" and the one Dame who was actually a fantastic drag performer wasn't as well appreciated because she was too much like an actual woman - I just get lost. All I can say is that drag is something different from this kind of comedic British cross-dressing, and no matter how I try, I can't figure out what's so funny about it.

Though it may be kind of recent that it doesn't work as well for Americans. For instance, I think of the scene in the American movie White Christmas, which I think is 1949, where Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye dress as two women. It's clearly something that was high-larious then, and it's still sort of cute because of the way it fits into the plot and the fact that they are obviously not the women they're dressing as (I love that you can see their sock garters under the floofy skirts), but it's not funny beyond that context. However, at the time, maybe it was closer to the British sensibility. I really don't know; it's too many for me. I'd like to have a lot of insightful ideas on what this says about gender essentialism and ideologies but I just feel like I'm out of my depth because I don't understand the way British people see it.
posted by Miko at 7:16 PM on August 3, 2013


The episode of The Bretts where they do the pantomime for the orphans, and the little Princesses are in the audience, and then the sister has to go on for the grandmother... one of the best hours of TV ever.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:16 PM on August 3, 2013


A relevant Mitchell & Webb sketch: Pantomime Gone Politically Correct yt

Now that's funny.
posted by Miko at 7:20 PM on August 3, 2013


to make an ex-mother-in-law joke is too on the nose. y'all have no idea. It is. dear god help us all it is. Gotta make it, tho.

Also, how do folks in the state have no idea about this. Never heard of any of this tradition. Been to a lot of early film classes and everything. Thank you.
[this is good]
posted by es_de_bah at 7:22 PM on August 3, 2013


The funniest thing about the Ade Edmonson link is that, relative to what he's known for, his panto dame is considerably understated.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:22 PM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


A relevant Mitchell & Webb sketch: Pantomime Gone Politically Correct yt

The timing of that sketch might be right for it to be referencing Fry's Cinderella - one of the jokes in the panto was apparently that 'her highness' sounds sort of like 'her anus'.
posted by winna at 7:27 PM on August 3, 2013


Pantomime Horse!

The first time I saw a pantomime horse, probably from that sketch, I fell in love with the idea. PANTOMIME HORSE SHALL RULE THE WORLD!
posted by JHarris at 7:30 PM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


oh wait...there it is.
posted by es_de_bah at 7:34 PM on August 3, 2013


Though it may be kind of recent that it doesn't work as well for Americans. For instance, I think of the scene in the American movie White Christmas, which I think is 1949, where Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye dress as two women. It's clearly something that was high-larious then, and it's still sort of cute because of the way it fits into the plot and the fact that they are obviously not the women they're dressing as (I love that you can see their sock garters under the floofy skirts), but it's not funny beyond that context. However, at the time, maybe it was closer to the British sensibility. I really don't know; it's too many for me. I'd like to have a lot of insightful ideas on what this says about gender essentialism and ideologies but I just feel like I'm out of my depth because I don't understand the way British people see it.

It's worth noting that according to the AFI, the greatest American comedy is Some Like It Hot, the central gag of which is that Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis must dress up as women.
posted by Going To Maine at 7:52 PM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


It also clocks in at 42 on the Sight and Sound poll of the best movies of all time, which you might take as meaning that it had more going for it than just guys in drag, or that guys in drag are REALLY IMPORTANT to some critics. It just seems like its a definite thread in American comedy, if not nearly as pronounced as it is for the Brits. (Of course, the BFI is the British AFI, so...)
posted by Going To Maine at 7:57 PM on August 3, 2013


It should be borne in mind that CBeebies, a television channel for children 6 years old and under, even has its own panto. Hundreds of thousands of children watch these, and though while not so saucy, they still have the main element of cross-dressing. Hilariously, a couple of years ago one of the three dames was played by a woman (Pui Fan Lee), but who still did the whole "butch dame" thing. One of the other dames (Justin Fletcher) includes cross-dressing, and even dame-type characters, in his own programs Gigglebiz and Something Special (for children with learning disabilities!). Far from harming his career Justin Fletcher is pretty much England's foremost children's television entertainer at the moment.

Also of note, I recall that Paul O'Grady--better known as the drag queen Lily Savage--had a teatime chat show that lots of children watched. Though he did not present it in drag the children's parents would have known his act and that it was a very adult comedy show. However, O'Grady did end up using the character in Christmas pantos for his child viewers. And O'Grady is not even the only person to make the transition from adult comedy to children's pantomimes. Julian Clary, whose career included once making a joke on live television about fisting the Chancellor, has also been in a number of pantos.
posted by Thing at 7:57 PM on August 3, 2013


a principal boy (usually a girl), a principal girl (actually a girl), and an older woman, usually a widow (played by a man)

Make that: a principal boy (a girl dressed as a man, until the last scene when she is dressed as a woman)...

Great post, winna. Thanks!
posted by Mister Bijou at 8:06 PM on August 3, 2013


The key thing about pantomime is that it's live phenomenon. You haven't experienced it until you've been surrounded by screaming children and adults weeping with laughter at some incredibly un-politically correct joke delivered by a star of 70s/80s TV. Imagine a cross between a circus, the Rocky Horror show and Lord of the Flies and that's about it.
posted by unSane at 8:29 PM on August 3, 2013 [11 favorites]


at the heart of british comedy is - men dressing up as women. I have tried to understand this to explain it to foreigners, but i can't.

I just watched the documentary, and it's very interesting, but when it comes down to why a Dame has to be "butch" and the one Dame who was actually a fantastic drag performer wasn't as well appreciated because she was too much like an actual woman - I just get lost.




Short answer: public schools.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 8:30 PM on August 3, 2013


No, absolutely not at all. Pantomime and public schools have nothing to do with each other. Pantomime is an extension of music hall, which is a resolutely (and extremely subversive) working class arena. For example, this fantastic cut from the Western Brothers, ruthlessly taking the piss out of public schoolboys.
posted by unSane at 8:34 PM on August 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


The key to pantomime is that everyone knows it's bad, the actors, the audience, the kids, but we embrace it and happily wallow in it. It's all about the audience participation.

The M&W link does capture a lot of its charms.
posted by arcticseal at 8:36 PM on August 3, 2013


Short answer: public schools.

Short answer: watch the above-mentioned documentary
posted by Mister Bijou at 8:57 PM on August 3, 2013


I often wonder if the cross-dressing is at all related to a similar phenomenon in certain folk traditions where the normal order is being subverted and during moments of outright revolt or riot, like Rebecca. Of course, it served a disguise purpose too but there does seem to have been more than that going on.
posted by Abiezer at 11:04 PM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Pantomime is like Christmas in that it allows adults a licence to re-enter childhood for a while without giving up their adult understanding. Cheesy old jokes, tricks that were stale before you were born, corny old stories, tired old rituals; yet the kids laugh, fall for the tricks, get really worried about the princess, join in excitedly, and somehow their wonderful freshness and joy brings the thing to life. The grown-ups laugh at how crap it all is and exchange their own naughty jokes over the kids' heads, but at the same time they feel again for a while what it was like to be innocent.
posted by Segundus at 12:16 AM on August 4, 2013 [8 favorites]


Came for the feral pantomime Princess Margaret, left fully satisfied because she gave me a handjob.

Whoops, no, that can't be right.
posted by Meatbomb at 2:26 AM on August 4, 2013


I'm no expert in folk traditions, but like Abiezer says, I think the cross dressing is much more to do with subverting the normal order and othering than gender and sexuality. Lord of Misrule and all that. My dad is a mummer and there's a lot of similarities between how they perform their plays and pantomimes. In the 19th century mummers plays, the disguises meant they could take the piss out of the local Lord (who they were often performing for in return for extra Christmas cash). Which really isn't that far from a panto at all.

Although, the mummers side my dad performs with was reformed in the 1960's, so how much they drew on pantomime when they were reinterpreting the plays can probably be debated...

The Unthanks' documentaries were excellent - I second that recommendation.

In one of those what the...? moments (up there with Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart going on a narrow boat holiday), Jimmy Osmond comes over here to do a panto every year - you can see him in Swansea this Christmas! (I guess the money's good?)

He has even taken panto to China!

On no he didn't...
posted by Helga-woo at 4:07 AM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ha, I didn't realise the Unthanks' recommendation came from the Rapper thread. Well I still stand by it. I think Miko if you put the cross-dressing in panto as an continuation of other, older folk traditions it might make more sense?
posted by Helga-woo at 4:14 AM on August 4, 2013


A relevant Mitchell & Webb sketch: Pantomime Gone Politically Correct yt

Now that's funny.

I'm really intrigued as to why? Humour being subjective and all but to me that sketch misses the target in the same way Stephen Fry's script did, by being relentlessly obscene. Panto's not obscene, it's rude in a very childish way, as well as being indirectly rude in a sophisticated way so the children don't understand.

I've seen Terry Scott as a Dame. He did a striptease out of seven pairs of underpants - he had a body-stocking on underneath. One of the pairs of pants (UK) had huge eyes appliqued on the bum, which he opened by wiggling his bum at the audience and stroking each buttock. Stupid humour, like I said. We loved it. It was a while ago and that's the only bit of the performance I remember.

I would have liked to see Paul O'Grady in Cinderella - if I had known Lily Savage was about to retire to a convent I'd have tried harder. I'm not sure if he was the fairy godmother?
posted by glasseyes at 5:06 AM on August 4, 2013


Short answer: watch the above-mentioned documentary

I did watch it, and enjoyed it, but it describes rather than explains.

I'm trained in folklore studies and I definitely understand the concept of Misrule and have spent a lot of time reading about social inversion ritual, etc. At the same time, that knowledge doesn't reveal the humor to me. I do understand that the normal social order is overturned, chaos and absurdity temporarily reign, and that's tremendously liberating. That still doesn't help me see why cross-dressing is inherently funny, especially in today's world when gender norms are not so rigid. At this point, either people are just laughing at the tradition of making fun of women or mock-demasculinizing men (without threatening their primacy, as the document is pointing out), or there's something so culturally specific I am just never going to get it, like,say, enjoying fermented shark.
posted by Miko at 5:10 AM on August 4, 2013


to me that sketch misses the target in the same way Stephen Fry's script did, by being relentlessly obscene.

It's not the obscenity that's the funny part, it's the group of people responding in bruised outrage, totally unable to see the bizareness of what they're doing because it's their tradition.
posted by Miko at 5:10 AM on August 4, 2013 [6 favorites]


I was going to post about the Lords of Misrule link as well, and found this rather interesting blog post about the history of panto, all the way back to its Greek origins.

I do keep meaning to get down to Glasgow at Xmas to see John Barrowman in his annual trip back home to perform with the Krankies (it's funny 'cause it's profoundly disturbing!).
posted by titus-g at 5:31 AM on August 4, 2013


That still doesn't help me see why cross-dressing is inherently funny, especially in today's world when gender norms are not so rigid.

As arcticseal says above, in panto (as in SOME LIKE IT HOT) it's funny because it's always done incredibly badly. It's very clearly a man dressed up incongruously, with far too much make-up, beauty spots, pretending to be extremely vain. The more ridiculous the funnier.
posted by unSane at 5:32 AM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm trained in folklore studies and I definitely understand the concept of Misrule and have spent a lot of time reading about social inversion ritual, etc.

Great. But have you ever sat in a warm crowded theatre with an audience of adults and excitable children and had the living, breathing experience of witnessing and participating in the spectacle that is pantomine? You might get a glimpse of the pleasure and delight young children get, even today, in seeing adults dressing up and turning the world somewhat upside down. On the other hand, maybe that pleasure and delight is reserved for the Brits with their pantomine and the Mediterraneans with their commedia dell'arte.

How about you try seeing a pantomine in a theatre. As Mao said, I think it was Mao, one can describe an apple, but to know how an apple really tastes, one needs to take a bite.
posted by Mister Bijou at 5:37 AM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Except...that panto's nothing like that. It's innuendo, not obscenity.

Also, part of what's unfunny about Mitchell and Web is exactly that demonstration of the bruised outrage of toffs, because: nothing to do with panto. (Actually that may apply to the Stephen Fry issue too - toff humour = not panto.)
posted by glasseyes at 5:40 AM on August 4, 2013


I don't think the concept of Misrule applies. That would require the Dame to be explicitly a man taking a female role, and the hero to be explicitly a woman taking a male role, wouldn't it? It's not like that.
posted by Segundus at 6:40 AM on August 4, 2013


Here in Boston, the Imaginary Beasts theater company does an original panto as a regular part of their season.
posted by rhymes with carrots at 7:11 AM on August 4, 2013


I think the big thing keeping panto from crossing over isn't the drag so much as the innuendo. Specifically, innuendo in something that is ostensibly family entertainment. That tradition of two-level entertainment -- where people over a certain age are essentially watching a completely different play than the little kids -- doesn't really exist in North America.

At best, there are kids' cartoons that throw parents a bone by, e.g., making a cultural reference to something from the '80s; filling them with thinly-veiled dick jokes is pretty much unthinkable.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:43 AM on August 4, 2013


Pantomime Horse!

Who's that at the door?
posted by Ranucci at 8:07 AM on August 4, 2013


Obby Oss.
posted by Artw at 8:16 AM on August 4, 2013


unSane and Mr Bijou nail it. It has to be seen live.

It's audience participation, it's loud and bright and safe and crazy all at the same time. Of course, it has to be done well. Like all theater, the good stuff is life changing, the bad stuff is toe curling.
posted by EnterTheStory at 3:56 PM on August 4, 2013


Oh man. I saw an amazing panto with flying people and water curtains forming letters and sexy dancers and people in fatsuits and jokes about really local things and a manically texting fairy saying hashtag a lot. I thought I was tripping.
posted by yoHighness at 4:31 PM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I found Angela Carter's "In Pantoland" to be fairly enlightening, and hilarious, take on the subject. It's in a few of her short story collections.
posted by emjaybee at 5:00 PM on August 4, 2013


it's funny because it's always done incredibly badly. It's very clearly a man dressed up incongruously, with far too much make-up, beauty spots, pretending to be extremely vain. The more ridiculous the funnier.

Right. And why is that funny? Not trying to be irritating here, but why is a guy trying and failing to appear properly female funny?

And why is the kind of female he's trying to portray (vain, flirtatious, ugly) funny?

Great. But have you ever sat in a warm crowded theatre with an audience of adults and excitable children and had the living, breathing experience of witnessing and participating in the spectacle that is pantomine?

No, and it's not at all hard for me to understand that that feels special, and awesome, and it's the holidays and all the rules are off and everyone is laughing. I can understand that a tradition has significance without its being my tradition. All I'm trying to say is that although all this translates just fine intellectually, it remains puzzling at more visceral level. Perhaps one day I'll see a panto and the scales will fall from my eyes. The closer-to-drag "Cinderella" they showed at the end might have hooked me. I'm just noting that it is still something that is fairly inscrutable to Americans.

Perhaps we have less need of the misrule/dress-up spectacle because we all indulge so much in Halloween when we get to do a lot of that sort of thing - and our associations with Christmas are just very different. I'm not sure. I'm not saying it's awful, you understand, just that it's something very foreign to USians.
posted by Miko at 6:08 PM on August 4, 2013


Also, part of what's unfunny about Mitchell and Web is exactly that demonstration of the bruised outrage of toffs,

Oh, and I didn't mean it was the toffs who displayed the bruised outrage. I meant the performers.
posted by Miko at 6:27 PM on August 4, 2013


I think you should just go to a panto, Miko.
posted by unSane at 6:46 PM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'd love to.
posted by Miko at 6:55 PM on August 4, 2013


Right. And why is that funny? Not trying to be irritating here, but why is a guy trying and failing to appear properly female funny?

He's not trying and failing. The failure is the joke. It's purposeful. He's pretending to try.

And why is the kind of female he's trying to portray (vain, flirtatious, ugly) funny?


Because the whole joke is that he's NOT a woman. Middle-aged men make unconvincing women (especially when the unconvincingness is on purpose), and it's funny when characters are oblivious to the obvious thing about their character and have a lot of groundless arrogance, so of course she thinks she's the belle of the ball.

Oscar-award-winning American actor Jamie Foxx had a character on the American sketch show In Living Color with that same premise.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:03 PM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


But they're not oblivious to the obvious thing about their character that they're not really a woman. As you say, they're pretending to try. The whole thing is done with careful attention to being sure we know she knows we know she's not really a woman. And if we're laughing at someone we think is baselessly vain, but we know they're not really baselessly vain because they're not even really the thing they'd be vain about if they were real...well, in the end I'm not sure where it leaves you and why it might make you laugh.

Cross-dressing humor is definitely not unknown in American culture. It's just not terribly popular (it's often seen as kind of lowbrow, the stuff of Boy Scout skits and high school jokes maybe) and it's not guaranteed humor in and of itself, without some other plot elements to bring in potentially funny predicaments, like fear of discovery(Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, Bosom Buddies),or an attempt to get away with something (Klinger on M*A*S*H., Bosom Buddies again), or maybe some clear social satire targeting a group (Church Lady as an emblem of evangelicalism). Some Like It Hot, an old movie, has a couple of those "predicament" elements as well, where the tension comes from knowing that at any moment the ruse is going to fall apart. Also, it can feel dated. In Living Color went off the air 20 years ago and I think that's the most recent thing on the comedic-crossdressing list I can easily think of as important in pop culture.

It's not that there's nothing to this, or it's just as simple as "he makes a bad woman! Ha!" Middle-aged men can indeed make convincing middle-aged women, at least while clothed, if they sincerely try. It's done all the time. But what happens in panto isn't drag and has different aesthetics.

I just can't put my finger on what it's all about, especially not knowing the panto version with personal intimacy. Comedic cross-dressing, though, does not seem simple to me, and certainly not un-tied to patriarchy, as it seems to reinforce it basically despite its assertion of misrule.
posted by Miko at 8:17 PM on August 4, 2013


But they're not oblivious to the obvious thing about their character that they're not really a woman. As you say, they're pretending to try. The whole thing is done with careful attention to being sure we know she knows we know she's not really a woman.

You're conflating the actor with the character. He knows. She doesn't.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:24 PM on August 4, 2013


Then why can't she be played by a woman?
posted by Miko at 8:33 PM on August 4, 2013


You're conflating the actor with the character. He knows. She doesn't.


The fun is all about a male actor attempting to play a female part and doing so incredibly badly, while making as many obscene jokes as possible that sail about an inch above the children's heads.

A lot of the fun comes from adults thinking "I can't believe he just said that" while the kids whoop and holler at the slapstick.

Panto is very very clever, and it absolutely relies on everyone involved, cast and audience alike, being willing to make complete fools of themselves (with the exception of the boy, anyway).
posted by unSane at 9:04 PM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


(a really good one is quite possibly the funniest thing you will ever see, like a cross between a stage play, the circus, a kids' birthday party and a soccer match)
posted by unSane at 9:05 PM on August 4, 2013


I think part of the humor lies in stretching the audience's consent. The audience accepts that the actor is a woman (in the context of the performance) and the other actors' reactions reinforce that idea: this is a woman. The horrible costume and the affected mannerisms militate against the audience's suspension of belief, but at the same time the actor and the rest of the cast seem thoroughly convinced of the actor's femininity. The divergence between the performance and the role creates a humorous tension, and the actors' apparent obliviousness reinforces the idea that we are watching very, very silly people.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:49 PM on August 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


I used to read a lot of Enid Blyton boarding school stories as a kid, and all the "pantomime" performances the schoolgirls put on never made sense until now. Thank you Metafilter!
posted by Xany at 12:42 AM on August 5, 2013


Comedic cross-dressing, though, does not seem simple to me, and certainly not un-tied to patriarchy, as it seems to reinforce it basically despite its assertion of misrule.

yeah, I agree with you, sure it's tied to patriarchy. I think where we may differ is I'm not persuaded it reinforces said patriarchy.
posted by Mister Bijou at 2:33 AM on August 5, 2013


In the documentary video they really belabored the idea that the Dame must take care not to confuse men in the audience, never really unseating their sexual identities or threatening them with a hint of homosexuality. There also seems to be something going on in the process of lampooning characteristics associated with femaleness, and making sure that we continue to endorse the idea that a woman who fails to conform to standards of attractiveness or sexual propriety deserves mockery.

I mean, you can hardly extricate any old traditions from patriarchy, but this one seems to really make sure that we're all having fun playing around the fringes of gender identity but we're not really talking about changing anyone's mind about femaleness or maleness and who's in charge.

Joe in Australia, your comment helps a bit.
posted by Miko at 5:47 AM on August 5, 2013


It looks like I'm certainly not alone in leaning toward that interpretation.

A Look Back at the Roots of Pantomime:
Although some pantomime historians have claimed that these roles, a man dressed as a woman and a woman dressed as a man, are grand gestures of gender subversion, the fact is that they were the sexist products of a patriarchal society reinforcing existing archetypes of masculinity and femininity. The dame was a parodied harridan, a grotesque send up of womankind, while the principal boy at the same time as impersonating a dashing adventurer was every inch a woman, curvaceous, big-bosomed and encased in tights, the better to allow the male audience to gawp at her legs. Significantly, the principal girl, the heroine, was always played by a young woman as the epitome of demure and dainty femininity.
From the essay 'Othering the Dance': Pantomime and 'Legitimate' Entertainments of the Cultural Elites in the book New Directions in Ancient Pantomime:
All the predictable polarities are herem icluding the overarchign one of male VS. female, the very best to think with for those concerned with preserving the age-old 'cave man' lie. Crato's impassioned discourse against pantomime's femininity ad feminizing (with all their cultural attendants, randing from senseless and sensual pleasure to unrestrained emotionality and moreal and cultural decadence) is part and parcel of patriarchy's need for feminized 'others,' so thatupper-class manliness with all its cultural baggage, not least educational discourseand entertainment options with delight the rational part in man, ca be better defined, protected, valorized.
I'm sure there's much more, but I'm off to work.
posted by Miko at 6:00 AM on August 5, 2013


If you look at the Dame's part (*) it's quite subtle when you think about it: the audience mustn't think that the actor really is a woman, or they will have missed the joke; similarly, they mustn't think the actor is playing the part of an effeminate man, because that's not funny; or like someone trying to present as a woman, because that's not the role. So the actor must present as someone who is very clearly a man but who is absolutely confident that he is actually a woman - a view shared by the rest of the cast.

Hmm. I seem to have argued myself around. Yeah, we're being encouraged to scrutinise people for gender nonconformity and laugh at the non-heteronormative.

(*) Ooh-er!
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:44 AM on August 5, 2013


Heh.

Not that I think any of this makes it wrong to enjoy. Just makes it a bit difficult to understand if it's not a big part of your tradition. We have a lot of cultural traditions in the States that are similarly ..complicated if different in content. One aspect of cultural traditions is that they're so close to us they're hard to see, sometimes.
posted by Miko at 6:52 AM on August 5, 2013


The dame appears in other areas of British culture, predominantly comedy. The two that immediately spring to mind are Monty Python's Pepperpots and Les Dawson's Cissie and Ada, themselves a tribute to a much earlier comedian Norman Evans. The most recent manifestation is Brendan O'Carroll's Agnes Brown. Which is, strictly speaking, Irish rather than British culture. It's a very odd thing, and I don't buy the contention (which has been popular) that they are misogynistic, partly because they seem to be affectionate (and, in a broad stroke way, accurate) impersonations of the old ladies you'd meet in working class areas; but also in the way that all these performers find the personae they adopt to be strangely liberating - there is an exuberance in the portrayals, and the characters (apart, possibly from the pepperpots) are likeable and sympathetic. Which is a bit of a contrast with French and Saunders' Two Old Men who appear to be a similar device, but who we are clearly supposed to find contemptible.
posted by Grangousier at 7:39 AM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think if it weren't misogynistic, it wouldn't be considered funny. Because what's funny about playing a character you see as perfectly normal and acceptable and deserving of human dignity and being taken for who they are? They might be likable and sympathetic but they're also played for laughs, so at some level we're not supposed to take them and their concerns seriously.

That people consider it liberating to perform is, to me, another indication of the constraints patriarchy places on the performance of male gender norms. Like, I consider it liberating to be free of female gender stereotypes and able to demonstrate my physical strength, wear male-type clothing, etc.
posted by Miko at 7:58 AM on August 5, 2013


I think if it weren't misogynistic, it wouldn't be considered funny.

You seem determined to assert that but I don't think it's true at all. These portrayals are almost universally characterized by affection. I think you're looking at a foreign culture and not really getting it at all.
posted by unSane at 8:23 AM on August 5, 2013


I think you're looking at a foreign culture and not really getting it at all.

This is certainly possible. I can say that I do perceive most American comedic cross-dressing that way. Something can be both seemingly affectionate and, at the same time, misogynistic - or, if that word is too harsh for you, at least revealing of over simplistic essentializing ideas about the nature of women's character.

How do you answer that question I was posing above: how can you be both an object of fun because of associations people have with a characteristic you can't control (your sex), and have full humanity and dignity at the same time?
posted by Miko at 8:43 AM on August 5, 2013


how can you be both an object of fun because of associations people have with a characteristic you can't control (your sex), and have full humanity and dignity at the same time?

That's not remotely what's going on here. It's more like laughing at a dog dressed up as a chicken. You don't have to hate or despise chickens to find that funny.
posted by unSane at 12:39 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


The dame appears in other areas of British culture, predominantly comedy. The two that immediately spring to mind are Monty Python's Pepperpots and Les Dawson's Cissie and Ada, themselves a tribute to a much earlier comedian Norman Evans.

And also female characters played by female actors: Molly Sugden in Are You Being Served?, Jennifer Saunders in Absolutely Fabulous!, Kathy Burke in Gimme Gimme Gimme, etc.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:50 PM on August 5, 2013


I think this is alleviated somewhat by being there for the live performance. I've been to a panto performed in the US, and its charm was instant and easy to the audience of kids and adults in attendance. But I think watching a video recording of the same thing it would not be funny or engaging in the same way.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:21 PM on August 5, 2013


That's not remotely what's going on here. It's more like laughing at a dog dressed up as a chicken. You don't have to hate or despise chickens to find that funny.

But you have to think dogs and chickens are essentially very different, and that it is inherently ridiculous for one of them to try to look or behave like the other.
posted by Miko at 5:57 AM on August 6, 2013


Add in the context of a society where most leadership positions are occupied by dogs, and chickens are considered too vain/oblivious/arrogant/ugly/sexy to take on serious responsibility, and then there's another layer of meaning in reinforcing the differences between dogs and chickens.

Again, I totally get that this is a fun, nostalgic experience and nobody watching is thinking about this stuff. I'm sure if I went I'd have a great time - but that doesn't negate the possibility of speculating about how a centuries-old gender pastiche can be seen as a product of societies that distribute public power based largely upon gender.
posted by Miko at 6:24 AM on August 6, 2013


Are you really this obtuse? The actor is not ALL MEN, and the character is not ALL WOMEN.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:07 AM on August 6, 2013


No, I'm not obtuse (no need to be rude).

But you're the one arguing that they're not individuals, but archetypes, which means their commentary on gender is more broad, not confined to their own stock character.

I mean, it's hard to argue that it's a story about misrule and gender subversion without acknowledging that it involves gendered stereotypes (otherwise, how could inverting them be 'misrule?' There would be nothing to invert). That argument would be sort of ...obtuse.

If I were the only one making this observation, you could write it off as a nutter American. But plenty of people within British culture have made this observation too.

Again, not saying "it's sexist, it's awful, how terrible, stop it." Just noting that this is one of those things you don't get at all if you don't have an anxious patriarchy. And we've all got many things like that embedded in our cultures.
posted by Miko at 3:42 PM on August 6, 2013


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