He’s Behind You! Oh No He Isn’t! (Or The Loss of the Boy’s Role in Pantomime)

He’s Behind You! Oh No He Isn’t! (Or The Loss of the Boy’s Role in Pantomime)

Good Friday to you all! I hope you are well and enjoying getting into the festive spirit, I know I am. Currently sitting by my log burner under a lovely blanket feeling all cosy, though this may be mostly because my heating is a bit hit and miss BUT let’s just assume that’s for that lovely Christmas-y narrative. I’m looking forward to all the wonderful things that Christmas brings, not least the favourite yuletide tradition of pantomime!

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Time for some Christmas fun!

Ok, I grant you this is very UK niche so I’m sorry followers outside of the UK but it’s going to get a bit weird for here on in, but I will do my best to briefly explain what Pantomime, aka Panto, is before going on to the meaty discussion of this piece.

In a nutshell Panto is:

“A type of musical comedy stage production designed for family entertainment. It was developed in England and is still performed throughout the United Kingdom and (to a lesser extent) in other English-speaking countries, especially during the Christmas and New Year season. Modern pantomime includes songs, gags, slapstick comedy and dancing. It employs gender-switching actors and combines topical humour with a story more or less based on a well-known fairy tale, fable or folktale. It is a participatory form of theatre, in which the audience is expected to sing along with certain parts of the music and shout out phrases to the performers.”

Thank you Wikipedia.

So I guess that explains it, though I really think you will never truly understand Panto until you’ve experienced it, so if you would like to see some for yourselves I would go to these places (here, here and here) to watch some of the most ridiculously British theatre you will ever see.

The thing that we are going to talk about and I am going to pick up on from that lovely description by Wikipedia is the “gender-switching actors” part. Throughout my childhood, and for decades in its modern iteration, Panto has played host to two main “gender-switched” roles; the Dame and the Boys Role. The Dame is essentially a comedic drag queen, typically being the part of an older woman (mothers, fairy godmothers, ugly step sisters, etc) played by a man in a stereotyped and amusing manner. The Dame is over the top and caricatured often made to seem ugly or overweight. The reverse of this is the Boys Role. This is the character of the male lead, played by a woman dressed to look like a handsome man with all the trappings of youth, your Peter Pan or Prince Charming here to sweep you off your feet.

The Dame has gone from strength to strength in Panto in recent years, in fact to go to one without a Dame would feel wrong and as if you had removed a key element of what is Panto, but in that same period of time the Boys Role has almost completely disappeared, being replaced by popular male celebrities in the leading parts.

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Bring on the Dames!

This might not seem that much of an issue at first glance but with this role being taken from women and handed to men it means that in many cases the only leading role left to women in Panto is that of the love interest, the damsel in distress or the princess in her tower waiting to rescued (these are very basic fairy tale plots after all). It has gone from women leading these performances, to taking a backseat to, what could be taken as, a mockery of older women and femininity, in the Dame.

So why is this? What is it about our society at the moment has dictated in some way that the Boys Role should slowly but surely fade from view? Well I have a theory, and I will state that I have come to this conclusion through observation, research and having long conversations with friends in theatre.

In essence I think that we have come to a point were women, of all forms, shapes, size, races, sexualities, etc, have pushed forward in the status quo of the western world and certain people in our society aren’t that chill with it. And yes, I am going to get this political about Panto.

Sure this is a tad on the nose but I mean it. In the past, especially when Pantomimes first started in ernst, women didn’t have the same rights, position or acknowledgement that they might be people too, so when a woman played a man on stage it wasn’t anything more than amusement. It was very popular in the musical halls of the Victorian and Edwardian eras to go to see male impersonators, see how they poked fun at the men, have a bit of a laugh at the expense of the privileged and go home knowing that the status quo was as it ever was. And these male impersonators where very handsome, people almost fell in love with the beautiful boys they saw on stage, so putting them into pantomime as the romantic lead made sense. It combined the fun of the musical hall, popularity of the impersonators and added a cheeky little bit of banter about the roles of men and women in society. Put this up opposite the Dame and you see that this is an amusing set piece that is reflecting the world while also mocking it.

And while to many this just a silly piece of acting, the Boys Role meant that female performers and actors got a chance to play parts that were not only cut off from them on stage, but in life. Often it allowed queer women/gender conforming people to show some part of themselves that was taboo in society at large, something that was shunned while into the 20s century. It was a piece of freedom and the way they played the parts an act of rebellion.

I do want to come back to the idea of queer women and enby folx in the Panto sphere but first let’s fast forward to, well, now and women are doing a bit better. It’s definitely not perfect, but things are starting to look up. So of course they don’t need the subterfuge of the Boys Role anymore right? Except there isn’t normally a leading women’s part that takes its place. Often in fact the leading woman is still the less dominant role (not always but often) or the villain of the piece, coming to a rather sticky end as all Panto villains do, and the Dame is still played by a man. My theory is that in some subconscious and rather insidious way, the removal of the Boys Role is stopping women having leading roles that outside of the traditional parts that are expected of them because society is shifting so much in favour of this strange notion of equality (omg whaaaaat). And don’t get all “women can play any parts they want in film and theatre”, we are still only just getting our first female superheroes leading their own films after a billion different movies all lead by a white, blonde guy called Chris, so you jog on.

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Not saying that ladies don’t rock that villain look though

At the end of the day, there are a lot of guys out there who don’t like seeing women as the hero. I can pull a hundred examples of this off of twitter right now to prove that if you want. Just look at the responses to the Doctor becoming a woman, or Rey taking the lead in the new Star Wars films (did you think we could get through this without me mentioning Star Wars once? You underestimate my power). And that pervades in all our media, including Panto.

The other thing, and I did say I’d come back to this, is society doesn’t like queer women or gender nonconforming people. If you haven’t already watched Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette you really need to get on that (it’s on Netflix) because I have never seen someone so perfectly explain our society’s contempt for queer women and gender nonconforming people.

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That’s more like it!

In the early days of Panto it was all chill because clearly lesbians didn’t exist or just were gals palling around, people didn’t notice or care to notice, but now, those women getting on with life without needing a man? And showing that you can be in love in a way that isn’t about a power balance, my god what is the world coming to?!

Ok, yeah, I’m being facetious, but really it’s not that far off the truth, and I think it is part of the problem with why we are losing not only the Boys Role in Panto but the Male Impersonator/Drag King in mainstream entertainment. I have a lot of thoughts about Drag Culture in mainstream media that I will get on to at some point next year but if you are really interested you should read my piece on Vesta Tilley in The Chap (though it is not on the website so you will need to buy issue 96, sorry about that).

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Vesta Tilley in the Boys Role

The thing is the male impersonator and the Boys Role are hugely important to the history of queer women and enby folx. It may not always have been a queer person in the Boys Role but it gave people someone to look to playing out a part they wanted to be. We are always saying that representation is so important and I will wholeheartedly claim that the Boys Role is representation in it’s own way. It might not be the best, but we should not let it go just because the world is changing. We are not at that point yet and these parts are needed, be that for queer kids who are trying to figure themselves out, or little girls who want to save themselves. Give them more, don’t go “oh they have Wonder Woman now they don’t need this too”. Bring back the Boys and let them lead the stage.

I think I got a little excited in that last part but ho-de-hum. I like a bit of drama.

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