Thursday, 17 December 2015

Pantomime. It's sexist.

Craig Glover as Widow Twankey and Lee Samuel as Wishee Washee
So... in my review of Peter Pan at the SECC, I pass remark upon the costumes of the female dancers. They seem to have come from the same wardrobe that produces all those 'sexy' versions of racial stereotypes during Halloween (the ones that end up with academics getting shouted at, resigning and so on).

Apart from the irony that the internet goes nuts about the cultural appropriation and objectification when individuals do it at parties for one night, and very few people say anything during the pantomime season when most Peter Pan pantos present 'Red Indians' on stage, there's the additional irony that, as someone who is more than happy to defend lap-dancing and women wearing revealing outfits on Sauchiehall Street (freedom of employment, freedom of expression but I wish they'd at least have a warm coat for after the club, respectively) is complaining that the costumes at the SECC are too revealing and objectify the dancers. 

But there it is. 

Fortunately, Natasha Tripney, a more respected critic, has covered similar ground in The Stage, so this isn't just another Vile voice in the wilderness session. Sexism is turning up all over the pantosphere... but I don't think Tripney goes far enough in her condemnation. She is a moderate, at least compared with what I am about to say.

If I can, I'll throw in some Diderot while I am at it.

Pantomimes are for children
I hope that this is true, because the simplicity of their plots, weak scripts and dumb jokes really don't past muster as mature theatre. I am aware that there are good pantomimes (yes, relative term, but I generally respect Johnny McKnight's efforts and have had a fairly good time at the Kilmarnock pantomime, where Liam Dolan's rapport with the local crowd saves some lazy, habitual routines). But this year, Glasgow has presented some poor efforts - sometimes redeemed by the hard work of the ensemble - and this goes beyond pantomime into the seasonal shows aimed at families.

In this context, dancers in skimpy outfits (I think this is called 'something for the dads') is inappropriate. Women on stage are glamorous - if not quite role models - but having them show a load of flesh doesn't help affirm their value as talented performers but as sexually appealing objects. While it might help certain adolescents discover sexual desire, in the context of a simple morality tale - in which surface is more important than depth - it just adds to the
cultural pressure for women to conform to a stereotype. 

In the case of Peter Pan, depicting the 'Red Indians' as a bunch of warriors who can't speak in proper sentences just adds to the problem, It's intersectionally offensive.

It could be argued that David Hasselhoff's pitiful performance undermines ideas of masculine competence, but I have the feeling that The Hoff isn't aware that he has the charisma of a black-hole, and his jokes about 'missing the boobies' on Baywatch aren't a tragic mockery of mid-life crisis. 

Pantomimes are subversive
No, they are not. 

The only subversive pantomimes that I have seen are Johnny McKnight's and the one at the Oran Mor, Ali Bawbag. And they are subversive because they reject traditional pantomime scripts, and play heavily with gender and politics, respectively.

I understand that English pantomime has the potential for gender subversion, what with the principal boy being a girl, the dame being a man and all but... that is not necessarily the Scottish pantomime way. There's less likelihood of, as Viz elegantly put it, of 'regrettable incidents in the bedroom after the show, when the dad has certainly not been aroused by the sight of a principal boy kissing the principal girl'. 

Mary Brennan, The Herald's dance critic, who sees an heroic/insane number of Christmas shows every year, told me that lack of money in Scottish theatre during the 1960s led to the evolution of a pantomime more rooted in vaudeville. Rather than splashing out on a big name, who'd draw crowds in the absence of any other reason, they would feature artists, like Stanley Baxter, who used their variety skills. This tradition continues to this day, albeit with those artists now stars in their own right - like The Krankies.

The other thing is that principal boys are rare. The current prince in Glasgow King's Snow White is a bloke who can sing well but acts like he is reading his script from notes hidden in his sleeve in a language he doesn't speak. Peter Pan has a bloke on the aerial wires. Neither play has a dame. Gender confusion happens now and again (Mcknight, again, likes the dressing up box, and Dolan works with a dame most years, but...). It's rare.

With that potential subversion out of the way, what's left? A story that usually follows Victorian virtues, in which good defeats evil and it ends with a marriage. Female characters who are rewards and passive, maybe the odd sexy villain. If Anita Sarkeesian ever gets bored with gaming, she can use pantomime for the next series of Tropes versus Women.

Panto is normative. It's pretty much a sign of how acceptable a thing is by the way it can be mentioned in pantomime. John Barrowman did plenty of cheeky asides about his sexuality, and they had nary a whiff of self-pity, but celebrated a virile homosexuality. I liked that, and the laughter confirmed that the pantomime audience did too. As society becomes more tolerant, the potential for subversion is lessened. 

The moral message of the story is never subverted: and this is where I get to mention Diderot. Diderot majored on the idea that theatre had a potential for presenting bourgeois values, and the values of, say, Aladdin, are all about the bling and the cash. Dear Lord, it's a parable of the entrepreneur breaking into the aristocratic power structure.

Pantomime is working class theatre
Why are the dame and the baddie usually the best characters, or possibly Buttons or Wishy-Washy or the 'comedian' role? Because they are the last bits of pantomime that recall the burlesque tradition. 

The bad-guy is usually giving it the Oliviers, all Shakespearean diction and this is beneath me. He's a mockery of theatre's pretensions to high art.

The comedian is the MC.

The dame is a drag act, so can do a bit of gender subversion, although I know this can be a problem. Can I talk about that later?

But the rest of them: bunch of power-wielding bourgeoisie, the kind but firm father, the girl defined only her marriage (and her 'revolutionary' desire to marry the man she loves is just a bourgeois myth replacing the aristocratic myth of her dowry value), the prince with egalitarian ambitions... actually, I am going to do an entire post on Diderot and pantomimes.

Bet you can't wait.

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