Pirates, Pantomimes and - Normative Gender?

The stereotypical feminine ensemble of 'pirettes'

By Jess Horsnell, MA Student

December 19, 2018

I had no idea what a pantomime was before deciding to audition for one, but let me tell you, acting in one was a crash course on what they are.  A pantomime is a traditional English play that typically debuts around Christmas, and has very specific rules - lots of puns, lots of singing, dancing, over the top movement, and self-identifying men dressing as women for a laugh.  A pantomime (panto for short) is typically geared towards children, with a few raunchy jokes thrown in for the parents, and encourages audience participation.  With two years of pantos under my belt, I decided this year that taking part in the tradition would be a great idea with a part time job and full time grad school.  My friends and family certainly thought I was biting off more than I can chew, as any kind of show requires lots of rehearsal hours, and though less serious than other productions, a panto is no different.

I was cast as an ensemble member this year, a “pirette” in ‘Treasure Island’, which played at Hendry Hall in North Vancouver.  I’ve enjoyed working with Hendry Hall for the past three years, as they always find ways to give back to the community.  Proceeds from the panto go to a different charity each year - this year the charity is Wigs for Kids - and there is always a preview where members of the community who may not have otherwise been able to afford theatre tickets are invited to see the show.  Working with everyone was an absolute delight, even though we lost one cast member to an injury, and were all pretty worn out by the time we had finished all 18 shows.

I even managed to balance the show with work and school, and still have some semblance of a social life - an impressive feat if I do say so myself.  My pro tip is organization.  I often get poked fun at for how much I use my day planner, but it is a real life-saver in avoiding panicky all nighters that I fortunately haven’t put myself through since my first year of my undergrad.  However, the further I’ve gotten in my academia, the harder I find it to shelve my gender analyst, and, as this was my third year taking part in a pantomime, I got to thinking.  How is gender viewed as an audience member through a pantomime?  How do we teach children to police gender?  I found myself analyzing pantos through a lens of adhering to specific and stereotypic gender norms.

A trademark of pantomimes is that they always feature a ‘Dame’, or rather, a self-identified man who dresses up as a woman and is typically the brunt of many of the jokes.  The jokes made at the Dame’s expense tend to be in terms of her looks and body, and though it’s meant to be all in good fun, sometimes it can be a bit difficult taking the joke.  Is it because of the policing of gender norms that audiences find these kinds of jokes funny?  Is it more socially acceptable for men to dress as women than it is for women to dress as men, or is it only accepted in a panto because it’s all for a laugh?  I’m not sure I have the answers - I’ve only been in three pantomimes and watched one, which isn’t enough to come up with a theory of commonalities that the Dames have.  I’ve heard that some dames are fully left to look stereotypically ‘like men’ - with body and facial hair, and other things that women are policed to not do within our society, while other dames will fully go above and beyond to really perform more of a feminine gender.  It really depends on the director and the actor.

One thing that has stuck with me in my experience with pantos is the way we police gender when we visibly see someone step out of their gender stereotypic box.  While Treasure Island featured Dame Fanny Firkin, the other lead, Jim Hawkins was played by a woman.  During quite a few of the shows, a child audience member would take it upon themselves to yell “She’s not a boy!” whenever the actress was referred to as such, in character.  It is so interesting that in a show where there’s so much silliness, so many things that are so unrealistic it’s almost farcical - this show featured dancing pirates, a magical spirit named ‘Lypsinka’, and a grown man in a dog costume - gender is still the one thing that the audience would attempt to police.  Especially as Jim acted opposite Dame Fanny, and it seems that this speaks to conceptualizations of how men are allowed to pretend to be women solely to mock them, but women must stay in their role and not step out of it.  Further, it keeps gender on a strict binary of male and female, with nothing in between.

I understand that children are trying to make sense of the world around them, and sometimes binaries are the way to do that until a more nuanced understanding is possible.  However, we thrust gender upon them at such a young age with toys for boys and toys for girls, clothing that is gender specific, and even ‘gender’ reveal parties.  It just goes to show how quickly kids pick up on it, in that four and five year olds are screaming out the same kind of gender policing that adults do without necessarily screaming it, but we as a society still hear it loud and clear.  As much as it can be frustrating, the same binary sticks with adults, too.

This all being said, I do believe that theatre, just like art and comedy, can be a place for a challenging and a subversion.  There is space for theatre to challenge and critique normative gender, but pantomimes, while they are fun to be a part of and to watch, seem to fall short of that.  I definitely don’t love the whole trope of jokes at the expense of the Dame and how she looks.  However, I do think that they can open the door for a conversation about how we feel the way we feel about others stepping outside of their perfectly gendered box, and why.  The entire message of ‘Treasure Island’ was the power of the imagination, and I think that’s a really powerful message to take away.  I would like to imagine a world where we aren’t confined to the strict norms of stereotypical gender.