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‘Slap On! Slap Ever!’: Victorian Pantomime, Gender Variance, and Cross-Dressing

  • Jim Davis

Abstract

In this article Jim Davis considers gender representation in Victorian pantomime alongside variance in Victorian life, examining male and female impersonation in pantomime within the context of cross-dressing (often a manifestation of gender variance) in everyday life. While accepting that male heterosexual, gay, and lesbian gazes may have informed the reception of Victorian pantomime, he argues for the existence of a transgendered gaze and a contextual awareness of gender variant behaviour, with a more nuanced view of cross-dressed performance. The principal boy role and its relationship to variant ways of seeing suggests its appeal goes beyond what Jacky Bratton calls the ‘boy’, a notion she applies to the dynamic androgyny of male impersonators in burlesque, music hall, and occasionally melodrama. For the principal ‘boy’ is clearly transmuting back into a girl, at least physically. Equally, while the dame role is usually unambiguously male, Dan Leno's late-Victorian dames seem based on observation of real women. There has been enormous scholarly interest in theatrical cross-dressing, but also a partial tendency to associate it with what Marjorie Garber calls ‘an emerging gay and lesbian identity’. This is appropriate, but should not obscure the relevance of cross-dressed performances to an emerging transgender identity, even if such an identity has partially been hidden from history. Any discussion of cross-dressing in Victorian pantomime should heed the multifaceted functions of cross dressing in its society and the multiplicity of gendered perspectives and gazes that this elicited.

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New Theatre Quarterly
  • ISSN: 0266-464X
  • EISSN: 1474-0613
  • URL: /core/journals/new-theatre-quarterly
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