Humor can be either very dependent on an escapist mindset or the very opposite. Laughter is a diversion, much like fantasy, though it also often requires an understanding of what is actually going on.
There’s this gag in many children’s films which almost everyone else finds hilarious and I find really troublesome.
Men dressing as women in children’s comedy.
Most recently I saw it in Paddington (2014), in which Hugh Bonneville attempts to pass as a cleaning lady.
In order to see the dark side, it’s necessary to consider why this is funny.
- The character Mr Brown is, by the part of the story, known to us as a stiff upper lip, well-to-do fellow who dresses in a manly suit and must earn a lot of money. He lives with his wife and two children in a very large London house. When we see him dressed as a cleaning lady, he has been stripped of his masculine stripes. He is now on the lowest rung of London’s socioeconomic ladder, and the gender switch underscores the fact. Notice how he’s not a cleaning gentleman. Notice he’s wearing pink, not blue. Femininity is presented in opposition to his masculinity as father and provider. The gag is that he couldn’t possibly stoop any lower. The lesson is that a woman (doing typically woman’s work) is worth less than a man.
- Children don’t look all that hard at it, of course. For a young audience, a man dressed down as a woman is like a dog wearing a hat. This scene is funny because it’s incongruous. However, there are real world consequences when children’s films stoop to using this particular gendered incongruity (as if there aren’t a million other incongruities from which to choose): We are teaching children to find transgender women funny, weird, exotic and unnatural. Laughable. And it’s really only an incongruity if you subscribe to a strict gender binary in the first place, in which cleaning is for ladies and well-paid suit-jobs are for men.
- The gag relies on homophobia. During this sequence, cleaning lady Mr Brown is propositioned by a man in a suit who, we are meant to believe (I suppose), genuinely believes Mr Brown is a woman. Personally, I’m inclined to think this office worker knows full well he’s propositioning another man. The cross-dressing gag can therefore only be funny if we ignore the diversity of human attraction.
This gag can be found all over children’s film.
A few other examples:
A BUG’S LIFE (1998)
During the circus scene, one of the Fly Brothers says to Francis (thinking he’s a girl), “Hey, cutie! Wanna pollinate with a real bug?”
SHARK TALE (2004)
In this story there is a ‘sissy’ shark who at one point ‘dresses’ like a dolphin as a disguise, to his macho father’s chagrin.
SHREK 2 (2004)
This film is full of cross-dressing gags.
- the implication that Pinocchio likes wearing women’s underwear
- a throwaway line about the big bad wolf in Grandma’s nightgown being ‘gender-confused’
- a visual gag involving a deep-voiced male bartender in wicked-stepsister drag
FANTASTIC MR FOX (2009)
We don’t actually see any ‘cross dressing’ in this film, but dressing as a girl is still used as an insult. From the script:
BEAVER’S SON (to Ash): We don’t like you, and we hate your dad. You’re too snazzy. You dress like a girl. You’re creative. Now grab some of that mud, chew it in your mouth, and swallow it.
(For many other reasons I believe the Wes Anderson adaptation of Fantastic Mr Fox is a film for nostalgic adults rather than for children themselves, however fast the characters talk.)
TOY STORY 3 (2010)
When Barbie, dressed in Ken’s astronaut suit, gets Buzz’s instruction manual from the Bookworm he notices Barbie’s high heels and sighs disgustedly.
This hints that he believed Ken had begun cross-dressing, and that dressing as a woman is not a good thing.
(In another scene in the vending machine, Ken claims that he’s not a girl’s toy, meaning he does not want the other toys thinking he’s gay due to being part of the Barbie franchise.)
THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS (2012)
The rolling credits at the end are accompanied by (omitted but not really omitted) scenes. “It’s not about the treasure,” says one of the pirates, “it’s about how you feel inside.” The Pirate Captain responds dismissively with, “You’re not a man disguised as a woman, are you?” Also: “Grow yourself a beard. It’ll make your face look less lumpy.” Wrong on several levels. It’s not lost on me that stories which are not good for little girls are also not good for little boys. Gender roles, when presented in binary, are bad for everyone.
(Something tells me the creators of this film weren’t thinking too hard about their script. At least they took out the bad-taste leprosy joke before the final cut. But was there a feminist in the room?)
THE RADIATOR SPRINGS 500 1/2 (2013)
At the beginning of this TV episode (part of the Cars franchise) a car gendered male called Mater is dressed as an Hawaiian hula girl. As part of his disguise he has coconuts placed on his headlights, an allusion to breasts similar to Mia and Tia’s headlights flashing in Cars.