There’s this gag in many funny children’s stories which almost everyone else finds hilarious and I find really troublesome. It’s when a male character dresses as a female character. This gender inversion in itself is meant to be funny. But why?
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.
Men dressing as women in children’s comedy.
GENDER INVERSION IN CHILDREN’S FILM
I recently 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.
BOSS BABY (2017)
The picture book by Marla Frazee does not have these problems. Sexism was inserted into the DreamWorks adaptation.
- Tim thinks it’s funny that the Boss Baby’s full name is Theodore Lindsey Templeton. Why? Because Lindsey is a gender neutral name. It is sometimes given to boys. It’s associated more commonly with girls.
- Later, it’s revealed that Tim’s full name is Timothy Leslie Templeton. Also hilarious. Again because Tim has been given a gender neutral middle name. It is sometimes given to boys. But is more heavily associated with girls.
- At Baby Corp, a lot of VR babies are walking around. Tim walks into a little girl and to the viewer it looks as if he is a boy wearing a dress. Boss Baby, voiced by Alec Baldwin, says, “Stop embarrassing yourself.” Why is it embarrassing to look like you’re wearing a dress? Because girls wear dresses an girls are stupid.
I think the writers knew that this was a problem. Instead of taking the dumb jokes out they turned the film into a circular story structure by suggesting that the same story was going to happen all over again, but this time to a girl and her little sister.
GENDER INVERSION AS GAG IN MIDDLE GRADE LITERATURE
BARKING MAD BY TOM E. MOFFAT (2015)
Barking Mad features a bitchy, annoying, girly-swot teenage girl whose younger brother narrates the story of their body swap from his own close third-person point of view. The book begins in a very appealing way, with ‘mad professor’ granddad gone ‘barking mad’ after inventing a body swap device and accidentally inhabiting his dog’s body. The brother and sister find the machine, accidentally swap themselves, and now we have a Gender Bender story which actually kind of replaces the animal story I thought I was buying.
As an older sister myself, I’m wondering how many adolescent-boy narrators would depict a big sis in any other way. It’s part of the problem with lack of diversity in children’ s literature. We see this cheeky, pragmatic, white, middle-class adolescent boy figure over and over again. I used to channel this character when I wrote my stories at 10-12 years of age — I didn’t realise I was doing this until one of my teachers wrote, “Try writing from a different perspective”. (Result: I wrote a story from the point of view of a chicken laying her first egg.) In middle grade stories in particular, where there is an older sister, she is unlikely to be a sympathetic character, precisely because of the close third person point-of-view. Little has changed in recent decades. Netflix TV show Stranger Things did exactly the same thing. In the pilot episode of Stranger Things a younger brother makes a kind gesture towards his older sister but she slams her bedroom door in his face. Since viewers/readers fall in love with the first character they meet (“readers are like ducklings”), we don’t even need encouragement to hate on this teenage girl. Yet despise teenage girls we must. In middle grade humour especially, we need to despise girls or much of the humour doesn’t fly.
It is nearly an Obligatory Joke for a cross-gender body-swap couple to have some reaction of shock/disgust/surprise to the other’s genitalia. In the anime Your Name we have two unrelated strangers dealing with their new bodies whereas the sibling swap has an extra layer of built-in disgust due to the children being related. In Barking Mad, our boy protagonist is so disgusted at the thought of his older sister’s body that he holds on all day without using the toilet. We aren’t told how the sister dealt with her brother’s genitalia in the toilet because the story does not switch to her point-of-view.
When seen over and over again, this story of adolescent disgust directed towards female bodies — often, as in this story, because they’re related by blood, but sometimes as a way of showing the boy hasn’t reached manhood and is not ready for sex — I feel this trope has real-world implications for how society is already ridiculously coy (at best), disgusted (at worst) by womanhood. Even today, basics such as the clitoris are often left off diagrams when teaching female reproduction to adolescents, yet all genders will definitely be told about male masturbation and ejaculation.
I was already nervous about the way this body swap was going to be handled after one of the early jokes involves the humiliation of a police officer, who is down-troued in a slapstick joke. Not only does he suffer humiliation owing to the airing of his underwear — the underwear is specifically described as pink. Why? Everyone knows why, but it sounds worse when it’s put into words: Pink is so heavily identified with femininity that when men are associated with this colour they are associated with women and girls. This is humiliating for men precisely because femaleness is associated with lesser power. In this version of (toxic) masculinity, manliness is not the better flipside of ‘boyhood’, but of ‘womanhood’. This sort of humour, in which boys and girls are pitted against each other is still popular, no doubt about it. David Walliams has sold millions of children’s books over in England doing very similar things. My eight-year-old daughter laughed when I read the joke. She, too, has already internalised this far more subtle form of sexism. The gatekeepers of chidlren’s literature no longer accept black and white children pitted against each other, however subtle the joke, but blithely publish the gender equivalent.