There’s this gag in many humorous 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?
Humour 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.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF GENDER INVERSION
It’s a very old joke.
The British pantomime tradition has prolonged the life of the medieval diablerie, and Mother Goose, irreverently guying her betters, crossed over from the nursery and the riddle book to flourish on the boards. Significantly, Mother Goose is a drag role; like Widow Twankey or the Wicked Stepmother, she was played by a pantomime dame in the Christmas dramas and music-hall revues. The earliest piece extant to pluck her from the pages of children’s collections of tales or rhymes and put her on stage was called Harlequin and Mother Goose; or, the Golden Egg, and it blended, as the title suggests, com media dell’arte stock characters with British comic fairytale motifs. Sex reversals pointed up the magic as well as the absurdity: the name of Pulcinella, Mister Punch’s clownish ancestor from Italian masked comedy, ends in the feminine a which retains the memory of his bravest. Mother Goose triples the inversion: she is played by a man to look like a cross-dressed woman who herself looks like Pulcinella/Punch.
— Marina Warner, From The Beast To The Blonde
It’s easy to see why gender inversion has traditionally worked as a joke: It’s the old ‘hat on a dog’ juxtaposition, which is one of the main categories of humour, enjoyed especially by preschool aged children.
But in order to find gender inversions funny, the audience must have a very binary and immutable view of two genders, with strict rules applied to each. As soon as the audience understands that gender roles are fluid, and that gender is a continuum, the joke fails. A man in a dress would no longer be funny if men were permitted to wear dresses. And a binary view of gender is no longer supported by science, let alone the lived experience of many people.
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:
LITTLE RASCALS (1994)
Two of the little boys dress as ballerinas. The thing about dressing very young boys up as girls — they actually do look like girls. Sexual dimorphism hasn’t kicked in yet.
Taken for girls, Alfalfa uses this opportunity to big himself up with his love interest. The boys are ushered onto stage with all the girls, who have been assiduously practising. Naturally, they stuff up the dance, but this is seen as amusing and delightful by the adult audience.
Dressed as girls, these boys suddenly attract the sexual attention of boys. Fair to say, this franchise has not aged well. (I especially did not need that cameo of Donald Trump, and the outtake of him spitting his popcorn kernels onto someone else sitting in the bleachers.)
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:
Making fun of boys who transgress gender lines hurts kids. In Toy Story 3, Ken laments, “Why do people always call me a girls’ toy?”, and he’s laughed at for having “girl’s handwriting.” What you are teaching here is that 1) girl’s toys and handwriting aren’t as good as boy’s toys & handwriting, and thus 2) girls, and feminine boys, just aren’t as good as masculine boys. This is called gender policing, homophobia, and misogyny. It hurts kids. And you know what? This joke wasn’t necessary. No one would have enjoyed Toy Story 3 one whit less if the homophobia was left out. You make people laugh in plenty of other wonderful ways in every movie – why do it at someone’s expense?
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.
GENDER INVERSION AS PUNISHMENT IN REAL LIFE
Whether the pink clothing was designed as a punishment or not, note the context carefully:
Arpaio saved worse abuse for others. Those who were in full detention had to wear pink socks, underwear and flip-flops. They ate peanut butter and bread, and the only other meal they received was baloney and bread. They also had the option of “slob,” which was an unknown, disgusting substance that looked like some kind of thick stew and tasted like cardboard. (The poor people in the work furlough program who couldn’t pay for vending-machine food had no choice but to eat it.)
BOYS DRESSED AS GIRLS AND THE TRANSGENDER COMMUNITY
When male characters dress as female characters in children’s films, they’re doing it as a kind of mask, in preparation for their ‘real’ nature being exposed in a comical exposure scene. This is a common gag in comedy — if the main plot rests on it, it’s called a transgression comedy. The world of children’s stories is yet to see many transgender stories.
However, we are starting to see a few transgender stories in entertainment for adults. While transgression comedies for children are not the same as transgender narratives for adults, there are clear parallels. I believe we should look to the transgender community to fully understand the implications of playing gender inversions for gags.
Trans Narratives is an organisation helping trans people share their stories. They have called for a boycott of cis-men (be they gay or straight) playing trans women on screen.
“Feedback indicates that most trans people are offended by Hollywood’s employment of cis men who put on a dress trying to imitate trans people. If it is no longer acceptable for white folks to play African Americans, American Indians, Asian Americans, why is it acceptable for men to play trans women?”
An admin of the page wrote in another: “As a trans woman, I know from personal experience that many gay men believe that trans women are really gay men who refuse to deal with being gay men. I’ve been told this to my face.“So perhaps the gay men who insist on ‘gay-splaining’ that Matt Bomer should be playing a trans woman just can’t get over the notion that trans women are in fact women, not gay men.”Another read: “On Trans Narratives I asked the trans community what they thought of cis men playing trans women. The vast majority of trans people say it exploits us. Don’t debate us! Don’t tell us it’s just a movie and these men are just acting. Listen to us! Listen to a mother of trans children.”
MALE VILLAINS CODED AS FEMME
We have to take into account the long tradition of designing villains to be visually femme-coded or queer-coded: visibly crossing the usual barriers between “masculinity” and “femininity” as a method of othering them and making them unusual and scary compared to the straight-laced, normative heroes.
- Ursula from The Little Mermaid with visible eyeliner and angular, feminine shaped face
- Starscream from Transformers (with high heels built into his mechanics)
- Anansi from American Gods — slim, poetic, dapper.
Any male villain with the following characteristics fit this archetype:
- make-up, defined eyebrows, heavy eyelashes etc.
- high heels
- flowing capes etc. which could pass for dresses
- slim, androgynous bodies
- slick suits
- similarities to cats (which we tend to code as feminine)
- they use the ‘woman’s weapon’ of cleverness and speech
- they are shapeshifters, so you never know who they ‘really are’.
- charismatic cunning
This is all related to a loooong history of women as liars in dominant culture.
Although we don’t empathise with these characters, in stories we find them fascinating:
We all connect to that in-betweenness in our own ways, and enjoy living vicariously through these characters who take it to the extreme… and who can, perhaps, present that Otherness much more openly than we can.
Loki’s a very neat example of the literal gender-binary-blurring of the Trickster. As well as transforming into various animals, Loki also presents as a woman occasionally if a trick demands it, and in one famous case, does both, shifting into a female horse and becoming the mother of a magical beast.