Watching straight men in frocks in the name of entertainment is a great British tradition, but the BBC's Christmas comedy, The Boy in the Dress, is a thoroughly modern entertainment which marks a new phase in our cultural conversation about masculinity, says Glen Poole.
The British love laughing at men in frocks.
Take the Christmas pantomime, where fairy tales are brought to provincial theatres by casts of cross-dressing "celebrities", who subvert gender norms by casting men as pantomime dames and women as the principal boys.
When Sir Ian McKellan, the actor who is known around the world as Gandolf and Magneto, received rave reviews for Widow Twankey in Alladdin in 2004, he joined a long line of male actors who have thrown on a frock to give us all a topsy-turvy titter that's as traditional as the Christmas turkey.
So at first glance, there was nothing remotely revolutionary about the BBC presenting it's star-studded Christmas comedy---The Boy in the Dress---as prime time family viewing on Boxing Day.
Is the BBC promoting cross-dressing for boys?
And yet I suspected there may be something more radical being expressed in David Walliams' frothy, cock-in-a-frock-com and my suspicions were confirmed when I saw a comment by one of my my socially conservative Christian friends on Facebook.
"I've seen enough," he declared in his status update. "Now we have the BBC using prime time to promote cross dressing for kids. For pity's sake!"
So for those who think The Boy in The Dress was just another slice of traditional, cross-dressing, Christmas fun I say: "Oh no it wasn't!" Because there was something far more radical happening in terms of how we think about manhood in the 21st Century.
The key difference is this. In pantomime, men pretend to play female characters for laughs. It's subversive because only women are allowed to wear dresses in public without transgressing the cultural gender norms that we collectively and unconsciously police.
We all police what men and boys can wear
In The Boy in The Dress, the main character is an ordinary boy who plays football and seems to be attracted to girls, but also happens to love dresses. He fulfils his dream of wearing a dress by creating a female alter ego---because pretending to be female is the only way it is culturally permissible for men and boys to wear dresses in public, without being policed by the rest of us.
When his pretence is discovered, he is expelled from school and (spoiler alert) is sidelined from a cup final match, right up to the dramatic climax when the entire team rebels and comes out to play the victorious second half with every player wearing a very camp dress.
It's a brotherly show of masculine solidarity that's not quite "I'm Spartacus", more "I'm in a party dress!"
So why does this very silly comedy---conceived by Britain's campest straight comedian---qualify as a revolutionary piece of "gendertainment"?
Well look at how far we've travelled. When I was a boy in the Seventies and eighties I captained my school football team and dressed up as one of the Nolan Sisters in front of 3,000 people as part of the cast of the Blackpool scout gang show.
Cross dressing isn't just for girls
One of my favourite films was Gregory's Girl, where a beautiful, blonde Scottish lass, who is brilliant at football, pretends to be a boy so she can play on the school team.
And one of my favourite comedy sketches was the Two Ronnies' "The Worm That Turned", a mini sitcom set in a dystopian future where women ruled and men were subjugated under the rule of a matriarchal dictatorship headed by another blond bombshell, Diana Dors.
There's a great speech in which Dors', the commander of the state police, reveals how the key to women's rise power, was forcing men to wear dresses and take on the domestic duties:
"Trousers have always been the symbol of the male overlord," declares Dors' character in the opening scene. "Our master stroke was to insist on the change over in traditional dress. Once the men had to wear the frocks they were subjugated. As soon as we took their trousers away, they were putty in our hands."
The cultural belief, reflected in these comedies, created in the early years of Thatchers' first government, was that entering the masculine realm of trousers, football and work, was the road to empowerment for women, while entering the feminine realm of dresses, emotions and domesticity, would be emasculating for men.
Experiencing the feminine realm can liberate men
It's now so normative for women to live their lives in both these "masculine" and "feminine" realms, that principal boys have all but disappeared from mainstream pantomimes. For female actors, subversion is no longer dressing up as a boy to play the male lead, it's having Jack in the Beanstalk rewritten so that the main character is a girl.
Men have yet to go on an equal and parallel journey into the feminine realm. While pretty much everyone in Britain thinks it's normal for women to wear trousers, play sport and create whatever life-work balance they choose; men wearing dresses, sharing their emotional experiences and putting home life ahead of career are still not considered to be mainstream expressions of masculinity.
There are people who fear that giving everyone equal access to the masculine and feminine realms, will breed a generation of girls who are butch or laddish and boys who are effeminate or gay. And yet there is a great deal for both women and men to gain from experiencing aspects of life that were traditionally restricted to one gender or another.
What is worth celebrating about The Boy in the Dress is that unlike The Worm That Turned thirty-odd years ago, it doesn't present the feminine realm as a space that will emasculate men and boys, it presents it as a place that can liberate us by allowing us to express our masculinity however we want to.
Does this mean all men and boys should start wearing dresses? No! But this very camp, very British, very silly slice of "gendertainment" does present the opportunity to ask ourselves, what opportunities are men and boys missing out on by our continued failure to make the "feminine" experience of life equally available to all human beings.
---Picture Credit: BBC
Article by Glen Poole author of the book Equality For Men
Also on insideMAN:
- How wearing trousers went from a symbol of freedom to a straight-jacket for masculinity
- Why is it still shocking for a man to wear a skirt?
- Boys are boys and girls are girls, get over it!
- Should you buy your kids gender neutral Christmas presents?
- What did the gay Christian man say to the straight Christian man?
- There are seven types of masculinity, which one are you?
- Eight things that Fight Club taught us about masculinity
- What is healthy masculinity?
- Is your masculinity a product of nature or nurture?