January 2, 2013
Panto made me gay
My first exposure to lesbian life, not that I recognised it as such at the time, was pantomime.
Panto, for puzzled readers from outside of the UK, is a peculiar British theatrical tradition. Pantomime is family-friendly comedy, which re-enacts fairytales on stage.
It’s always performed in winter, and there are essential conventions regardless of the story. The audience hisses at the baddies and shrieks advice at the goodies, there’s always some form of ‘ugly sister’ who is a man in spectacular drag, and the lead male character is always played by a woman.
Pantomime dames may hog the gender-bending spotlight, but as a young tomboy who preferred swords to tiaras, my attention was always on on the principle boy.
There, up on stage, would be a girl hero at the very centre of the adventures, swashbuckling her way to save the lovestruck princess. Six-year-old me stared dumbstruck at this exciting new career path.
Never mind that our hero was always a dullard without the wit or smarts of the more colourful characters, or that her romantic interest was an even more boring girl who was only in peril because she lacked basic feminist notions of self sufficiency.
Never mind either that principle boy was never a very convincing boy to anyone but the sweet but dim princess. In retrospect, perhaps this was what most caught my attention.
At six years old I already knew that you didn’t have to actually be a boy to have fun like a boy, but the unspoken rule was that only kids got to be tomboys, and one day you’d have to grow up and start caring about lipstick. But here was an adult woman, doing what men do, and getting away with it.
Panto doesn’t seem an obvious champion for queer life – after all, one of the central jokes is watching burly men totter around in heels, makeup and a huge wig. A man! Pretending to be a woman! Hilarious!
And yet this great British institution, this gloriously traditional piece of high camp theatre, introduced me and countless other little queerlings to the concept of lesbianism.
So did panto make me gay? Oh yes it did! Oh no it didn’t! (Sorry.)
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