Photo by Nick Dolding

Why drag is not the same as pantomime

In pantomime, we know that people are pretending

Artillery Row

“She’s a man!”

“Oh, no, he isn’t!”

What is the difference between a drag show and a pantomime — particularly those drag shows that are directed at children, like Drag Queen Story Hour or “family-friendly” performances at birthdays or weddings?

It is not that there is no discernible difference between drag and pantomime, as is sometimes claimed by those who defend Drag Queen Story Hour. The people who protest that there is a difference between these two instances of cross-dressing are correct in their assessment — after all, we would not need a different label for “drag” if it were, in fact, “the same as panto”.

The difference is not that “pantomime isn’t sexual”, though. Pantomime is ripe with sexual innuendo. Arguments can and have been made as to the spectrum of sexual explicitness that stands between pantomime and drag. Whilst there are a contingent of drag queens who go to libraries dressed with the modesty of a Mormon mother, there is no pulling the wool over the eyes of parents who have seen videos of drag queens who have to peer over their triple-X silicone breasts in order read the Three Little Pigs. Their concerns are valid — but this is not the definitive distinction.

The essential difference between a drag performer and a pantomime dame is that when a six-year-old turns to their parents at the pantomime and says, “Mummy, why is that man dressed as a lady?”, the parents reply, “Because it’s a part of the game.” What they do not say is, “Because he is a woman and you are very naughty for saying that she looks like a man.”

In my second year of undergraduate degree, I wrote a dissertation entitled, “Youth, liminality, and the Renaissance Boy Player”. In the essay, I questioned the extent to which teenage boys were convincing in their portrayal of women on the stage. In the comedies, the fact the woman is “really a man” is the nub of most puns and innuendos. Mary Bly — a leading authority on the subject — reports how the plays, which were written for the exclusive use of the boys’ companies, were “drenched in sexual jokes”. The audience’s attention is always drawn away from the character towards the actor and his “true” nature. Irony ensues.

This would be an unacceptable state of affairs, however, when it came to the performance of tragedy. To draw attention to the actor’s “true” nature — his masculine body bundled up in a dress — would forever prevent the suspension of disbelief and engender frustration in both the audience member, who is unable to absorb himself in the story, and the dramatist, who sees his words abused by the poverty of seriousness.

Researchers are divided on whether the appeal of these comedies was in “the shock of hearing a child lisping [lewd] words” or in boys’ “erotic theatrical display”, seen in both the comedies and the tragedies. Uncomfortable as either prospect would make audiences today, in their time, these boys’ companies enjoyed double the adulation of adult companies like the King’s Men, indicating that, when they chose, they could play very convincing women indeed. The important phrase here is, “when they chose … ”

A deceit is a game played upon a person — a game played against their will

I concluded that the boy players’ youth, and youth’s natural rapport with the liminal — the in-between space between two certainties — enabled them to be excellent shape-shifters. This is not all that revolutionary. Children know themselves to be shape-shifters and understand the unpredictability inherent in this to be their social power. The boy players, along with their writers and handlers — with linguistic and visual slights-of-hands — were able to force the audience’s attention between the actor, the character, the actor playing the character, or even the character playing the actor. In Renaissance drama, characters often also choose to play a character, or characters, adopting faces and disguises to help them move through the world. The effect upon the audience is the same as an “aside” — it serves to alert them that there is more than one force at work here.

Repulsed and fascinated, I realised that this was an invitation from the performers to the audience to play. It is a strip tease, a banquet where there is almost as much pleasure in the delayed gratification as in the consuming of the fruit. Moment to moment, there is a wealth of resolutions from which one might choose to interpret the action and the story and — in the case of the boy players — the sex. Does the patron imagine himself as caressing the woman, feminine man, the masculine woman or the boy himself? Which resolution an audience member chooses to inhabit is their power, over the actors and over the writers.

It is a game.

In her speech at the Battle of Ideas festival last month, Vanity von Glow — a male drag performer — construed drag as a “game”. A game necessitates a framework, and “the framework of drag posits that, fundamentally, identity is frivolous”. This is “not a deceit but a conceit”, she asserts. The distinction being, I would suggest, that a deceit is a game played upon a person and not with a person — a game played against their will.

I choose to use the female pronoun “her” when referring to Vanity von Glow because I choose to partake in the game she has laid out. I agree to her proposition (if only for a time) that identity is, indeed, frivolous. I am invited to, and consent to, suspend my belief in this reality to explore the potential in another — a consent I can withdraw at any time. He and I are of an understanding that, in this moment, he “pretends” to be a woman. By “a woman”, we mean to say he switches between emulation and exaggeration of female stereotypes that have varying degrees of “truth” to them. We are negotiating, through play, the definition of “woman”, “man”, “real” and “imagined” — sparring, testing the extent to which a man can convincingly “become” a woman, and to this end challenge the extent to which identity is frivolous.

Identity is a game because identity is socially-negotiated, and it can be frivolous both in how it is constructed and how it is negotiated. Like the “self-serious” straight man who resists the fake flirtations of both the drag queen and the pantomime dame, reality always threatens to bring an end to the game. This “reality” or “true nature” is not to be resisted; it is, in fact, a necessary component of the game.

In a game of throw-and-catch, gravity will always cause the ball to drop. For the ball to hit the floor is to end or ruin the game — but without gravity, there is no game. Without gravity, there is no risk, and without risk, there is no challenge: no statement of reality to resist. When in the air, the ball appears to defy the rules reality sets out — it travels up despite gravity’s command that the ball must fall down. For a moment, there is magic … The ball falls back down again, and reality is re-introduced. It only serves to illuminate that moment in which the ball seemed to defy all reason. The spoilsport is the one who points out that the ball does not defy nature, but was thrown with a force that exceeds that of the force of gravity. To take the game too seriously, to insist upon reality too hard, is to shrink or deny the liminal space. It is to ruin the fun. Yet, as demonstrated, a sense of reality cannot be wholly absent.

In all games of pretend — games of suspended reality — to deny that any pretence is taking place is not only to ruin the game, but to prevent a game from being played at all.

A drag act is no longer an “act” if the “woman” in front of you is not parody or a farce, an oversexed pantomime dame, but a woman, a “real woman”. Opposite of the throw-and-catch player who insists too hard upon the influence of gravity, they are the player who insists that magic not only makes the ball go up, but makes it come back down as well.

If there is no clear sense of what a man is and what a woman is, then what is the performer parodying and how do the audience know if the parody is any good? Where is his transformation? In all art, to deny the original or “true” state of the performer — the empty stage or the blank canvas — is to do away with the idea of performance and creation itself. If a drag queen is a “real woman”, then there is no performance; there is only a ridiculous woman.

Descartes’ evil devil comes to dance, and we are all tormented

The power of the performer is in the systematic and impulsive embracing and refutation of reality. What social commentary would the band Queen have made in “I Want to Break Free” if, when they had cross-dressed, they had claimed they were all in fact biological women — and if people believed them? The admiration the general public have for shape-shifters like David Bowie and Tilda Swinton stems from the comprehensiveness and totality of their transformations. If Bowie really had been an alien from outer space, the US army probably would have blasted him into atoms the moment his foot touched dry earth. The virtue of the artist is in his or her ability to inhabit someone or something “other” than themselves in a way that illuminates — or obscures — the one, the other or both.

The liminal space which the performer occupies — that the players occupy — is one of secure unpredictability, but only because the as-yet-unexplored lies between two certainties. Reality is the knowable and predictable from which the imagination departs and returns. It is the source material upon which it borrows and ruminates. It is also the thing by which the mind recognises that it has been involved in a game of imagination at all.

To insist that there was never a blank canvas, an empty stage, or a biological male behind the breasts is to remove the audience of their ability to consent to the game, and the game becomes a trick. Descartes’ evil devil comes to dance, and we are all tormented. In denying reality — particularly to children, whose sense of both identity and imagination is in vulnerable flux — you pervert the adventure and enter into a much more vicious game of making the audience question the evidence of their own senses.

Those who choose to play this game must realise they are the only player.

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