Today, I started playing in the new musical Tootsie from my unplayed list on the iPod. This got me thinking about men dressing up as women in the theatre, and how it is increasingly problematic for woke audiences. Yes, it was traditional in Shakespeare’s day for men to dress as women, because women weren’t allowed on the stage. But I think about the two shows I recently have seen, Irma Vep and Baskerville, and how they had men dressing up as women. I think about shows like Sugar or Hairspray. I think about new musicals like Mrs. Doubtfire, and I have to ask myself: why are still still using this trope.
Think about it: Why do we dress up men as women. There seem to be many messages being sent.
First, that it is funny for a man to dress as a woman, likely because it is viewed as demeaning to do so. Today, that’s just wrong. People can wear whatever they want to wear. We shouldn’t find humor in that. I can see absolutely no reason, other than “traditional”, why Edna Turnblad couldn’t be played by a large woman. The humor in that character is in her size, not her genitals. This, I think, is also the reason for the cross dressing in shows like Vep or Baskerville.
Next, it is because with the man dressed as a woman, they are able to get jobs they were not able to get on their merits as men, and so they take a job away from a woman. Tootsie, Doubtfire, and Sugar are examples of that. Is it right for men to steal jobs from women by pretending to be women?
There’s also the trope that, as a woman, they are able to say things they weren’t able to say as men. In other words, they dress as women to avoid mansplaining.
Lastly, there’s the bit about dressing as a woman so as to deceive someone to have a relationship with them.
All of these are wrong. Now let’s look at the fewer times that a woman dresses as a man. I can think of three: Victor Victoria, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and anything based on Twelfth Night. In all these cases, the women is dressing as the man to get some rights or privilege they couldn’t get a woman.
Think about what this says about our society.
I know of only one musical where the show gets cross-dressing right: Kinky Boots. But that’s because it is intentional drag. Priscilla: Queen of the Desert might also get it right for the same reason.