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‘Slap On! Slap Ever!’: Victorian Pantomime, Gender Variance, and Cross-Dressing

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 August 2014


In this article Jim Davis considers gender representation in Victorian pantomime alongside variance in Victorian life, examining male and female impersonation in pantomime within the context of cross-dressing (often a manifestation of gender variance) in everyday life. While accepting that male heterosexual, gay, and lesbian gazes may have informed the reception of Victorian pantomime, he argues for the existence of a transgendered gaze and a contextual awareness of gender variant behaviour, with a more nuanced view of cross-dressed performance. The principal boy role and its relationship to variant ways of seeing suggests its appeal goes beyond what Jacky Bratton calls the ‘boy’, a notion she applies to the dynamic androgyny of male impersonators in burlesque, music hall, and occasionally melodrama. For the principal ‘boy’ is clearly transmuting back into a girl, at least physically. Equally, while the dame role is usually unambiguously male, Dan Leno's late-Victorian dames seem based on observation of real women. There has been enormous scholarly interest in theatrical cross-dressing, but also a partial tendency to associate it with what Marjorie Garber calls ‘an emerging gay and lesbian identity’. This is appropriate, but should not obscure the relevance of cross-dressed performances to an emerging transgender identity, even if such an identity has partially been hidden from history. Any discussion of cross-dressing in Victorian pantomime should heed the multifaceted functions of cross dressing in its society and the multiplicity of gendered perspectives and gazes that this elicited.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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