So I have this friend. She’s a little smarter than me. (Maybe more than a little.) She also writes about theatre, feminism, and generally gender and social issues in theatre and other entertainment media. And we often talk about this stuff in written form, because we don’t live near each other, and then I sit back and think gee, I wish I’d written that as a blog post instead of it just being a chat between two nerdy friends. Can I just copy and paste these conversations and call it a blog? And then she, because she is a little smarter than me, or maybe just more willing to sound pretentious – you decide – says things like “Hey, if Diderot did it…” (Side note: Say that sentence out loud once or twice. Wasn’t that fun?)
In conclusion: Dialogues between She and Me are now a thing.
Today we talked about the Broadway adaptations of Matilda and The Little Mermaid and what it means that the character of Miss Trunchbull is portrayed by a male actor in drag (Bertie Carvel, nominated for a Tony for his performance) while Ursula, whose animated origins were inspired by a drag queen, is given to a female performer.
Me: I don’t know much about Matilda the Musical. Apparently Trunchbull is a drag role. That sorta sucks. Big, brassy, tough women need roles too.
She: Well, I think that it is highly British in tradition? Because it’s like a panto role. (Speaking of which, the Trunchbull from the Matilda movie is in Call the Midwife.)
Me: I’ve never seen the movie. I kind of … refuse. I just have too many feelings about the book.
She: Oh. Well, it has its moments. It’s weird because it’s American. But the Trunchbull, playing an American character in this movie, is actually this British woman. BUT, I agree with you about drag roles, generally.
Me: There’s also… this whole vibe in the book, I’m not sure I can articulate? I’m sure it’s been written about many many many times. But something about different kinds of female power. Because Trunchbull obviously, and Matilda’s physical powerlessness being overcome by her intelligence channeled into a physical force; and then Miss Honey’s powerlessness in her own situation, but her strength of character helps her there; and then in Matilda’s family, the dynamic with the mother and father, affects that message, too. And making Trunchbull a drag role doesn’t necessarily make that message go away, or undermine it even, but it does change it.
I don’t know much about the show, like I said. So it might be that the creators thought about that, realized it, wanted to make it a drag role BECAUSE of that – to emphasize something about misogyny, the patriarchy, female agency, power, etc? Because Trunchbull is the one primarily keeping down both Matilda and Miss Honey, she is the manifestation of oppression. So, okay, make her a man on one theatrical level, and you’re maybe highlighting that power imbalance. BUT… I do feel like it’s likelier that she was made a drag role because she’s this big, loud, athletic, ‘unfeminine’ character. And that’s not good enough. I may be completely underestimating the show and its writers. That might be completely unfair.
She: I like your reasoning but I think that it would probably not be a drag role if it were not a British import. I haven’t seen it, but I wonder if it’s like when they do various fairy tales as pantos in Britain – they often have characters like the Wicked Stepmother played by men.
Me: That’s done a lot in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, too, with the stepsisters. But then back up into THAT reasoning, British it may be, or more traditional though it may be – it’s still the unpretty, unfeminine, villainous, big/broad/brassy characters. Maybe that’s obvious – ‘the unfeminine females are played by men’ – but that’s still something to notice. Opera tradition, in contrast, seems more willing to have … I don’t know how to say this. ‘Pretty’ gender switching? In both directions – soubrettes and castrati. I mean, castrati are a whole other can of worms, but.
Back to Broadway, though –in Hairspray, the whole kind of charming thing about Edna is that she’s a very feminine character, and very sympathetic, and very dainty, and also romantic. Edna and Wilbur get a love duet and everything, and she’s also very maternal, and yet a drag role. She’s physically large, but she’s not the villainized masculine woman, the un-woman, of characters like the Trunchbull. And that (Edna) is sort of unusual and rather nice. Though I still throw out a little weak flag of “more roles for women!”
I can’t remember the details or exact context now. But I remember someone talking, when The Little Mermaid opened on Broadway, about how Ursula should be a drag role. That she’s a drag queen-type character, based on a drag queen in the original animated movie, so the Broadway production should have her as a drag role. And I was like, okay, but wait, sometimes women can play those brassy, broad, ‘un-feminine’ or over-feminine characters, too. Come on, Sherie Rene Scott is SHERIE RENE SCOTT so let’s not talk about replacing her with a man just for a shock value that isn’t shocking. Or for a bit of comedy that’s based on an inherent discomfort with effeminate men and gender role issues. Aside from the movie’s animation inspiration, there is no dramaturgical reason for Ursula to be a drag role, however much she fits into that character type. And you can’t keep taking away all the larger than life, brassy female villains from female performers.
She: Real. So real. I get so mad when people don’t recognize the inherent discriminations and the lack of female roles.
Me: There are already a LOT of male roles in that show.
She: Yeah. All the sidekicks are men. Sebastian, Flounder, Scuttle.
Me: Eric, King Triton, the Chef. Either way, the other mermaid daughters get very little to do, and aren’t fleshed out characters. It’s really just Ariel and Ursula. And Ursula, turning into the alterna-Ariel, fits fits into both the wicked (drag) stepmother slot and the (dark-haired) anti-virgin slot. (Only in the original movie, though. They cut that for the stage show, replacing that plot line with some kind of Cinderella’s-slipper-singing-contest thing.) And that added character, Carlotta the castle housekeeper, as an added mother figure type of thing. An anti-Ursula, perhaps? But that’s it.
[At this point, we started discussing the article “Where Do The Mermaids Stand? Voice and Body in The Little Mermaid” by Laura Sells, published in From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender and Culture. We’ll wait while you go read it.]
Me: Going off that premise– Ursula teaching Ariel how to perform gender– I can see the argument for Ursula as a drag role but even more, the argument for Ursula to NEED to be played by a female, still. Premise: Ursula teaches Ariel about gender performativity. Therefore: A female character (Ariel) CAN perform the idea of female. (This version being, voiceless for a man.) I posit that the performative and artificial nature of the construct of gender are better highlighted by a female actress, performing Female past the point society has, at this time, arbitrarily decided is acceptably feminine – performing, in fact, on a level of Male-as-Female (appropriation by the male?) – guiding a female actress/female character to perform her own femininity to exactly the point arbitrarily deemed acceptable and desirable for a female. CONCLUSION: Let us have Ursula. You get everyone else.