Patricia Casey: 'Bringing the curtain down on panto role censoring'
My children loved 'The Magic Porridge Pot' and the 'Three Little Foxes' while 'Snow White' and 'The Little Mermaid' held little appeal.
But they were boys and I wasn't too surprised that sleeping beauties or stories of little girls taking food to their granny who lived in the forest didn't cut any ice with them. On the other hand girls love stories that have handsome princes, beautiful young women falling in love, clothes swathed with lashings of glitter and being rescued from danger. Even supermarkets now stock dresses in colourful tulle decorated with multi-coloured sequin. They often come with wands too, just to make some wishes come true.
The intriguing thing about fairy stories is that they are reported in all cultures across the globe. The reason for their universality is a topic of debate among experts in the area. One suggestion is that in the oral tradition they spread from the primary source along trade routes. An alternative is that they emerged over time in diverse cultures because they all contain insights about the human psyche that are universal across civilisations and cultures. The well-known and respected professor of psychology, Jordan Peterson, frequently refers to archetypes and these are well-represented in fairy stories, possessed of attributes like greed, cruelty, power-lust but in others decency, honour and respect.
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In fairy stories, recurring archetypal themes are explored. The world can be an unsafe place for children, some may be harmed and are in need of protection, innocence passes and the transition is a vulnerable time for young women, some may be deceived by those who are not what they seem and so on. Men and women are very different from each other in these stories, with women either cast as cruel matriarchs or younger women/girls as vulnerable and in need of assistance while navigating danger. Men are usually the rescuers.
Unsurprisingly, feminists are not impressed and fairy stories have been heavily criticised for being misogynistic, racially uniform, not including sexual minorities or people with disabilities (what about the seven dwarfs?). Some celebrities such as Keira Knightley and Kristen Bell refuse to allow their daughters to watch certain Disney productions, claiming that they make women passive or that consent is an issue when the Sleeping Beauty is kissed.
Christmas season, with its pantomimes based on these stories, is ripe for the picking. With its slapstick comedy, bawdy humour overladen with sexual innuendo and cross-dressed actors, it is easy prey to being exploited for political reasons, as much as for fun. Several of the pantos currently playing around the country have digressed from the story and are written with feminist improvisations, notwithstanding the popularity of the traditional panto, especially among young girls.
In one production it is Snow White who proposes to the handsome prince while in a production of 'Robin Hood' Will Scarlett is replaced by a female warrior Scarlett and in 'The Snow Queen' the unicorn is gender fluid. Aladdin is sneered at when he proposes to Jasmine to be told she can rescue herself.
The intriguing contradiction about the feminist remix of these traditional fairy stories is women are still viewed as victims. Danger isn't written out of the production, just the belief women can deal with it themselves.
In reality this does not happen and the state and its institutions are expected to be the rescuers. So women's refuges, barring orders and a large legal apparatus are rightly in place to provide protection. Other institutions are increasingly being drawn in as well. Universities are expected to create safe spaces, lecturers have to draw attention to possible triggers, speakers with non-conformist ideas are banned from appearing and consent classes are part of the induction programme for new students. So no, women are not rescuing themselves, but are leaning heavily on external resources to assist.
Instead of acknowledging the importance of men's behaviour as examples of good role models, they are rebuffed in favour of institutional responses that silence free speech and offer cocooning from the rough and tumble of everyday life because of what is called "toxic masculinity". There are also continuing efforts to feminise men. Typically, we are told men should speak more about feelings, just like us women. I'm all for talking about feelings but I remain to be convinced it makes any difference to the prevalence of mental disorders.
The feminist discourse about men and their behaviour isn't just confined to pantomime. A few years ago I went to a production of 'Titus Andronicus' at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It is notorious for its level of violence depicted by rape, mutilation and cannibalism. It was a female-only performance, attempting to see the characters through the feminine lens. Swords were considered too phallic to slice each other's tongues out with, so they used paint brushes. Later in the play ferocious warriors came armed, not with swords and spears, but with long-handled paint rollers. It was hilarious and utterly ineffective. It is easy to laugh at what is happening now, whether it be in the high drama of a Shakespearean play or in the more mundane world of the village panto.
But there is a deliberate attempt to distort relations between the sexes, not because of a wish to have better plays or more wit or to challenge the actors, but to change thinking as part of a social experiment that is ideologically driven.