Following it’s sell out run in Manchester, Mrs Doubtfire has announced a transfer to London. Its announcement has triggered a conversation.
The discussion was initiated by Meg McGrady, a performer, director, writer and activist. Before continuing reading my thoughts, I’d first encourage you to read their thoughts here
McGrady highlights some criticism the show gained during its Broadway run and that a male performer in a dress for comedic purposes aids a stereotype that causes harm to the trans community. They go on to discuss that the production has failed to listen to the critiques of it and address them.
Having watched the show this year, while not claiming to speak on behalf of the trans community, I feel It fair to share what I took from the show. Particularly about whether this show was a comedy about a man wearing a dress or something else. In addition, I’ll touch on some other contentious points raised in the discussion, namely about why the show has been made and why I disagree that pantomime dames should be exempt from this ongoing dialogue.
Touching on the subject of the musical and film first, I believe its only due to gender stereotypes of the time that meant the character of Mrs Doubtfire had to be born. Ultimately, in 1994 the role of a male nanny or manny would have been unheard of. Therefore, I would first argue this film and musical are about a man who had to take on a character that wouldn’t arise suspicion while one that could be around his children and an elderly Scottish lady was the way to achieve that. That’s not to say there are not references in the film that have not stood the test of time, but overall the point of the film is not to make lightheart of a man in a dress as has been argued.
On to the musical, we first have to ask why this musical was written? The answer is likely that this is another example of a screen to stage musical to gain commercial success. Emulating the success of the Bodyguard, Pretty Woman, Ghost, Dirty Dancing, and many, many more. The role of this musical is to use a recognised piece of IP to fill up theatres and to make money while creating an enjoyable night at the theatre.
The next question people are most concerned with is, is this show making light humour out of a man in a dress? Furthermore, does having this musical on stage help enstill transphobia?
On the first question, I would argue not. It’s based on the situation and not the gender, while watching the musical I took from it a flawed man, in a moment of desperation made a questionable judgement to dress as a Scottish Nanny becuase he felt it was the only way to see his children.
On the second question, I would say the comedy takes aim at chiselled male masculinity if anything and from memory doesn’t make humour out of the a man wearing a dress. Does the script make pragmatic changes and edits to ensure outdated views lines from the film are not included? Yes.
The Musical does encompass how society has changed while remaining faithful to the original. There are a number of changes mostly seen through Daniel’s brother and while I can understand why some may have concerns with the original film, to make a decision based on that and a persons write up its almost as bad as judging a book by its cover . I would argue theatre can’t move forward if people don’t witness a show first hand and share their views after and instead openly try and discourage people from visiting. It prevents that discussion taking place.
After seeing Mrs Doubtfire it’s a challenge to remember a situation that made light heart at the concept of a man being a woman. At worst, It makes lightheart of a man taking on a new identity. Even then, it’s the situations that identity gets put in and not the gender of the character. In short the gender does not define the character.
During the online discussion on Mrs Doubtfire, McGrady aludes that pantomine dames do not make light heart of it being a man in a dress which is why they shouldn’t be put in the same boat as Mrs Doubtfire. I strongly disagree, and if someone is to take issue with Mrs Doubtfire in my view they almost certainly need to take that same view with Pantomime dames.
The tradition of a dame is referenced by Queer Kernow ‘Even when women were accepted into the world of theatre, pantomime dames continued as a means of comedic effect and the dame’s obvious masculinity became an essential part of the joke. ‘
Similarly, Professor Jane Moody, Director of the Humanities Research Centre and Professor in the Department of English and Related Literature at York University argues:
The strange key to Leno’s success – and to the character of the Dame ever since – was his creation of a credible woman whom everyone knows is being played by a man. Performance has always exploited the pleasurable ambiguities of cross-dressing.
Moody is referring to Dan Leno who was the celebrated music-hall performer who created the character in pantomine that we now know as the Dame.
This makes it clear that should Mrs Doubtfire be deemed as encouraging transphobia that the role of the Dame needs serious rework to ensure it doesn’t do the same.
This opens a wider debate however… who defines what incites transphobia in a cultural setting? Should anything that could encourage transbobia be avoided? Who makes the decision on what should be avoided? Is the only way to solve this reintroducing censorship in theatres to ensure productions have no possibility of damaging side affects?
These are all questions I can’t answer and neither can any one person in the theatre industry. Yet they are questions we need to be thinking about whether that be for transbobia, racism, homophobia, ageism and any sort of oppression.
In summary, the only way for people to judge this show is to go and see it. To campaign to not support the show without seeing it aids the conversation that people should judge a book by its cover and not its content. Critical analysis of a production is key to the future growth and success of the theatre industry. However, that is only possible if people watch shows with an open mind.
Having an inconcious bias towards a show before seeing it damages not just a show but also stops that open discussion from happening. Let’s continue this debate after people have seen the show, and then it can be decided if it does aid transphobia and if it does, why and how can it change to stop it.
Before that time, let’s not make second guesses what it could or couldn’t do as that’s a form of prejudice in itself.