All the world loves a dame, and, now that it’s only five weeks to Christmas (and is therefore time for the great British Christmas tradition of pantomines – that’s the man responsible for over-the-top panto dames, Dan Leno, looking winsome on the left) I thought Three for Thursday could venture into the world of fictional cross-dressing.
The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer manages to combine absolute farce with such likeable characters and ready wit that it carries the day and you’re willing to believe that a woman, dressed up as a man, pretending to be a woman is, if not commonplace, at least entirely credible. Even with her brother, usually disguised as a woman and the toast of the London Season, masquerading as a highwayman to foil an elopement. Set just after the failed rebellion of 1745, and featuring a family of Jacobites, the fashions and manners are a little different to the later Regency period, for which Heyer is best known.
My second choice for this theme was, initially, Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett. He’s a funny man, Sir Terence David John Pratchett, and this is a very funny book about a girl who dresses as a boy to join the army and go in search of her recruited brother. It’s full of very wise and ascerbic observations on the pointlessness of war, the evils of rampant nationalism and the sheer stupidity of sexist assumptions based not on ability, but on ‘cannots’ and ‘should nots’. Even the title is funny, since the regiment is not exactly human, and references a publication by the dour Scottish preacher, John Knox, who “sounded the trumpet blast against the monstrous regiment of women” in one of his many rants against the rule of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Now, unfortunately, our libraries don’t currently have any copies of Monstrous Regiment. But we do have a copy of The Monstrous Regiment of Women which is part of Laurie King’s fantastic Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes series. There’s always a modicum of clever cross-dressing in these books as Holmes and Russell disguise themselves to advance their investigations. I love this series, and I have just hugely enjoyed the latest, eleventh, addition – Pirate King. Of course, there’s boys in dresses and girls in galabeyas to suit this theme, but it’s the central idea of a film crew going on location to Portugal and Morocco to make a silent film about a film crew making a silent film version of the Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera Pirates of Penzance, and ending up with real pirates, that amused me right from the start. That and Mary Russell imagining the suitable descriptive narrative in a silent film title card every now and then.
As for a DVD recommendation, I just can’t go past a classic – Some Like it Hot was voted number one in the 100 funniest American movie ever made, by the American Film Institute in 2000 (with, interestingly, a much later cross-dressing movie, Tootsie, at number two). It’s full of clever lines, double entendres and some slapstick, goofy visual gags, but I’m pretty sure the enduring humorous nature of this 1959 movie has something to do with the sheer comical implausibility of believing that anyone would think Jack Lemmon was a woman.
So there you have it. Anyone else have any favourite fictional drag queens or sheroes they want to share?