Why Porn and Pantomime are So Similar

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British cross-dressing at its finest

First a confession: I haven’t actually watched a huge amount of porn for reasons that will become apparent soon. So this essay is based on my impressions that were largely formed many years ago when porn movies were the staple form of erotic entertainment. Today, short-form video clips of varying quality apparently dominate and I suspect evince less variety than the “blue movies” of yesteryear.

Nevertheless, please indulge me and allow me to explain why porn movies and the British wintertime staple of pantomime are in fact close cousins.

For those who aren’t familiar with pantomime, the tradition goes back quite a long way, deep into the late Victorian era. Think of it as a kind of Music Hall for kiddies. Just as with the adult version, stock characters and predictability are the keys to its popularity.

Pantomime reprises well-known stories. There’s Peter Pan (which was perhaps the first story intentionally written to be performed in such a way) and there’s Dick Whittington, the tale of a young boy who goes to London to make his fortune, becomes discouraged, but is persuaded to return and persevere and then becomes Lord Mayor. There’s Hansel & Gretel, that evergreen story of binge-eating gingerbread addiction. Occasionally there’s Jack and the Beanstalk, and finally there’s Cinderella.

Over the years, all these nominally different stories have more or less blended together and the same stock characters appear across the entire genre. Thus we have the two Ugly Sisters, invariably played by bulky men in drag. We have the Principle Boy, who is always a svelte and lithe young woman.

Yes, there’s most definitely a serious cross-dressing theme going on here. Ever wondered why the British are frequently so eccentric?

We have the Handsome Prince, who (disappointingly and somewhat astonishingly) is actually played by a handsome man. Equally disappointingly, the heroine will be played by an attractive young woman. She is easily identifiable as the pretty one to whom things happen and who lacks agency in the proceedings, waiting for her Prince to come and rescue her.

For those into the taboo thrill of bestiality there is invariably a Pantomime Animal, variously a horse, a cow, a cat, or a crocodile, all of which are in fact absurd costumes within which one, two, or sometimes three performers can hide while performing various unmentionable acts upon each other in the name of entertainment.

For those opposed to heteronormative performances, pantomimes sometimes afford the opportunity for the Principle Boy to leave with the Heroine at the end of the show.

This in no way confuses the under-fives. Really. You must believe me on this one.

Throw in a pantomime horse or cow or crocodile, a mustachioed villain, a hopelessly inept parent or two, and a cast of oddly-dressed extras and voila: we have a pantomime. Evil will attempt to overcome Good, much rollicking nonsense will ensue, children will shriek “Behind you!” in delighted terror as Evil attempts to creep up behind Good. The Ugly Sisters will aid and abet such machinations but never with much success, and in the end the handsome male hero will depart with the heroine unless as aforementioned it’s really the Principle Boy (girl) who departs with the heroine.

Either way, much hand action is involved as everyone applauds wildly and then everyone goes home happy.

Turning now to classic pornography and what do we find?

We certainly have a heroine. She’s easily identifiable as the pretty one to whom various things happen, passively accepted by her as she lacks agency in the proceedings, waiting for various men to come and do things to her.

Unlike in pantomime where the horse is merely a joke character, in porn movies men with horse-like penises feature prominently.

While there are plenty of fart jokes in pantomime, there’s surprisingly little anal sex. But the basic concept is, from a five-year-old’s perspective, somewhat related so we can press on with our analogy.

Just as there are classic pantomimes, there are classic porn movies: The Devil In Miss Jones, Behind the Green Door, and Insatiable. As movies progressed the themes and stock characters blended together so that each new movie increasingly resembled every other movie in the genre, a la pantomime.

Next up, just as there are stock scenes in pantomime, so too there are stock scenes in old porn movies. There’s the semi-consensual scene, equivalent to the “come into my house, my pretties” scene in pantomime. There’s the double penetration scene, so reminiscent of our old favorites the Ugly Sisters bullying the heroine. And of course there’s the obligatory girl-on-girl scene which is clearly nothing more than Principle Boy kisses Heroine but with far fewer clothes and a rather greater degree of oral dexterity.

In several European countries where it’s legal, the pantomime animal is replaced with a real animal. Hungarian movies in particular were for many years famous for their inclusion of Hector the porno dog. Brazil meanwhile is famous for its starkly realistic interpretation of the inevitable Pantomime Horse scene.

Finally, just as with pantomime, the intent is to ensure plenty of hand action at the end so everyone can go away feeling happy.

And this is why I simply can’t watch porn. The echoes of pantomime are too strong and too distracting. Every time there’s a gang-bang scene I’m waiting for a throng of childish voices to scream out “Behind you!!” and then dissolve into hysterical giggles.

Today it seems that porn has devolved into short-form clips, each a mini-scene in its own right. Plots have given way to action, much as with the generic output of Hollywood. Fast & Furious could be the title of a franchise car chase series and equally serve as the title of a montage of modern porn clips.

The problem is that these clips resemble nothing so much as bored understudies dutifully rehearsing lines they know they’ll never perform live on stage because the lead actors will complete the pantomime season in good health. So they’re just going through the motions and doing the minimum necessary to get paid. And that’s not really very interesting.

For me, literature appears to be the last redoubt of erotic potential. Whether you find the Histoire d’O or Emmanuelle to be your cup of Darjeeling or prefer the more literary Orange Pekoe of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, or simply get off on a quickie Tetley’s tea bag from Harlequin Romances or a racy bit in a Danielle Steele potboiler, there’s more effort put into things where words are involved.

Unless you’ve accidentally and very unfortunately opened a page of the atrocious 50 Shades series, in which case I’m very sorry and you’re probably reading this while waiting for your therapist to see you.

At any rate, it seems to me that visual erotica could use a bit of a recharge in these get-there-as-fast-as-possible times. Now that the average US attention span is a mere eight seconds (as of 2013 data; perhaps it’s less now) I suppose it’s inevitable that porn should be tailored to an audience that is in danger of forgetting what it’s doing a mere ten seconds into the sequence.

But surely, if we’re looking for a sexual frisson, we should at least have enough time to determine whether the hero is actually a man or is instead the Principle Boy.

Especially allowing for the fact that today’s strap-ons are very realistic indeed.

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Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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