Theatre Thursdays: Gender, Masculinity, and “The Creation of Man”

The+Scarlet+Pimpernel+Encore+The_Scarlet_PimpernelThe_ScarlI am a sucker for both creative works set during the French Revolution and for Frank Wildhorn-penned musicals, so it stands to reason that The Scarlet Pimpernel is one of my all-time favorite shows.

If you’re not familiar with the show or the novel, the story in a nutshell is this: a group of English noblemen, disgusted by the brutality and wholesale slaughter taking place during the French Revolution, undertake many daring excursions across the Channel to rescue French nobility from the guillotine. As they become more and more famous for their exploits in England, they are forced to hide their true personalities under a pretend love of fashion, as no one expects a foppish lord to also be a national hero.

This ‘disguise’ is most clearly seen in the scene where Lord Percy Blakeney, the titular Scarlet Pimpernel (a pimpernel is a flower, by the way, and it’s his signet, hence the code name) and mastermind of the whole operation, is taken aside by the Prince of Wales. The Prince wants to ask him about something serious, but Percy keeps up his fashion-forward front, singing this song that states the true purpose of the male gender is to be flashy and fashionable.

The song in and of itself is a hilarious subversion of gender expectations, since in every species they mention besides humans, the male gender is the one who’s supposed to put on a show and look pretty to attract a mate. It’s a clever, funny song by itself, but I’m of two minds about foppishness as plot device. 

The majority of me says that this is an ingenious idea within the story. Percy and his men play on the stereotypes of the effeminate fop in order to put off suspicions that they are engaging in feats of derring-do, and honestly I don’t think they could have thought of a better way to allay said suspicions. No one in 1789 would expect someone so far from the ideal of masculinity to be taking part in events so stereotypically masculine, that is, being a big damn hero. Percy’s own wife Marguerite doesn’t realize he is the Pimpernel until late in the story. There’s even a little genuine subversion of gender expectations within the Pimpernel’s band, as there’s usually one or two men who in the live version profess to really honestly like the fancier clothes they’ve taken to wearing.

imagesHowever, from a metatextual point of view, I think it’s a little more problematic. The show doesn’t say “you can like stereotypically girly things and be a big damn hero”; it says “obviously no man who likes girly things can also be a strong, principled hero at the same time”. Once the ruse is up, Percy and his men put away their pastels and animal prints and go back to their more conservative attire.

Furthermore, the whole situation is presented to its modern audience as hilarious—men who pursue stereotypically feminine pursuits, even in the 21st century, are by their very nature a punchline. And that’s kind of an icky message.

I’m not saying this is a bad show—like I said, it’s one of my all-time favorites, and it’s perfectly fine to enjoy potentially problematic media as long as you recognize that the problems are there and don’t try to make excuses for them. That being said, if you get the chance to catch this show (the national tour was last seen sometime in the early 2000s, but it lives on in community theaters) by all means please go check it out.