This article first appeared October 3, 2014 in my Chick on the Draw column at Luna Station Quarterly.
Sometimes animation is sort of like SNL in the early 90s–it assumes men dressed as women are funnier than actual women.
I’m not saying Cross-Dressing Voices is always men-as-women. Where would animated boy roles be without June Foray, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Christine Cavanaugh, E. G. Daily, Laura Torres, Tara Strong, and Cree Summer? Not every show dares to let their male kid lead grow up –as Avatar: the Last Airbender and Adventure Time did.
And I’m not saying men posing as women can’t be funny or subversive. Divine as Edna Turnblad, the Kids in the Hall as their lady counterparts, and Jordan Peele as Meegan are all comedy gold. But what’s vital to their success is that the funny comes from the characters and situations, and not simply the drag itself.
And I’m not saying the male performers don’t deserve the part. Many of the cases I’m about to describe are actually male show creators who took on female roles in development and never let go. Who could say a show creator doesn’t know the character?
What fan would single out one not-entirely-satisfying drag performance in an otherwise satisfying movie or show?
Who could ask a show creator to give up their sweetest plum?
Who could suggest the character might take on a new dimension in the hands of, say, a professional female performer with decades of experience?
That person would have to be a bit of a nit-picky dirtbag.
Let this dirtbag say it: unless a man-in-drag voice performance is damn funny or damn subversive, it’s frustrating to see.
My frustration index is determined via the following three criteria:
- Is the character actually funny?
- Does the attempted funny come from character aspects, not just the drag?
- Is the character the most significant female role in the show?
Let’s explore six instances of female roles cast with male voice actors, in increasing order of frustration:
6. Linda (Bob’s Burgers) – John Roberts
|Funny outside of wacky voice?||Yes, and wonderfully pushy, sexual, and striving|
|Most significant female role in the show?||Bit of ensemble, but I’d say no|
The main de-frustrating advantages of the women in Bob’s Burgers is that 1) they’re complete characters and 2) there’s a lot of them. They inflict as much suffering as they endure. They have flaws, ambitions, and one-liners. Linda’s voice doesn’t draw attention to itself, and John Roberts’s performance is organic and unique. What’s not to love?
5. Tina (Bob’s Burgers) – Dan Mintz
|Funny outside of wacky voice?||Yes, and wonderfully complex and weird (“friend fiction”)|
|Most significant female role in the show?||Debatable. I think this honor goes to the youngest, Louise, who is voiced by Kristen Schaal|
Dan Mintz’s deadpan delivery suits Tina like a seductive slow dance. It would have been interesting to hear, say, Judy Greer or Pamela Adlon take on the character, but Mintz’s Tina is engaging, authentic, and funny. She doesn’t sound like a drag performance. She sounds like Tina.
(Also, randomly, I just realized the Belcher daughters make “Tina Louise.”)
4. Lumpy Space Princess (Adventure Time) – Pendleton Ward
|Funny outside of wacky voice?||Yes, and a great character (“Oh my glob.”)|
|Most significant female role in the show?||No|
As much as I love Lumpy Space Princess (and I *love* Lumpy Space Princess) Ward’s performance has a distancing effect. While part of LSP’s charm is how off-putting, awkward, and demanding she is, a voice that brought the audience closer would have made her, like stars Finn and Jake, as heart-melting as she is funny. She’s so very nearly perfect. I mean, look at that face.
3. E. Mode (The Incredibles) – Brad Bird
|Funny outside of wacky voice?||Yes, and a great character (“NO CAPES!”)|
|Most significant female role in the show?||No (That’d be Mrs. Incredible, with many other female characters no slouch)|
Energetic, driven, opinionated, and high-tech, Edna Mode is a fan favorite role and it would have been fantastic to hear what a professional woman voice actor brought to it. Was Linda Hunt too busy? But I can’t go griping too loud because allegedly Lily Tomlin herself told Brad Bird to keep the role.
2. Roz (Monster’s Inc.) – Bob Peterson
|Funny?||Probably the only unfunny part of the whole movie|
|Funny outside of wacky voice?||No|
|Most significant female role in the show?||No. Even after Boo, it’s a split decision with Celia|
The central joke of Roz is that she’s plain, deadpan, and a foil for Mike Wazowski, with all the visual setup of a Gary Larson matron and none of the punchline. At the end of the movie, it turns out she has a secret, which is something, but that braying voice puts the “oy” in “why?”
And the all-time most frustrating female role cast with a male voice actor:
1. The Venture Brothers (Dr. Girlfriend) – Doc Hammer
|Funny?||I guess. Doc Hammer uses a really deep voice. Plus New England accent|
|Funny outside of wacky voice?||Sometimes. Usually more reactive and straight man, so to speak, than funny.|
|Most significant female role in the show?||Hands down, yes. She’s the only female series regular.|
|Bonus frustration||Male gaze out the yin yang|
Here’s the reason that, madcap and winking and depraved as The Venture Brothers is, it never got on my must-see list the way madcap, winking, depraved Archer did. Archer offsets its rampant fan service with a near 50% representation of complex, bizarre, unforgettable female characters–who also all happen to be voiced by women. The Venture Brothers has Dr. Girlfriend.
In case her name doesn’t give it away, be assured she exists primarily as the voice of reason to her sometime boyfriend baddie. She also exists to pose in outfits. Her coarse, booming voice adds nothing and destroys relatability, as Monarch’s henchmen question her gender yet she herself seems unaware of how bizarre she sounds.
She’s smart and does science sometimes, which is nice, and if she was one of a few women among the series regulars, she wouldn’t be so frustrating. But she’s not. So she is.
Imagine a Dr. Girlfriend that talks like Claudia Black and you’ll see the chance that was missed.
Show creators may consult The Bechdel Test Revisited for ideas on how to put more women in a show.