Trousers on TV: 4 animated pants roles

Trousers on TV: 4 animated pants roles

Jenna Simeonov

Though they conjure up images of the 17th and 18th centuries - an impatient Cherubino-type, or Handel royalty - trouser roles are still a thing in opera today. In fact, women playing male characters, and vice versa (a skirt role?), is a thing outside of opera, too. It makes odd sense that some of television’s most popular animated shows have what could be called “trouser roles”; after all, like opera, the actors on animated shows are working primarily with, well, their voice.

There’s June Foray, famous for Rocky the Flying Squirrel (The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show), and Norma MacMillan, who was the voice of Casper, the Friendly Ghost. There was also Christine Cavanaugh, who voiced Chuckie in Rugrats, and Dexter in Dexter’s Laboratory.

Of course, reversing the gender direction, there’s Brad Bird, who voiced Edna Mode in The Incredibles, and Bob Peterson, who you may remember as Roz the Dispatcher in Monsters’ Inc.. There’s also the king of voices, Mel Blanc; on top of biggies like Bugs Bunny, Sylvester, Daffy Duck, and Yosemite Sam, he played more feminine characters like Penelope Pussycat and Honey Bunny (Bugs’ girlfriend).

But who are the cartoon pants roles (and skirt roles) of more recent years? And how does a casting choice affect how we react to a character? We tracked down four of our favourite 21st-century cartoon characters, who all take a cue from opera’s tradition:

Nancy Cartwright (Bart, The Simpsons)

Nancy Cartwright’s infamous voice has all the loud, attention-getting nasality for a boy like Bart Simpson. He fits the trouser-role trope: a young, pre-pubescent boy up to no good, but with a kind heart (a bit like Stephano, from Roméo et Juliette?). Cartwright also voices other characters in The Simpsons, including Ralph, Nelson, and Todd Flanders. Plus, she established a scholarship at Ohio University, and she co-founded Happy House, a non-profit that builds “better familes”.

Pamela Adlon (Bobby Hill, King of the Hill)

Just like Bart Simpson, Pamela Adlon plays Bobby Hill with that vague tessitura of an awkward preteen. She uses the natural rasp in her voice to get that pre-pubescent squeaky quality, the kind that makes Bobby a sweet, mama’s boy-type kid (maybe a little like the Komponist in Ariadne auf Naxos).

If you know some of Pamela Adlon’s other work (stuff like Californication and Louie), it can make watching episodes of King of the Hill a freaky experience:

John Roberts (Linda Belcher, Bob’s Burgers)

Apparently inspired by imitating his own mother, John Roberts is the voice of Linda Belcher, Bob’s wife on Bob’s Burgers. Sort of like when the Witch is played by a tenor in Hänsel and Gretel, there’s inherent meaning when a woman is played by a man.

The low-pitched, authoritarian voice of a Jewish-mother-type comes with enough information about Linda (stereotypical as it may be) to create an implied back story. As in, she wears the pants in the marriage with Bob, she keeps the burger joint running, and like the Witch, she is not to be messed with.

Check out this clip of a live script read for the cast of Bob’s Burgers; Roberts is third from the left.

Dan Mintz (Tina, Bob’s Burgers)

In the same Bob’s Burgers read is Dan Mintz, who plays Bob’s daughter, Tina Belcher. Another example of male-to-female travesti, Mintz uses the bored sound in his dully nasal voice to voice Tina, one of those teenage girls who seem totally, hopelessly awkward.

Mintz doesn’t try to sound more feminine with the character, even compared to John Roberts with Linda. It’s similar to how Strauss writes Octavian, or Verdi writes Oscar, two pants roles which aren’t a direct link to the castrato tradition; instead, the women who play these roles sing with their own voices, which act as a dramatic device on their own. So, when Mintz uses his monotonous, male-yet-not-manly voice, we get clear cues that Tina is a weird girl, and that the people around her don’t even really see her as feminine.

Meet Tina below, and check out Dan Mintz’s stand up.

Who are your favourite trouser roles outside of the opera stage? Let us know in the comments below!

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