WHEN it comes to pantos and Christmas shows, it’s fair to say girls haven’t always been presented with the most positive role models. Think back to festive theatre visits in childhood and the chances are you’ll recall adventures where the men do all the swashbuckling and prince charming rides in to save the day. The women and girls were invariably weak and wet, often with little to do other than flutter their eye-lashes and wait to be saved. And all the funny female characters had to be played by men.

Look closely at this year’s Christmas schedule, however, and you’ll find a different, more modern approach to gender politics in many theatres as they seek to redress the balance and offer an inclusive and representative repertoire.

Indeed, one might say this year’s shows are filled with ass-kicking girls. Crucially, however, those behind the productions – many of whom are women – are keen to ensure this approach doesn’t come at the expense of boys, or indeed the fun, excitement and laughter that have always been the heart of Christmas shows.

Gender politics was very much in the mind of director Eleanor Rhode as she worked on Wendy and Peter Pan for the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. The clue to her outlook is in the name of the production – Wendy takes centre stage.

“Peter Pan is the most wonderful story but traditionally Wendy has always been a bit wet,” explains Ms Rhodes, who last year wowed audiences and critics alike with her production of Boudica at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. “In this show she throws off the shackles – Wendy is definitely the protagonist.

“Peter Pan has a big part to play too, obviously, but the show asks some fundamental questions about why it always has to be the girl that is the character looking after everyone, the prim and proper one, rather than the one who gets to have adventures.

“But the production isn’t just about the fact that women are as capable as men and need to have a stronger voice. It’s also about the roles we force men and boys into.”

Ms Rhode was inspired to work in the theatre after seeing Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night as a child, a play renowned for its strong female roles.

“I remember how exciting it was to see someone who looked like me on the stage, someone I could connect with,” she says. “A girl was at the heart of the action – she was the strong one, with all the best lines, leading the story. That was really important for me.”

As the recent furore over the first female Doctor Who – played by Jodie Whittaker – revealed, some are still critical of what they perceive as equality being forced upon society, especially when it means “messing” with the classics. How would the director respond to the accusation that presenting a new, more feminist Wendy betrays JM Barrie’s original?

“For me, if you deliver the goods with an entertaining piece of theatre that has something to say, no one will go home disappointed. This is a show with a massive heart and everything people love about Peter Pan is there.”

More enlightened gender politics is

a theme across the board. Perth Theatre’s Snow White doesn’t rely on a man for her happy ending, while at the King’s Theatre in Glasgow, Widow Twankey finally gets to be a woman – in the shape of Elaine C Smith, no less.

Scots actor Shauna Macdonald, who is directing a cast of young people in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in Portobello, Edinburgh, was also keen to update traditional stereotypes.

“For this piece we’ve ignored gender, in a good way,” says the Bafta Scotland winner, star of films such The Decent and Filth, and TV dramas such as Spooks and The Cry. “The dwarves are a mix of genders and all have moustaches. It doesn’t matter who wears what and who ends up with whom. There’s a great line at one point: ‘I identify as a princess therefore I should be treated as one’. We have fun with gender politics and fluidity, issues that young people are very wise to and well way ahead of their parents on. I have three daughters and if I tried to read them a fairy tale with a princess being saved by her one true love, a prince, they wouldn’t be interested.

“This a Christmas show and the purpose is to entertain, not educate. But let’s bend the rules and have some fun – who made up the rules, anyway?”

Ms Macdonald, from Edinburgh, who also voices gadget-mad Professor Squawkencluck in CBBC cartoon Dangermouse, believes women still face institutionalised sexism in the entertainment industry.

“As a female actor it’s a battle trying to get a good role with strong character development that challenges you as a performer, where you are not just someone’s girlfriend,” she says. “Community theatre for young people is so important as it can have a positive impact on their choices in life.”

According to fellow director Rosalind Sydney, positive role models can influence even very young children. Ms Sydney is directing an all-female Christmas production at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre, aimed at the under-six age group.

Remember December follows Flora, a forgetful little girl who has forgotten to post her letter to Santa. “When conceiving the show it was important to reinforce the idea that girls can take the lead, be brave, physical and strong,” explains the director. “Flora scales a mountain, goes skiing and paddles on river rapids. The bond between grandparent and child is very important to this show, and Flora and her granny are active, physical people.

“Boys should have good female role models, too. I have two young sons and they are not put off by female-centred narratives or female protagonists. But gender-biased attitudes are embedded deeply into our society and when you rock the status quo people can feel a bit scared. We’re not taking roles models away from boys – we’re just showing that it shouldn’t matter.”

Ms Sydney is keenly aware of the unique place pantos and festive shows have in our hearts – and the opportunities they present.

“Christmas shows are particularly important because for many people, especially children, it’s the only time of the year they come to the theatre,” she says. “It’s vital that theatre makers make the right choices.”

Wendy and Peter Pan is at the Lyceum in Edinburgh until anuary 5. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is at Bellfield, Portobello, from December 14 -16. Remember December is at the Tron Theatre till December 31.