Drag on Film

Larger than life and sashaying soon to A Theater Near You, the drag queen is having her day. More and more, Hollywood stars are sporting high-heels and a hairy chest. Outrageous, outlandish and out of the closet, the new breed of drag queen isn't cross-dressing for success -- a job in an all-female band (Some Like it Hot), a female part on a soap (Tootsie) or permanent proximity to his children (Mrs. Doubtfire) -- these divas are here because they're queer. This 90s drag has none of the G-rated innocent tomfoolery of Milton Berle, Jack Benny or Flip Wilson, yester-yawn gagsters who dappled in frumpy frocks for a thigh-slapping good time. Today's drag queens are savvy in their sexuality and are working the room to audiences who get it. The first hint that America was ready for something a wee more racy was the enormous popularity of the seemingly small, independent documentary, Paris is Burning. in 1990. Last summer, the Australian art house flick, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert surprised trend-trackers by grossing over $10 million. Paris and Priscilla were little engines that could. Currently several celluloid steam-rollers are scheduled to arrive with sass and circumstance.Heading the cavalcade is the just-released To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything,Julie Newmar, produced by uber-mogul Steven Spielberg. The big-budget movie starring macho-men Wesley Snipes and Patrick Swayze will breeze into a drag-friendly climate, arrives on the high-heels of Wigstock, The Movie a documentary which surveyed New York's ever growing drag festival. The hottest model on the runway to fame, Ru Paul appears in both films. The omnipresent drag queen's new autobiography Letting It All Hang-Out, was just published last month. The unexpected popularity of Priscilla paved the way for other independent films like Wigstock, The Movie. Wigstock, the festival, is a do that has grown in size over it 10 year existence from a few hundred East Village queens to 30,000 gays, gawkers, friends and fans. Director Barry Shills spent years scrounging up the funds for his documentary. But after Priscilla, Goldwyn hastened to jump aboard. "Priscilla came out and succeeded then everything started to move more quickly," said Shills. "If Priscilla had flopped I might still be looking for money." Shils surely hopes to capture some of the Je ne sais quois that director Jennie Livingston concocted in Paris is Burning, the most successful documentary on any subject to date. The film, which crossed-over from art houses to suburban malls, invited audiences into the underground and utterly subversive world of the Harlem drag pageants, from whence Madonna stole the notion of voguing. But the players behind films like Wong Foo and the upcoming MGA blockbuster Birds of a Feather, point out that their projects were in the works way before Priscilla was a twinkle in any Aussie's eye.Director Mike Nichols has been planning Birds of a Feather, the American remake of the French film La Cage aux Folles, since it was staged on Broadway in the eighties. But just what greased the wheels of these productions and lured the likes of Robin Williams (who stars in Birds) and Swayze and Snipes? Is the popularity of drag a calculated craze or spontaneous convergence? Progressive shift or simply fiscal smarts? While some contend that the trend heralds a new tolerance and increased gay visibility, others maintain that the fad represents a fetishization of drag culture. Drag queens often earn a living as living decoration; they're hired to add color and festivity to an evening's event. The drag queen's presence as 'party picker upper' may account for their incongruous appearance in such otherwise straight films as Mixed Nuts or I Like it Like That or Pret-a-Porter/Ready to Wear (all which toss in a drag queen for good measure.) It adds pizzazz, seems politically correct meanwhile providing audiences with an opportunity to laugh out loud. "Permission is granted to laugh," says director Beeban Kidron of her film, To Wong Foo. In effect, the characters are saying, "look at me, I' m six foot four and I'm gorgeous! You may laugh, we laugh all the time.' "Kidron says that such a spirit relaxes people. It provides a reprieve from humorless political correctness. Stephan Elliott, the Australian director of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the tale of a gaggle of trans-gender individuals whose bus breaks down in the outback, has said that he exploited the public's instinct to laugh at such characters. "I knew if I tried to make a sympathetic film about drag queens from the first frame, I'd lose three-quarters of the crossover audience. So in the first third of the film the characters come off as pretty trashy, and the audience is invited to laugh at them. Very slowly this begins to turn in the middle act, and in the last third of the film you laugh with them rather than at them." If this is true, films like this may well serve as sensitivity training for phobic movie-goers. Beeban Kidron, who directed Wong Foo has noticed a similar transformation in test audiences who view her film. This movie, (similarly enough) follows a bevy of American drag queens who travel across the country leaving a trail of raised eyebrows. "By the end of the film I would guess that about 80% of the audience have stopped wondering whether they're men or women, they're just characters and that's the strength of the film," she said. Amidst the hundreds of audience comments that Kidron collected, she recalls more than a few which read: "I thought this was going to be a bunch of queers but actually it makes me feel that we're all human, thanks." While some considered Tom Hank's decision to play a gay man with AIDS to be a risky venture, audiences responded with warmth and understanding and box office enthusiasm. Hanks not only gave AIDS a human face, he gave it Hollywood's kindest face. Similarly, the mainstreaming of drag may have a similarly positive effect of de-stigmatizing alternative lifestyles. Supermodel extraordinaire, Ru Paul has had huge cross-over success as a cross-dresser. "The fact that teenagers like Miss Ru really does revolutionize how a certain generation of kids see queens and see gayness, " said Jennie Livingston. While there is uniform agreement that Hollywood's producers are choosing to do drag-themed projects for reasons relating more to the wallet than the soul, AIDS has intensified the crusade for gay rights and has emboldened the community to come out of the closet and up onto the silver screen. AIDS, says Shils, "has been such a downer on all of these communities. There's this need to embrace life and say let's have fun with it, let' s have a sense of humor. We've been to an awful lot of funerals -- there's this black cloud that weighs over all of us -- but let's not forget that life is a joyous, festive wonderful thing. And I don't think any body has figured out how to say that better than the drag queens." Many, like Shils, surmise that AIDS has mobilized the many gays in Hollywood as well as their supporters. Yet amidst the sea of red ribbons that have become ubiquitous in Hollywood, it is still the green backs that speak the loudest. Lady Bunny, an East Village drag queen and founder of the Wigstock festival, knows that her ilk are the flavor of the month for one reason only. "Hollywood sees it as a gimmick in the same way that star wars led to a bunch of space films, its about making a buck", Lady Bunny, whose social/professional dance card has been brimming of late, continues, "if this trend brings drag into the public eye in a positive way, then by all means crank out more. I'm ready to sell out in other words." A Chattanooga native, Miss Bunny was first dazzled by drag at age 13. She is prominently featured in Wigstock and has a small part in Wong Foo. Elliott has said that he was mostly motivated by a desire to revitalize the musical. "I wanted to make a film about drag because I was looking for a way to bring back the musical," said Elliott. "I was looking for a way to revive it when I realized here was the answer -- drag queens wear glitzy costumes and burst into song. They're walking, talking musicals!" Today folks watch the glittery showgirls of yester-movies with an cynical smirk But a drag queen can put on the dog with a wink and nudge. Extravagance itself has become the stuff of high camp and so drag has given a the musty musical a saucy new lease. Still, mainstreamlining the far corners of fringe may be a contrary, possibly foolhardy, proposition. "The essence of drag and camp is about people on the margins," notes Jennie Livingston. "Sexual and gender outlaws create work from that very particular place of being outside of the mainstream." But Hollywood can't keep its manicured paws off the rougher, outsider sources. And the slick machine tends to sanitize and white-wash as it co-opts. (Think Spielberg's The Color Purple. or Fried Green Tomatoes) Whether a glossy Hollywood version of the true spirit of fabulous faggotry can be pulled off remains to be seen. To Wong Foo has already been criticized for not going far enough with its gay themes. For most of the film, the characters are "in disguise" as women rather than parading their drag status. When John Leguizamo's (from Fox's House of Buggin') character does fall in love with a man, it cannot, conveniently, amount to anything. But, stresses the British Kidron, "this is radical for Hollywood. Hollywood is always going to be a bit behind the independents and the spokespeople. I sat in the theater and listened to Denzel Washington say BD a dozen times (in Philadelphia), "I use to hate gays, now I think maybe they're all right," she remembers. "Maybe it wasn't necessary for me to hear it half a dozen times , but it was probably necessary for other people to hear it that often. The fact that I had to hear it twice more than I needed to didn't mean that it didn't need to be said." Kidron describes Wong Foo as an old-fashioned family film. When she came to Steven Spielberg with the project she told him, "I really thought that this film was the film that could bring drag to America. While it is a very life-affirming light-hearted mainstream film, it deals subtextually with homophobia, rejection from one's family, racism, wife abuse." But others disagree that the prevalence of drag in recent cinema indicates a new tolerance. Nathan Lane, who plays "a sissy" opposite Robin Williams' butch in Bird of a Feather does not see an increase in tolerance. "In this day and age, things seem to be getting worse. We're in a much more conservative time," he said citing recent hate crimes in Texas. But drag he says, is simply "a lot of fun. It's non-threatening." This non-threatening quality of drag may reflect homophobia itself. In her book, Vested Interests: Cross Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, Marjorie Garber argues that "In mainstream culture, it appears just as unlikely that a gay man will be pictured in non-transvestite terms as it is that a transvestite man will be pictured in non-gay terms." So while drag queens may reassure, cute, straight-acting gays, like the one played by Tom Hanks in Philadelphia can be unsettling. The public may prefer to visibly see the difference between themselves and The Other. Drag reassures the straight world that they are indeed heterosexual since they certainly don't look like that. In other words, it separates the "boys?" from the "boys!" Garber explains that the conflation of gay and cross-dresser is fueled by a desire to erase doubt about one's own sexual persona. For those glass-is-half-empty types, the fact that gays-as-drag queens have arrived in Hollywood actually underscores the dearth of any other gay images from the Hollywood machine. If there is a movie with gay content in production these days, chances are its a drag film.(Ru Paul has several planned, Harvey Fierstein (Torch Song Trilogy) is writing another) As an exotic oddity, the image of the frivolous fag may be being fanned. The gay community has long been demanding exposure but some members feel that as all the attention (in the form of sensationalism) goes to the drag queens, frivolity replaces dignity. This is a long-standing conflict within the gay community. Drag queens remind those who would silence them for the sake of the larger political good that it was the drag queens who threw the first brick at Stonewall, the site of the first gay rights protest in 1969. One might note a parallel model between the latest trend of drag in movies and the arrival of blacks in the cinema. Just as the first appearance of blacks in the movies showed them in the roles of entertainers, shuffling nincompoops or other vessels of amusement and mirth, we may be witnessing an analogous process for gays. As a form of comic relief, drag queens today (like blacks in the 30s) need not be seriously considered, the issue of their human rights remains safely at bay. And yet it is a beginning. This less threatening, comic quality of drag does introduce gays into mainstream film and this could be the start of a sexual enlightenment process for America at large. Drag could arguably be the minstrel show of homosexual culture, which will eventually give birth to a fuller cultural representation. As "laughing at" turns into "laughing with," comedy can serve as manner and a means to acceptance. But drag has parallels to minstrelsy in another way as well. While white performers dressed in black face to lampoon black identity with over-the-top characterizations, drag queens engage in the gender equivalent by portraying exaggerated forms of femininity to comic effect. For some time feminists have been wary of the fine line between a drag queen's irreverent sense of humor and misogynistic implications. Not only do some drag performers engage in anti-female comedy, but the notion of men who relish all the accouterments that women have fought hard to discard is problematic for some. But Shils spins it such: "For all the things that women have not been allowed to do they have been allowed to be more emotional and its been permitted to put on the feathers, be the peacock where the men have had to walk around in these uniforms. That' s not a man making fun of a woman, that's a man embracing something that he has never been permitted to be. I think if anything, its an admiration for what is female" he said adding, "not to say that women are costumes and hair and makeup." What rubs some women the wrong way is the implication that one can easily experience womanhood by stepping into dress. The notion that clothes make the woman trivializes a decidedly un-pretty history of female oppression. "I get the criticism, I've heard it but it's superficial," said Shils. "Someone whose truly a humanist gets that this is about freedom of expression. No one's telling these drag queens they have to do it and that's the difference." If drag queens can adapt the trappings of a female persona by dressing in drag, they can, just as easily step out of character when need be. Some feminists, (Shils refers to them as "staunch" and not humanists) find that this jiffy, two-way metamorphosis makes it impossible for the drag queen to really walk in a woman's shoes. The voluntarily relinquishing of masculinity turns a life into a lifestyle. When asked if drag is sexist, Lady Bunny allows, "I'm not really so up on my feminist issues but maybe I should be. I just feel that there's something feminine inside me that needs to be expressed so I'm going to express it. I can't really worry too much about what people say. If I did I wouldn't have begun in the first place." Asked if he thinks that the philosophy of drag might actually polarize sex roles and dichotomize the genders, Nathan Lane answers, "dichotomize the genders? ...that sounds painful! The entire nation has lost its sense of humor! I think there are more important things to talk about in the gay community than whether drag is politically correct or not." In a desire to show solidarity with gay men, women's groups may refrain from criticizing drag, the topic becomes taboo. Someone's political correctness must be compromised when ideologies clash and women are used to deference. What's more, sexuality itself is not always politically correct. Still many feminists are in full support of drag. While one school of thought contends that drag belittles or mocks women and drag queens romanticizes female tragedy and reinforce gender stereotypes, the other side propose that drag celebrates women and that gay men can sincerely identify with women. They argue that such behavior is liberating and instead of reinforcing stereotypes, it can blur the lines between genders. "For all the superficial nonsense about nail color there's actually a great deal of support for women," said Kidron of the queens she has met, "...for their strength, for their belief systems, for their situation." Many heterosexuals and homosexuals alike are relieved that the social corset of rigidly defined gender roles has been loosened a tad. "Drag makes fun of the absurdity of society's expectations that any of us fit easily into our genders," voiced Livingston. "I think the gender system's hard on everybody, and most of us, at least with any sense of humor, like to see it shaken up." While Aunt Tessie may take a wrong turn at the multiplex and wander into Wigstock instead of Forest Gump, Part Two, she might learn a thing or two. As Barry Shils declares, "gawking can lead to liberation!"

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