Divas who know life is a drag
High-heeled boys are Hollywood’s new rage. But, asks ERIKA MILVY, does today’s fetish for drag really mean the coming of a new
LARGER than life and sashaying soon to A Theatre Near You, the drag queen is having her day. More and more, Hollywood stars are sporting high heels and hairy chests. 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 in a soap (Tootsie) or permanent proximity to his children (Mrs Doubtfire). These divas are here because they’re queer.
This 1990s drag has none of the G-rated innocent tomfoolery of Milton Berle, Jack Benny or Flip Wilson, yester-yawn gagsters who dabbled 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 the US was ready for something a little more racy was the enormous popularity of the documentary Paris is Burning in 1990. Then, in 1994, the Australian art- house flick Priscilla, Queen of the Desert surprised trend-trackers by grossing over
Opening in South Africa on Friday is the much- anticipated To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, produced by movie mogul Steven Spielberg. In the US, the big- budget movie starring macho-men Wesley Snipes and Patrick Swayze arrived on the high-heels of Wigstock: The Movie, a documentary surveying New York’s ever-growing drag festival.
The hottest model on the runway to fame, RuPaul, appears in To Wong Foo and Wigstock. The omnipresent drag queen is the spokes-model for a cosmetics company in the US, and his autobiography, Letting It All Hang Out, was published last year.
Just what greased these wheels of production? 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 the fad represents a fetishisation of drag culture. Drag queens often earn a living as decoration, which may account for their incongruous appearance in such otherwise straight films as Mixed Nuts, I Like It Like That or Pret-a-Porter. Their presence adds pizzazz, seems politically correct, while allowing audiences to laugh out
“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 6 foot 4 and I’m gorgeous!” Kidron says such a spirit provides a reprieve from humourless political correctness.
Stephan Elliott, 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 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 cross-over 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. 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.”
Kidron has noticed a similar transformation in audiences who viewed her film. This movie (similarly enough) follows a bevy of American drag queens who travel across the US 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
To understand the influence drag may have on mainstream thought, consider first the impact of Aids portrayals in the cinema. While some worried that Tom Hanks made a risky venture by playing a gay man with Aids in Philadelphia, audiences responded with enthusiasm.
Hanks not only gave Aids a human face, he gave it Hollywood’s kindest face. In a similar fashion, RuPaul has had huge success as a cross-dresser. “The fact that teenagers like Miss Ru really does revolutionise how a certain generation of kids see queens and see gayness,” says Paris is Burning director Jennie Livingston.
While Aids has intensified the crusade for gay rights and emboldened the community to come out of the closet and on to the silver screen, there is uniform agreement that Hollywood producers are choosing to do drag-theme projects for reasons relating more to the wallet than the soul.
Lady Bunny, a drag queen and founder of the Wigstock festival, an annual revelry that has grown from a few hundred queens to 30 000 gays, gawkers, friends and fans, knows that her ilk are flavour 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. It’s about making a buck.”
But Lady Bunny doesn’t mind such ogling: “If this trend brings drag into the public eye in a positive way, then, by all means, crank out
Still, mainstreaming the far corners of fringe may be a foolhardy proposition. “The essence of drag and camp is about people on the margins,” notes 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 sources. And the slick machine tends to sanitise and whitewash as it co-opts. Whether Hollywood can pull off the true spirit of fabulous faggotry remains to be
To Wong Foo has already been criticised 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 character falls in love with a man, it cannot, conveniently, amount to anything. “But,” stresses Kidron, “this is radical for Hollywood. Hollywood is always going to be a bit behind the independents.”
Others are less convinced that the prevalence of drag indicates the coming of a new tolerance, arguing that the non-threatening quality of drag may reflect homophobia itself. 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!”.
The deluge of Hollywood drag films also fans the image of gays as an exotic oddity. This exposes a chasm within the community over how large a role drag queens should have in representing the cause. Drag queens remind those who would silence them that it was they 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 as entertainers, shuffling nincompoops or other vessels of amusement and mirth, we may be witnessing an analogous process for gays.
And it is a beginning. The less threatening, comic quality of drag does introduce gays into mainstream film, and this could be the start of a sexual enlightenment process. Drag could arguably be the minstrel show of homosexual culture, which will eventually give birth to a fuller cultural representation.
Drag has parallels to minstrels in another way as well. While white performers dressed in black face to lampoon black identity, drag queens engage in the gender equivalent by portraying exaggerated forms of femininity. Feminists have long been wary of the fine line between a drag queen’s irreverent sense of humour and misogynistic implications. Not only do some drag performers engage in anti-female comedy, but the notion of men who relish all the accoutrements women have fought hard to discard is problematic for some.
The other side proposes that drag celebrates women and that gay men can sincerely identify with women. They argue that such behaviour is liberating and, instead of reinforcing stereotypes, it can blur the lines between
Ultimately, 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,” said Livingston. “I think the gender system’s hard on everybody, and most of us, at least with any sense of humour, like to see it shaken up.”