Thursday, July 11, 2013

Cross Dressing in American Film. No Laughing Matter

A paper for my Queer Film Study Class  

In the Celluloid Closet Quentin Crisp remarks that * There is no sin like being a woman. When a man dresses as a woman, everybody laughs. When a woman dresses as a man nobody laughs. * Mr Crisp certainly if referring to the heteronormative power structure in our Western society and it*s prejudices associated to gender rigidity permeating our media. Heteronormative attitudes, influenced by Judeo/Christian values and the cash stockpiles in their control, have guided the reining cultural reference points through ownership of the corporations that dominate and create mass culture. Even a man like Mr Crisp; who has given his whole life over to the great pursuit of being a professional poof; can fall into the trap of forgetting duality and myriad of genders that line Kinsey*s world. Even in early cinema conventions about gender fluidity have been expressed in the stories of American film. Proving that Mr Crisp is too quick to believe the convention of the day and its dominance in film. His comment is not really true but instead steeped in the convention that has been sold through heteronormative societies manipulation of projected image. Perhaps saying that men in dresses are fools and women assuming power are a threat to the belief system of our culture would be a more realistic way to describe the situation.
A truer take on what it is that Mr Crisp is alluding to is that men put on a dress and begin acting like prissy clowns and women become hard and concerned. That they change clothing and become a parody or a stereotype. A man dressed as women is often played for comedy but women as men is usually a hard luck story or a power struggle anchored to first wave feminist ideals or a mans world. Women who have been asked to play men and have done it well were able to feel the pressures of being closed and without an outlet for emotion. For truly this is the mans plight through social conditioning. Men must become hard less they rebel against the drudgery and cruelty of modern society. Men in films are hardly ever shown to have emotions unless it is the loss of a true love through death or the insane consumption by love of an object, power, or a women. The roles of men are fraught with dire circumstance like war and desire, lust, greed and hardship that it is all his fault. The Patriarchal world that we live in has not always been and may not always be as it is and this scares the men of power and they fight and manipulate to stay in control. Thus the films, usually a patriarchal set up from director, script boy, lighting and even make up, men control the media. They fight to control the movies and their hand in it because it gives them power. They do not want to see the image of a woman being a representation in all ways of their power.
Yet female stars that really made it in classic Hollywood like Garbo and Hepburn were strong and powerful. They were able to stand up to the bosses and gained control. The strength of Davis and even the severe manish beauty of Crawford stand the testament of time and live on. Showing that men resent looking at women as men but cant help but reward a woman, hold her as an idol in the world of men, provided she can meet him at his level and maintain. To seize mans power and hold on as a woman gets you noticed! Only women who have subverted or gained so called manly ways with a strong attitudes survive. It*s a mans world.
The movies worship strength and power and these supernova women either played a man, had sexual ambiguity, or used cross dressing to elevate them to this rare stardom. Hepburn*s performance was laughable as a boy along side Cary Grant in Sylvia Scarlett. Indeed there was nothing funny or comic about the role other than how terrible it came across. Hepburn is a down on his luck boy feeling the pangs of lust for Grant through her disguise. Simply not a good movie. Hepburn, a favorite of mine, is the worst man ever portrayed on screen. That is because she is supposed to pass. What Hepburn is being asked to do is be a man not represent a man. When a drag queen passes she is taken for a woman and passing as a man as a woman is very hard and visa versa.
However in the films A Florida Enchantment and The Clinging Vine we have fine examples of actresses who did indeed pass in a much more believable way then poor Kate would later. Both performances were heartfelt and appropriate in their scale. They were believable and in the Clinging Vine we are taken by the way the character is played throughout. It is rare to see a sexual deviation that is so flamboyant in her dress and attitudes not meet with death or sorrow. It was refreshing to see a winner, who was a winner, on her strength and that heteronormative morals did not rule the day.
As movies have progressed there are few female performances that create a character of a man in any meaningful way. A movie and role that smashes the parameters of Quentin*s theory would be Julie Andrews in Victor Victoria. Her performance is comic genius and goes from powerless woman to powerful man to strong woman all in a faced paced comedy of errors around gender identity. The Oscar winning tear jerker of a trans mans death at the hands of a cold and vengeful society by Hilary Swank in Boys Don*t Cry, is another fine example sans the comic effect. Truly a very raw and believable performance. Finally the illuminating film staring Glenn Close*s recent turn as a man in Albert Nobels. A woman who must be a man to survive financially in a mans world.
The thing the performances of these women share is the ability to deftly change their manners and convince us that they were men in male roles and by not over doing themselves. They didn*t become a man but a character. If an actor concentrates on the idea of their gender and the switch we loose the believability and realness. We get the fool or mimic and the performance lacks truth and gains parody instead. This is the general problem with drag and cross dressing men in films as well. The fear that if they can be seen as women then they will loose their power in the world or that it will open the door to a truer understanding of gender equality and fluidity. To be set equal to a woman means that there is no true power structure. So Instead we use cross dressing as a way to belittle and oppress the woman of the world and keep them adherent to the patriarchal society.
As Hollywood has used the sissy as comic relief so has the cross dressing male been the queen of capers and confusion garnering us hours of film hilarity. Some Like It Hot a film staring
Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as cross dressing musicians is considered the greatest comedy of all times in many critical circles. It certainly helped that these two had one of the greatest drag stars in the form of Marilyn Monroe to accent their rather dowdy appearance. This film is actually a movie that gets drag right. Drag is a costume and not always a gender signifier. The wearer to pull it off in a convincing way must again subvert something in themselves and become a character and not try to be a woman. To try and be a woman would have the drag persona relying on stereotypes and not giving credence to the truth that there is no way to act as a woman, because women; just like men and gender; have infinite possibilities.
Comparing the fine film of Curtis, Lemmon and Monroe to two later offerings by Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire and Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze and John Leguizamo in Too Wong Foo Thanks For Everything Julie Numar we see what little progress we have made in accepting the female sides of ourselves. Where Curtis and Lemmon added some sincerity and integrity to their roles Robin Williams hardly ever does. The biggest complaint about Williams in Doubtfire is that he can change within seconds to the old lady made. Simply dash behind the clock and out comes a plain but kindly granny. This shows how little we understand about the cultural preparation most women go through just to get out the door in the morning much less an understanding of what drag entails! The production team should have watched Paris is Burning a few times before making their film. The misconception also being that drag teaches a man how to feel and understand his family is a far fetched notion. Drag teaches men how to represent a feminine identity around themselves not how to be, act and fell like a woman.
In the other film Too Wong Foo we have three men in roles that are so stereotypical and from such a heteronormative view point that none of them could possibly be believable. The situations that these drag performers get into is a complete misrepresentation of what drag is. Drag is for the stage not for mid day strolls down dusty paths in a small rural village where the men want to kill you. To live as a woman is to live a transgendered life and that is not what these three were to portray. They were Drag Queens acting like Trans women in a movie about American values and truth. When it comes to Queer culture being represented by Hollywood there is more often than not these types of mistakes. Mostly because we are not taught to think of gays and lesbians as not having a culture. We instead as a society are thought of as a square peg that needs to be taught how to fit into a round hole. This film is a one hundred and ten percent misrepresentation of Queer culture and a complete misrepresentation of our numerous gender identities. Here Patrick Swayze is the square peg being shoved into a Doris Day shaped hole and I doubt very much that a drag queen would do this for any reason other than to parody the heteronomative world.
Two films that were able to use gender deference in a very real way were the little known Lillies and the foreign film Ma Vie en Rose or My Life in Pink. Lillie is a tale of redemption for past transgressions of a dying man who has rotted away in jail for a crime of passion against his gay lover he did not commit. The crime was instead perpetrated by the gay priest who has come to hear his confession and give his last rights. The confession is heard in a gay prison ward and they hold the priest captive and relive the drama of the crime in play form before the captive priest. We the movie goer are allowed to see the drama as it really happened with the inmates playing the same charaters but dressed as them in the actual setting, thus mixing reality and dreams in the telling of the tale. This movie takes the men playing women in the real world and also has them play women in the dream world and they do it so well the movie works seamlessly and is a true masterpiece of Queer cinema.
Ma Vie en Rose is the story of Ludwig and his family in Belgium and the difficulty that his gender identity causes for the whole family. He is a little girl inside and would do anything to prove it to the world thus innocently outing himself and shaming his family. The story is so close to the gender confusion that queer children feel it is hard to believe how close it comes to my own experience. A beautiful and triumphant tale of how a family changes and lets go of their own prejudice to love their son who thinks he is a girl. The cross dressing here is the innocent childish play of childhood that is ended when dominant culture is enforced through social pressure. It also relies heavily on a fantasy world much like in Lillies but this one being filled with pink doll houses a living Barbie and pretty dresses.
To do drag films correctly or males to cross dress as females and for it not to be bafoonary there needs to be the idea of fantasy at play. When we loose the fantasy and the magic it creates we loose the idea behind gender and its portrayal becomes hollow. So it is not really about a man or a woman being the joke. Nor is it about how women are punished in a mans world. Instead of what Mr Crisp stated it is about the heteronormative male dominated culture refusing to look at anything but itself as acceptable thus remaining in power. In Hollywood the laws must apply in general and certainly to gender representation because the status quo and money flows must be maintained. Gender deviance is often used to titillate (Dietrich), show courage and strength (Garbo), ability (Hepburn) and the spirit to achieve (Davis and Crawford) when applied to women. For men it is a chance to subvert women*s power and make fun of queer identity. Perhaps Quentin Crisp should have said * Nobody laughs at a woman with male traits because they are afraid of her power while men who subvert the symbols of their power are nothing but fools in the Hollywood eye. *

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