Thursday, September 1, 2011

Men in Drag: Love Them or Hate Them?

I just watched Charles Chaplin don a dress and heels in A Woman (1915), where he starts a whole new pandemonium: the issue of men in drag. In the first scenes, when he still has his moustache and he is trying to walk shaking his bum exaggeratedly, he simply seemed a bit ridiculous but not too far out of his usual character, and I was sincerely enjoying it with my 3-year-old daughter, who called him "silly".
But then he shaves his little moustache and slightly tones down his mannerisms, and I have to admit that I was a bit surprised. My daughter seemed confused, got bored and, to my relief, left. I think she was not sure anymore about who this woman was and whether she was supposed to keep laughing. To tell the truth, I wasn't either. I suddenly started taking everything he did a lot more seriously and a lot more personally. I would still laugh at certain moments, but it didn't seem all that funny to me when the slimy men tried to hit on her and touch her inappropriately.
Chaplin in A Woman (1915)

Since then, comedians have been performing in drag. Growing up in Venezuela in the 80s and 90s, particularly, it seemed that it was mandatory for comedians to dress as a woman at some point in their careers. Some even seemed to be making a living off it. I really hope this has changed. I always hated these performances and rarely found them funny. Mostly they felt embarrasing or demeaning.
About two days ago I was eating at a taquería and watching some Mexican television, featuring a drag queen competition. Once more, sheer fury stuck my taco in my throat and made the hot salsa completely unnecessary. When the contestants were dressed as men, they behaved very calm and composed, and answered interview questions thoughtfully. As soon as they transformed into women, they started fighting (bitching, frankly) with each other, putting all their insecurities up front in their video diaries, screaming, jumping, and crying. Really? Is that how women are expected to behave?
India Ferrah, Mimi Imfurst and Stacey Layne Matthews during RuPaul's Drag Race (2011)

I felt very differently watching Alex Newell perform as a woman in the Glee Project. I thought he was amazing and I would have no problem being compared to him (I wish...). Reading the discussions following his YouTube video was quite enthralling. Some people thought like me, but others, particularly gays, felt offended, and did not want "a drag queen representing" them in the show.
"He just pisses me off. To all straight people watching this, all gays aren't like this. I sure as hell am not. Not everyone is educated enough to understand the complexity of being LBGTQ. Personally, Transgender shouldn't even be in that phrase... it's a gender", wrote micahwonka.
"I think the point he's making is that he is playing the stereotypical feminine gay. It only gives reason to people to make fun of homosexuals. So it's ironic that portraying a very stereotypical view of homosexuality would be praised. Playing this role only gets more hate from heterosexual people", agreed lyndsayiu5.
"Just because you're gay doesn't mean you have to act like a girl... THAT'S WHY I HATE ALEX!!!", wrote a third user.
"He doesn't dress in drag because he is gay. He does so because he wants to", replied another.
And a legion of people came out to defend Alex and his right to dress however he wants to dress, and how that should not be interpreted as a gay stereotype.
Alex Newell (right) singing with fellow competitor Hannah McIalwain for the Glee Project (2011)

So I was trying to understand why I felt so different about Alex, and I had to come to the conclusion that it was because I perceived his change of gender as both honest and self-respecting. When interviewed about his choice of clothing for his last performance, he said he had chosen to perform in drag because he considered that his biggest advantage over the other contestants was the ability to perform as both a man and a woman. He focused always on the quality of his performance, which even people who professed their fervent hate towards him admitted was mind-blowing, and he never did anything that I considered embarrasing or disrespectful towards women while in drag.
However, micahwonka is right when he warns us that Transgender is a gender, and not a sexual orientation. There are, in fact, straight men and women who enjoy dressing in drag as well. Gays and lesbians seem to be sick and tired of being stereotyped, and being associated with drag queens and kings not only does not help their cause, but also inflames their hate against transgender folks. In my humble, straight opinion, drag queens and kings deserve a place of visibility, respect and expression of their own.


  1. I get it. I feel offended by men who act like idiots dressed as women. Fine for them to dress any way they like, but please don't insult women by making fun of the way we speak, move and act.

    I have a friend who started as a straight married man who liked to put on women's clothing and is now a divorced lesbian woman. It is confusing for family and friends. I think good movies about these topics help us to understand.

  2. I think your friend's case makes it even clearer to me that it is a matter of gender identity and not of sexual orientation.
    There are a lot of movies that deal with this subject and hopefully I will slowly get to them. I have decided to tackle things in a chronological order, so probably next week I will continue on to the 1920s.