Is Crossdressing Crossing Over to the Mainstream?

Source: Boston Globe [Focus Section, 03/21/1993] by Matthew Gilbert

Pop culture is confrontation. It’s in your face. In the multi-million MTV moments, in the fleshy jeans ads, from the covers of insouciant style magazines, in shiny steroid-pumped movies, on dance club floors and fashion runways, pop culture speaks its visual language of shock. Pure pop stars talk shock fluently: Marky Mark pinches his crotch in flagrante, Michael Jackson neuters his body, Madonna harnesses herself in leather. Elvis, true king of pop, wound his pelvis into a muscular white tornado. At a glance, pop artists ask us a direct question about race, sex, gender, power. They challenge and polarize us with but a gesture.

Add to this visual pop lexicon the newest hip eye-opener: crossdressing. As if to punctuate the end of the socially stagnant Reagan era, a parade of drag images is now crossing screens big and small, mostly men bedecked in wigs, lipstick and scarves to hide their protruding Adam’s apples. Neil Jordan’s “The Crying Game” has a nation of moviegoers cross-eyed over issues of gender. Lanky New York drag queen RuPaul has a No. 1 dance hit and regular MTV airplay. Chunky Dame Edna Everage has a show on Fox and belipsticked Boy George has a comeback hit single. Locally, a major show at the Institute of Contemporary Art called “Dress Codes” is packing them in.

Also donning drag are youth market faces such as U2 in their video for “One,” Natalie Merchant, k.d. lang, Madonna and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, nonspokesman for grunge teen spirit. Pop comedy is increasingly incendiary in its costuming, with the drag-driven Kids in the Hall, Jamie Fox on “In Living Color,” and Julia Sweeney’s Pat and Mike Myers’ Linda Richmond on “Saturday Night Live.” Hollywood is about to go on its own gender bender, with female impersonator Lypsinka in Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia,” Johnny Depp as a transvestite in director Tim Burton’s next project, David Cronenberg’s adaptation of “M. Butterfly” and Robin Williams as “Mrs. Doubtfire.” And don’t forget the crossdressers of “Silence of the Lambs,” “Paris is Burning” and “J.F.K.” All this on the (high) heels of journalist Anthony Summers’ image of J. Edgar Hoover in a black dress and lace stockings.

What’s going on? Why is mainstream America crisscrossing the great gender divide, accepting the drag queens that pop god Andy Warhol celebrated underground decades ago? How has “The Crying Game” with no major studio hype, snowballed into the seminal ’90s movie based largely on its surprise gender theme?

“We’re seeing more crossdressing right now because we’re in a time of social upheaval,” says Marjorie Garber, a professor of literature at Harvard University and author of “Vested Interests: Crossdressing and Cultural Anxiety,” adding that crossdressing also thrived at the end of the ’60s and after the world wars. “The current roles of men and women in society, maleness and femaleness and personality, are all very much under question.” Indeed, should women “wear the pants” in the family? Should me be hands-on with children? Gays and lesbians are gaining visibility, bisexuality is a twenty something trend, AIDS is stifling everyone with fear. Our private sexual identity inquiries are being mirrored in our media.

A Powerful Image

For many viewers, drag queens and kings are adored images of power and individuality: “I am what I am, I am my own special creation,” goes the anthem from the Broadway musical “La Cage Aux Follies.” Gender players appear to have freed themselves from the narrow social rules and roles that are confounding everyone else. They are also emblems of triumph over the body’s limitation.

“It’s not a sexual fetish for me,” says the leggy RuPaul, who at 6 feet 4½ inches (without pumps) wears a blond Mae West wig and shimmering tight dresses. “Drag is the ultimate in power dressing. When you’re in drag, any drag, you become the God of your imagination, and that’s powerful medicine, baby. With my drag, I encompass both male and female. I become a microcosm of the whole universe, the yin and the yang, and people pick up on that and are enthralled by the power. That’s what got me addicted in the first place.”

In recent weeks, RuPaul has been miraculously embraced by such mainstream media as “Entertainment Tonight,” “Entertainment Weekly” and “The Arsenio Hall Show,” where last week an ecstatic audience applauded a picture of the fawning host in a wig of his own. RuPaul says the warm attention he receives when crossdressed as “a goddess” vanishes when he’s an ordinary black American man – “the bottom of society’s social ladder.” Similarly, the documentary “Paris is Burning,” about gay black men in New York who dress and crossdress, portrays drag as overcoming social destiny. It’s a “fierce” quality that’s a primary goal for many drag queens. Even when Australian comedian Barry Humphries sports his rhinestone glasses to become the spikey Dame Edna, he’s empowered by the illusion.

Academic live wire Camille Paglia says male-to-female drag queens symbolize strength, and that they have shaped her own feminist theories. “It’s a persona that’s far more aggressive and self-reliant than that of the established feminists who whine to committees about a date they had last night. … The drag queens have an incredible mouth. They can defend themselves by word and by deed. They know they can’t go to the police if they get roughed up. They are like these warriors. RuPaul is magnificent – a new persona for the 21st century.”

For the notoriously individualistic Paglia, drag queens celebrate the “magical procreative power” of women. She says they have “allowed [her] to learn what it is to be a woman. … I’m basically a drag queen.” When women dress as men, she says, it’s less fierce. And indeed, female-to-male drag is less popular than the reverse. Annie Lennox, k.d. lang and Laurie Anderson (and Julia Sweeney as Pat?!) are among the few women of pop who dabble in crossgender costuming. Most often, heavily costumed female performers choose to wear female drag – Cher, for instance, or Dolly Parton, who once said, “If I’d been born a man, I would have been a drag queen.”

We’re All Drag Queens

Along with symbolizing self-empowerment, crossdressers also can remind us that sex roles and costumes are fictional. Men wear pants because American society tells them to; in Scotland, men can wear kilts. Even wigs were once fashionable for men. What is considered crossdressing in the United States may not be crossdressing elsewhere. In this way, dressing and crossdressing fall into the same category, or crafting illusion. “The wearing of clothing is itself a kind of theater,” says Marjorie Garber. “It’s the way you present yourself to other people. When a woman puts on a gown to go to a dance, she is putting on a costume of femininity, which isn’t what she would wear every day to work or school. What crossdressing does is indicate the arbitrariness of those choices and to show how socially or culturally conditioned those choices are. They’re not natural, they’re cultural.”

RuPaul agrees: For him, drag is not only crossgender costuming but any clothing that reflects who you are. “Everyone who’s ever presented themselves on stage, or even just to the next-door neighbor, is in drag. … Not everyone is a femme fatale, blond, black drag queen, but everyone has a persona that would enhance their own essence. Some people’s essence becomes more focused when they’re in their Wall Street drag or their Betty Crocker country kitchen drag, which may be an apron and a hairnet. Mine happens to be blond hair and high heels.”

In this light, all public figures are in drag. RuPaul has even included Barbara Bush and Flavor Flav from Public Enemy under the drag banner. Many drag-heavy pop figures tease the public into wondering if they are gender benders, from Liberace and Little Richard to the legendary Michael Jackson, who called attention on this year’s Grammy Awards to his resemblance to his sister Janet. “Michael Jackson does definitely sample different registers of gender,” says Garber; he plays with “female” accouterments. “I think that’s the location of stardom, on that borderline.”

What about Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Theatricals? While most crossdressing is rightly or wrongly identified with homosexuality, male-bonding events such as the Hasty Pudding shows, or annual celebrations such as Halloween, allow men to frolic in heels without the gay stigma. Such institutionalized crossdressing, says Garber, is regarded as a “safety valve” that “defangs or defuses the power of crossdressing.” The same man who might wince upon seeing RuPaul will laugh at his mascara-painted roommate, who’s not trying to provoke gender issues.

Meanwhile, RuPaul says there’s talk of a RuPaul doll, along the lines of Barbie. Can you see it: Barbie, Ken, RuPaul? Perhaps that, too, would defuse and defang the pop power of crossdressing.

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