Not about nonprofits

Where were all the gay activists who are so up in arms about John Travolta’s playing a woman (because he’s not gay enough) when Harvey Fierstein was playing a woman (though he’s clearly not woman enough)?  Now that we recognize that gay men aren’t "sissies" or "almost-women," what makes female impersonation a privileged form of gay expression?  Which raises the essential question: On what basis are men–gay or straight–entitled to pretend to be women?

And what does Travolta mean when he defends himself by saying his role in Hairspray isn’t a drag role?  A man dressed as a woman is in drag, just as a white person made up with cork is in blackface.  And if drag hasn’t been condemned universally, as blackface has, perhaps it’s because women are too busy demonstrating that we can take a joke.

I remember a t-shirt from the 70s: across the top, in quotes, "The women’s movement has no sense of humor."  Then a list: unequal pay, rape, domestic violence, clitoridectomy . . . and across the bottom the question: Just what is supposed to be so funny?

Precisely my question about drag.

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3 Responses to “Not about nonprofits”

  1. Anita Bernstein Says:

    Absolutely right. The role of Edna Turnblad is a woman’s part, not a man’s. John Waters cast Divine because of their longstanding unique working relationship. In addition to the drag offense you mention, I’m irked by the loss of a good part for a large middle-aged actress–one who doesn’t get to audition for the roles John Travolta plays.

    And because Racism is one of your tags, I’d add that the starring role in “Hairspray,” which calls for a plump young woman who can dance like a dream, is open only to Caucasian actresses: We’re supposed to love Tracy because she’s against racism, and if she looked black herself, she’d seem self-regarding rather than noble in a perky way. When I saw the show on Broadway I had to look at the charmless Marissa Jaret Winokur, who could have been out-danced and -acted by hundreds of performers of color.

  2. MarilynJean Says:

    Of course on a blog all about nonprofits, I find the one article about drag.

    While I understand the desire to draw parallels between drag and blackface, I have to disagree with the idea that it is somehow as deplorable as blackface.

    From my personal experience, the men who perform drag idolize women. They are not attempting to create images that can be used to develop expectations. The are copying feminine attributes. Especially if they are impersonators. This is not to say that they want to be BE women, but they admire, idolize and mimic biological women as an art form. Entertainment. The drag queens I know spend hours and hours honing their craft.

    When you look at the history of blackface (and really whenever a white person portrayed a person of color)it was intended to not idolize or imitate as flattery. It was meant to further antagonize an entire group of people. Promote the idea that they are less than, stupid, untrustworthy, etc. Minstrel shows were popular at a time when Blacks had little to no rights, whereas drag has evolved along with women’s place in society. Not to mention that when most men perform drag, they are glamourizing the female image whereas, minstrel shows rarely showed people of color as attractive, clean or in presentable attire.

    I would argue that most misogynists would not and do not do drag. They hate women too much to want to look, act and appear like them. And now that I think about it, would you argue that drag kings-women who dress as men for entertainment-are defiling the male image?

    I say all this also acknowledging that at times drag can exaggerate the female image. I think, though, the exaggeration is more for entertainment than insult. Who would pay to see a man dress in the plain skirt and poplin shirt I wear to work? Not many people. But you look at big names like RuPaul, Divine and such and you see that they were popular in the mainstream because they presented a glamorous image: something you couldn’t see everyday on every woman.

    If one finds it insulting that John Travolta is playing a role that could have been done by a biological woman, you should imagine how mad I am about Angelina Jolie playing a woman of color in her lastest movie.

  3. Nonprofiteer Says:

    I hadn’t thought about the issue Prof. Bernstein raises about the loss of a good part for middle-aged women; but that’s yet another good reason to object to the casting of Travolta.

    I disagree with MarilynJean about the attitudes of those who performed in blackface; in fact, the book Love and Theft–perhaps the definitive account of the appropriation of black culture–makes it pretty clear that the earliest blackface performers were honoring (or trying to honor) black culture, just as drag queens may believe themselves to be honoring female culture. But the intentions of the performers matter less to me than the consequences of the performance, which are to stereotype and demean women. Listen: Ralph Ellison’s protest against blackface was published when imitation of blacks by whites was so acceptable that Norman Mailer felt free to write a paean to “The White Negro.” I think my objection to drag is equally disruptive to received wisdom about what’s okay, and equally valid.

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