As a child in the 1950’s I saw Milton Berle doing comedy in exaggerated drag. It taught me a simple lesson –a man in a dress is an object of humor – and it pushed me into the closet for forty years.
That comedic tradition is still one of the most difficult barriers transgender people have to face. It’s number ten on Jerry Seinfeld’s top ten rules of comedy reads, “When all else fails, put a guy in a dress.” And the top two funniest movies of all time on the American Film Institute's list of 100 are Some Like It Hot and Tootsie.
There are clear rules for the ‘guy in a dress’ comic device:
- He should be forced to dress as a woman because of some extenuating circumstance, i.e. on the run from the mob (Some Like It Hot), he needs a job (Tootsie), war (I Was A Male Order Bride), a need to be with his children (Mrs. Doubtfire).
- There can be no doubt that he’s straight; he can’t be seen as enjoying or being comfortable in the female role.
- He has to get into awkward situations where another man finds him attractive or comes on to him (even though the audience can tell what's going on).
- He has to be 'outed' at the end and then forgiven.
- He can’t be seen as an attractive woman.
- He can’t ever completely pull it off because much of the comedy comes from stumbling in high heels, squirming to get into pantyhose, struggling with make-up, and so on.
So it’s no surprise that the general public is confused by ‘gender identity.’ Even if they get past the comedic tradition, they have to sift through some confusing terminology. There’s the "tranny," which is generally applied to those in the sex trade—just a notch above the more pejorative she-male. There’s the "transsexual," for those who have ‘officially’ changed their gender. (Many reject that designation because they now are women or men.) There’s the older "transvestite," men who “dressed up,” replaced by crossdresser, a “part-timer” who “dresses” once a week’ or so. All of these get tossed under the term transgender, a term the media applies to anyone who does not fit the within society’s gender boundaries. So where does the comic drag queen fit in?
“Are you a drag queen?” I’m often asked by gay men as well as straight people. I answer ‘No.’ Then, “Are you gay?” “Not necessarily,” I say, because sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same. Comic drag muddies the issue because, in a way, it is to gender identity what minstrel shows were to racial stereotyping. They both promote a stereotype; one of the ‘man in a dress’ joke and the other of the ignorant, ‘shuckin’ n’ jivin’ black man. And while the minstrel shows are gone, drag queens still perform in gay bars and night clubs. It’s part of a tradition of men performing as women that goes back to the thirteenth century when females were forbidden on stage, so boys played in female roles, and even as far back as Ancient Greece male actors portrayed women in this way.*
The comic stereotype isn’t likely to be separated from the transwoman or the drag queen anytime soon. As long as ‘the guy in a dress’ comic archetype continues, abetted by drag shows, the public is likely to be confused about gender identity. Maybe there’s a place for the serious female impersonator and the comic “gender-bender,” but the bearded lady, the clown in drag, the over-the-top queen, and the ‘guy in a dress gag’ need to go. No one today would perform in blackface. Why, then, in comic drag? We should not be made the butt of a joke in any community.
* Ancient Greek theatre didn't allow women actors either, which yielded ornate masks and costumes -- why pinpoint the medieval?
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Bobbi Williams is an author, teacher, lecturer, and professor of American Satire and Comedy for Southern New Hampshire University. Comments may be sent to her at email@example.com