Menswear

Philip Booth

  • Drag: A History of Female Impersonation in the Performing Arts by Roger Baker
    Cassell, 284 pp, £35.00, December 1994, ISBN 0 304 32836 7

Nowadays it’s possible to make a career exclusively within gay journalism. Roger Baker, however, was a journalist of wide-ranging interests whose careful think-pieces were a strong feature of Gay News in the mid-Seventies, but who was just as comfortable writing for the Times. His books include studies of those gay icons Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe, but he also published works on exorcism and Israel. Sometimes his work wore trousers, sometimes a frock.

The first version of Drag appeared in 1968. Times have changed. Not only is popular culture now rich in images of cross-dressing, it has also become easier to write openly about homosexuality and therefore to explore more fully the relationship between sexual orientation and cross-dressing. Baker felt the need not only for a radical revision of his earlier work, but also for an extension into new areas. He died before he could finish the book, but the revision was more or less complete. Peter Burton and Richard Smith have added chapters on film, the gay scene and rock music, for which Baker had left notes. The result is not just about drag, nor yet about female impersonation, and doesn’t even confine itself to the performing arts.

Besides the contemporary pieces, Drag has fascinating material on early English drama, from the mystery plays to Elizabethan theatre and beyond, including educated speculation about the acting style and ability of the boys who created some of our greatest female roles. This introduces the concept of the male actress: a man playing the part of a woman because Church and society found it unacceptable for women to do the job themselves. There are chapters on the male actress in traditional Chinese and Japanese theatre, and their influence on Western 20th-century theatre and opera. The stories of various celebrated transvestites are told; there is a discussion of castrati, the occasion for a good deal of male impersonation when 18th-century operas are revived. The tale of a clerical transvestite leads to some examples of men dressing as nuns in opera and on film. A chapter entitled ‘Amateurs’ charts the re-emergence of the practice of men acting women’s roles in 19th-century amateur productions. There are sections on the pantomime dame, drama in boys’ schools and the post-war explosion of transvestite revues such as Soldiers in Skirts. Not wishing to miss the party, transsexuals also get a look-in.

Roger Baker’s own Introduction, describing the evolution of the book, also explores his own evolution in relation to the subject. Here he is on the personal qualities which he believes marred the 1968 edition:

an unwillingness to confront the homosexual connection; a rather blinkered, even dismissive view of the domestic transvestite; a curious need to take up what seem to me now to be quite inappropriate moral attitudes and to make negative value judgments ... All this reticence gave the book an oddly solemn tone with little sense of the anarchic fun that drag creates.

Baker tells us that, in 1968, he hoped to make his subject more acceptable to the general reader by keeping to the context of theatre. This forces me to ask what exactly it is about the theatre which makes cross-dressing more palatable. Is there some meaningful link between cross-dressing and theatre, over and above the process of playing a part? Baker wonders too what goes on in the minds of the audience when confronted with a man in a frock – do they know that this is ‘really’ a man, and what do they do with that knowledge when, for example, he/she plays a heterosexual love scene? The question remains under-explored, despite Richard Smith’s assertion that David Bowie and Mick Jagger in their gender-ambivalent days ‘caused more than a few confusing erections’. Sadly he doesn’t give sources.

There are more unanswered questions. If there is indeed some link between homosexuality and cross-dressing, what is it? Why do people cross-dress? What is the fascination of cross-dressing for those who don’t practise it, and why should some people find it extremely disturbing, even threatening? Why does there seem to be a good deal more male-to-female cross-dressing than the other way about? Is the current wave of gender-bending in popular culture largely a matter of novelty or has it some deeper significance?

The term ‘drag’ was first used to denote women’s clothing worn by men in the 19th century. It had a theatrical context, and may have derived from the dragging of skirts along the ground. Nowadays, if a man wears women’s clothes either for the purpose of a sexual thrill or because he wishes to pass as a woman, the term drag is inappropriate. Drag must involve exaggeration, even parody; Joan Collins in Dynasty could be said to have appeared in drag. On the other hand, it’s become common to use the term as a slightly arch synonym for ‘garb’ – as in ‘military drag’, ‘clerical drag’ – where cross-dressing is not involved. A self-consciousness is implied, and with it a consciousness of effect. Clothes are being used to underscore a particular choice of persona, and here the notion of choice is very important. We can choose just who we want to be and reinforce the choice by changing clothes. As drag queens are wont to say: ‘It’s all drag, dear.’ The implication is that there are no fixed forms of human identity, no givens, only acts of choice: no military men, only men in military drag; no men, only people in men’s clothing. All this has both an outer and an inner aspect. If I come upon a male friend, who normally wears trousers, wearing a frock, I shall behave differently towards him. That is the outer aspect. But his experience of himself in the world will also be different. That is the inner aspect. Smith quotes Larry Mitchell’s remark that, for a man, ‘there is more to be learned from wearing a dress for a day, than there is from wearing a suit for life.’

Child psychologists argue over whether boys face a struggle in ‘separating’ from their mothers and coming to identify with their fathers, or whether in fact the process is simplified or rendered unnecessary by mothers having treated their boys as ‘other’ from the outset. It may be that because boys are ejected from the gender world of the mother, while girls are not, cross-dressing carries a greater charge for men than for women. It seems undeniable that men are angry with women about something or other. The often-cited fact that they cannot bear children can scarcely be the whole picture. Even if gender behaviour were innate boys would still have more trouble with their identity than girls. As Baker writes, ‘one of the drag queen’s functions has been to confront those female mysteries which exclude and so intimidate men, creating in them fear, uncertainty and a sense of apartness.’ But whatever the nature of men’s confusion, it is mother they blame. Her power is reflected in the female impersonator’s choice of subjects, so often goddesses of popular culture, and in the spite and misogyny of some drag performers. (Male impersonation tends to be more neutral in tone.) In cross-dressing I may go some way towards healing – or avenging – the personal wound of separation from the mother. At the same time, as a spectacle I challenge the prevailing notion of an unbridgeable rift between the sexes.

This rift has certainly not been closed by popular culture. Even after the ‘sexual revolution’ of the last twenty-five years, Hollywood prefers to pair a ‘hysterical’ woman with an emotionally unavailable man. Where men adopt more feminine roles (Three Men and a Baby) the film is likely to be a comedy about their unsuitability for the task. Where women become action heroes (the Alien films and Terminator 2), they do not get the guy, they stand in for him. The Sigourney Weaver character in Alien, like so many heroes of mythology, is destroyed by the negative mother – in this case an alien mother with a penis. In the Terminator films, traditional masculinity is pushed to an extreme by making the hero a machine in whom we are supposed to be delighted to find touches of humanity. He’s presented as an ideal father for a boy, too. Not to be outshone, the mother does weights (muscular drag), wields a machine-gun and pretends not to love her son. Those who do not believe in some sort of cultural self-regulation will have been astonished when audiences apparently hooked on extreme gender polarisation (usually favouring the masculine pole) were then seen queuing round the block for Neil Jordan’s remarkable study of masculine dislocation, The Crying Game. In this timely romance, Fergus cannot decide whether to remain in love with Dil after discovering that ‘she’ is actually a man in a frock. Although he has the best part of an hour’s running time in which to make up his mind, he is still ambivalent by the closing credits.

Roger Baker makes an interesting distinction between ‘real disguise’, such as that practised by the Elizabethan male actress who seeks only to be interpreted as a real woman, and ‘false disguise’, such as that of the female impersonator whose underlying maleness is integral to his act. (Baker would probably have agreed that Dil manages to blur even this distinction. Dil does not try to pass as a woman: that’s a matter for the onlooker. Nor does he ‘refer back’ to his maleness, as if that were in some way the fundamental truth of his identity. Nor is he androgynous, falling comfortably halfway between two reliable categories. He is simply a person who wants to love and be loved.) Baker writes that this need to label, to separate, to make distinctions, to ensure there is no mistake, began in the late 19th century. But this is surely a feature of the earliest Judaic thought: what may be the world’s oldest written denunciation of cross-dressing is to be found in the book of Deuteronomy. No doubt the blurring or even the rejection of categories makes cross-dressing unsettling. As soon as the distinction male/female is blurred, others seem to follow, particularly straight/gay and reality/fantasy. Baker sees his having categorised different forms of cross-dressing as one of the strengths of his book (though as it happens, I dislike his habit of indiscriminately applying the term ‘drag queen’ across widely different times and cultures). But once distinctions are lost, new labels such as drag queen, transvestite and transsexual are not enough to recover them. If A and B are mutually exclusive categories, why do they sometimes raid each other’s wardrobes? As Baker says, there is ‘an unnerving sense of the ground moving beneath one’s feet’.

Hence the link between theatre and cross-dressing. Theatre makes a virtue of blurring distinctions – above all, those between reality and fantasy. Having consented to this process, it would be inconsistent for an audience to be outraged by a spot of cross-dressing. What’s true of theatre in general is true in spades of comedy, which subverts order as a matter of routine. The pantomime dame is far easier to accept nowadays than a male Cleopatra would be.

This is well demonstrated by the ‘radical drag’ theatre company I used to work with, the Bloolips. A typical Bloolips show (there’ve been ten since Bette Bourne and the late Diva Dan founded the company in 1976) seems to go out of its way to affront the prejudices of logic. Each actor plays a persona (Bossy Bette, Lavinia Co-op etc) who at any given moment may be playing a particular character (the Emperor Hadrian, Madame Mao). The men mostly wear frocks (and tea strainers, phone cards, laundry baskets). So they’re doing drag, right? But there are no false breasts or other adjuncts of female impersonation, and the whiteface make-up suggests glamorous clowns. The time of a particular Bloolips performance is this evening, only more so; the setting is this particular theatre (all of it, not just the stage), an imaginary or essential Theatre, and imperial Rome, Shanghai or wherever, all at once. The audience have come to watch the performers, but may find the performers watching them.

In the Sixties, Eric Sykes and Jimmy Edwards were doing something like this in a ground-breaking show called Big Bad Mouse, only without the frocks. At the time, we laughed over the dismantling of theatrical conventions, but through the lens of Post-Modernism we can see that something more fundamental was being challenged: namely, fundamentals in general. In backing up this challenge, the addition of frocks really helps. They save time; they come to the point straight away. As Baker says, drag is anarchic. And when the rules are drawn so tight that people can hardly breathe, anarchy is experienced as fun.

Regardless of sexual orientation, men tend to have fun when they dress up as women. Women who cross-dress may derive pleasure from it, but cannot be said to have fun in quite the same way. Indeed, in some circles women probably have more fun on the rare occasions when they find some excuse to dress up as women.

But what if biological sex were the prototype for all forms of categorisation, and hence the basis of logic? True, there are other familiar oppositions: light/dark, animate/inanimate, alive/dead, human/non-human. None of these is any less fundamental, and the blurring of them has given rise to some wonderfully potent concepts: the twilight zone, Wilhelm Reich’s bions, the zombie, the centaur, and so on. Logic has always feared to stray into such realms, half recognising that there may be an order in which logic counts for very little. Logic has set up home in what it thinks it knows, the immediate lived experience of the human body. The fact that my male lived experience does not coincide with a woman’s gives rise to a physical sensation, part curiosity and part fear, which we call difference. (So highly charged is this sensation that we prefer to treat it as a mental rather than an emotional construct.) The fact that there are only two sexes has led us to experience this difference as something binary. Even in the dialectical imagination, with its creative sense of opposites – the two giving rise to the one – cross-dressing does not fit comfortably, for the primacy of the original terms is left untouched. We can never know whether the world is really like this or whether our biology predisposes us to find it so. An amoeba civilisation would probably declare that the one gives rise to the two. If our species had evolved with three sexes, what then? Indeed, could that be where we’re heading?

Drag is an enjoyable book, but not very adventurous. It may be unfair to criticise Baker and his team for leaving the theorising to cultural studies writers such as Marjorie Garber, but I believe that gay men have a particular contribution to make, and we shouldn’t be afraid of making it. In trying to bring us up to date with the latest undigested examples of cross-dressing, the book seems out of date already, with a fresh outburst during the month before its publication – Priscilla in the cinema, Rupert Graves overdoing the blusher in LWT’s Open Fire, and Rupert Everett on stage as Mrs Go-forth in The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. Cross-dressing has got its knees under the table. If we could get beyond initial confusion and embarrassment, we might do well to ask our guest some searching questions.