Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

No Body's Perfect: Men Playing Women

Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

No Body's Perfect: Men Playing Women

Article excerpt

This discussion examines a range of recent films of men playing women, including The Crying Game; To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar; Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; The Birdcage; and Orlando. The characters in these films, with the exception of Orlando, are transvestites: their performances as females carry over into their day-to-day existence. Orlando, as the exception, is a character that incarnates first as a male, then a female, distinguished for the most part only by difference in clothing, or, as the character herself explains to the film audience after her transformation from male to female, "Same person. No difference at all. Just a different sex." Consequently, I will explore the choice of models used to express the female persona, as well as the context in which these models are played Out.

Cultural critics are of mixed opinion about how drag queens view females other than the ones they are playing. Judith Butler, for example, points to the dichotomy that she has observed stating that,"...there is no necessary relation between drag and subversion, and that drag may well be used in the service of both the denaturalization and reidealization of a certain ambivalence...." (1) It is possible to construe that drag can be merely a means of mimicry, playing out, acting out, insofar as one inhabits a way of projecting one's self to the world for inspection, for approval, or merely as a reaction to external conditions.

In contemporary Western culture, it becomes ever more increasingly difficult to distinguish between what is real and what is not, given the cultural preoccupation with cosmetic surgery, breast augmentation, liposuction, the pursuit of thinness for females and largeness for males, and so on. In this respect, men in drag as well as genetically correct women mimic and play out a culturally defined role. With varying degrees of intensity and seriousness, these films probe how individuals assume a gender role aside from the more or less obvious genital distinctions, suggesting that gender itself is performative. Butler has observed that cross-dressing does not necessarily seek to reproduce or function as an "imitation of gender" but can be interpreted as a means to "dramatize the signifying gestures through which gender itself is established." (2) Common to each of these films is a graphic depiction of the multiple means of artifice employed by cross dressers in their processes of transformation. It is key to full y appreciating these efforts to note that the mimicry undertaken is only slightly less than that performed by females in their attempts to meet Western cultural codes of acceptable female appearance.

The significance of the costume suggests deliberate role assumption as a temporary and fluid state. Orlando, for example, exemplifies a higher level of gender awareness and expression that is more androgynously presented as the character undergoes an incarnation of each gender. The male role is constructed during an historical era in which the artifice inherent in the presentation of both genders was intentionally exaggerated in that each gender is attired in extreme costume. In one scene we see Orlando portrayed as waking up, uncertain of his/her gender, and actually sneaking a peak at his/her genitals to determine who is to be projected to the world and how this time. The self remains the same, but the packaging changes in each incarnation conform to the societal norms of the time.

The mode of acceptable fashion does more than merely locate the character historically within a series of time spans. The visual placement also lends substantial credence to the notion of acceptable range of personal decoration and embellishment according to not only cultural standards, but to those of gender. And each point in time sets dramatically differing standards for the visual cues vis-a-vis clothing, fashion, and personal adornments in the name of acceptable conventional fashion. …

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