Gender on Celluloid

By Wilchins, Riki | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), August 14, 2001 | Go to article overview

Gender on Celluloid


Wilchins, Riki, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


Hedwig and the Angry Inch bridges old drag stereotypes end an emerging wave of films that take gender issues seriously and offer genderqueers who are fully human

Yes, Hedwig, there is a new gender in cinema. A new wave of movies--both narrative and documentary--is bringing to the fore not only transsexual and transgendered protagonists but also overage heroes and heroines whose only crime is transcending narrow gender stereotypes.

This is a new wrinkle in moviemaking. Until recently, the shared discomfort of viewers, critics, and movie studios had confined film characters who cross gender lines to either the laughter of force or the violence of erasure--our natural antidotes to discomfort or pain.

"Let's Camp Out" films--Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; Tootsie; The Rocky Horror Picture Show; Mrs. Doubtfire; To Wong Foo--deflect viewers' discomfort with old, outdated stereotypes by introducing new, out dated gender stereotypes. These films tend to be fun--if sometimes surreal--RuPaul romps, centered on the pleasure of acting out while dressing up. Issues of gender disappear under a tangle of decolletage and slut pumps.

These campy films' evil siblings are the "Queers who Kill" films--Dressed to Kill, Basic Instinct, Stargate, The Silence of the Lambs--in which genderqueerness signals unspeakable (dare we speak it?) evil. These films deal with viewers' discomfort head-on, using it for its fright value. And the Killer Homos and (what else?) Killer Trannies who people such movies all die in the final scene, preferably in a shower of gore.

All that is now changing, as genderqueers are praying fresh and remarkably ripe cinematic subjects.

In films as diverse as The Crying Game Ma Vie en Rose, Boys Don't Cry, Billy Elliot, the documentary Southern Comfort, and ("whether you like it or not!") Hedwig and the Angry Inch, moviemakers are finally bringing us real gender stories in unexpected and moving ways. What joins these films together are realistic characters with authentic emotions and lives, characters who more often than not pay the cost of living in a culture where anyone found rooming outside the Binary Zoo at night is considered antisocial, subversive, or dangerous--probably all three. These films show us gender not as a dress-'em-up or shoot-'em-up but as a human rights issue, a matter of full equality.

It's no accident that gender's inauguration as a valid cinematic issue has roughly paralleled its rise as a valid political issue. In the post year alone, 94 members of the U.S. Congress signed on to GenderPAC's diversity statement, affirming that they don't discriminate in hiring based on gender; the Gill Foundation, the Human Rights Campaign, and Xerox Corporation all added gender wording to their mission statements or antidiscrimination policies; the American Civil Liberties Union took on the case of fired cross-dressing Winn-Dixie truck driver Peter Oiler; Amnesty International introduced a congressional resolution requiring the U. …

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