In an effort to understand what makes American film audiences tick, we begin our weekly study of truths in cinema. This week’s lesson? We love men who dress in drag. Tyler Perry’s two-week ascent to the top of the box office with Madea Goes to Jail may seem stunning at first glance. But if we put the magnifying glass on the history of film and theater, we have every reason to think that we should have all seen this coming from a mile away.
Sir William Shakespeare made a regular habit of using males to play female roles in his productions, which could be attributed to an era of sexism. However, if a critic attempted to dismiss the fascination audiences have with cross-dressing, we could dispel their skepticism by offering the recent Academy Award winning Shakespeare in Love, a modern-day romance concerning the famous playwright’s attraction to a seductress in boy’s clothing. Regardless of the century, it appears that we want to cross bards with beards and breasts.
The subject of cross-dressing is definitely a chance at cheap laughs. The original king of comedy, Charlie Chaplin, knew this to be true. We all know Tyler Perry would vouch for the potential success if one is willing to put stockings on. His role as a father figure in Daddy’s Little Girls brought in roughly 31 million dollars domestically. Compare that to Madea Goes to Jail, which took in over 41 million dollars on the opening weekend. What does it say about a man’s career that people would rather see him dressed up like a gray-haired Nell Carter? We’re not sure, but it’s Perry’s hot flash filled cross to bear.
Perry isn’t alone in the panty raid. Robin Williams did it in Mrs. Doubtfire, Dustin Hoffman donned a wig in Tootsie and received an Oscar nomination for it. John Leguizamo, Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes stole laughs in To Wong Foo: Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. And lest we forget, Martin Lawrence wasn’t above putting playing a female for the Big Momma’s House franchise. We’re embarrassed to even mention that both installments made over 130 million dollars. This is on you, America. Don’t even get us started on White Chicks.
If this theme was exclusive to the comedic genre, we wouldn’t have much of a case against America. However, it seems like every genre has been dragged along into the gauntlet of gender-bending. Psycho brought us one of the horror icon, Norman Bates, The Crying Game brought one of the greatest surprise endings in film, Silence of the Lambs creeped us out with Buffalo Bill’s penis-tuck dance, Tim Curry gave a performance that still compels men to wear garters at midnight in The Rocky Horror Picture Show … you get the point. We’re not going to list every important cinematic role that featured a man playing the hiding wieners and bits game, because we would be here all night.
The use of cross-dressing in cinema allows for both the actor and audience to venture into areas they wouldn’t normally be allowed to. The true test of a male actor, it could be argued, is how he plays a female role. The instinct would be to cater to stereotypes of women, as you see in most comedic performances. Yet a performance where the male or female (Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, for example) can strip away the inherent characteristics applied to both sexes in an attempt to find a unique interpretation of a character should be considered a true acting achievement.
The applause shouldn’t be reserved solely for the performer, however. An audience member must be comfortable enough to accept the concept in order for the actor/actress to truly step out of their own skin and truly succeed in their performance. After all, what is a performance without a critic? This is admittedly easier to do in film or theater, as it can be explained by a simple statement of, “Well, it’s an escape from reality, just entertainment.” But is it really? Or is it a chance to rebel against the demands society puts on us? How the average movie-goer would react to their companion or friends living a life of cross-dressing is another story entirely.
If you think the trend of cross-dressing is going away, you’re fooled. The days of men going drag are here to stay, as Jude Law will remind you in his forthcoming film, Rage. Cross-dressing is as engrained in the stone of cinema as the story of the underdog, the hero’s journey or the heartwarming romantic comedy between unlikely partners. Perhaps it’s time time we take a look in the mirror and accept that as much as we love to see the stunning male or female lead, our hearts desire to see a dive into the opposite end of the gender pool. We may not be willing to discuss in the company of our friends, but we’re all speaking in volumes about our interests by shelling cash out at the box office to actors willing to wake up and put on a little make-up. Cross-dressing cinema, we say a little prayer for you. May you fly on the wing of angels, and we’re not just talking about the character in Rent.