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Check Out Those Guy Gams--Cross-Dressing in Film
by Karma Waltonen

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Lemmon and Curtis in Some Like it Hot

Lemmon and Curtis in Some Like it Hot
Tony Curtis passed away last week. While he's been in several movies, he is most remembered for THE DEFIANT ONES and SOME LIKE IT HOT, which the AFI (American Film Institute) has ranked as the number one comedy of all time. Curtis and Jack Lemmon play musicians who witness a mob crime—they hide out with a group of female musicians to escape. While Curtis ends up also posing as a rich man with a Cary Grant accent to court one of the musicians, it's Curtis and Lemon in those skirts, dealing with the skirt chasers, that gets most of the laughs.

Comedy and cross-dressing are inherently tied. Some of the earliest forms of comedy—from the Greek comedies to Shakespeare's comedies—used the mandate of male only performers to work in jokes about men in drag. Later, in the Restoration period, when women were allowed on the stage, it was common to have the women in drag as
M. Butterfly

M. Butterfly
well—both for the comedy and for the opportunity to show off their legs in men's breeches.

Though I'm being a bit loose with the terms here, I do want to note that being in drag is not the same as being a transvestite. As executive transvestite Eddie Izzard reminds us, of the two, straight people tend to be transvestites and queer people tend to do drag. Of course, when it comes to sexuality and identity, any kind of generalization is surely faulty.

There are several different tropes of cross-dressing in 20th and 21st century film.

First, there are the dramas that feature characters with non-normative gender/sexuality identities, such as BOYS DON'T CRY, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, BREAKFAST ON PLUTO, HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, TRANSAMERICA, SOLDIER'S GIRL, ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER, and M. BUTTERFLY. Many of these films end in murder or heartache.
Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria

Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria
Sometimes this is because they're based on true stories; sometimes it just seems like we treat alternative identities and sexualities the same way we used to treat "the tragic mulatto."

A very few comedies are able to feature transvestites, drag queens, and transsexual characters—PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT, SORDID LIVES, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, THE BIRDCAGE, STARDUST, and, on the small screen, the ground-breaking SOAP.

Then there are the films featuring "straight" characters who find themselves "forced" to cross dress for some practical reason: YENTL (education), ALL THE QUEEN'S MEN (defeating Hitler), MULAN (war strategy and self-sacrifice), VICTOR/VICTORIA (getting a job), TOOTSIE (job stuff again), NUNS ON THE RUN (hiding out), I WAS A MALE WAR BRIDE (immigration), MRS. DOUBTFIRE (hanging out with the kids), and, on the small screen, BOSOM
Are there any men here today?

Are there any men here today?
BUDDIES (cheap rent). Arguably, HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH and M. BUTTERFLY could go on this list, too, depending on how you want to interpret the motivation of the cross-dressing.

There are a few films that prey on our fear of people who are different, where cross-dressing is seen as a pathology (Izzard would caution us to distinguish between weirdo transvestites and executive transvestites), like PSYCHO and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

Movies that come from sketch comedy troupes do something a little different, although what they're doing is much older, from a comedic standpoint. Thus, MONTY PYTHON films and THE KIDS IN THE HALL's BRAIN CANDY simply have men playing women. While we can certainly think through the gender politics implied, we can also do what we're supposed to do when the Python men are playing women who are dressed as men so they can go to a stoning—laugh.

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Mike Thomas
Oct 13, 2010 12:18 PM
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Good Column. Have you found that Women dressing as men have been more dramatic than the reverse? It seems that women cross-dressing usually ended up tragically.
Oct 13, 2010 3:28 PM
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I think female characters on the stage have had an easier time than female characters on screen. Julie Andrews got away with it, but you're right--most women seem to be punished. I think this goes back to the old fear of the virago--there was a belief, once upon a time, that women were just inverted men. If women started acting like men--dressing like them, etc--their vaginal canal would invert and their penis would fall down between their legs. Obviously, since so much power was conferred upon men, you couldn't allow women to go around popping their penises out--it would be chaos!

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Comedies with Dr. Karma
Every other Wednesday

Dr. Karma discusses all things comic, from the classics to what may become classics. Laugh with, but not at, her, please.

Other Columns
Other columns by Karma Waltonen:

Goodbye -- Dr. Karma

The Dictator and Dark Shadows

Pirates and Whedon Movies: In Theatres Now!

A Touch of Cult

Our Random Favorites

All Columns

Karma Waltonen
Dr. Karma is a silly, nerdy know-it-all, but in a good way. She brings all her overeducation to discuss that which truly matters: comedy. As some famous guy once said: “And if I laugh at any mortal thing, ‘tis that I may not weep.” Or something like that.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Karma Waltonen by clicking here.

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