Since the dawn of live performances, men have been dressing up like women for entertainment. In ancient times, from Greek and Roman cultures to Japan’s Kabuki traditions and even Shakespearean times, it was often illegal for a woman to be an actor on stage, so men needed to portray the female roles. So, it should be no surprise that as the entertainment industry evolved, the use of drag within the medium would also be used. Often, a man dressing as a woman as a disguise is used for its comic element. For example, 1959s Some Like I Hot, about two musicians who witness a mob hit and go into hiding as women in an all-girls band. This starred Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. As time goes on, this trope would be used on television in the 1980s series, Bosom Buddies, starring a then unknown actor named Tom Hanks along with Peter Scolari, who find the perfect apartment in an all-girls building and dress up as women in order to live there, learning more about themselves and women along the way. The show propelled Tom Hanks into stardom.
Tootsie, starring Dustin Hoffman is another movie where the main character finds a reason to cross-dress and gains an understanding about himself in doing so. This theme wasn’t just restricted to men dressing up as women, Victor/Victoria saw Julie Andrews disguising herself as a man who is also a drag performer. And in 1985, Just One of the Guys saw Joyce Hyser dress as a high school boy to get a story, learning more about herself and the opposite sex. Most of these movies and television shows, feature straight characters dressing in drag for a specific reason. Movies about actual drag performers are not quite as prolific but do exist. Rocky Horror Picture Show, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and The Birdcage are just a sampling of movies featuring characters that are intended to represent the LGBTQ+ drag community.
Besides the plot-driven element creating a reason for a character to begin dressing as the opposite sex or characters who are drag queens, there are also many actors who have developed an autonomous character who is treated as their own self-contained identity. Flip Wilson’s Geraldine Jones, a direct speaking, sassy and liberated southern woman, premiered in 1969 and became one of his most beloved characters. Tyler Perry’s Medea began on stage in 1999 and has since gone on to star in several movies. Where the character is intended to be funny, there is always a moral message that is delivered as well. RuPaul a.k.a. Andre Charles, has made “drag” a household name with his very successful television show, Ru Paul’s Drag Race, and has been seen on several different television shows and movies and had his own talk show on MTV, touted as easily the world’s most famous drag queen. And lastly, Australian actor Barry Humphries’ creation of Dame Edna Everage, the somewhat condescending yet glamorous superstar – a self-credited mega-star – who starred in several television specials and live performances. The character was originally a satire on the average (“Everage”) Melbourne housewife, but over the years and with the gain in popularity grew both in the outlandish outfits she would wear, but also in the characters social standing.
Eventually earning a damehood and rising from “housewife” to “superstar”, then to “megastar” and finally to “gigastar”. The entire act was used to satirize the worshipping of celebrities, class snobbery and moral prudishness. Dame Edna treated celebrities as normal people often in a funny yet condescending tone and treated normal people as celebrities. Her mauve-colored hair, sparkling glasses and bubbly greeting of “Hello Possums!” became her signatures. In 2000, Dame Edna’s live stage show, Dame Edna: The Royal Tour won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show and a special Tony Award. I was honored to have seen this show when it toured the US and came to the Bay Area. I can honestly say it was magical and hilarious and the actor’s improvisation with the audience was quick and witty, showing just how talented Barry Humphries really is. One of the most memorable moments came with a telephone call from the stage to one of the audience members’ mother, who was baby-sitting for her.
Humphries was not devoid of controversy though, in 2003, while writing a satirical advice column for Vanity Fair, Dame Edna said some things that were primarily anti-Latinx. Humphries tried to defend the comments explaining that it was satire. Remember, Dame Edna is meant to turn a mirror on class snobbishness, which is what Humphries was allegedly attempting, but it backfired. Even more damaging was his 2016 interview where his views on Trans people and specifically MTF transitions were made public stating “… You’re a mutilated man, that’s all. Self-mutilation, what’s all this carry on?” and criticized teachers who support trans youth in schools, expressing, “How many different kinds of lavatory can you have? And it’s pretty evil when it’s preached to children by crazy teachers.” Oddly enough, after these quotes hit headlines, Dame Edna’s social media accounts put out a series of posts stating, “I’m partly Aboriginal. I’m certainly Jewish. I could play Canasta at the age of five. And I disassociate myself from anything Barry Humphries has to say. I fired him years ago, but he refuses to accept dismissal. The poor thing is losing the plot. He deserves our pity not our disapproval.” Shamingly, Humphries never apologized for these statements. Barry Humphries died on 22 April, 2023 at the age of 89.
Dame Edna Everage and Friends: A Few Words About Drag in Media
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