- Heroes in D(u)ress: Transvestism and Power in the Myths of Herakles and Achilles*
Non cultu lingua retenta silet? Is your tongue not silenced by your outfit?Ovid Heroides 9.102
[To] put on a sequined halter top makes me feel like a total person and not just a one-dimensional man.Dennis Rodman, Bad As I Wanna Be (166)
In the 1995 box-office hit movie, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, three New York drag queens decide to drive cross-country to participate in the “Drag Queen of the Year” national competition in Hollywood.1 On the way, the two elder stateswomen, played by hunky movie heroes Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes, attempt to mentor their little protégée, the self-described “drag princess,” played by John Leguizamo. Snipes’ character, Noxeema Jackson, imparts her words of wisdom on the varieties of gender-bending to her eager trainee, the young Chi-Chi [End Page 207] Rodriguez (Leguizamo): “If a straight man puts on a dress to get his sexual kicks, that’s a transvestite; a girl born into a boy’s body, has the operation, snip-snip, that’s a transsexual; but a gay man who just has FAR too much style for one gender, honey, that’s a DRAG QUEEN. Anything else is just a boy in a dress.”
Such definitions are no doubt intended to educate the surprisingly receptive mainstream PG-13 multiplex audience, but the importance here is not so much the message but the messenger/s. The actor Wesley Snipes is well known for his macho roles in such movies as Passenger 57, and he is widely regarded as a muscular action hero, every inch the weapon-toting super-male. Patrick Swayze, who delivers drag-counsel as earth mother goddess Vida Boheme in To Wong Foo, has also played the action hero in such movies as Point Break (as a renegade surfer), but he is probably best known for his romantic straight male leads in such hits as Dirty Dancing and Ghost. Rumor in the “biz” had it that a chorus of A-list male actors was lining up to be considered for the roles of the drag queens in To Wong Foo,2 including that paradigm of sexy male stardom, Mel Gibson of Mad Max and Braveheart fame, who has for years been accused of homophobia and criticized for being “antigay” in his films.3
Thus the question presents itself: why would such successful, macho thespians, who would probably never play a gay man in street clothes, be finger-snapping their enthusiasm to star in Hollywood’s first cross-dressing buddy picture? Why doesn’t the show-business industry’s conventional wisdom, “play queer and ruin your career,” hold true in the case of boys in femme finery?4 Is this just another instance of men preempting women’s roles in a business where there are precious few good parts for actresses already, as some feminist critics have argued?5 Or, more [End Page 208] subtly, does the popularity of these film roles suggest an audience willing to accept that men are more successful at playing women than “real women” are?6 The obvious professional success and relative “safety” for actors in female-impersonation roles has been well demonstrated ever since 1959’s Some Like It Hot, and 1982’s Tootsie, to 1992’s The Crying Game, which earned an Oscar nomination for Jaye Davidson as the cross-dressed shocker, Dil. More recently, 1996’s The Birdcage was a huge commercial hit and led to a number of new professional opportunities for its transvestite star, Nathan Lane. Why do such characters feel so comfortable in and, in these notable cases, even emerge triumphant from their fantasy roles as women? The answer perhaps lies in Swayze’s own words in a recent interview: when asked whether he felt his masculinity threatened by wearing a push-up bra, Swayze boasted: “I don’t have anything to prove: I’m as heterosexual as a bull moose. That’s what made me so comfortable as Vida.”7 That is, the butch-male image of stars such as Swayze or Snipes cannot...