Marjorie Garber’s thesis in Vested Interests is challenging and simple: Cross-dressing isn’t an aberrant, eccentric or minority art form; it is a mainstream cultural activity which makes evident the deepest ways in which our ideas of who we are and who we aren’t are structured.
So is she right?
I recently had good cause to put some of her arguments to the test. Invited by the Goodman Theatre in Chicago to create a new production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, I decided not to conform to the post-Restoration tradition of performing the play in (heterosexuall) drag, i.e., with men playing parts originally written for women. I had considered doing the text with an all-male company, but this immediately seemed like a very bad idea, not only because it would entirely exclude my preferred female colleagues from the stage, but also because I feared it would reduce a complex and delightful set of theatrical games about sexual confusion and possibility to an ordinary game of “hunt the queer subtext.” This fear was confirmed when I arrived in Chicago to cast the production, only to be confronted will a full-fledged rumor that because I was a gay director I was therefore going to do the show in all-male drag–that it was going to be a “queer” Shakespeare.Order now
In the end, a consideration of the inappropriate costumes, doubles, twins and mirrors at the heart of Twelfth Night led me to cast the play around a series of oppositions, not just that between men and women. Women dressed up as men played against and with women dressed up as women; but black also played against white, adolescent performers against mature performers, improvising comedians and singers against “actors.” When our Viola (a young black boy dressed as a heterosexual girl actor dressed as a bisexual boy) crossed swords with our Antonio (an experienced heterosexual actress dressed as a homosexual man), or when our Malvolio (an uninhibited female cabaret singer dressed as a sexually repressed man) thrust his frantically erect “greatness” upon our Olivia (a consummate comedianne giddily changing her costume every scene in a hysterically insecure attempt to ensure that she looked like a “woman”), then the number of bounaries being crossed by cross-dressing were multiple.
All of this made Garber’s book excellent bedtime reading during the rehearsal period. As she demonstrates, drag isn’t just about men wearing frocks. It is about a whole range of interconnecting transgresions of many polarities: male/female, gay/straight, black/white, Orient/Occident, boy/girl, adult/child, high status/low status, layperson/cleric, and on and on. What she demonstrates in fact is that any boundary created by the way people dress is ripe for crossing.
Stolen costumes, borrowed ideas
The demonstration is brilliantly entertaining. Garber is refreshingly and self-confessedly a real show-off. This quality is entirely appropriate–after all, Vested Interests is about showing off. She has all the true drag queen’s addictions to the misused and rephrased quotation; in her eclecticism, she works to theatrical death a well-known theme (Slome, Peter Pan, Miss Saigon) and then immediately dives into the historical dressing-up box with barely diguised glee and pulls out the next glittering new anecdote, photograph or illustration, stringing together her wardrobe of stolen costumes and appropriated ideas through sheer panache of argument. Finally she pulls out her big argument: that cross-dressing isn’t just a particularly vivid or entertaining demonstration of how the base rules of social identity are laid down, theatricalized and broken, but is in fact the way in which meaning is constituted, is the primal scene of meaning. The effect mimics exactly the traditional ending of a drag act: The wig comes off and the performer reveals the truth, the real thing, the bald fact (or head) that sustains the whole act.
A chief virtue of Garber’s book is its gorgeously wide frame of reference, which strays across periods, cultures and media with real authority. The expected material–Shakespeare’s transvestite heroines–is dispened with early, and then it’s down to the real crazies: Nancy Reagan, Rambova, Elvis, Liberace.
This breadth of reference becomes also a problem. If cross-dressing is everywhere, if all instances of such acts are equal parts of one massive, central cultural conundrum, then differences get dissolved. In particular, we lose sight of the issue of who loses and who gains in the battle of dressing and cross-dressing; reading the book, we can easily forget the cross-dressing is often a desperate, dangerous, preposterous undertaking. When it results in a victory, that victory may be hard won and costly. Ask Ma donna, ask Peter Pan, ask Elvis, and any gay drag queen, ask Michael Jackson, ask Navratilova, ask Marcel Duchamp, ask Mapplethorpe. Ask Charles Ludlam. Ask Ethyl Eichelberger.
When Garber insists that playing with dress is part of a large and endlessly reflective cultural system, she is of course right. But she doesn’t really engage with the fact that this cultural system is also a war, with winners and losers. Her book is oddly lacking in pictures or accounts of cross-dressers who haven’t escaped into history, where their images remain to be played with, admired and learned from, but who have been caught and punished for their transgressions. Her triumphal tone is a pleasure, but it is also a partial lie. Watching reactions to the final celebratory lineup of married couples in my Twelfth Night woman in moustache married to boy in bra and Ronette wig, bare-chested boy married to woman in wedding dress–I was always aware of two things: the cross-dressed clowns, puritans and homosexuals who are excluded from the double wedding, and the fact that some people don’t love watching people cross-dress and transgress; they hate it, and they hate it for deeply held reasons.