Wearing the Pants
in Male Drag
To “wear the pants” means to wield the authority that patriarchal culture invests in trouser-clad males. So when women cross-dress, stepping out of their skirts and into clothing meant to be worn by men, they traverse a boundary that is more than just sartorial. This map takes some measurements of the impact female-to-male transvestism has had in film and performance.
Fashionable women have donned menswear to turn heads and raise eyebrows since at least 1771, when the 16-year-old Marie Antoinette went out riding wearing a striped waistcoat and a tricorne hat. In the 20th century, movie star and cabaret singer Marlene Dietrich upped the ambisexual ante. She was fond of wearing men’s clothes—tailored, of course, to fit her lissome figure—in her private life. But she elicited outrage over her 1930 film Morocco (one of several Hollywood pictures she made with director Josef von Sternberg). Playing a nightclub singer, she appears in top hat and tails and, after performing her song, brazenly kisses a female audience member. In the film the lesbian gesture is just an act—Dietrich’s character is in love with a legionnaire played by Gary Cooper—but the real-life Dietrich was bisexual. In her 1950s nightclub show Dietrich again donned masculine formalwear for the portion featuring songs written for men, exerting a steamy androgynous allure that, for all her effort, Julie Andrews can’t quite match in the musical comedy film Victor Victoria, in which she plays a down-on-her-luck singer who reverses her fortune by passing as a female-impersonating gay man.
To succeed in show business, Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews), the title character in Victor Victoria, masquerades as Victor Grazinski, a gay, tuxedo-clad Polish count who works nights as a female impersonator. In good comedy-of-errors fashion, hypermacho nightclub owner King Marchand (James Garner) comes to doubt his own masculinity when he falls for Victor’s onstage persona and, uncomfortably, for Victor “himself.” The hilarity is predictable and unpredictable—as when King’s tough-guy bodyguard (played by ex–football player Alex Karras), thinking his boss is in love with a man, tearfully confesses that he too is gay.
Victor Victoria is set in mid-1930s Paris. By the late 1980s, when recording artist k.d. lang’s career took off, gender ambiguity wasn’t as discomfiting. Her lowercase stage name belying her capital vocal talent, lang has always affected menswear and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than the handsomely besuited lesbian she is. The chalk-stripe banker’s suit lang wears on the cover of her 1997 album Drag—a collection of songs about cigarettes, not cross-dressing—looks just right, and lang truly seems to appear “in drag” only in performances of her 1992 hit “Miss Chatelaine” for which she has donned a chiffon gown and bouffant wig.
A tomboy—the word dates to the 16th century—is, of course, a young girl who behaves and dresses the way boys are supposed to. Historically, Western culture hasn’t worried much about tomboys’ nonconformity to gender norms; tomboys have been heroic in fiction ranging from Little Women to the Powerpuff Girls cartoon series. But tomboyism was long considered a phase young ladies were meant to outgrow. There was something wrong with a girl approaching womanhood who didn’t trade her grass-stained jeans for pretty dresses.
We’ve come a long way, baby—if not quite far enough. When female movie stars of the 1930s took to wearing trousers on-screen (Marlene Dietrich) and off- (Katharine Hepburn), some fans were scandalized, but when Diane Keaton wore slightly modified men’s outfits in Woody Allen’s 1977 film Annie Hall, she tripped a mass fashion trend. Still, for many people there’s something unsettling about grown women—especially at our culture’s queerer fringes—who don’t look “womanly.” Photographer Catherine Opie has made a career taking portraits of such sartorial, cultural and sexual rebels, including drag kings, butch lesbians and trans men (female-to-male transsexuals), as well as gender-bending singer k.d. lang.
Little girls who dress in boys’ clothing and laddishly misbehave are cute; grown women who dress in men’s clothing and laddishly misbehave can be gut-bustingly funny. Take Betsey Gallagher, whose onstage (and frequent offstage) persona, Murray Hill, is a pudgy, greasy-haired guy who often wears aviator specs, a polyester suit and an ultrawide tie—a guy who smirks while spouting an endless stream of off-color jokes and will gladly manhandle any gal who comes within pawing distance. A boorish jerk, right? Yeah, but he’s also hilarious.
Hill, a fixture on the downtown New York club scene for nearly two decades—whose faux bio claims he was born in the backseat of a cab in (where else?) Manhattan’s Murray Hill neighborhood—bills himself as the “hardest-working middle-aged man in show business.” His stand-up routine is, in fact, part of a long showbiz tradition of women performing in male attire to act out stereotypical male behavior. Such male impersonators are called drag kings (after their female-impersonating counterparts, drag queens). But Hill rejects that label as too limiting: “Why can’t you just call me a comedian?” he asks.
Though the term drag king wasn’t coined until the 1970s, female actors began seriously performing male roles in Western theater in the 19th century, when American Charlotte Cushman played Shakespeare’s Romeo and French stage legend Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet. Drag-king comedian Murray Hill proves women can adeptly depict stereotypical male behavior, but as fans of the all-female Japanese Takarazuka Revue believe, women may simply make better men than men do. The women who play its male roles have perfected a masculine ideal—the Japanese word is otokoyaku—whose refinement and gentleness are far removed from the behavior of many real-life Japanese men. Takarazuka’s overwhelmingly female audience positively swoons. And the performers get plenty of practice: Company tradition mandates that male-role specialists dress boyishly even when offstage. Rumors also suggest that they socialize mainly with their “male” colleagues and that boyfriends, much less husbands and children, are discouraged during their performance careers. Takarazuka succeeds with musical romances like West Side Story, The Scarlet Pimpernel and, most famously, The Rose of Versailles, a comic-book adaptation set at Marie Antoinette’s court. Rose’s main character is the heartthrob leader of the palace guards—who also happens to be a woman raised as a boy.
A girl doesn’t have to be a tomboy to have exciting adventures: Neither Alice (of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books) nor Dorothy Gale (of The Wizard of Oz) has to put on trousers to tangle with the Red Queen or the Wicked Witch. But being a tomboy and wearing boys’ clothes do come in handy for the rough and tumble. Scout Finch—of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)—might not have held off a lynch mob had she been wearing a frilly blouse. Lyra Belacqua—of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (1995–2000)—probably couldn’t have ridden an armored bear had she worn a pinafore.
Arya Stark—one of a multitude of important characters in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire and the HBO television series based on it, Game of Thrones—belongs squarely within the literary tradition of the tough-as-nails tomboy. Played by Maisie Williams on the show, feisty Arya is immensely appealing. She’s also lethal, unafraid to use her child-size sword, Needle, when the occasion demands.
Arya Stark had always been a tomboy—besting her brother Bran at archery and learning swordplay from an expert—but when the psychopathic teenage king Joffrey orders her father, Ned Stark, executed, she must become a boy to save her own life. Only her protector, Yoren, who chops off Arya’s hair and gives her strict instructions not to reveal her sex, knows her true identity as they flee. Arya thus joins a very long list of girls and women, real and fictional, who have adopted a male identity and wardrobe for protection or to live the life they want in a not-so-female-friendly world. The roster includes Joan of Arc, who by her own telling adopted soldier’s garb to shield herself from rape; several women novelists (including George Sand, who also wore men’s clothes), who hid behind male pseudonyms to improve their literary standing; the character Albert Nobbs in the eponymous 2011 film (and George Moore novella), who lives as a man for economic survival and to escape the trauma of a gang rape; and Viola, a central character in Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night, who cross-dresses as a boy to secure a post as a page at court.
Several Shakespearean heroines excel at being skillful, if fictitious, males. In As You Like It, Rosalind, disguised as a male shepherd, judiciously orchestrates the play’s romantic resolutions. In The Merchant of Venice, Portia, disguised as a lawyer, ingeniously exploits a legal technicality to save her friend from a gruesome fate. The gender dimensions of Shakespearean theater were complicated: Since women were prohibited from acting on the Elizabethan stage, female parts were played by boys, who, when playing Rosalind or Portia in the characters’ male disguises, were boys pretending to be girls pretending to be boys—a situation Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman turn topsy-turvy in their screenplay for Shakespeare in Love (1998), in which Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a girl who pretends to be a boy so she can act a girl’s part. Japan too has a long history of theatrical transvestism, with men playing women in kabuki and noh drama and in butoh dance. Women had been barred from Japan’s stages in 1629, and not until the founding, in 1914, of the all-female Takarazuka Revue did Japanese women perform male roles. The company eventually expanded to five troupes that perform before more than 2 million devoted fans each year.