July 22, 2007

Drag as Misogynism and Double Standards

I read this article on MSNBC last week. The article is a cultural critique of the new movie Hairspray, in which John Travolta plays Edna Turnblatt. The writer suggests that it is misogynistic for Travolta to play Edna on the following rational: If men can play female characters, why does Hollywood need female actors?

Edna Turnblatt has traditionally been played by biological men: Divine in the movie and Harvey Fierstein in the Broadway musical. John Travolta, who is married to Kelly Preston, is publicly heterosexual and his religion, Scientology, may promote homophobia. Regardless, the article misses a key point.

John Travolta playing Edna Turnblatt is another example of cultural appropriation. Drag, especially male-to-female drag, is a cultural symbol/icon of the male homosexual community. One of the ways that the male homosexual community defines itself is through the use of drag as a exaggeration of traditional male-female roles that may no longer apply in male homosexual relationships. Gay men performing drag highlights how flexible the seemingly -inflexible traditional gender roles and norms can be.

John Travolta playing Edna Turnblatt is not misogynist. Edna Turnblatt's character is not meant to be a traditional female character. Hairspray's message is one of tolerance and acceptance of all types of people; Edna Turnblatt as a transsexual/biological male is another kind of difference that Hairspray encourages acceptance and tolerance of.

*This is not to say that transsexuals or gay men should only be tolerated or accepted. Society would never say that heterosexual men/women need to be tolerated, and using the word "tolerance" for gay men/lesbian women only highlights their second-class status in our society. But that's an issue for another entry.

Straight men taking on gay roles is becoming more common in films over the last few months. Namely, Hairspray and I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry have taken a gay male sensibility to previously heterosexual male areas. This is certainly an areas to watch in coming months, and it may have a serious effect on the hearts and minds of American citizens.

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