Categorizations of gender, sexuality, and even ethnicities provide a comfort to those who might assume the ‘other’ poses a threat. They define the ‘other’ within hegemonic standards and this allows for those not marginalized, the white heterosexual male for example, to remain within their borders unthreatened. By having the power to define the ‘other’, those who are marginalized remain othered. Categorizing essentially only provides an illusion for knowledge and safety to both groups of people.
It becomes a question of language and the assumption that sexuality and gender are mediated through it. For example, by advocating for the word ‘gay’, those who are straight are not threatened because it is not promoting the exploration of ‘sexuality’, which would imply them leaving their comfort space and stepping out of their borders. By advocating for the word ‘gay’, it is advocating for the ‘other’, which is separate from those who identify as heterosexual.
Language also reduces the spectrum of sexuality and gender and confines the performance of identity into a one-dimensional form of self-expression. This confinement can be seen in a sentence such as the one before this one where sexuality and gender are prioritized to defining identity while there is a variety of ways that identity can be expressed without the consideration of sexuality and gender.
When depending on language to produce a safety through labels, extremes are formed. In this context, extremes are the origins of othering because they highlight differences and disregard similarities. This is where the danger lies. Extremes of a class of any kind, from sexuality to human beings, do not lead to an objective understanding of what that class is. It only leads to further marginalization and it allows for easier access to condemning a demographic into a narrow categorization. As a result, stereotyping becomes accessible to even those within the LGBTQ+ community.
However, there happens to be social and financial value in those categories that we clearly see being utilized in cinema. From the start, as an audience, we get to see who has been given the advantage to define the ‘other’. Whether it is the director, writer, lead actor, or all of them at once, it is almost always someone more privileged than those portrayed in the film. Films like Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980), The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella, 1990), and The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992) can be argued to be problematic in their othering. However, the film that will be focused on in this essay is To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (Beeban Kidron, 1995). Directed by a heterosexual female and strategically cast as the gay lead drag queens were Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo, the film proves to be problematic.
It can be argued that these actors’ interpretations of a drag queen’s experiences has the power of interrupting a dominant ideology that universalizes and it presents specificity to a storyline that is necessary for progress. However, interpretation by those not marginalized is not interpretation but othering. They perform, with their own definitions and labels, how they think a specific marginalized person acts.
What this essay intends to do is highlight cinema’s dependency on labels and then argue their necessity. As a counter-point though, it will also argue the short-term space labels should take up. First, genre-bending will be discussed and how it is utilized in the film to present drag queens as less threatening and more angelic. Second, cinema’s method of de-historicizing a marginalized group’s experience will be explored and how that gives easier access to othering. Finally, the idea of categories and performance will be discussed and how they deny any genealogical approach to understanding the ‘other’, which further confines the ‘other’.
The film starts with Vida Boheme, played by Swayze, and Noxeema Jackson, played by Snipes, winning New York City’s “Drag Queen of the Year” contest. They win a trip to Hollywood to compete in a bigger contest, “Miss Drag Queen of America Pageant”. Feeling empathetic towards Chi-Chi Rodriguez, played by Leguizamo, a queen who had the hopes of competing in Hollywood, they take him under their wings to teach him how to turn from a “boy in a dress” to a fully-fledged drag queen. As a result, they sell the two plane tickets they won to Hollywood and buy an old Cadillac convertible. On their journey, they come across a homophobic, sexist, and racist police officer who pulls them over and sexually assaults Vida. A brief moment after he realizes Vida is a man, he trips and falls unconscious. They drive away, thinking they just killed him. At this point, the film falls under the road movie genre and resembles a Thelma and Louis (Ridley Scott, 1991) storyline in that they are running away from a crime they just committed because a man just tried to sexually assault Vida. Except they are not on the run for long as their car breaks down and are taken to Snydersville to wait in a bed and breakfast while their car gets fixed. They become stranded in this provincial town for the weekend, which is where most of the film takes place. At this point, the film can be identified as a western because their unexpected and unusual presence in the town transforms into a heroic one. By the end of the film every character in Snydersville changes for the better and this change is influenced by the three drag queens. Carol Anne kicks out her abusive husband. A group of roughnecks develop some manners. Beatrice’s romance with the man she has loved for twenty-three years finally materializes and Merna, after not speaking for years after her husband’s death, is saying full sentences.
Their placement as heroes of this town implies an awareness of the target audience of the film. “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar … conveys the ‘different but equal’ message to its largely middle-class, heterosexual American audience” (Hammond, 1996, p. 106). While the film definitely is conveying a message to a largely middle-class heterosexual American audience, it is not conveying a ‘different but equal’ message regarding drag queens. It is conveying a ‘safe thus inferior’ message. By Vida, Noxeema, and Chi-Chi entering the white middle-class space, they allow themselves to be defined by that space. As a result, the film is made in a conservative manner where everyone, that is the audience, feels comfortable and not threatened. We can see this from the binary produced through genre. The idea of the “night in shining…. whatever that was”, which is uttered by Chi-Chi, romanticizes his storyline into a heterosexual one and makes him relatable.
As Berliner explains, a film that is a genre breaker “loudly broadcasts its violation of traditions, inviting audiences to join in the film’s efforts to expose, and often mock, genre conventions. In contrast, a genre bender violates conventions without advertising the fact” (2014, p. 25). For the sakes of the viewers’ comfort, To Wong Foo neither breaks nor bends genres. It merges them. This comfort is derived from the use of language and labels. As Vida and her companions become accepted through their influence on the town, they are accepted through the standards of those limited to borders and limited to white middle-class heterosexual space. How the film ends explains this well in that the townspeople, in defense of Vida, all yell out to the police officer that they are all drag queens. For a white heterosexual middle-class audience, the label ‘drag queen’ loses its connotation of queerness and the struggles of queers. It becomes universalized and is then stripped of its specificity to those who are marginalized.
This universalization of labels has increased and language has become de-historicized with the growth of cinema and the proliferation of technology. To further expand on the de-historicizing of the knowledge of the ‘other’, Jennifer Orme effectively articulates this in the context of ‘narrative desire’ while discussing Teresa de Lauretis.
De Lauretis’s chapter “Desire in Narrative” turns to the psychoanalytic model to problematize notions of narrative desire that are dehistoricized and naturalized through the master narrative of Freud’s Oedipus. De Lauretis notes that the desires inherent in the Oedipus narrative are those of the stories that are dominant in our “culture, history and science,” narratives that do not ask questions from any point of view other than Oedipus’s and in which the hero subject is always male (2010, p. 221).
Without understanding the origins (both factual and emotional histories) of an ‘other’, that subject will remain othered. Without that effort to understand, the only knowledge available is that of which we are exposed to which is the dominant narratives that happen to place the white heterosexual male as the hero. This is what makes Patrick Swayze’s casting as the lead problematic especially because of his known persona prior to the making of the film. Celebrity like that emphasizes a binary that reduces the character into a label. His performance alone is telling in how separate he perceived the character of Vida from his own character. The seriousness in his feminized voice remains all throughout the film even when he is only surrounded with fellow drag queens in a private setting. It is no surprise that as an audition, Swayze walked in the streets of New York City with the director to prove he can pass as a woman. Vida, as well, when fantasizing about walking into his family’s house asking for acceptance, says that he would enter crying out, “my name is Vida Boheme”. There is a performance of the binary here that does not exist with true drag queens. There is no knowledge that drag is an art of self-awareness which results in mocking one’s self. On the contrary, it is performed as though drag is simply just being a woman. In other words, the film treats drag queens as if they were queer men struggling with their gender identity, which, again, rids these marginalized groups of their specificity. Vida could easily just cry out, “I’m a gay man” to ask for acceptance but, instead, he insists on his womanhood. Carol Anne’s final words to Vida support this in that she says, “I don’t think of you as a man; I don’t think of you as a woman. I think of you as an angel.” This is a result of de-historicizing marginalized groups and universalizing their experiences. Their stories become accessible to everyone in that they are made relatable. This is a passive approach to any progress that might be desired.
This is evident in the treatment of the two other queens as well. Matthew Golmark analyses this treatment of a Puerto Rican, Nina Flowers, in another source that features drag queens, Rupaul’s Drag Race – Season 1 (Rupaul, 2009). “Drag Race never remarks on the relationship linking language and cultural capital, nor does it discuss the colonial contours of Puerto Rican citizenship.7 Instead, it presents Nina’s difficulties with English as an individual impediment” (2015, p. 502). This is a form of de-historicizing as Nina is accepted only for the sake of accepting the other. This acceptance is passive because it is without acknowledging the history of the other and why she is othered. We can parallel Nina’s treatment to Chi-Chi’s in the film. As Noxeema sarcastically asks Chi-Chi, “I’ll bet you were the brightest in your class, weren’t you”. Chi-Chi is regarded as socially unaware and mentally slow because of how he articulates himself and how different that is from how Vida and Noxeema (Americans) articulate themselves. As a result, without the consideration of where he comes from, his difficulties with articulating himself are viewed as an individual impediment. Ideally, these difficulties should just be considered a difference that is neither inferior nor superior to Vida and Noxeema. Through understanding his history and how he is marginalized, in other words what marginalized group(s) he belongs to, they can come to appreciate him as an individual. As mentioned earlier in this essay, labels can occupy a space but only initially when one is first introduced to a subject. Understanding all the various labels Chi-Chi might possibly identify with is only the first step to appreciating an individual as a whole with a unique identity.
The drag community has also succumbed to being defined by hegemonic labels because their only concern is finding a community that would accept them. They do not acknowledge that they too have manufactured their own borders that further others them. By forming their own community with labels, they become part of de-historicizing themselves. Those who are not part of that community become outsiders and the movement to understand each other’s humanity is pushed aside. Nathaniel Simmons (2014) articulates this as he speaks about drag queens’ dependence on symbols.
Burke (1966) claimed that humans are symbol-using, and often abusing, animals. Drag queens are no exception. Such symbols may be an ‘arbitrary word, object, or action that is deliberately created and agreed to by members of a collective as representing the thing to which it refers but that bears no natural relationship to it’ (Frey and Sunwolf 2005, p. 185). These symbols stimulate meaning for the group from that which is considered abstract. However, ‘to be meaningful, symbols must be interpreted by members in a relatively similar manner’ (Frey and Sunwolf 2005, p. 186). In other words, cultural groups construct, reinforce, and perpetuate cultural values about speaking. (p. 631)
This reinforces the use of labels and the idea that everything should be mediated through language. The art of drag is then confined and the performance of gender remains in the binary. Knowing that labeling is an existing issue within the community itself, the casting of Patrick Swayze is further problematized. It becomes a question of when does an ‘outsider’ have the authority to speak on behalf of a community. To further complicate it: Is this authority even necessary when the community consists of a variety of personalities and identities. There is no space where Patrick Swayze can safely represent a drag queen. Why it might be perceived as safe is because he is not seen as representing but just supporting, which translates into appreciation. It reduces the power of film and the trust audiences have in it because it assumes the position of film as being a passive medium that is naturally producing what society has constructed for it. Film then oversimplifies and denies any group of its historical background.
The disregard of the various identities that exist within a community strengthens the idea of the binary. It condemns them wholly as one type, narrowing down the problem of the threatening ‘other’ for them, which produces a more passive and easier path to progress. This progress, of course, is only short-term.
The contradictions that seem most active are the ones internal to all the important twentieth century understandings of homo/heterosexual definition…. The first is the contradiction between seeing homo/heterosexual definition on the one hand as an issue of active importance primarily for a small, distinct, relatively fixed homosexual minority… and seeing it on the other hand as an issue of continuing, determinative importance in the lives of people across the spectrum of sexualities (Sedgwick, 2008, pp. 1).
When condemning a community wholly as one type and directing all attention onto that type, the issue becomes about the ‘other’ and not those who are not marginalized. Those who are not othered then remain safe and unthreatened. In other words, the trouble with labels is that it focuses on one aspect of an identity, which further others it. For example, to return to what was mentioned in the beginning of the essay, by advocating for the word ‘gay’, those who are straight are not threatened because it is not promoting the exploration of ‘sexuality’, which would imply them leaving their comfort space and stepping out of their borders. By advocating for the word ‘gay’, it is advocating only for the ‘other’, which traps them within the othered space.
In conclusion, To Wong Foo proves to be problematic in its production of the binary. Through genre and location, the three drag queens are willingly defined by hegemonic standards, which confines them to a space of ‘otherness’. The film attempts to appear progressive but, in reality, is only projecting the appearance of the ‘queer’ indicating that it has no authority to speak of the experiential struggles of the drag queen as it has no knowledge of it. This de-historicizes the drag queen and treats them as gay men struggling with gender identity. It sheds light on the dangers of labeling and how it pushes people with drastically different experiences into one category thus producing a less threatening image for the hetero-normative majority. This comfort provided to them is only short-term because it will have to repeatedly reaffirm itself until it acknowledges the individual experiences that exist within those groups. It is not only that majority that is provided that comfort but also the marginalized are less threatened by categorizing themselves. With labels, they find a community to call their own. In that sense, categories are useful.
To summarize, it should be understood precisely why labels are used because of the social and political power they hold. They are necessary but also temporary. With that knowledge, when labels are in use in a certain situation, we must recognize the temporal space they take up so that when moving forward one is not confined to a one-dimensional self but has only discovered a minor piece of the whole puzzle that is the self. From then, the self is not obliged to explain itself through language.
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Orme, J. (2010, November 2). Narrative Desire and Disobedience in Pan’s Labyrinth.
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Sedgwick, E. K. (2008). Introduction: Axiomatic. In Epistemology of the Closet (pp. 1-
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