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Transvestism in Film  
 
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Trying to figure out what cinematic transvestism has meant for audiences is problematic not only because transvestism has never meant one single thing, but also because representations of transvestism have often fallen short of what we today consider "queer."

While today we may take for granted the subversive possibilities of drag, it nevertheless remains true that actual representations of drag in film have reinforced conventional ideas of gender more often than they have challenged them.

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The decorative, eye-catching, and parodic qualities of drag have made it the most easily appropriated and commodified facet of queer culture in mainstream films. Too often, however, cinematic drag is reduced to a mere joke, a harmless tease that tacitly reassures us that people can change their clothes but not their sexual identities.

Early Drag

In the silent era, drag was typically a ridiculous farce that only reinforced the "comical" discrepancy between a performer's biology and his or her costume. We may think of a young Harold Lloyd disguised as a female pitcher in Spitball Sadie (1915), or Charlie Chaplin mischievously cross-dressed in A Busy Day (1914), The Masquerader (1914), and The Perfect Lady (1915).

A little more daringly, Al Christie's Rowdy Ann (1919) featured comedienne Fay Tincher as an ultra-butch cowgirl, the brawny equal of any man until she is "tamed" by the civilizing institution of marriage.

That early portrayals of drag were usually allowed only in slapstick comedies, where the sexuality of the drag performer is either neutered or denied altogether, obviously reveals built-in limitations of generic silent film comedy.

This primitive, farcical aspect of drag--which, of course, still lingers today--may even be reducible to the familiar image of an insane, cross-dressed Bugs Bunny impishly smacking an infantile Elmer Fudd on the lips: both participants must be first desexualized in order for the farce to be clownishly effective.

In the slapstick era, we may remember Cary Grant "suddenly going gay" in a frilly bathrobe in Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby (1939), or the transvestite disguise plots of Arthur Leonard's Boy! What a Girl (1945), Hawks' I Was a Male War Bride (1949), or, most famously, Billy Wilder's later, oft-imitated Some Like it Hot (1959).

The Continuing Treatment of Transvestism as Comedy

The continuing treatment of transvestism as comedy--including what can be called the "transvestite plot," wherein a heterosexual character must temporarily cross-dress in accordance with a narrative contrivance, only to be happily unmasked at the conclusion--may be seen today as, by turns, quaint or coy, playful or conservative, potentially subversive or ultimately .

Indeed, we may think little has changed since Amos Vogel's 1974 critique of Wilder's Some Like It Hot: "The Hollywood view of transvestism: it must be portrayed flippantly or in jest to be acceptable. The titillation is built-in and sells tickets."

To push this point to the extreme, Wilder's film may thus not be ideologically too different from Gualtiero Jacopetti's sensationalist "shockumentary" Mondo Cane 2 (1964), whose ad campaign promised its bourgeois ticket-holders a tame peek into "the sexual ritual of British transvestites!"

Yet, when one surveys contemporary, mainstream, openly gay fare such as Eduoard Molinaro's La Cage Aux Folles (1978) or Stephan Elliot's popular The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), it seems that the same campy, ticket-selling titillation can operate even when drag is framed within an "out," pro-gay context.

While we may be dismayed that the superficial aspects of drag are too easily mainstreamed for a straight audience, we should not forget that the majority of real-life transvestites are in fact heterosexual, and it is therefore possible that within the conventions of the old transvestite plot, mainstream drag films may offer covert and not necessarily homophobic pleasures to heterosexual audiences, even if politicized queer audiences may find such films stereotypical, tame, or simply uninteresting.

Issues of Queer Desire

Furthermore, because the standardized, apparently conservative transvestite plot is unlikely to come under much censorship, a few pre-queer drag films have managed to raise issues of queer desire even if their formulaic plots eventually demand a safe return to heterosexuality.

Here, we may think of Ernst Lubitsch's then-daring I Don't Want to be a Man! (1919), or the bisexual confusions generated by a cross-dressed Katharine Hepburn in George Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett (1935) and Renate Muller in Reinhold Schunzel's Viktor und Viktoria (1933), whose Berlin "decadence" the Nazis would soon extinguish.

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An advertisement for Ed Wood's film Glen Or Glenda (1953), an autobiographical account of the filmmaker's own penchant for cross-dressing.
  
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