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Subverting Conventional Drag Queen Narratives

Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976) also invokes conventional drag queen narratives in order to subvert them. Set in a penitentiary in Buenos Aires, the novel focuses on the relationship between Valentín, a young Marxist activist, and Molina, an older drag queen, who share the same cell.

Molina considers herself to be a woman: "As for my friends and myself, we're a hundred percent female. We don't go in for those little games--that's strictly for homos. We're normal women; we sleep with men."

Like Georgette and Miss Destiny, Molina performs, passing the evenings in the cell recounting old films she has seen to Valentín. Like Myra, she also identifies with the famous and glamorous heroines of the films she retells, often relishing the details of the heroine's gown or hair.

However, Molina escapes much of the grotesque exaggeration of the drag queen character. Her speech is not affected; what she says is not overshadowed by how she says it. Puig also prevents Molina from becoming a visual spectacle. Because Kiss of the Spider Woman's narrative consists almost entirely of the dialogue between Molina and Valentín, there is no description of Molina's body. No wigs, no high heels. Only Molina's words.

Dialogue also liberates Arnold in Harvey Fierstein's 1983 play Torch Song Trilogy from drag conventions even while Fierstein uses them for comic ends. In many ways, Arnold is a representative drag queen, but unlike most such literary characters, Arnold does not have a feminine name, and he spends a great deal of the play out of drag.

During the play, we witness Arnold work on relationship issues with his former lover Ed who comes to Arnold for support; we see Arnold find love with David, a younger man who is later killed; we see Arnold adopt a son; and we witness Arnold coming to terms both with his mother and with David's death.

It is often argued that Arnold is the most "progressive" or "real" drag queen character in literature. But though Torch Song Trilogy is one of the few works that explores and presents the complexity of a drag queen's life, the reason we feel so comfortable with Arnold is that he embodies our society's middle-class aspirations. He is stable. He doesn't drink. He doesn't believe in casual sex. He is interested in establishing a family.

But Torch Song Trilogy does not circumvent the striptease of drag queen narratives. Fierstein just makes it easier to locate Arnold's penis: He wears pants. This, too, is part of his stability. Yes, he is a drag queen, but we all know--and can see--that he's a man.

Timothy John Coldridge in Edward Swift's Splendora (1978) is a man, too; but this man returns to his east-Texas home town, the novel's namesake, "in her dress of white eyelet over mint green . . . [and] gold wire-rimmed glasses and Gibson-girl hair [that] were just the right touches for a country librarian still living in days gone by."

As Miss Jessie Gatewood, Timothy John wreaks vengeance on the very town that ridiculed him as a child for being effeminate by reintegrating into the town and becoming the center of attention. Unlike Georgette and Miss Destiny, however, Miss Jessie does not flash Splendora with flamboyance. She earns the town's respect with her understated manner and style. She even finds a man, falling in love with Brother Leggett, the town pastor, who later confesses to her his homosexual desire.

Timothy John and Brother Leggett run off together, leaving Miss Jessie's dresses and house in flames, offering a rare "happy ending" for a drag queen character. But this ending is bought with the "suicide" of Miss Jessie, shortly after Timothy John "grows tired" of being her.

In a sense, the "happy ending" is not intended for Miss Jessie at all: the tragic, unrequited drag queen dies in the fire. Drag conventions are also maintained with Timothy John's best friend, a sassy black drag queen named Magnolia, who makes all Miss Jessie's clothes and assists in "conceiving" her. In the end, Splendora, like Torch Song Trilogy, comforts with sensible, complex gay men who find happiness and just happen to be drag queens as well.

George C. Wolfe's 1987 play The Colored Museum, however, offers us no consolation in one of its "exhibits," "The Gospel According to Miss Roj." Wolfe invokes conventional drag queen attributes, but Miss Roj is not the blubbering Georgette, the domineering Myra, nor the hopelessly romantic Molina.

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