Drag is Radical Politics

Drag is radical politics. With its fundamental and defining movement through the gendered expression of clothing from the masculine towards the feminine, male-to-female drag inherently rejects the widespread cultural assumption of the former’s supremacy. It is not camp as mockery, but rather camp as a political act based on radical transformations, and as such it is often met with hostility and aggression. This notion of camp is closer to that of Bruce LaBruce than Susan Sontag, the former once noting that camp is “a performativity that has an element of irony in it, but it also has an interesting balance of sincerity and critique. I think the most interesting camp is a posture that both embraces something and destroys it at the same time. It’s paradoxical in that way.

Nowhere more than the carnivalesque cinematic backwater of trash cinema do transvestites get to fight back with more vigour, more aplomb, and more determination to live their lives exactly how they want to. They do not give a fuck what you think, and will go in fighting, kicking, and destroying anything – and anyone – that lies in their way to prove it, to protect this central part of their identity.

Watching only mainstream cinema, it’d be easy to mistake drag as a one-way ticket to freak-show monstrosity. While Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill and Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs certainly have their charms, they typify conservative representations of transvestism that associates supposed sexual and moral ‘deviance’ to violence: are films like this telling us that men who dress as women are likely to be unstable, even killers, because they are transvestites? In the films we look at here, this is far from the case: the trigger to violence is instead mostly spawned by the undisguised oppression, bigotry and provocation by others wielding their power and privilege, rather than simply the automatic result of having a penchant for strapless floral frocks and platform-heeled sandals. These violent transvestites reveal through their stories a whole range of social and cultural assumptions about masculinity, the law, the family, child abuse, religion, and the way power is constructed more broadly.

Cult film fandom has long recognized on some level the transgressive potential of cross-dressing, and two of its most sacred idols – Ed Wood and Divine – are renowned for dressing in women’s clothes. Angora-enthusiast Wood famously explored transvestism and gender identity in his 1953 film Glen or Glenda (and later appeared in drag as Alecia in 1970's Take It Out In Trade), while Harris Glenn Milstead’s drag persona Divine was a character he frequently (although not exclusively) adopted for stage and screen. As Divine and Wood personify, trash film offers an alternate vision of transvestism-as-subversion – particularly where violence and drag intersect – because here, we’re already on the side of the outsiders, the ‘weirdos’, and the so-called ‘freaks’. We watch this stuff not because we want to see boy meets girl/ boy loses girl, but because we want to see boy in a dress declare war on assholism and eat dog shit.

While transvestism is often assumed to imply a sexual aberration almost always associated with men, as British author Peter Ackroyd wrote in 1979, this is a relatively recent – and culturally specific – interpretation. Rather, for Ackroyd transvestism simply “describes those occasions when a man puts on a woman's clothes, or a woman adopts a man's, for whatever purpose and with whatever effect.“ This definition frames how I approach cross-dressing in the trash films explored here; what unites them is that while these characters might have a thirst for blood, they often have very good reasons to be pissed off. Subversive and radical, sometimes often despite themselves they demand our empathy. From the fiery drag queens in Alberto De Martino's Strange Shadows in an Empty Room (1976) who refuse to back down from a fight to the free-wheelin', free-spirited bikers in Larry G. Brown's gaysploitation biker film The Pink Angels (1972), there’s a whole range of ways that trash film’s dazzling parade of transvestites find to break free and make their presence felt in the world for who they really are, on their own terms, and in their own way.

When this mode of expression takes the form of violence, we again see a crumbling of the assumed lines between masculinity and femininity that male-to-female transvestism has already corrupted. While the turning towards women’s clothing is a rejection of masculinity, the act of violence is itself simultaneously considered somehow ‘unladylike’. Signals become crossed to the point of collapse; when transvestites become violent, a whole range of assumptions about what gendered identity means comes crashing down, and behaviours traditionally deemed ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ are suddenly, spectacularly meaningless.

MASCULINITY IN CRISIS

Masculinity is such a delicate, fragile thing. Take the gay panic defense, a legal position that argues temporary insanity on the act of someone who has committed murder or assault, whereby an unwanted sign of sexual interest by someone of the same gender is considered justification enough to drive them to a point of derangement where they can no longer tell right from wrong. As much as it sounds like (and is) a piss-weak euphemism for good old-fashioned homophobia, the longevity of such laws on a global scale is genuinely shocking: where I live in Australia these laws were only repealed in the last twenty years, and despite a recommendation by the American Bar Association in 2013, only California, Illinois and Rhode Island have banned similar lines of defense.

There is therefore a very long, very real legal history of men demonstrating time and time again a failure to cope with their perceived notion of masculinity being under threat. As a thematic motif, ‘masculinity in crisis’ spans film history, from the busted men of film noir to the disillusioned tough guys of New Hollywood. Throw transvestism into the mix and the already-sensitive terrain of male identity becomes a powder keg.


Enter Richard Rush’s 1974 film Freebie and the Bean. On the surface, it appears to be a fairly straightforward buddy-cop action-comedy driven by the interpersonal electricity between James Caan and Alan Arkin in the title roles. But look more closely and Freebie and the Bean reveals much about fragility of masculinity. While on the hunt for bad guys, ethically dubious Detectives Caan’s Freebie and Arkin’s Bean encounter a series of hitmen, including an unnamed transvestite in the film’s climax. Played by Christopher Morley, the actor specialized in cross-dressing roles and might otherwise be best remembered as transvestite British spy David Bannister in the 1982 episode “The Jororo Kill“ of Magnum P.I. But in the world of this film, traditional gender roles of all kinds are ridiculed and rendered extreme; from the hulking cowboy Freebie and Bean comically fight in a hotel lobby, to Bean’s ludicrous paranoia about his wife’s unfaithfulness, traditional masculinity is mocked on all fronts.

But Caan and Arkin’s characters tough it out; they persevere, despite their perception of their near indestructibility as tough guys coming under fire from all fronts. At the heart of the film – both narratively and thematically – lies Morley’s transvestite killer, one of the only characters not impressed by Freebie’s tough guy posturing. Morley’s character is unambiguously a wholly capable force in an otherwise dysfunctional world of cis fools, typified by Freebie and Bean’s ludicrous macho bravado. It might not be a victory for Morley’s character by the end of the film, but the film’s conclusion is far from a win for traditional masculinity either.

Masculinity in crisis raises its head in dragsploitation films in other ways. A homophobic hate-crime lies at the heart of Joseph Merhi’s The Newlydeads (1988), but far from demonizing the vengeful transvestite zombie-ghost that drives the film’s action (er, aside from making them an actual demon) the film is striking for how negatively it represents heterosexual monogamy, scorned and derided even in the film’s joyfully stupid title. The movie begins as glamorous transvestite Jackie arrives at a secluded countryside hotel and is seduced by the manager Lloyd, who murders Jackie after discovering his misreading of Jackie’s biological gender.

Returning to the scene of the crime years later as the cackling, revenge-seeking ‘newlydead’, Jackie has every right to be angry and film is unambiguous that gay-panic-defense-spouting manchild bigot Lloyd is the bad guy. Now running his hotel as a honeymoon retreat, Jackie shows little restraint in punishing Lloyd, his young wife and his often naked, rutting young clientele for the homophobic atrocity committed against Jackie by Lloyd years earlier. From the drunken priest who presides over wedding ceremonies to the constantly bickering psychic Kris and her nasty husband Ron, The Newlydeads is unrelenting in its negative portrayal of heteronormativity. Sure, Jackie might be an undead cross-dressing killer demon, but eradicating heterosexual monogamy as a broader force in the moral universe of the film actually makes total sense. In Freebie and the Bean and The Newlydeads, while hardly a happily ever after for its transvestite outsiders, they are regardless the figures brave and determined enough to resist the status quo of omnipresent homophobia, personified by the violence and corruption of anxious straight men. While not the only trash films that address this aspect through male-to-female transvestism – Roberta Findlay’s Blood Sisters (1987) amongst others deserve a shout-out – these films in particular illustrate precisely how this aspect of gender, power and identity has been tackled.

FAMILY TIME

So embedded is the notion of the nuclear family – a dad, a mom, some kids – that it's almost hard to conceive a cultural and social norm as dominant in the West more pervasive or seemingly naturalized. But like colonialism and globalization, it's a relatively recent phenomenon that in practical terms is a direct by-product of industrialization. As the benchmark of contemporary conservatism, the pastel hues and nostalgia-drenched soft focus that dominate its representation has resulted in its near-universal beatification. But it’s precisely its idealized status as the supposed be-all end-all of social organization renders it ripe for the picking in cult and trash film: from Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre (which, by the way, features Leatherface in a “pretty lady“ mask) to Ted Post’s The Baby, the nuclear family has been consistently lampooned through a consistently twisted, transgressive lens.

Robert Martin Carroll's Sonny Boy (1989) takes this assault on of the nuclear family to new levels. The film is a shocking tale of the long-term abuse experienced by its title character from his childhood, kidnapped by Brad Dourif’s appropriately sleazy hillbilly Weasel, and handed over to redneck crime boss Slue (Paul L. Smith) and his ‘wife’ Pearl, a transvestite played by David Carradine. As Sonny Boy grows from child to adult (played in his older years by Michael Boston), Pearl is unable to stop Slue from torturing the boy and slowly turning him into a killing machine through a vicious combination of abuse and neglect. But she can sure as hell fight for her family, as far from the orthodox norm as it may be. Driven by a passionate maternal determination, the film’s unforgettable climax presents Pearl – in one of Carradine’s most vibrant, memorable and genuinely sincere performances – as a perverse champion of light in the film’s otherwise unrepentant world of darkness.

Thomas Casey’s queer reimagining of the psycho-biddy subgenre Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things (1971) takes its derision for the traditional nuclear family to even further extremes. Wayne Crawford is Stanley, a hippie stoner who lives with his doting “Aunt Martha“, who is quickly revealed to be a man named Paul (Abe Zwick). Less a maternal caregiver for Stanley than his older lover, through a complex, dirty web of blackmail the relationship between Paul and Stanley is rendered even more complicated by the eponymous “dreadful things“ whose details are revealed with increasing hysteria as the movie unfolds. Unapologetically over-the-top, Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things deliberately aspires to peak melodramatic excess with its unique blend of dragsploitation and hagsploitation tropes. While not the only trash film to do this – Pete Walker’s The Comeback (1978) warrants a mention for starters - Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things is twisted, tragic love story that is oddly haunting and sorrowful almost despite itself. But at its heart lies an unrelenting attack on the cliché of the happy suburban family.


THE TYRANNY OF GENDER

In 1990, American philosopher Judith Butler published her foundational book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Amongst the many influential arguments laid out in this work, Butler posited that ‘gender’ as we understand it is less to do with biological specificity – what shaped pink bits you might have technically been born – than socially determined performances and ways of behaving. ‘Male’ and ‘female’, therefore, might have less to do with what are broadly understood as ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’, and more to do with the way we adopt (or are forced to adopt) particular kinds of cultural behaviors relating to how we dress, what we’re interested in, what we think we’re capable of and can realistically aspire to, and where we put our legs when we sit on a horse.

This question of ‘force’ lies at the heart of two of the most intriguing films about transvestism ever made; Robert Hiltzik’s classic 1983 slasher Sleepaway Camp, and William A. Fraker's A Reflection of Fear from 1972. Both films revolve around the performance of two extraordinary women – Felissa Rose as Angela Baker in the former, and Sondra Locke as Marguerite in the latter – who in very different contexts play what appear to be troubled young women, revealed in fact to be young men forced by a sadistic, demented relative to dress and live their life in a performative sense as girls. Long before these films, however, Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont's 1957 short story “Miss Gentibelle“ set the benchmark for this plotline, which was adapted into Lloyd Michael Williams’ extraordinary, twisted psychedelic fairytale short film Ursula in 1961. Based on Beaumont’s own experiences as a child with an abusive mother who forced him to wear girls' clothing, the film downplays the gender-twist in the short story itself but casts the title character with a male actor, Calvin Waters.

One of the wildest cult slasher films of the subgenre’s golden age, Sleepaway Camp took the tried-and-tested serial-killer-at-summer-camp recipe and injected it with pure adrenalized weirdness. From its gruesome death-by-curling-iron scene to that final reveal where the truth about Angela is revealed, what gets lost in the high-octane twist ending is how completely on side we are with her are. Shy and sweet, it’s hard not to feel for Angela as she struggles with a parade of bullies, despite the support of a number of people – including her protective cousin Ricky. But the harassment escalates until those tormenting Angela are killed off in increasingly bizarre ways. The revelation that Angela is the killer is not itself where this film packs its legendary punch; rather, the shock stems from the discovery that Angela is in fact her thought-to-be-dead brother Peter, raised as his dead sister by his Aunt Martha (played Desiree Gould, often herself mistaken as a drag queen). Naked, screaming and feral in those final moments, with or without that famous penis-reveal we’ve learned only too well where her rage and confusion comes from. We’re on Team Angela all the way, regardless of her biological gender.

Just as the violence in Sleepaway Camp results from trauma caused by the forcing of a gender identity onto a child, the spectacular psychological collapse of Sondra Locke's Marguerite in A Reflection of Fear similarly stems from experiences decades earlier at the hands of a demented older woman caregiver. Born male but raised as a hyper-feminized girly-girl by her creepy mother Katherine and grandmother Julia, the film follows the incestuous hell that breaks loose when Marguerite's estranged father comes to visit. Sparking questions about her emotional stability, this is complicated by the presence of a nightmare-inducing life-sized porcelain doll named Aaron, with whom Marguerite’s relationship can be described as unhealthy at best. But like Sleepaway Camp, rather than demonizing or rejecting Marguerite as ‘monstrous’ through the transvestism twist, Locke’s character is unambiguously a tragic victim of child abuse. Like Angela, the real monsters in the film are those who forced her to dress and live as a gender she was not comfortable with.

At first, that dismissive critical proclamation “problematic“ might raise its head with films like Sleepaway Camp and A Reflection of Fear in particular, and to be fair both films are undeniably building much of their sensational impact around their respective final revelations. But to do reject these films wholesale risks ignoring the essential point that it’s ultimately neither Angela nor Marguerite who are the villains – they are killers, sure, but neither are to blame. Watching these films in 2018 at a time where non-binary kids are forced to contend with unimaginable discrimination and hostility both informally from their peers and formally by so many of the social institutions that they cannot avoid in their lives (schools, hospitals, governments, etc.), there’s something about these films that despite their excesses and sensationalism act as a crucial reminder of how fundamentally abusive dictating someone’s gender identity is. These are fun, wild, extreme films about killer dolls and nasty girls meeting nasty ends in summer camp, but even more they are unforgettable movies about child abuse and the violence of gender policing.

“BRING IN THE PERVERTS“

Violent transvestites are of course far from a wholly English-language cinema fascination. In Dario Argento’s sophomore film, the 1971 giallo, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Inspector Morosini's (Enrico Maria Salerno) famous demand to his colleagues commencing a police line-up to “bring in the perverts“ is followed soon after by the exasperated clarification, “How many times do I have to tell you, Ursula Andress belongs with the transvestites, not the perverts!“. Like Sleepaway Camp and A Reflection of Fear, the killer of that film too – played by Mimsy Farmer – is revealed to be a survivor of child abuse, this time by a stepfather who raised her as a boy and physically beat her. Despite adopting a woman’s identity as an adult and marrying the film’s protagonist Roberto (Michael Brandon), her trauma is left unaddressed as she spirals out of control into a killing frenzy.

Transvestism was not uncommon in gialli, Lamberto Bava’s A Blade in the Dark (1983) being another legendary exploration of gender performativity, identity and violence. But even more intriguingly was when gialli turned their attention towards that most socially-acceptable man-in-a-dress, the Roman Catholic priest. Killer priests were not uncommon in gialli, with films like Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (Umberto Lenzi, 1972), Don't Torture a Duckling (Lucio Fulci, 1972), and The Bloodstained Shadow (Antonio Bido, 1978), and with the rise of secular media such as television, a loosening of censorship and a broader decrease in the central, dominating control of the Roman Catholic church in Italy during the 1960s, it is easy to begin understanding how titillating such representations would have been to audiences at the time. This is compounded with the added pizzazz of supposed sexual deviancy, and accordingly killer transvestite priests were central in two significant gialli from the period, Aldo Lado’s Who Saw Her Die? (1972) and Pupi Avati’s 1976 magnum opus, The House with Laughing Windows.

In the former, the unravelling of the mystery of who killed cult Italian horror child star Nicoletta Elmi’s character Roberta (the “her“ of the title) relies on visual clues throughout the film that suggest a transvestite is responsible – a veil, heeled shoes, and most predominantly, the black hemline of a dress is featured predominantly. But, it is revealed at the film’s conclusion, it is more than just a usual everyday transvestite; the killer is a transvestite priest. A tacked-on final line in the film’s final seconds as its protagonists – Roberta’s parents Franco (George Lazenby) and Elizabeth (Anita Strindberg) – leave the scene of the killer’s death reveals somewhat randomly that the priest was in fact an imposter, and not a real priest at all.

While perhaps indicating a degree of hesitancy on Lado’s part to conclude the film with its child murder a priest-in-drag, less anxious about such perceived offensiveness is The House with Laughing Windows which unambiguously frames the Church and its representatives as corrupt, violent and deceptive. The film follows art conservator Stefano (Lino Capolicchio) who is sent to a small village to restore a fresco in a local church of Saint Sebastian. He is lured into a mystery surrounding the late artist of the work, a sadist called Legani who tortured and murdered people in real life with his sisters to inspire authenticity in his paintings. The film’s finale reveals that one of these sisters is the local priest – dressed as a man – who presides over the church where the fresco is located.

While all other films in this article focus on male-to-female cross-dressing, The House With the Laughing Windows is a notable exception, although the final ‘reveal’ of a biologically-defined woman character who has spent the film dressed as a man is in fact played by a biologically male actor. Played by Eugene Walter, this icon of cross-Atlantic bohemia worked across both Europe and the United States, and in his casting Avati is consciously recalling Walter’s earlier appearance as Mother Superior in Federico Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits (1965). Much more than a simple rehashing of a homophobic cliché, the casting of Walter specifically continued a conscious and subversive queering of Roman Catholic imagery – and a mockery of its historically dominant role – through costumed gender-play.

THE QUEEN OF ALL QUEENS

And then there’s Pîtâ. We should build cathedrals for Pîtâ; golden-roofed temples for Pîtâ; sacred gardens full of mystical beasts for Pîtâ. Glittering like a true queer superstar in legendary films such as Toshio Matsumoto's Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) and Akira Kurosawa Ran (1985), Pîtâ is one of the most enduring gay celebrities in Japan and would often play transvestites, drag queens and other gender-fluid characters. The notorious Japanese Ginî piggu or Guinea Pig films might be most commonly remembered for inspiring noted idiot Charlie Sheen to report the first in the series to the FBI as a snuff film, but amongst its sequels is Hajime Tabe’s hidden treasure, the sublimely ridiculous Guinea Pig: Devil Woman Doctor (1986), starring Pîtâ as the gleeful killer of the title.

Like the rest of the series, there’s little plot to speak of as such. Pîtâ’s “devil woman doctor“ travels through a series of gore vignettes in the role of what is described as an “underground surgeon“, a freelancer with a taste for big earrings and bigger shoulder pads, and a defining disinterest in medical ethics. Killer transvestites rarely get as joyful as this, as Pîtâ perkily slaughters his way through a procession of exploding families and cannibal dinner parties, pausing only to drop kittens in rubbish bins and wink knowingly. It’s hard – and perhaps unnecessary – to pick an ultimate representative of the killer transvestite at work in trash film, but few can outshine Pîtâ in Devil Woman Doctor for the sheer audacity, comfort and glee of his performance, one that relies heavily on his wider reputation as one of the most famous queer figures in Japanese pop cultural history.

The evocation of the killer transvestite figure is an exploitation film staple in many senses; a reliable-go to for outrageousness, excess, and a sure-fire way to offend somebody, somewhere at any given moment for a whole rainbow of reasons. What permeates these characters, however, is – for better or for worse – the simple fact that in so many cases, their outsider status is complicated, exposed, explored and often critiqued as much as it is exploited for transgressive thrills. There’s an audacity to these characters that alone renders them shocking; their turn to violence the ultimate expression in the extreme, wild fantasy space of genre cinema of just how determined they are to be who they need to be, who they want to be, and who we as a broader culture so often forbid them to be. These representations might be confrontational, controversial and challenging, but these characters make themselves heard and seen. Struggle as we do to accept difference in the real world, in movies like those explored here, we have no choice but to acknowledge their presence and – at their best – celebrate it with them; blood-soaked, fearless, and proud.


Thanks to Joe Ziemba at AGFA, Wim Jansen at Movie Ink, Amsterdam


Alexandra Heller-Nicholas has published five books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with a particular focus on gender politics. Her books include Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), Found Footage Horror Film: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2014), a 2016 monograph on Dario Argento’s Suspiria (part of Auteur’s Devil’s Advocates series), a 2017 book on Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 as part of Wallflower/Columbia University Press’s Cultographies series, and in 2018, a book on Robert Harmon's 1986 film The Hitcher, published by Arrow Books. She is currently working on books including 1000 Women in Horror, a book on art and intertextuality in giallo cinema, and co-editing a collection about the film work of Elaine May for Edinburgh University Press's ReFocus series.