Who could have guessed that our politicians would become so interested in bathrooms? First in North Carolina and now in Texas, politicians are vying to force transgender men and women to use the restrooms matching the gender status on their birth certificates. Why this hubbub? The politicos are convinced that some men might choose to put on dresses in order to assault women in the privacy of bathroom stalls.
Frankly, I can’t see would-be rapists getting quite so creative. But the whole issue has reminded me that in more innocent times a man dressed up as a woman was a matter of high (or maybe low) comedy. Drag is, in fact, an ancient theatrical tradition, dating back to the days when all actors were male. (That’s the way it was in Shakespeare’s time, Gwyneth Paltrow’s role in Shakespeare in Love notwithstanding.) After women were allowed onto the stage in eighteenth century England, there remained a British fondness for the “dame show,” featuring a large middle-aged male comically dressed as a buxom maternal type. The “dame” still shows up, particularly in the holiday season, in English-style pantomime. And then of course there’s naughty Dame Edna, as flamboyantly portrayed by an Australian actor, Barry Humphries.
Americans have often found this kind of cross-dressing funny too, especially when the dress is worn by a suave leading-man type like Cary Grant. (See Cary decked out in Katharine Hepburn’s marabou-trimmed négligée in one of his most hilarious films, Bringing Up Baby). And in this context how can we forget Billy Wilder’s comic masterpiece, Some Like It Hot? That, of course, is the story of two very male musicians (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) who try to flee from some dangerous Chicago mobsters by disguising themselves as members of an all-girl orchestra heading for a Florida gig. To keep up the charade, they find themselves in temptingly close quarters with a bevy of musical cuties, including band singer Marilyn Monroe. The extended joke becomes increasingly hilarious as Lemmon’s character, “Daphne,” finds himself wooed by a highly persistent millionaire, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown). “Daphne” tries in vain to fend off Fielding’s advances, which include a proposal of marriage. As every cinephile is well aware, Fielding won’t take No for an answer. When Lemmon’s character, having tried every other ploy, removes his wig and announces he’s a man, Fielding simply shrugs and offers the immortal line, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”
Some Like It Hot was obviously in someone’s mind when TV execs launched Bosom Buddies in 1980. This sitcom, which lasted until 1982, featured newcomers Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari as two young ad men who – having lost their New York apartment – disguise themselves as women in order to move into the low-rent Susan B. Anthony Hotel. Hanks’ innocent charm led directly to his leading role in Splash, and the rest is movie history.
But in 1980 future Texas legislators were more likely watching a dark little Brian De Palma film, Dressed to Kill, in which cross-dressing is an evil (and eventually deadly) secret. Cross-dressing and transgender issues (which of course are not exactly the same thing) show up far more sympathetically in 1992’s The Crying Game, which made a shocking secret out of one character’s biological identity. And Hilary Swank won an Oscar for the true-life story of Brandon Teena in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry. In that film, Swank’s character struggles with the fact that she considers herself male, despite biological evidence to the contrary. She ultimately pays a high price. But I don’t recall her being punished for daring to use a men’s bathroom.