Film

A Century’s Worth of Movies About Cross-Dressing and Drag

The series Cross-Dressing and Drag on Screen at the Anthology Film Archives highlights drag’s ubiquity across time, place, and social milieu.

Yentl (1983), directed by Barbra Streisand (image courtesy Park Circus)

Barbra Streisand eats a traditional Jewish meal in drag. With hair short and tie tight to her throat, she observes the other women buzz around the dinner table, doting on men, and her. When the family’s mother walks across the room to offer Streisand a full spoon of carrots, male Barbra refuses, unwilling to accept the auxiliary privileges her disguise affords her. She sings her inner monologue in a feminine voice no one else in the room can hear, while a stereotypically beautiful young woman tries to serve a stereotypically handsome young man and drops a beet on his napkin. “She’s pretty / What else should she be?” sings Streisand with an eye roll. The man looks up with loving eyes, as Streisand thinks, “No wonder he loves her / If I were a man, I would too.” Streisand’s character ricochets between roles, specifically between gender in one’s mind and one’s body.

Yentl (1983), directed by Barbra Streisand (image courtesy Park Circus)

Yentl (1983), set in late-19th-century Poland and directed by Streisand, is the most mainstream offering from a catalogue of largely unavailable gems on view through the weekend at Anthology Film Archives. Cross-Dressing and Drag on Screen provides a kaleidoscopic portrait of gender swaps, bends, and reversals, highlighting drag’s ubiquity across time, place, and social milieu.

The day before Yentl, I saw I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918), directed by Ernst Lubitsch. In the German silent film, Ossi Oswalda’s character, tired of men determining her behavior, breaks down in her bedroom. Wearing a lace bonnet, she cries out, “Why wasn’t I born a boy?” She buys a tux and fools men into treating her as a peer. On consecutive nights, I’d seen a woman use drag as a tool to counteract the exact same patriarchal stigmas in Poland’s Jewish enclaves as in early-20th-century Germany. May the irony here not be lost — no matter the entrenched preconceptions of racial and religious difference, every culture has its cross-dressers.

I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918), directed by Ernst Lubitsch (image courtesy Anthology Film Archives)

The series, curated by Anthology’s Jed Rapfogel and guest John “Lypsinka” Epperson, explores drag not only as subversion, but as upward mobility, as escape hatch, as a method of prompting cross-gender empathy, and as enactment of the ‘in between.’ Epperson says the series was inspired by seeing films at Club 57 in the early ’80s, where manager Ann Magnuson would host events. “Tuesday was Monster Movie Club, Wednesday might be a Jayne Mansfield movie, Thursday an art opening.” Epperson recalled arriving at the club for the first time, “10 minutes before 8[pm] to be sure I got a seat,” for Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. The screening didn’t begin until a fashionably late 9pm. “It’s a cliché, but have you heard that if you stay in New York long enough, you’ll find your niche?” As the young audience poured in around him, howling with applause each time the film lambasted gender tropes, Epperson found his niche, a cross-generational community in on the joke of gender. He’d soon debut his Lypsinka drag performance in the same room.

Venuz Boyz (2002), directed by Ernst Lubitsch (image courtesy First Run Features)

This week’s series is the second of three Epperson will guest curate, with a third later this year focusing on transgender portrayals on film. Venus Boyz, part of this week’s series, traces the connections between drag and transsexuality, with director Gabriel Baur interviewing drag kings in late 1990s New York. In one scene, Del LaGrace Volcano, born with both female and male characteristics, describes the process of gender assignment at birth. “The medically accepted clitoris is between 0 and 1cm,” while a penis must be “between 2.5 and 4.5cm.” According to Volcano, if you fall between the 1 and 2.5, one way of being born intersex, doctors often cut back the uncategorizable organ, literalizing the artificial gap between female and male. Later, Bridge Markland, a woman who identifies as butch in street clothes, performs in full femme regalia: lingerie, tights, long red wig. She tosses her fake hair, revealing her masculine bald head, then shimmies like a go-go dancer. Returning to the stage, she dons a business suit with a red power tie. “This is a man’s world,” she lip-syncs into a dildo in her breast pocket. Her slippery identity typifies the aim of Cross-Dressing and Drag on Screen: to close the gender gap with layer after layer of mercurial androgyny.

Cross-Dressing and Drag on Screen continues at the Anthology Film Archives (32 Second Avenue, East Village, Manhattan) through June 18. 

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