Wednesday, August 30, 2000

Dressing for sexcess

Posted By on Wed, Aug 30, 2000 at 12:00 AM

You like to wear panties and a bra under your Brooks Brother's suit? Are you planning to do a Carmen Miranda number at your sister's wedding reception? So what! Like so many other things in the world, drag has been rendered a banality that even Disney can love — and sell.

Media proliferation and the trickle-down effect of the ’60s have finally turned the trick on mainstream America, at least on the surface. Why, it seems light years ago that John Waters put Divine, a 300-pound firebrand of latex and libido, on the screen in Pink Flamingos (1972) to talk trash, suck cock and snack on a dog turd.

Hard-bitten libertarians and libertines alike will delight in this encyclopedic work from respected scholar of all things stagy and gay, Laurence Senelick. This is a book that doesn't make a demand for tolerance, just common sense. It opens with a crucial overview of the weird and wonderful relationships between drag, sexuality and spirituality in the formative societies of the world. The sacred eventually is the loser when homosexuality comes to be seen as a profane threat to authority, particularly in Northern Europe, where collective fear rises and pleasure decreases.

Senelick keeps rolling through the ages, his prose always droll and incisive. Along the way, his thesis becomes very clear: Why does mankind work so hard against its bisexual nature, to create so much grief for itself?

Last we heard of him, Senelick was caught up in that dreadful "publish or perish" nightmare of the academy that spewed out hundreds of narcotic doorstops about gender-this and transgression-that. Check out his 1992 work, Gender in Performance, before your nap. Political correctness was all the rage, as was neoconservative invective against it.

Eight years later, cooler heads and better writing prevail. Gone are the jargon and the cant. There are only two, count them, two references to Michel Foucault, one-time doyen of gender theory who lived what he preached in the bathhouses of San Francisco. And Senelick’s discussion of Dame Edna (Australian actor Barry Humphries’ alter ego) is bang-on and bias-free — (s)he detests both men and women of the suburbs.

As drag and homosexuality moved into the mainstream of late-20th century America, gays were left wondering what performance edge was left for them. How could they at once "represent" to themselves as well as raise the hackles of the straights? Senelick suggests that drag kings and queens are becoming shamans once again in the popular imagination, as evidenced in such films as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Huh? It’s a feeble end to an otherwise superb piece of research.

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