The title says it all, really, Men in Frocks. A frock, as any woman will tell you, is quite different from a dress. Drags of any kind wear frocks, the women of the western world, for the most part, wear dresses if they wear dresses at all.
The authors of this book are aware of this distinction. When talking of two male-to-female transexuals they freely admit that Roz and Tish ‘do not sit comfortably in a book with (this) title’. But they are included in a brief chapter on TV/TS, where I read something which was the exact opposite to my own feelings.
…’TSs also are often accused of perpetuating fantasy female stereotypes and some people see them as Fifth Columnists who seek to undermine the struggle of women to right the imbalance of power between sexes.’ …
I had to check it – did the authors write TSs or TVs at the beginning of that sentence? For they were actually saying something I had always felt about transvestites (AND most drag artists). There were the men who projecting the image of women as sexual objects, who wanted to pass for women, be whistled at. Who negated in a way that your ordinary straightforward hetman did not, the whole challenge that women have been flinging in society’s face for years. In a way that challenge which I offer to a society which would put me in a particular niche (comfortable for it), and which I offer with my mind and lifestyle, a transexual is offering with his or her body also.
But the debate about TV/TS forms only part of this book. Much of it, indeed most of it, is a history of the drag scene, whether on stage or off, complete with photos of this one and that one doing his drag thing. As such it occasionally bored me a little bit. but as it moved away from the post-war years and the big drag shows, through individuals and into more modern times my interest picked up. The chapter on ‘The Red Drag Queen’ is a case in point. Back in 1970, when their story began as it were, I knew nothing of any gay scene, was still married and only vaguely aware of my own sexual make-up, slightly more aware of me as a woman. So the history of that period – albeit from a ‘drag ‘ angle – caught my attention more than any other with the notion that many men – gay men, for the most part, if not the whole part – used drag as a political statement. With their dress, used on particular occasions, not simply as a fun activity, they were ‘showing solidarity with women by ridiculing the idea of beauty objects. It e3xpanded to a political statement on their own behalf, within GLF in London when they as well as the women members felt intimidated by the men who did most of the talking – gay men, who, ‘although prepared to pay lip-service to anti-sexism, were as dominating and aggressive as the archetypal heterosexual men’. They became the Radical Feminists – Rad Fems for short – of GLF, would you believe. Some had come to realise that ‘women were right about drag. They never put down drag per se, but they put down the men who got into low cut dresses (Frocks, surely?) false books, the fantasy Hollywood stereotype’. But we began to realise that there were ways of using drag … it’s a way of giving up the male power role … Oh yes, Kirk and Heath are correct in assuming as they do in this chapter, that such activity would today be criticized for ridiculing women, You want to reject male power, give up that role? So what’s the best way of doing that? Live it in your life? Preach it? Oh no, as the outward sign of self-denial, you, as a man, take on the trappings of the one group of people who are universally at the receiving end of male power. Instead of standing up and hitting out in your own right you tacitly acknowledge, by using a female image, the position of women, using the image of the so-called ‘weaker sex’ to say ‘up yours’ to the ones who parade the power. If that is not perpetuating the rolebase of our lives, I don’t know what is. Still, Kirk and Heath do say that ‘the Rad Fems’, like many others from GLF have come out of the experience older and wiser.
It has begun to change, hasn’t it? I have no doubt that drag in all its old-fashioned (in more ways than one) sense continues. Danny La Rue is still inexplicably, popular and that mostly with women. but, as the book points ut Boy George is doing in the eighties what David Bowie did in the seventies – clothing himself how he pleases, and that becomes his dress. Not male, not female, ut indivual. It is also what women have been doing for quite a time, women of feminist persuasion. We don’t, as some of the press hacks would have it (and haven’t they had a field day with the garb of the women at Greenham) insist on ‘wearing the trousers’, for it is only to them that trousers whether of cord, denim, or worsted, are a sexual symbol of power.
The book is OK. You’ll enjoy reading it. but keep your political eyes open while you do so.
Reviewer -Stella Mahone
Original review held in Gay Start No 16 lodged in the Linenhall Library
- Publisher : GMP Publishers Ltd; First Edition (31 Oct. 1984)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 160 pages
- Amazon – Men in Frocks
- The Glass Boat
- Gays in the 80s – Men in Frocks
- Yvonne Sinclair – the story of TV/TS Group – Men in Frocks