Bright Lights Film Journal

Being a Kid Is a Drag – Onscreen

My Life in Pink (Ma Vie en Rose)

There are drag queens and then there are drag princesses

Why would an eight-year-old boy want to wear a dress?

“Scotsmen wear dresses, they’re called kilts. King Tut wore a skirt …  the Dali Lama wears dresses . . . great charioteers wore short skirts. The Siamese Emperor wore a robe much like the Kimono . . . Muslim men wear dresses. Hungarian cowboys wear dresses. Men in Africa wear dresses. Angels wear dresses. Even the Pope wears a dress . . .” exclaims eight-year-old Bruno (Alex D. Linz) in The Dress Code (2000).

Bruno is explaining to the Mother Superior (Kathy Bates) of his Catholic school why he wants to wear a dress to school. His best friend (Kiami Davael), a tomgirl, prefers to dress as a boy, but no one’s that concerned about her.

It’s no longer politically correct to make fun of a “sissy” in public. But American audiences are more than willing, eager and encouraged to watch movies that make fun of and laugh at “sissies.”

But if you want to make Americans very uncomfortable, and want to bring the full wrath of the gender police upon you, just try to make a serious movie about a “sissy.”

Shirley MacLaine learned this lesson the hard way. For her directorial debut, MacLaine chose to bring to the screen the story of a boy who prefers to dress as a girl. She told TV Guide in January 2001, “There was this terrible humiliation of not being able to get a distributor. I went to every studio, and they adored the movie but said, ‘We don’t know how to market it.’ … ”

Translation: We don’t know how to market it so audiences won’t feel threatened and uncomfortable.

Seriously suggesting that it might be okay for a boy or girl to cross gender lines is strictly taboo. In 2002, gender roles in our society are still fiercely enforced.

So why are we now seeing more and more movies depicting boys and girls in drag? Are the traditional gender cops such as parents, the church, the government, the military and peer pressure becoming more tolerant of sexual diversity?

Cindy Martin, the publisher and editor of Transgender Forum, believes they are.

“The most impressive thing I’ve seen in the last year has been the adoption of anti-bias laws for transgenders in cities and counties far outside the elite liberal cities on the coasts,” she says.

“As we’ve become less exotic, parents may now be a little less queasy about seeing kids their own children’s ages depicted on screen as less than traditional. They still may not like the idea that their kid is ‘different.’ But, at least they know that the ‘unusual’ kid will probably not face the kind of ferocious bias they would have faced a generation ago.”

In the past, with a few notable exceptions such as The Member of the Wedding (1953) and West Side Story (1961), drag was primarily used as a sight gag and almost always featured an adult.

Serious dramas about boys and girls who freely choose to dress in “gender-inappropriate” attire and for the most part don’t care what anyone else thinks, began about 10 years ago.

When it comes to frankly exploring sexual issues, European cinema is always a decade or so ahead of American film. So it makes sense that Agnes Varda’s French drama Jacquot (1991) would be the first film to cross adolescent gender lines. In this biopic about filmmaker Jacques Demy, the budding teenage filmmaker enlists the support of all the boys in the neighborhood for his movie. When one of the boys objects to dressing in drag as a girl, another boy gladly takes the role.

A few years later, British director and screenwriter Andrew Birkin’s Cement Garden (1993) took it a step further. This story of incest and survival revolves around four siblings who decide to survive on their own (rather than be placed in a foster home) following the deaths of their parents. The youngest boy (Ned Birkin), about 9-years-old, wears a dress through much of the film because he thinks he would rather be a girl.

Canadian writer/director Jeremy Podeswa’s The Five Senses (2000) went even further. Brendan Fletcher plays a teen voyeur who likes to spy on gay men having sex in a park. He also discovers that he likes to dress up in women’s sexy lingerie while wearing makeup and a wig.

These three films, however, were merely a tease. Director Alain Berliner’s 1998 French drama My Life in Pink (aka Ma Vie En Rose) went all the way.

In a brave and powerful performance, Georges Du Fresne plays a seven-year-old boy who becomes an outcast in his neighborhood, his school and in his own family because he wants to live and dress as a girl. When his family is forced to move to another town, the boy meets a girl who wants to live and dress like a boy. In the end, his family decides to accept him and let him be who he is.

But the cinematic home run was hit in 2000. British director Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliott made this difficult topic palatable to American audiences and even received an Oscar nomination.

Billy Elliott features Jamie Bell in the title role as an 11-year-old boy who prefers learning to dance to learning to box. While Bell pushes the gender envelope, his father and brother are homophobic miners who forcefully push back.

Bell doesn’t want to dress in drag, but instead discovers his best friend (Stuart Wells) wearing a dress and makeup. He’s accepting of his friend when he comes on to him sexually, but says that just because he likes ballet doesn’t mean he’s a poof. But it doesn’t mean he’s not, either. And the film is brave enough to leave the question unanswered.

Even though the British-made Billy Elliott was a critical and financial success, The Dress Code, produced the same year, was still a little too close to home for American studios to embrace.

So what, if anything, do these handful of films have to say about gender in America? Are these films simply a reflection of a society that now sexualizes children at a much younger age?

Cindy Martin believes that “All media is a reflection of social change. Kids are exposed to a lot of sexual imagery, but are kids really having sex at an earlier age than say 20 or 30 years ago? I don’t think they are, other than in the most distressed communities.”

Are children more aware of sexuality today and less threatened by diversity than in the past?

“There’s no question that in both grade school and high school the ‘diversity is good’ message is hammered into them. This began with sensitivity about race and ethnicity and has pretty naturally flowed into positive, or at least fair, messages to kids about homosexuality,” says Martin.

“American teachers are among the most liberal group of people in the country and there is no question that they’ve eagerly embraced the diversity message. They’re faced with it every day!”

It may still be an uphill battle to honestly depict gender diversity on film, but Martin remains positive. “Even if these films are part of a fad, and I know they are, the very fact that they are produced at all speaks volumes about how far all of us have come on issues involving gender and sex.”