In an email from a gay male friend whom I met in acting classes a half-century ago, he listed some outstanding drag performers. We had been talking about how unresolved, how mystified, we were in those long ago days by all that sex stuff. Of course, acting classes meant we were struggling with the mysteries of basic identity, much of it created by contradictions between the dictated culture and our own individual identities. Some of it was gender and desire, but there were other dynamics as well. Anyway, my friend listed drag performers he admires. I’ll let you go explore the vids yourself instead of making links. There’s quite a bit. Most of it is elegant, not offensive.
“Speaking of drag performers: look up on Youtube.com the work of Jimmy James (does a killer Marilyn), Jim Bailey (does astounding riffs on Streisand, Garland, Peggy Lee, Diller...a genius.) Charles Pierce (Bette Davis. He gets applause by WALKING like her!) and a total original: Lypsinka. Undescribable..or is it Indescribable?...Anyway...”
I’ve been working on a blog post about the lure of the ambiguous. We can’t quite resolve our feelings about Jimmy James, but neither can we quite resolve them about Marilyn Monroe. And that’s what holds us: the need to figure it out. It’s biological, that “freeze and stare” impulse while we decide whether to pounce or flee -- so deep in our impulses that it quite transcends any one drive (food or fight) and is the field on which arts of all kinds are created. The picture that can’t quite be resolved -- like Escher’s puzzle stairways -- yet we keep trying to resolve the labyrinth. This way? Or that way?
A basic human thought process is dividing everything into halves, which is, of course, inescapable if we make any one firm distinction, whether it’s between male and female or edible and inedible. One of my besetting short-comings is in terms of relationships: I want clarity. Most people much prefer possibility. I try to get to resolution. For many people that’s the way to boredom. The end. Move on. So my “clarity” gets re-fuddled, sometimes in good ways (generating new options) and sometimes in a bad way (picking a quarrel, transgressing).
One strategy, which I like, is “intellectualizing”, making a chess game of reality so that a single move from square to square is resolved, but without ending a game that is complex enough to last a long time. Every move adds more strategy. Some people can’t tolerate so much ambiguity, so much of a thought-drain, or don’t see enough of a reward in winning to make the effort worthwhile. Others make it a power game and overturn the game table. (Eric Berne called that “Uproar.”) The people who realistically find ambiguity hard to tolerate are those who have a lot to lose. Suppose you were in Syria right now: the stakes in the game are very high and so is the ambiguity of what to do, what the outcome will be. Cross-dressing is totally irrelevant, unless it’s a disguise for escaping. But there are other people who for personality reasons can’t tolerate any coloring outside the lines, even in details.
When the culture is stagnant, drag fascinates a lot of people. Even J. Edgar Hoover introduced a little risk into his life with his black ruffled taffeta party dress, because the Fifties were a lock-down. In those days I could create a household furor by wearing a color that was not “for redheads,” like pink. Even now, though clothing is wildly creative and gender-inclusive, Michelle Obama can make a stir by wearing bright prints with no sleeves. Obeying unwritten rules is a characteristic of the ruling classes.
Here’s a totally different context. The front page of the GF Tribune this morning is about four members of the Blackfeet Tribal Council being taken to court for breaking the self-imposed Tribal hunting laws. This is inversely related to the demand across Canada and the US for the reservations to be considered sovereign nations because white men who violently attack Indian women on the rez cannot be touched by tribal law and therefore go free. White men are terrified of being governed by rez law -- it’s the reverse of red people being governed by state law.
Originally, when whites and Indians were culturally very different from each other, it made sense to separate tribal law from state law. (Not from federal law.) Now the ambiguity of cross-categories has created an unforgivable, intolerable situation for tribal women. It should be worked out in court because this is a civilized country. Isn’t it? But the court procedures will be in the hands of men, mostly white and “educated” (which means trained to use a certain kind of thinking and white-written rules). It is the tribal women who suffer the consequences. Without formal legal prosecution, the only recourse and response by rez people is violent vigilantism -- tracking down those attackers and punishing them “by hand.” So -- in a funny reverse way -- these tribal leaders being tried in a federal court are setting a good example.
There are thinner but parallel situations to be resolved. For many generations (maybe for all time) the powerful have felt they had the right to be corrupt, to transgress, to consider themselves an exception to all the rules. Nowadays, maybe because so much is ambiguous and fluid in our world, this is challenged. Tea Party members insist on their way, which is the way of the absolute, because the old laws are to their advantage. Ultra liberals claim so much validity for high tolerance that the innocent are damaged. We act out much of this in terms of taboos. In some situations using an arbitrarily forbidden word will get you fired. Other times and places (therapy?) nothing is forbidden, presumably because of the need to get to the truth. Always, the effort to figure out what the “rules” are and cling to them, is a way to avoid having to “freeze and stare” so much that a person can’t get anything else done. Just decide and then stick to it.
When I was with Bob Scriver, who was 26 years older than me, we got the “stare” quite a bit. Next after that comes the judgment: sometimes gleeful, sometimes judgmental, often a distraction, sometimes justifying behavior that wasn’t pleasant. A person can get so accustomed to that attention as to be uncomfortable without it. It becomes a performance. Ask Indians how often they must perform Indianness. Surely I don’t have to mention politicians. But too much performance can mask the original reality. One can be trapped in performance and then who are you? It happened to Marilyn Monroe, the “real” one. Bad results.