by Charing Ball
For some reason, Chris Rock was recently asked in an interview about Black actors dressing up in drag for comic relief, to which he said, “I mean, hey, lots of comedians dress up like women, not just Black. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book. Men in drag…There was Mrs. Doubtfire. [Adam] Sandler’s next movie is Jack and Jill. He plays his brother and sister. [The black community] doesn’t have that many movies, so if there’s only four black movies in a year and two of them star black men in dresses, I could see how that would upset some people. But that’s a job for some people. Tyler Perry is great in a dress, but I don’t want to see Denzel or Will Smith in a dress. And I don’t think we’re in any danger of seeing that.”
Well that’s a relief…I guess.
But from the corpulent Rasputia to the raspy, neck rolling “Oh my goodness”-exclaiming Sheneneh to…well, I’m not quite sure how to describe Noxzema Jackson in To Wong Foo but that too… there is no shortage of minstrelsy –like characterizations of womanhood in the black community. Likewise there has been a number of black actors/comedians, who have been more than eager to don the outrageous lacefronts, plus-size stockings and beated face. Actors like Shawn and Marlon Wayans, Eddie Murphy, and Flip Wilson have been more than happy to explore, albeit mostly for comedic purposes, their more feminine side. Of course, among the recent and probably the most notable examples of this is Tyler Perry, who has managed to build an entire theater, film and television empire off of the sharp-tongued, pistol packing, grandmother Mabel Simmons, aka Madea.
What is seen as art, acting and/or comedy by those who either play or are entertained by these roles have also left some in the Black community wondering if these roles seek to in some way subvert black men’s masculinity. Just last year director John Singleton griped in an interview about how he was “tired of all these black men in dresses … How come nobody’s protesting that?” And Comedian Dave Chappelle once told Oprah Winfrey about the time he refused to wear a dress in a movie and how he felt that Hollywood had a thing for trying to put strong black men in dresses for amusement by mainstream, or mostly white audiences. “They put every black man in the movies in a dress at some point in his career,” Chapelle said.
There might be something to the idea that having black men dress up as women, especially for comic relief, might appeal to those in society, particularly white people, who might better relate to less intimidating images of black men. However, we can’t ignore the large number of popular movies featuring white actors, who have worn dresses including Tom Hanks (Bosom Buddies), Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), Dustin Hoffman (Tootsie) and even Patrick Swayze (To Wong Foo). And, I don’t seem to recall any discussion about how these roles seek to challenge their masculinity. Likewise, the idea that if a man dressed in women’s clothing to play a role makes him less of a man teeters dangerously on the same homophobic rhetoric that a man, who dresses in women’s clothing as a lifestyle choice makes him less of a man. And we wouldn’t say that, right?
If anything, these roles are more detrimental to womanhood, particularly black womanhood, as they seem to reinforce certain images and mannerisms, including the neck rolling, attitude having, outrageously dressed stereotypes of black women. The same could be said for transsexual men, who view gender-bending as a lifestyle choice as opposed to for racking up jokes for an audience to mock and ridicule. In all, many of these roles have no deeper meaning or seek to challenge audience beliefs about various social issues. And in my opinion, that is what is least funny and entertaining about the entire “man in a dress “ gag.
Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.