Men impersonating women seem to parody rather than praise females
Published 16/02/2014 | 02:30
That superstar drag act Dame Edna Everage is currently working her farewell tour, and if you can get to Manchester or Leeds by March you could behold the queen of female impersonators for the last time.
The best of luck to Barry Humphries, Dame Edna's alter ego, for devising an entertainment which has proved so lasting and, for many, so hilarious. I knew Barry slightly back in the Soho days of 'Private Eye' when my husband was its business correspondent and Barry wrote a droll cartoon called 'Barry McKenzie', all about an Australian yobbo's adventures among the "Pommy bastards".
But although I like Barry Humphries (recovered alcoholic, father of four and serial husband – Lizzie Spender is his fourth wife), I have no fondness for the Dame Edna Everage act. That's simply because I don't find the female impersonator genre either compelling or funny. I don't dislike female impersonators as people. I just don't respond to female impersonators as an entertainment.
I dislike the way that the female impersonator mimics and parodies the gestures, expressions and body language of women. The Edna Everage character is making fun – for the fans, harmless fun – of a mature, suburban Australian matron. What's wrong with that?
Nothing, if it tickles your fancy. But people who are the objects of impersonation or parody – and I suppose I am near enough to an absurd old Aussie biddy to identify – don't always warm to the mimicry directed at them.
Middle-class Dubliners used to shriek with laughter at the late Maureen Potter's exaggerated Dubbalin accent because the folks from Ballsbridge and Foxrock thought this accent so amusingly 'common'.
But I knew working class Dubliners who spoke in the style of Maureen's satirical character and they felt patronised and even mocked.
Maybe we are all getting a little over- sensitive these days about taking offence.
Cross-dressing, especially in showbusiness, is as old as the hills: the tradition of travesty goes back from, at least, the Italian Commedia dell'Arte of the 15th century and probably earlier.
Pantomime was the residual continuity of that tradition – the Dame was a man and the Principal Boy was a woman (with a fabulous figure and great legs).
Suspending belief was part of the show and part of the innuendo-based drolleries too. I loved panto as a child and took in all the cross-dressing in the merry spirit it was intended. But it was contextualised as just one part of a larger variety show. And here's a remarkable point: when women impersonate men, they tend to produce a performance which is more of a flattering homage to masculinity, whereas men impersonating women seem to be parodying females rather than praising them. Female impersonators often specialise in the crude, lowest-common-denominator patter too.
With female-to-male impersonation there's usually a lightness of touch and a subtle underlining of masculine allure. Marlene Dietrich, pictured left, did a stunning male impersonation scene in the movie 'Morocco'. Judy Garland had a great top-hat-and-tails song-and-dance act. And Julie Andrews was amazing as an interchangeable cross-dresser in 'Victor Victoria'.
Andrews based her performance on a legendary music hall artist she had worked with as a child star in the 1940s called Ella Shields, who had come to fame as a male impersonator during the First World War. Shields would bring the house down with her celebrated ditty 'I'm Burlington Bertie from Bow', with the saunter of a penniless Londoner pretending to grandeur. It was a performance as light as a souffle and a gentle play on masculine insouciance.
It was an Irishman – Daniel Patrick Carroll, who dubbed himself Danny La Rue – who brought the female impersonation act first to the TV screen. And an Irishman, Brendan O'Carroll, who has scored such a sensational TV hit as the cross-dressed Mammy in 'Mrs Brown's Boys'.
And it's an Irishman, Panti Bliss/aka Rory O'Neill, who has become a global internet star with his recent soliloquy from the stage of the Abbey Theatre.
Everyone from Stephen Fry to Madonna has tweeted their admiration for Panti/Rory and his impassioned plea against homophobia. What he said was sincere and eloquent, and who could disagree with his critique of the odious manners of yobs who shout "Fag!" at a stranger waiting at a bus stop?
But however much I respect Panti/Rory's entitlement to speak for himself, his values and for those he feels are oppressed, I still can't warm to the drag queen act.
I dislike the over-the-top artifice of it all – the false hair, exaggerated make-up, fake body parts. And the incongruity of a tall bloke with a deep voice mimicking a woman's body language just makes me feel uncomfortable. I even find it a little creepy, in the same way I find ventriloquists' dolls creepy.
Panti/Rory made a plea for tolerance, and the essence of tolerance is accepting that people are different and different individuals like different things.
Some people – including some women – think female impersonators are a scream and the bluer the better. But I suspect that plenty of women, privately, don't care for the act as a genre, and they feel mocked.
Indeed, the fact that men impersonating women do so in such a very contrasting way from women impersonating men is one of those striking pieces of evidence demonstrating that the sexes really are different.