TV & Radio
Channel News Asia
Entertainment News »
Time is GMT + 8 hours
Posted: 09 June 2006 1459 hrs
Woman, man and vice versa
By Felix Chong, TODAY
When even a Hollywood teen flick gets into it, you know it's finally gone mainstream. Big time.
In fact, it's turning up so regularly these days that you might be tempted to call it a renaissance.
We're talking about cross-dressing.
Whether it's boys in drag or girls passing off as boys, dressing up as the opposite sex has suddenly found new faithfuls in pop culture and the arts.
A case in point: She's the Man.
Adapted from Shakespeare's classic Twelfth Night, the film centres on a high school tomboy (Amanda Bynes) who's so determined to play soccer that she masquerades as her non-identical twin brother.
There's also the Hong Kong-Singapore co-production, We Are Family, which has Cantopop veteran Alan Tam playing multiple roles, including a grandmother.
Both feel-good comedies come hot on the heels of other gender-benders this year.
There was Martin Lawrence as an FBI agent going undercover and oversized as a nanny in Big Momma's House 2.
There was The Producers, Mel Brooks' politically-incorrect musical that had a transvestite stage director among its eclectic cast.
On the local theatre scene, we've seen not one, but several productions hamming it up.
For instance, in February, Action Theatre staged Confessions of 300 Unmarried Men, a mixed bag of short plays that had actors like Benjamin Ng made up to look like geishas and Vietnamese brides.
Two months later, Wild Rice staged The Magic Fundoshi, a saucy farce directed by Glen Goei and featuring actors such as Hossan Leong decked out in kimono.
Come July, you can expect to see Taiwanese pop idol Fei Xiang piling on the lipstick and eye shadow as the androgynous master of ceremonies in the Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble musical, Cabaret.
And let's not forget the evergreen motor-mouth Kumar, who still shoots from the hip with his risque jokes — while done up in a feather boa and full finery — during his stand-up routine at the Gold Dust club.
A new trend? No, not really.
From Jack Neo's TV personae as Liang Po Po and Liang Simei in the 1990s to films such as The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) and He's a Woman, She's a Man (1994), cross-dressing has always been played strictly for laughs.
It's all got to do with the nudge-nudge wink-wink incongruity of not believing what we're seeing.
And the madcap shenanigans that result from this identity crisis.
It's also about subverting gender stereotypes, a theme which more high-minded films like Tootsie (1982), starring Dustin Hoffman as a down-and-out actor who impersonates a woman in order to land a role, try to explore.
Similarly, Chinese-American playwright David Hwang's M Butterfly (1988), based on a real incident involving a male Chinese spy in drag who seduced a French diplomat, blows the cover on the borderline between appearance and reality.
But there's also a darker, psychological issue which cross-dressing scripts tend to gloss over: Gender identity disorder.
It's a condition in which a person feels he or she was born with the wrong sex and is trapped in the wrong body.
A recent case in south-western Japan highlights this issue.
A seven-year-old boy, diagnosed with gender identity disorder, was allowed to enroll as a girl at an elementary school.
He dresses like a girl, uses the girls' bathroom and, for all intents and purposes, is treated like one.
But such social acceptance is rare for transsexuals, who are often ostracised because they don't conform to norms and expectations.
And typically, one in 30,000 adult males and one in 100,000 adult females eventually seek sex-reassignment surgery.
Recent films and plays try to acknowledge, however tacitly, the cross-dresser's pain.
A poignant example is Beautiful Boxer (2003), director Ekachai Uekrongtham's biopic about Thai transsexual kickboxing champion Nong Toom, who punches his way out of poverty and prejudice.
And of course, the most celebrated of the crop is Transamerica.
Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman pulls off a Golden Globe-winning performance as a man desperate for a sex-change.
But before he can fully cope with being a woman, he has to deal with his past as a man and as a father.
So while clothes maketh the man, they can also betray the woman inside the man. - TODAY/sh