Men-IN-SKIRT Comedies Dress Down Women (04/02)
c.2002 Fort Worth Star-Telegram
The movie ``Sorority Boys'' is not intentionally an anti-woman film. It's not
anti-anything, really - it's the sort of comedy that revels in its own
stupidity, not trying to contribute anything to the cultural dialogue beyond a
But the movie's premise - men masquerading as
women - comes from a long Hollywood tradition. And the gender-bending humor
reveals a double standard that undermines decades of effort toward gender
The film's plot is simple: When three frat boys
(Barry Watson, Harland Williams and Michael Rosenbaum) are framed for stealing
money and get kicked out of their beer-drinking brotherhood, they disguise
themselves as women in order to gain access to the house and retrieve a video
that proves their innocence. In the process (thanks to a flimsy plot twist), the
three are taken in by the sorority across the street - and they end up pledging.
If this sounds familiar, it's because ``Boys'' is
only the latest in a long line of men-in-skirts comedies. The classic ``Some
Like It Hot'' disguises Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as women so they can join an
all-girl band and escape the mob. In 1982's ``Tootsie,'' Dustin Hoffman plays an
actor so desperate for work, he auditions for a female role in a soap opera -
and becomes a star(let). And in the early '80s TV show ``Bosom Buddies,'' Tom
Hanks and Peter Scolari masquerade as Buffy and Hildegarde because a women's
hotel is the only place they can afford to live.
There are more: ``Mrs. Doubtfire.'' ``I Was a
Male War Bride.'' Mel Gibson's ``exfoliating'' scene in ``What Women Want.''
These are comedies. But while a man in support
hose triggers automatic laughter, a woman dressed as a man isn't quite so funny.
Did anybody laugh when Disney's Mulan took her
father's place in the Imperial Army? What about in ``Shakespeare in Love,'' when
Gwyneth Paltrow disguised herself as a man so she could avoid a dreaded marriage
and win the role of Romeo?
And there's the problem: When women masquerade as
men, we applaud their pluck and courage. When men masquerade as women, we laugh
at their disgrace.
Why? A slew of feminists and scholars (and yes,
feminist scholars) say it's because we're biased. Whether we like it or not,
we've got some cultural stereotypes at work. Here are a few:
1. We find the extreme-female funny.
In ``Sorority Boys,'' most of the laughs (and
we're using this term loosely) come from the humiliations of being
not-quite-female: The guys are seen prancing around in heels, using falsetto
voices, applying makeup and stuffing their bras with socks, household items and
breakfast pastries. And before long, these macho frat boys are obsessed with
their appearance; they worry about their weight and the right shade of lipstick;
they sit around wondering why men don't like them. In other words, they start
acting like ``girls,'' and that's funny.
But ``why'' is it funny? We're laughing at a
behavior, says Joan McGettigan, an assistant professor of radio/TV/film at Texas
Christian University. McGettigan teaches a course about women in TV and film.
We expect men to be confident and unconcerned
about their appearance, she says - and we expect women to be obsessed about it.
``When men start to do the things that we
(expect) ``women'' should (do) - look in the mirror, worry about their wrinkles
- you take the act out of its context,'' McGettigan says. ``You suddenly see how
ridiculous the activity is.''
Of course, how many women actually behave like
the goofballs in ``Sorority Boys''? Not many. But taking female behavior to its
shrill, oops-I-chipped-a-nail limit is the way a men-in-drag movie can wring
laughs out of its audience.
``It's not just dressing up as women, but often
it's ``hyper-women,'''' says AnaLouise Keating, associate professor of women's
studies at Texas Woman's University. ``It's not only taking them out of the
context, but it's multiplying so that it becomes such an extreme.''
So these films reinforce a stereotype, then
embellish it with comic excess. But the funnier it is, McGettigan says, the more
it hurts women's efforts to be taken seriously.
``Men acting goofy as women reaffirms our notion
that women are generally superficial and giggly and concerned with their
appearance,'' she says.
2. We tend to think it's OK for a woman to be
like a man - but it's not OK for a man to be like a woman.
``In general, there's sort of a grudging
admiration for the tomboy,'' says Jerry Rodnitzky, University of Texas at
Arlington history professor and author of ``Feminist Phoenix: The Rise and Fall
of the Feminist Counterculture.'' ``On the other hand, there isn't any
admiration on the other side for men'' who behave in a feminine way.
The issue, at this point, gets tangled up with
homosexuality, a social label many straight men try to avoid to a phobic degree.
``When straight men dress as women in mainstream
Hollywood film, it's always in an effort to reinstate a very traditional idea
about masculinity and/or family,'' says Jay Baglia of the University of South
Florida, who teaches courses about gender and communication. ``...''Some Like It
Hot, Tootsie'' (and) ``Mrs. Doubtfire'' all are concerned with getting the girl,
getting the job, or getting back the family. As a result, the marginality of
drag is equalized by the righteous pursuit of ... masculinity.''
The humor, then, keeps the idea of gender-bending
OK with the mainstream male audience.
``For men, we find it comedic because it's really
threatening to their masculinity to dress as women,'' says Julie Andsager, an
associate professor of communication at Washington State University who has
written extensively about gender and the media. ``I think for movies to be
commercially successful - among men, particularly - it has to be something they
can laugh about, because it does seem threatening.''
3. We still, sadly, think of men as the superior
Think about it. Movies that feature women
masquerading as men tend to be dramas: the Barbra Streisand film ``Yentl,'' for
example, or 1993's ``The Ballad of Little Jo,'' the story of a young woman who
builds a life in the Wild West as a man.
``It's not funny when we see a woman dressed as a
man, but it is funny when we see a man dressed as a woman because we still think
of men as being the superior gender,'' Andsager says.
``We can sit here and watch David Spade and Adam
Sandler do the Gap Girls (a recurring sketch on ``Saturday Night Live'' in the
mid-'90s), and it's funny because they're `lowering themselves,' '' she says.
``When women dress as men, they're not lowering themselves. They tend to be
protecting themselves or trying to increase their opportunities.''
To see women masquerading as men is more
threatening than silly, says Phyllis Chesler, a psychologist, second wave
feminist pioneer and author of several books, including the new ``Woman's
Inhumanity to Woman.''
``It means that women, just by dressing like men,
can assume all the power and prerogatives of men,'' she says.
4. With a target audience of high-school and
college-age men, it isn't easy to redefine what's funny.
``A lot of the stuff that's coming down, they're
looking at the demographics that are going to movies,'' says Robert Butterworth,
a Los Angeles-based psychologist. ``Teen-agers and college kids are going to
movies. And they're not going to see ``Gosford Park'' or even ``Amelie.''''
To make money, Hollywood films need to confirm
what that target audience already believes. The only way to ensure viewers have
a good time is to not rock the boat.
But feminists and others who care about the way
women are depicted in film should pay attention to men in drag, and think about
what sort of message movies like ``Sorority Boys'' send about femininity.
``It's not like real life,'' Butterworth says.
``But the more they do it on the screen ... the more one gets the impression
that that's the way real life is.''