Boys, girls and frocks

2011-07-01 12:44

The seventh airing of Tyler Perry’s huge, sagging bosom and Salvation Army floral frocks as motor-mouth busybody Madea is a good time to ponder the history of men in heels and why it should be so funny.

Cross-dressing in the name of entertainment goes back to the days of the Bard and beyond. Back in Elizabethan times when William Shakespeare penned Macbeth et al, there were no women on stage – so the female characters were played by young men in drag.

The reason? Women weren’t allowed to be actors. It was considered a very dodgy profession.

As far as cross-dressing in films goes, there are endless comedic examples of men putting on heels to get a laugh: Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis getting all gussied up to save their necks in Some Like It Hot (1959);

Dustin Hoffman putting on a wig and heels to get an acting job in the multi-Oscar-nominated Tootsie (1982); Eric Idle and Robbie Coltrane getting into a pair of habits in Nuns on the Run (1990);

and don’t forget Robin Williams as housekeeper Mrs Doubtfire (1994), the film that won an Oscar for best make-up.

More recently, there’s Martin Lawrence’s diabolical Big Momma’s House trilogy, which had its first airing in 2000, in which he dons a fat suit and a dress to go undercover, as well as the Wayans brothers comedy White Chicks (2004), another film about undercover cops in frocks.

Closer to home, there’s Leon Schuster as Mama Jack (2005) and then, of course, there’s Madea.

She’s a notable character for another reason, too. While Lemmon, Curtis, Hoffman, Williams, Lawrence and the Wayans brothers had reasons to be in dresses – to dodge the baddies, to work, for love and to catch the bad guys – Perry dresses as one as a gimmick or perhaps he’d prefer the word trademark.

He first introduced the larger-than-life matriarch in 1999 in his play I Can Do Bad All By Myself and has been roundly criticised for her since, though conversely his fans love her.

One critic said the US “has laughed at one of the most important members of the black community: Mother Dear, the beloved matriarch. Our mothers and grandmothers deserve much more than that”.

While it’s more usual for men to wear dresses on film, there have been few notable women who have suited up as men.

One of the most famous examples is Barbra Streisand in Yentl (1983), in which she played a young Jewish woman who dresses as a boy, so that she can enrol for religious studies.

Hilary Swank won the first of her best actress Oscars for her part in Boys Don’t Cry (1999), in which she played dressed as a young man with tragic consequences.

On a lighter note, Julie Andrews was a woman pretending to be a man in drag in Victor/Victoria (1982) and Toni Collette and Nia Vardalos also pretended to be drag queens in Connie and Carla (2004).

Whether you find men in dresses, pumps and hair spray funny or not, it’s a comedic trend that has been around for as long as entertainment has.

Given the success of films like Mama Jack, Big Momma’s House and all of Tyler Perry’s films (whether he dons a frock or not) it is likely to always be a filmic fallback sure to get laughs.

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