This is our truth, tell us yours
When a contemporary media feminist writes a speculative, quizzical piece invokng pantomime dames, just before Christmas, it’s easy to conclude that the Morrisons Savings Card didn’t have as many stamps on as expected and Helen Lewis must be a bit short of cash for the seasonal stollen and Prosecco.
The news that one half of the Krankies has been cast as a Japanese fashion designer in the Absolutely Fabulous movie is hardly news at all. Having high expectations of the AbFab movie is, when all’s said and done, only evidence of collective amnesia around a programme that was the nadir of nineties television. Occasionally funny, usually cringeworthy, it was rarely satirical and seemed to build most of its dynamic around the collective disbelief of the entitled, privileged cast that they were being allowed to get away with portraying entitled, privileged people being extraordinarily precious about their privileges.
Helen Lewis may have a point about the casting of a Scottish woman as a Japanese man with a comedy name in AbFab, but it’s entirely in keeping with the standards of AbFab, which in terms of quality makes Dad’s Army look like an RSC production of King Lear.
However, when a media feminist tiptoes into the world of drag and crossdressing it’s important to look for the subtexts. Defining what is crossdressing, what is drag, and how they relate to more fundamental issues of gender and self-identification is at the heart of some of the gender wars of our time. I don’t know how Janette Krankie defines herself, so she’ll have to speak for herself, but any time a media feminist dismisses drag as ultimately playful and liberating you have to wonder if they’re not concealing an agenda that limits drag to the ‘playful and liberating’ categories.
One of the challenges of oral tradition is that it’s not strong on insights into the motivation of the performers. So we don’t know if the Sons and Daughters of Rebecca, all of them male, thought they were being playful and liberating when they dressed up as women and set out to burn down tollgates in nineteenth century Wales. We know that they were part of a natural justice culture in which costume was an important part of the justice ritual, but they chose not to adopt the ceffyl pren’s rituals, but to dress as women. Now, given that other natural justice actors in the same area chose differnet costumes, such as the hides and cattle heads of the Scotch Cattle, you have to wonder if crossdressing in that moment had a particular meaning or purpose.
We live in an individual world now, but drag or crossdressing might have more meaning than just the playful and liberating. It might also be a disguise, a way of being that is different to our norm, but more congruent with who we believe we are. That might be playful and liberating, but it also might be an intensely personal and challenging experience that goes to the core of who we are. You wonlt find this in Helen Lewis’s glib dismissal of drag, or her failure to explore the difference between acting, drag and crossdressing.
Now, I’m not going to ask anyone to explore the deeper meaning of what Jeanette Krankie does. It might be a long search for slim pickings. However, we don’t tell Bob Dylan to stop writing songs because the Venga Boys are a bit shit, and we shouldn’t judge all drag or crossdressing by the standards of the worst pantomime dames. The difference between, say, Jeanette Krankie pretending to be a cheeky schoolboy and Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough crossdressing as two Lancashire housewives in a satire on class and community that was of its time and place (and which has its echoes in the matriarch of Mrs Brown’s Boys and her relationships with other women) is the difference between anything by the Venga Boys and Bob Dylan’s Hurricane. When a media feminist ignores those nuances you have no way of knowing whether it’s because she’s short of the readies or hiding a nastier agenda, but no-one will be harmed by assuming the worst.