Costuming gender : an investigation into the construction and perception of drag costume in mainstream film
The years succeeding 1990 have seen a significant increase in the release of mainstream film featuring transgendered characters. The inclusion of such characters in popular film becomes a point of interest as transgendered identities differ from the hegemonic heterosexism of the audiences at whom these films are targeted. This investigation aims to gain a better understanding of how audience members read gendered identity through the visual appearance of drag queen characters in mainstream film. Due to the emblematic contrast between the male body and a hyper-feminine dress aesthetic, drag queens pose an overt visual challenge to the normative expectation of anatomical sex determining gender and gendered expression. This investigation is conducted from the paradigmatic perspective that recognises the impossibility of a ‘correct’ reading of dress aesthetics and is thus concerned with discovering the various gendered meanings audience members may attach to drag costume in film. This interpretivist standpoint, however, is held in conjunction with the critical understanding that prevalent contemporary socio-political constructs with regard to gender and dress will undoubtedly affect these perceptions. Segments from selected Hollywood films featuring drag queen protagonists were screened for a heterogeneous focus group and the subsequent discussion analysed through critical discourse analysis. Academic discourse concerning the socially constructed gender dichotomy and the debated subversive potential of the drag act is reviewed in order to provide a theoretical framework for analysing the participants’ comprehension of gendered performance. Gendered associations with dress and the body together with film theory are examined to better understand how an audience may perceive gendered identity through drag costume in film and what affect this may have on their conception of sartorial gendered expressions in reality. Finally, to situate and provide further context for this investigation, Queer theory critiques of the representation and reception of transgendered characters in past mainstream films are considered.