Three Queens, who can only be described as statuesque, embark on a cross-country journey to Hollywood, California, where they will compete in the Drag Queen of America contest in Beeban Kidron’s To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. The 1995 comedy stars Patrick Swayze as lead Queen Vida, Wesley Snipes as the fierce Noxeema, and John Leguizamo as Queen-in-training Chi-Chi, three actors famously known for not playing Drag Queens. To Wong Foo is a fun twist on your typical “fish out of water” story, wherein our three fabulous heroines become trapped in the small, backwater town of Snydersville, after their chariot, a 1967 Cadillac Deville convertible, breaks down. The majority of the film takes place in Snydersville. While we easily could have had a film about Drag Queens going on a road trip culminating in the ferocious competition of the Drag Queen of America crown, we instead have a story of how Drag Queens make a small town a little queerer. So, what is To Wong Foo trying to say about the power of Drag?
Drag is all about becoming a character. Noxeema’s definition of a Drag Queen is, “A gay man who has too much fashion sense for one gender.” It’s a fun explanation for why men decide to do drag, but in a way it’s flawed, we know that straight men also perform drag. The thing about drag is, it’s less about becoming a gender and more about becoming a character. Patrick Swayze’s character in the film doesn’t become a woman when he puts on a dress and FIERCE make up; he becomes Miss Vida, a character who happens to be a woman. Drag is a hyperbole of the “Male Gaze,” a term coined by British film theorist Laura Mulvey. In Mark Fortier’s “Theory/Theatre, an introduction,” he explains the Male Gaze as:
“Patriarchal cultural visions often reducing woman to stereotypes (virgin, whore, Madonna, bitch) and fetishizing body parts (breasts, vagina, face).”
Drag uses this same concept but in a way that makes it satirical. Though the Male Gaze is a representation of women that dehumanizes them, Drag uses it as empowerment. The performance nature of Drag serves to have people look at you, to gaze upon you, using the stereotypes described above, and hyperbolizing the body parts (described above); Drag Queens create a character that is so larger than life, you have to watch them. At many points in To Wong Foo, we see our heroines face adversity, from getting accosted on the streets of New York City, to actually being hunted by sexist, homophobic, rapist, all around bad dude Sheriff Dollard (Chris Penn). This may be relevant to the lives of many men who decide to perform in drag, (except for the being hunted by Chris Penn part, but who knows), whether they identify as gay or not. Having a stage, having a character to transform into, gives these people strength.
This same strength is given to Snydersville, whose townsfolk are the audience to a very crazy Drag performance. The town starts off as a place where the women are underpowered, and the men are all kinda pieces of shit, from the physically/verbally abusive husband of Carol Ann, to the group of young boys who are also constantly trying to trap Chi-Chi. The Queens arrive and change the entire way the town functions by transforming the town’s Strawberry Social event into a Drag Queen show. The Queens objective seems to be to empower all those who are not empowered, from the women of the town, to even the young boy who works at the antique shop. The film’s climax is when Sheriff Dollard comes to town to arrest (or kill?) the Queens, but the town’s folk protect them by saying how they’re all Drag Queens.
Drag Performances are a ton of fun. Drag Queens are a ton of fun. It’s an expression of an individual but also of Queer culture itself. Audiences to these shows are almost always mixed. People come from all walks of life to be entertained by these larger than life characters. Like the people of Snydersville, we all leave these shows, and this film, a little queerer than when we started.
Robert has a degree in Screenwriting and Playwriting and works in multiple genres. He's just your typical man-child who enjoys most things nerd culture. You can follow him on Twitter @RoBaeBae