June seems like a good time to revisit this film – it’s been a while, but watching it makes me realize that it’s been a LONG while.
The 90s were an interesting time. After the conservative 80s, the 90s felt like a time of revolution. We thought we were cool and edgy; we were open to the changing times. But looking back now, it’s much easier to spot that we weren’t pushing boundaries so much as testing them. We were starting to explore this LGBTQ thing (though we were still a good decade away from calling it that), but doing it safely, within familiar contexts.
Hollywood had already given us Some Like It Hot and Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire. We could deal with dudes in dresses. So To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar gave us three.
Drag is an art form which has held an esteemed position within the gay community for decades. Far more than entertainment, it was an expression of one’s true self, it was a middle finger to the political establishment, a celebration of life, an opportunity to let loose at night after being closeted all day, a dismantling of traditional notions of gender, a platform for activism, an embrace of difference and diversity, a way to foster community, to plant one’s flag in the ground and say: this is me.
[I understand that some women are concerned about the appropriation of female bodies and the highly stereotypical and overly sexualized images of drag’s display of femininity in order for men to gain power, prestige, and status within the queer community. Generally, I tend to admire a drag queen’s ability to reject gender norms and embrace a whole spectrum of expression, but I do cringe over some of the misogynistic terms, such as a queen who is very feminine-presenting (“passing”) being labelled ‘fish.’]
But with my 2020 goggles on, and drag having largely been adopted by the mainstream, I can’t help but notice To Wong Foo presents an incredibly confusing portrait of drag; namely, that drag queens are always in drag. For most drag queens, the heels and lashes and hip pads are part of the uniform of their work – often a staggeringly and prohibitively expensive uniform, but still. They dress for their performance, but they don’t live as women. They are, for the most part, gay men. There are occasionally drag queens who transition male to female, but that’s very much the exception.
Let’s call Wong Foo what it is: three cis-gender, heterosexual Hollywood actors wearing dresses and gesturing with a limp wrist. If this film were made today, there’d be an understandable outcry. But in 1995, this shit was legitimately (and sadly) groundbreaking.
Wesley Snipes and Patrick Swayze play Noxeema and Vida, two NYC queens newly crowned and headed for Hollywood to compete in Miss Drag America. Like all good fairy dragmothers, they bring along baby drag queen Chi Chi (John Leguizamo) to teach her the rules of the game. They travel cross country in a big ole Buick convertible, which of course breaks down in Hillbilly City. Sorry, that’s unfair. It’s nowhere near being a city, or even a town. I don’t think it has a single stop light. Population: 3 wife beaters, 4 rapists, 1 bigoted cop, and 1 lisping shop owner (see Michael Vartan as ‘Rapist #1’ and Chris Penn as ‘bigoted cop’).
Anyway, as I said, the 3 “drag queens” are NEVER out of drag. They discuss identity but don’t get it right. And not a single one of them would be allowed to compete on RuPaul’s Drag Race – I shudder to think what Michelle Visage would have to say. But mama Ru did give the film her blessing (in a cameo, she appears under maybe the best drag name ever: Rachel Tensions, confederate flag dress and all) alongside other drag stars Lady Bunny, Candis Cayne, Coco Peru, Hedda Lettuce, and Lady Catiria.
Regardless of its inaccuracies and liberties, the gay community embraced its camp, but a broader audience flocked to it too, opening the film at #1 at the box office. It’s no Paris Is Burning. It’s a product of its time, and a landmark in the ongoing fight for queer representation.