Wednesday, April 20, 2016

What I Learned from Kinky Boots - A blog for Suddenly Fem by CiCi Kytten

I attended a performance of the Tony Award-winning musical, Kinky Boots, at the spectacular Pantages Theatre in Hollywood last weekend. And I had a ball. It was really fun. Great story. Great music.  Gorgeous cast. 
 
I also dressed for the event.  Wearing my own pair of hot red “kinky boots.” In short, I had a blast.


After the show... Kinky Boots in Hollywood!
And yet. Something was amiss. There were moments in the performance that were difficult to watch.  Or to hear.  When a friend asked me how it was, I said, “I laughed. I cried. I cringed.”
 
I hate to say that I cringed because it is a fun musical.  Funny and thoughtful.  And probably a nice diversion for mainstream tastes. But I did cringe at parts. On a positive note, Kinky Boots showed me just how far the trans community has come in the past 11 years. (The movie about a struggling shoe manufacturer that finds success by producing thigh high boots for drag queens first came out in 2005.) But it made me wonder if the rest of the world has noticed our progress.
 
I hate to be critical, but a lot has happened in the past 11 years. And the script could use some updating.  Was anyone trans involved behind the scenes? Apparently not. 
 
Consequently, the old confusion between trans people and drag queens kept surfacing. And now, after sitting through the entire show, I’m still not certain how the main character, Lola, identifies. She claims to be a drag queen – a man who wears women’s clothes as a performer. But again and again, she behaves like a trans person. With much deeper gender-related issues and emotions than a stage performer might experience.
 
Either direction would work. Drag or trans. (And certainly a trans person can also perform drag.)  But at some point, the script has to deal with that.  At some point we, as an audience, need to know.  I would have even been happy either way. Heck, I would have been happy if she had remained conflicted the entire time – just so long as she had given voice to that confusion.  (Who among us can't relate to confusion?)
 
As a drag queen, Lola certainly brings the requisite glam and fabulousness to the dreary lives of the laborers at the shoe manufacturer.  And that sets off all kinds of conversations (and songs) that discuss a variety of gender issues and begins to (at least on a superficial level) confront gender stereotypes.
 
But how much deeper could those conversations have gone had Lola identified as trans? Or verbally expressed the internal debate that most gender non-conformists  experience on a daily level.  It’s no easy thing to confront gender stereotypes as a costumed drag performer… but even more intense and so much more emotional (and dramatic) for a non-performer. For a trans person coming to terms with their true identity, not as a character on a stage, but in their homes, in their schools, in their places of business.
 
The theme, and a literal challenge presented in the play, to accept another person as they are – rings true.  The backstory of the young man pushed by his father into macho pursuits such as boxing, when he’d rather be dancing in heels – rings true.  The struggle for respect while being true to one’s own non-conformist nature certainly rings true.
 
I didn’t even mind that many of the characters were so blatantly transphobic.  That’s the beginning of a character arc. That’s where the characters learn – and bring the audience along with them as they learn. But for my taste, there was still too much over-the-top negativity in the reactions to men dressing as women, to men being attracted to men, or, heaven forbid, to men being attracted to men dressed as women.

And while I’m at it, seriously, how do you conduct a men’s room/ladies’ room scene in April 2016 without a clever mention of North Carolina!?
 
I mean, that’s low hanging fruit.  
 
Others might say that Kinky Boots is great for mainstream America.  A primer, if you will.  An Intro to Gender Non-Conformity.  But I still want more. And I know America can handle more.  Sadly, I don’t think it would take much tweaking to update the script. I’m not talking about a Page One Rewrite. I’m simply suggesting a few tweaks to (1) clearly define Lola’s identity (or at least express her feelings of confusion) and (2) remove the outdated jokes about cross dressers and transvestites.  (Sample dialogue: “A drag queen puts on a frock, looks like Kylie. A transvestite puts on a frock, looks like... Boris Yeltsin in lipstick.”)
 
Are we not past this yet?
 
Oh, and one more thing… why did the millworkers have so many fleshed-out secondary characters, while the 7 or 8 supporting drag queens had none?  No lines of dialogue. No back stories. No character arcs. They were just pretty (very pretty, actually) dancers.  Nothing more.
 
And I think that says a lot about the thinking – or lack thereof -- that went into the production.
 
Drag has an amazing legacy in the world of entertainment.  Broadway has an equally impressive history of both presenting and celebrating gender non-conformity.
 
But, come on, it’s 2016.  We can do better than this.

16 comments:

Alice Liddel said...

I also saw a touring production a couple of weeks ago and had many of the same thoughts. It really is just a simple broadway song and dance show targeted at mainstream (more or less) audiences. But I did love the boots! Cici, I miss you like crazy on FB!

Triesste said...

Hi-Triesste from Tokyo Closet Ball here.
CiCi, the very first part of your always insightful comments-
performing in drag vs. living as a gender nonconformist-is exactly
the crossroads where I have set up. Two summers ago Tokyo Closet Ball
started as a group of performers-drag performers of both sexes, burlesque dancers,
peformance artists, comedy performers. From the beginning my
idea as a performer has been, to show an alternative to the usual over the top comedy image
of the drag performer. There are way too many people already who do that much better than I. My real role in the show is as a singer. I perform songs by female artists, with my own voice (and in the original keys). As such, I go for much more of a full time trans image-dramatic but realistic evening makeup, tasteful jewelery-I have to pause here to say that Suddenly Fem has been a lifesaving source for clothing that looks great on stage.
But there`s always the risk of conflict with my job, friends and/or family. Friends who are in the know about it have invited Triesste for girls` nights, fellow performers say come to their shows. I want to but, to me that is exactly the line between drag perfomance and living as trans. It shouldn`t be such a big deal, but it`s a social and psychological line. I`m still on the fence about taking up an invitation.

Triesste said...

I forgot to mention-the Japan version of 'Kinky Boots'will be here this summer. Great news, for those whose Japanese is good enough. Unfotunately that does not include me.

Unknown said...

First time reading the blog, you look fabulous and I look forward to reading more. Brooks

Bill Hitt said...

You are an major example of what I want to become.
thank you,
stephanie

Evelyn J said...

The thinking behind the line "A transvestite puts on a frock, looks like... Boris Yeltsin in lipstick." is what is supporting the bathroom bill issue. That is how they view us. They don't see, and maybe don't even know, that is Hollywood and not real life. For that reason alone, those types of "jokes" need to be removed.

Anonymous said...

Cici, thank you for bringing this to my attention. As someone who came to CD late in life and only recently, I don't have as much experience to draw on as others might. I'm always looking for articles and movies that might help me learn. Even though this movie/play might be antiquated, still it has something to offer someone like me. I found that older movies than this one such as Glen or Glenda, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and To Wong Foo all make a statement, even though they're older than this one. So when I read your blog I rushed to Amazon to get my DVD copy of the movie. It makes a strong impression of the difficulties that we face and also of a way of dealing with it. Those are timeless things that don't go away with the passage of time, they only evolve. So the message may be from an older time, but it is still the same. Thanks again for making me aware of it. Karen.

Anonymous said...

Cici,
that smile, those legs...
Breathtaking!
:-)
XXX
Veronique

Anonymous said...

Cici,
We've known each other quite a while but i don't think I have ever mentioned the regard I hold you in for standing up and voicing your opinions and feelings in such an eloquent and simply understandable fashion. While i am not so open about myself as you are and my world revolves differently on the outside, I must confess that you provoke thoughts beyond what is on the surface of things. You inspire a deeper thought process in evaluating the issues of gender identity and the internal struggles felt, not to mention how much harder those struggles are with outside influence pushing one in many different ways. Simply put, I am very, very proud of you and I feel lucky to have you as a friend and someone to which I also feel quite close. Hugs and Kisses - Dave eroseeeker@yahoo.com

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to add something further to my previous comments. Living in the conservative Midwest I don't have the opportunity to attend something like a stage play of this production, but after several viewings of the movie version I found it to be quite entertaining and informative for someone like me, even though it may come from an "obsolete" time. You once said "We are not pretty" in one of your blogs, and indeed the actor who plays the lead part of Lola is not pretty, but she is very striking in appearance and quite talented. A very effective drag queen. And the back-up group of singers/dancers that accompany her seem to have been picked for the fact that they are obviously "men in dresses". But the music and choreography are wonderful, and as a former stage performer myself (though not in drag) I found them to be quite on par with anything else. These people don't seem to care whether or not they can emulate a woman's appearance 100 percent, but rather rely on their talent to gain approval, and they certainly do. The catwalk scene at the end, though very brief, is worth the wait if nothing else. If any of you out there haven't seen this yet, please give it a look. It's a wonderful example of what talented trans-people are capable of. Thanks/Karen.

Ivan Doull said...

I love Kinky Boots,I only saw the movie .One of my goals is to wear a pair of thigh high boots.I love your U-tube video.I wish you would add more videos,Thanks for the wonderful videos.

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