Literature & Film

Kind of a Drag: Gender, Race and Ambivalence in The Birdcage and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar

This paper examines the ways in which two Hollywood films featuring drag queens, Too Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar and The Birdcage, offer a kind of “both/and” look at the complexities of gender, sexuality, race, and culture, simultaneously challenging some institutionalized attitudes (especially heterosexism) while reinforcing others (especially sexism and racism)—making the use of drag as a locus of discovery in both films, at best, ambivalent.

This paper was originally published in the Journal of Homosexuality. 46.3/4 (2004): 169-180 and is available at
This paper was simultaneously co-published as a chapter in The Drag Queen Anthology: The Absolutely Favulous but Flawlessly Customary World of Female Impersonators, edited by Steven P. Schacht with Lisa Underwood, Harrington Park Press, 2004.
In her best-selling book Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, Clarissa Pinkola Estes interprets ancient stories from many cultures and establishes them as archetypes for key phases in a woman’s journey to recover her “innate instinctual” self—the self that Estes calls the “Wild Woman archetype” (Estes 6). Estes’ archetypal stories appear in Jane Campion’s award-winning film The Piano and Niki Caro’s internationally-acclaimed film Whale Rider. This paper explores the ways in which these two films by white women directors from New Zealand depicted the her-oic journeys of a white colonial 19th century woman and a Maori girl in the 21st century in relation to Estes archetypal stories--suggesting the significance of these archetypal stories as guides for women’s her-oic journeys.
Although literary and film scholars may decry works with popular appeal, one obvious conclusion is unavoidable—these stories reflect truths that are widely recognized. In a global community where women still struggle to have a voice, let alone be the her-oes of their own stories, Clarissa Pinkola Estes has published the sheet music from which women can teach themselves to sing. Filmmakers Jane Campion and Niki Caro have written two different, but equally poetic, sets of lyrics to that melody.