Edna Turnblad has a weakness for pink-sequined dresses, a passion for her husband and a triple-E bra. Edna also has a secret. Edna is a man. To be precise, her character in "Hairspray" has always been played by a man: drag queen Divine in the original John Waters film, gruff-voiced Harvey Fierstein in the Broadway musical and, starting this week, John Travolta in the movie musical. Just as Peter Pan is almost always played by a woman, it's impossible to imagine a "Hairspray" in which Edna isn't hiding a stubble under her pancake makeup. The obvious reason is that more-is-more is part of the "Hairspray" ethos, from the hairstyles to the musical numbers. Having a man play the plus-size Edna makes her funnier, and adds a wink-wink knowingness to the depiction of an archetype of maternity.
But what is that wink all about? Edna is hardly the only iconic female character who's really a he. Tyler Perry has made a career of playing the overweight, overbearing grandmother Madea, while both Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence strapped on fat suits and wigs in recent films. Despite decades-long careers, Dustin Hoffman's and Robin Williams's most beloved alter egos are arguably Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire. "Jack Lemmon doing the tango with Joe E. Brown in 'Some Like It Hot' was hilarious, but you can't tell me there wasn't the further charge of what it was representing," says Richard Barrios, a film historian and author of "Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood From Edison to Stonewall." "It's a blurring of differences between masculinity and femininity." But lots of conventions of drama don't fly anymore. A white actor wouldn't dare put on dark makeup to appear black today—Angelina Jolie took a lot of heat for slightly darkening her complexion to play Mariane Pearl in "A Mighty Heart." A non-Asian actor would never get away with taping his eyes and assuming a silly accent to sound Chinese, as Mickey Rooney did in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961). Even fat activists complain when actors don fat suits for laughs, as Gwyneth Paltrow found out when she artificially bulked up for "Shallow Hal." So it would seem logical that drag today, especially when the man playing the part is straight, is both misogynistic (notice how the "women" in these movies are always awkward and ugly) and homophobic (notice how they also flutter and flounce like a stereotypical gay man). So why is it still OK for male actors to wear dresses?
The convention of men playing women dates back to ancient Greece and also has roots in Japanese Kabuki theater. Men played all the roles in Shakespeare's day, heightening the gender confusion in plays such as "As You Like It," where Rosalind, originally played by a male actor, disguises herself as a man to win her lover's heart. Men wearing dresses have been a comedy staple in both Britain and America since the 1892 play "Charley's Aunt," which was first made into a film in 1915. Bugs Bunny has even dolled himself up to outwit (and mock-seduce) Elmer Fudd. As long as women have worn dresses, male actors have been borrowing them to get a laugh. "There have been surveys of movies in which men play women, and they were all successes," says Craig Zadan, executive producer of "Hairspray." "The public loves the idea of men playing women in film, especially in a comedy."
Take Martin Lawrence. In the "Big Momma" movies, Lawrence follows a time-honored tradition of male characters who are forced to go "undercover" as women, either to elude the bad guys or to win the heart of a real, yet surprisingly clueless woman. This wolf-in-sheep's-clothing ruse powers "Some Like It Hot," "Tootsie" and countless fraternity films in which the brothers depilate and rouge themselves (ineptly, of course) to pass as women. In the more thoughtful movies, drag can be a vehicle for personal growth for the men, who, after initial outrage at the way they are treated as women, remain sensitized even after they wipe off their lipstick. However, the women in these films never experience the same fulfilling character arc. It's the men who emancipate them from their second-class status; in "Tootsie," Michael's alter ego, Dorothy, lobbies for gender equality in the workplace. Though much of the visual comedy comes from the man's struggle to adopt "feminine" ways, the female love interest never seems to question the gender of her new best friend, and accepts the switch unquestioningly once the "gal pal" unmasks himself as a potential suitor. In "Some Like It Hot," when Josephine reveals that he is really Joe, Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) shrugs off his concerns that she'll feel betrayed, saying, "I told you. I'm not very bright." Though some critics laud "Some Like It Hot" for lampooning gender stereotypes, the message of the film could also be that a woman isn't nearly as bright as a man in a dress.
Tyler Perry's Madea, Eddie Murphy's Rasputia and Travolta's Edna, on the other hand, never appear on screen as men. So why not just cast a woman in the roles in the first place—Rosie O'Donnell would have made a great Edna. "It seems not only are we to be made fun of and demeaned in films, but we are also being put out of work," says writer Jill Nelson. "If Martin and Eddie can dress up and be us, why do the studios need to make an effort to hire black women? It's like they're killing us two ways." Travolta has been called out by gay activists who claim Edna is an iconic gay role (Waters and Fierstein are gay, as was Divine), and therefore should be played by a gay man. While blackface is universally reviled, drag is trickier: some gays embrace it as an important aspect of alternative culture, while others believe it perpetuates tired stereotypes of gay men as secretly wanting to be women. Most agree, though, that drag's charge, negative or positive, is neutralized when a straight man does it. When Waters cast Divine, a flamboyant gay man and real-life drag queen, as a traditional loving mother, it underscored the film's message of acceptance. But that nuance is lost when Edna is played simply for laughs. And Travolta's Edna is as straight as they come.
Yet Zadan says he never considered any women for Edna, choosing to honor the tradition begun by Waters when he created the role for Divine. "Why would you put up boundaries for what an actor's capable of accomplishing in film?" asks Zadan. "With visual effects, makeup, so many things at our disposal, there's no limit to what you can accomplish." Prosthetically enhanced gender swapping, Travolta style, may be the drag of the future. His Edna has more in common with Mike Myers's Fat Bastard, Jim Carrey's Grinch or Paltrow's Rosemary Shanahan than Divine. When actors such as Travolta, Murphy or Lawrence take on these roles, they actually downplay any gender confusion; Travolta has said he didn't want to portray Edna as a "drag joke." Instead, these macho actors brag about the physical discomfort required to transform themselves into wig-topped Jabba the Huttettes. "Good drag is used knowingly for its transgressive qualities," says Barrios. "But films like 'Big Momma' and 'Hairspray' don't want to be attuned to whatever transgressiveness they may contain. Drag is just an easy way to get laughs without extending themselves beyond putting on some latex." And when drag becomes more about latex than subtext, it's not funny at all.