Drag Queen Confidence vs. Drag Queen Protagonists

Drag has been having something of A Moment in recent years. Thanks largely to the visibility of RuPaul’s Drag Race on television, the sheer amount & variety of drag entertainment has practically exploded this decade. Just watching the pageant drag traditions of New Orleans alone mutate into fresher, weirder art in recent years has been bewildering in scale. In general, I don’t know if it’s so much that drag has fundamentally changed as an artform (at least not since the NYC Club Kids days of the 80s & 90s) so much as that society has changed around it. An increased social awareness of the nature & fabrication of gender has been a major cultural shift in the 2010s and it’s no surprise to me that an artform built on gender performance & gender subversion has increased in popularity along with it. I don’t know that this cultural change has been properly represented in our cinema yet, though, at least not through the eyes of drag queen protagonists. If anything, most of my all-time-favorite drag movies arrived in the 1990s: Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Too Wong Foo, Vegas in Space, etc. Drag movies in the decades since have seemingly focused less on the drag queens themselves, but rather on how their performance & exaggeration of gender inspires confidence in cis, hetero protagonists who use them as sources of personal inspo.

The foremost example of the Drag Queen Confidence movie I can think of was something I first discovered as a Broadway musical performance during a television broadcast of The Macy’s Day Parade (the one time of year I listen to showtunes). The 2005 Drag Confidence melodrama Kinky Boots has somehow gradually transformed from a middling Sundance Festival novelty to a beloved stage musical over the last decade, making it one of the more significant drag cinema success stories of recent years. In the film, Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a London drag queen whose need for large, sturdy high-fashion heels saves a struggling shoe factory that’s threatening to go bankrupt. Facing the inevitable truth that traditional cobbler labor is a dying art, Joel Edgerton serves as our protagonist in this drag-adjacent story – a man who must save his (shoe fetishist) father’s struggling factory by pivoting to designing “kinky boots” for beefy drag queens. Ejiofor’s drag queen side character, Lola (presumably named after the Kinks song, right?), isn’t portrayed as trans, but never appears out of makeup—even offstage—because women’s clothes give him confidence. His fearlessness in entering the small-town North England factory while dressed to the nines even inspires confidence in the straight-cis-white-male protagonist to be his own man and forge his own path outside everyone’s expectations of him. Kinky Boots is a fun movie, especially in Ejiofor’s plethora of cabaret performances of drag standards like Marlene Dietrich & Eartha Kitt. There’s also some extremely satisfying montage footage of shoes being assembled on an old-fashioned assembly line that could be repurposed as one of those viral video supercuts of perfectly functioning machinery. When you boil its story down to its basic parts, though, it’s a movie that somehow combines “white savior” (in Edgerton rescuing Lola from back alley harassment & dangerously flimsy footwear) & “magical negro” (in Lola saving Edgerton’s factory & personal life for no gain of his own) tropes into one efficiently iffy package.

The 2018 Netflix film Dumplin’ is even more egregious in sidelining its drag queen inspo characters as afterthoughts without inner lives of their own. In the film, Patti Cake$‘s Danielle MacDonald stars as the nonplussed, plus-sized daughter of a small-town beauty queen played by Jennifer Aniston – Miss Teen 1991. Sick of quietly suffering fatphobic microaggressions in her mom’s beauty pageant social orbit and fueled by the defiant spirit of her favorite pop diva—Dolly Parton—she enters the local pageant as a vaguely defined political protest, one that dredges up a lot of personal insecurities with her own body & personality. Where does she find the confidence to follow through on this attention-grabbing political protest? At the local drag bar, of course, where a gaggle of nameless queens devoid of inner lives (including Drag Race‘s own veteran “glamor toad” Ginger Minj) teach her how to strut in heels and perform traditional femininity with pride. Dumplin’ is a cute, harmless movie that reimagines Drop Dead Gorgeous as a wholesome melodrama about the value of friendship & self-worth. If nothing else, it’s near impossible to not fall for the charms of its feel-good Dollyisms like “It’s hard being a diamond in a rhinestone world.” However, its drag queen characters are essentially props & cheerleaders that only pop in to teach our down-on-her-luck protagonist how to be a self-assured, glamorous woman. They have no wants, needs, or crises of their own. The exist only to serve her story and seemingly disappear into vapor as soon as their offscreen.

Curiously, my favorite Drag Queen Confidence movie of recent decades is the one with the most viciously negative reviews. The 2004 slapstick farce Connie & Carla effectively ruined the career of My Big Fat Greek Wedding creator Nia Vardalos, who cashed in on her surprise megahit to make a deeply silly buddy comedy opposite Toni Colette (who wouldn’t?). A cross between Sister Act & Victor Victoria, the movie follows two tragically mediocre cabaret performers with an airport lounge act who hide from the mafia by posing as dive bar drag queens, until their act becomes so popular that their cover is blown. Connie & Carla has the broad humor of a decade-stale mid90s studio comedy and its “Cis women drag queens?!?!” premise has become eyerollingly outdated in the last decade (I’ve been to several shows with all-lady queens in the past year alone). Still, I found it to be a total hoot. Toni Collette is especially fun to watch (duh) in the movie’s frequent, elaborate cabaret routines – doing increasingly blue material with the “male” privilege drag affords her and lighting up the screen with a drag version of Jesus (as a woman dressed as a man dressed as a woman dressed as a man, a total gender meltdown). The movie often trips over its own feet politically—both in its eagerness to forgive homophobia and in its plastic surgery-shaming version of body positivity—but as far as Drag Queen Confidence movies go, it’s the most resoundingly successful film of this batch. It does right by its drag queen characters. Not only do the queens who help Connie & Carla learn to be confident women have their own lives & conflicts offscreen & on, but Connie & Carla themselves become actual, legitimate drag queens by the film’s end – not just beneficiaries of the artform’s confidence boost.

As much as I was tickled by Connie & Carla as a broad slapstick farce, even that enjoyment was small consolation for the general lack of quality drag cinema at large in recent years. If there are still great drag queen movies being made post 1990s (or at least post Hedwig in 2001), it’s all work that’s being done in the documentary sphere: The Sons of Tennessee Williams, The Gospel of Eureka, Drag Becomes Him, Gracefully, etc. The occasional, miniscule movies like Hurricane Bianca, Alaska is a Drag, and Holiday Heart that actually have drag queen protagonists aren’t cutting it; their limited resources don’t give them a fighting chance. If a drag-themed movie is being put together with a proper, professional budget, it’s far more likely that the queens will only pop in as quirky side characters – a dash of whimsical flavor and a selfless confidence boost to the hetero protagonists. They’re a road stop on Lady Gaga’s path to being born a star or Channing Tatum’s path to rediscovering his stripper mojo. They’re rarely, if ever, the stars themselves in professional-grade narrative cinema anymore, which is a total shame. Drag has become much more popular & varied since the 1990s, but the scope of actual drag queen movies paradoxically appears to be shrinking.

-Brandon Ledet

Paradise Hills (2019)

Like all genre films, Paradise Hills feels like a loose collection of themes & imagery we’ve all seen before. Is it exactly fair or accurate to describe it as Guillermo del Toro’s Stepford Wives set in the Queen of Hearts’s rose garden from Alice in Wonderland, featuring extras from The Hunger Games & Bram Stoker’s Dracula? Probably not, but that rambling assemblage of references at least hints to how familiar individual elements of its fantasy world feels, even if you’ve never seen them arranged in this exact configuration before. What makes Paradise Hills a great genre film is that it still feels entirely unique & spellbinding despite those pangs of familiarity. This is a dark, femme fairy tale I presume was conceived by first-time director Alice Waddinton after a poisonous tea service left her hallucinating & scared for her life. She may be painting with a familiar palette, but the resulting picture is wonderfully warped in new & exciting ways, especially considering how she conveys dread & menace through an overdose of the feminine.

An impressive coterie of young actors (Emma Roberts, Awkwafina, Danielle McDnonald, Eiza Gonzalez) square off against veteran badass Milla Jovovich in a near-future Patriarchal hell. Spurned by their parents for being too queer, too fat, too rebellious, and too difficult to control, the young women are imprisoned in a high-femme reform school that feels as if it were borrowed from a lingerie fetishist’s erotic fiction. Jovovich keeps her prisoners in line as a green-thumb dominatrix who plans to excise their offending idiosyncrasies in the same way she snips the thorns from her endless supply of roses. On the surface this femme obedience school that transforms young rebels into proper mademoiselles feels almost paradisiac. The young women’s torture is mostly a PG-rated barrage of ballet, yoga, and garden tea service. There’s a sinister sexuality & dystopic undertone of Patriarchy to their entire ordeal, though, something that bubbles up to the surface with increasing violence as the unruly students bring their rejection of traditional gender roles to a boil.

The most immediately satisfying aspect of Paradise Hills is the visual splendor of its costume & production design. Although the titular obedience school is obviously an evil force that must be destroyed, there’s an intoxicating allure to its high-femme paradise. The lacy house robes & white leather bondage harnesses that serve as the school’s uniform are their own kind of gendered prison that erase the individual women’s distinguishing features, yet are also undeniably gorgeous & covetable on their own merit. Similarly, the school itself appears to be a romantic spa getaway for the ultra-rich, not the brainwashing torture chamber that it truly is. This is far from the first fairy tale to allure characters in with a bounty of sensual pleasures only for the fruits therein to be revealed as rotten, cursed, or poisonous. In that tradition, Paradise Hills presents a fairytale Eden that’s deadly dangerous precisely because the pleasures it offers on the surface are so tempting. It would be far too easy to lose yourself in this pleasure palace – both literally and figuratively.

Many people are going to roll their eyes at how earnestly this film commits to its over-the-top, Literotica-ready premise, but I found that sincerity to be refreshing. Undercutting the absurdity of its fantasy scenario with snarky one-liners or tongue-in-cheek camp would have broken its dark magic spell. Waddington (boosted by a cowriting credit from the increasingly fascinating Nacho Vigalondo) carves out a very peculiar, particular mood & aesthetic here, even if she uses familiar genre tools to get there. Welcoming in audiences who aren’t already on the hook for the film’s high-femme fairytale mystique with ingratiating humor would only deflate what makes it special. Paradise Hills’s uncanny sense of femme menace works best if the sensual surface pleasures of its fantasy realm instantly appeal to you as a world where you could lose your sense of time and self. It’s a film you sink into, like a warm familiar blanket, until you suffocate.

-Brandon Ledet

Patti Cake$ (2017)

I remember thinking last year’s indie darling Sing Street (which celebrates the joy of watching a young new wave band come into their own in 1980s Dublin) was cute & mostly enjoyable, but 2017 has already offered two cheaply-made features that improve on its basic formula. The darkly funny romantic dramedy Band Aid juxtaposes the joys of watching a garage band come together with the tragedy of a marriage falling apart, adding a sense of purpose to the songwriting missing in Sing Street’s dedication to nostalgic pastiche. Patti Cake$, by contrast, sticks much closer to Sing Street’s recipe, a rags to slightly-nicer-rags story where a young pop music act struggles to gain the confidence in their own voice they can only experience in their music video daydreams. The difference for me is that Patti Cake$ steers this narrative towards a much more satisfying emotional climax and happens to frame its setting in a world I can much more readily identify with. Its tale of misfit nerds trying to leave their mark on a behind the times, low stakes New Jersey rap scene feels specifically geared to remind me of Coming of Age in my own shitty industrial suburb (Chalmette is pretty much a New Orleans-scale Jersey) when nu metal and Ca$h Money were a huge deal. It even includes an out of nowhere Bikini Kill needle drop plucked directly from my personal high school soundtrack just to drive the last nail in the coffin. It’s a celebratory music scene fairy tale version of a life I’ve already lived, which makes Sing Street’s coming of age romance feel increasingly hollow in the rearview.

The titular Patti Cake$, aka Killer P, aka Patricia (breakout actor Danielle Macdonald), is an aspiring white girl rapper whose service industry jobs (bartending at a karaoke dive bar & picking up extra cash catering) are far from the pop star excess she longs for in her music video-inspired daydreams. She hopes to be signed one day by local rap legend Oz, who appears to be half A$AP Rocky/half wizard, but doesn’t have the confidence to even challenge the Vanilla Ice-flavored EDM idiots who stage concert at the local VFW halls. Her addict mother (Lady Dynamite‘s Bridget Everett) knocks her down for not having a talent for “real” music, unlike her own past of fronting a hair metal band in the 80s. Neighborhood bullies insult her from all sides for being overweight before even hearing what she has to say. Rap game rivals & idols, including the all-powerful Oz, tell her she has no business even trying to make it, that she should just stick to her service industry purgatory. Still, she hones her skills at writing bars around the clock, rapping while she’s brushing her teeth, pissing, and preparing the morning’s Pop Tarts. Eventually, she finds her own scarecrow & tin woodsman (a nerdy pharmacist hype man & a goth version of Nell with a shack full of expensive beat-making equipment) to follow the mixtape road to success with her, despite the constant flood of reasons to quit. The speed bumps along the way are undeniably cliché (including a subplot about her mother’s jealousy so old hat it was spoofed on a Strangers With Candy episode nearly two decades ago), but feed into the film’s charms as an old fashioned fairy tale. By the time the Hero’s Journey concludes with a climactic concert and an alternate path to (minor) success, the cumulative effect is awe-inspiringly great. We’re all rooting for Patti Cake$.

Director Geremy Jasper’s debut feature is impressive not only in its parallel-thinking improvements on the Sing Street formula, but also in its infectious sense of style. Patti Cake$‘s slightly heightened sense of reality feels like a Ca$h Money album cover adapted to a feature length fairy tale. It’s less of the ramshackle 8 Mile it’s been marketed as than it is a surreal comedy that clashes the green smoke & bubble bath fantasy of rap videos against the strip mall & cigarette butts reality of industrial suburbs for relatable, darkly humorous effect. It’s like a hip-hop version of Drop Dead Gorgeous in that way, especially in scenes where it undercuts its small scale triumphs with the visible awkwardness of details like fumbling, nerdy sex and celebratory mozzarella sticks. Everyone in the film, from the rebellious go-nowhere twentysomethings to their bitter went-nowhere authority figures, feels as if they’re permanently stuck in the summer after high school graduation, rotting in a stasis of indecision & dwindling opportunities. Some of the details of this world are very specific to New Jersey, including a real life Cookie Puss, but a lot of it applies to every small town industrial suburb in the US. If Patti Cake$ were set in the Midwest, it’d likely be a Juggalo story. If it were set in Chalmette, Louisiana, its nu metal moment in the VFW Hall (featuring an industrial metal song with the lyrics “You’re sheep! Wake up!”) would’ve commanded the entire feature. If it were set in Dublin, well, I feel like I’ve already seen that movie. Patti Cake$’s Jersey rap scene setting isn’t essential to its storytelling, as hinted at by the cycle started by the mother character’s hair metal past, but it does afford the film a striking sense of cheap-to-produce visual imagery that helps distinguish its supernatural fairy tale tone. What’s much more important is the way the film succeeds in making that fairy tale feel freshly funny & emotionally satisfying, despite its overriding sense of familiarity.

-Brandon Ledet