At several points during my childhood people asserted the claim that what was “wrong” with me was caused by the movies/TV shows I watched or the books I read. At one point certain extended family members were trying to convince my parents that I shouldn’t be allowed to watch scary cartoons. At another point, a lot of church people were certain that my interest in science, particularly astronomy, was turning me into a satanist or even worse, an atheist! There were lots of times that various people asserted that either musicals, or fantasy/sci fi, or some other thing I was interested in was why I kept getting bullied by the other kids at school. The truth is, that many teachers, church members, and family members were all bullying me as much as any kids at school were, though they weren’t willing to admit it. Throughout my childhood and teen years I was constantly trying to figure out how to get people to stop despising me. A big part of why I couldn’t figure it out was that there were actually two reasons. First, I was queer, and second, I was smarter than average with a particular knack for analytical thinking.
When people find a person in their midst who does not conform to their expectations, their reaction is to try to find a behavioral cause of that non-conformity. Because admitting that different kinds of people exist naturally challenges the simplest notion of normality. So when confronted with a smart, slightly gender-non-conforming kid who seems to know about things people don’t expect kids to understand, they go looking for an easy explanation of why I’m different. And it really was both of those differences that confused people. More than one relative on different sides of the family commented that as a young child I seemed like an adult trapped in a kid’s body.
When you are clinging to the notion that there is a limited number of ways to be normal with someone who doesn’t fit any of your notions, the easiest thing is to look at which of the non-conforming person’s interests seem least like theirs. So in the 1960s and ’70s, people focused on my interest in science, science fiction, fantasy and related topics. Because before the era of the personal computer and the cultural behemoth that was the original Star Wars, those things were completely beyond the kin of normal humans. Some of the cover art of magazines and paperback books raised a few eyebrows. At least one relative asserted the belief that reading superhero comics, with all of those skin tight costumes on the male heroes, would turn a boy into a sissy.
In retrospect I find it hilarious, because of all the media/fiction I can recall from my childhood, the only place where gender fluidity and related topics occurred regularly was not in science fiction, fantasy, or science fact books, but in one of the most popular forms of pop culture of many decades: Looney Tunes cartoons, specifically Bugs Bunny cartoons.
Even before Bugs Bunny had the name “Bugs,” he was dressing up as a woman to seduce a male character. Long before he ever dressed as a woman to distract Elmer Fudd or Yosemite Sam, the character then referred to informally as “Happy Rabbit” disguised himself as a female version of the unnamed hunter’s dog to distract the dog from his trail. So if everyone’s theory that somehow what made me non-conforming was the shows I watched, clearly it should have been Bugs Bunny they focused on, right? Contrariwise, Bugs is a great argument against the whole media-causes-queerness argument: as I pointed out in a post last week, for a number of years the Looney Tunes cartoons weren’t just ubiquitious, they were almost universally adored by a couple of generations of folks. If media exposure causes queerness, then just about every single person aged 40-something through 60-something alive in North America right now should be an out queer, because Bugs taught us all that to be a drag queen was to be triumphant.
This meaning of drag: “Women’s clothes as worn by a man; (less commonly) men’s clothes as worn by a woman; a party at which such clothes are worn” as rendered in the Oxford English Dictionary has been around since the late 19th Century. The first written citation coming in 1870 as a reference to male actors portraying female characters on the stage. At various times in the history of the theatre, it had been common to cast young men in the feminine roles, because it was considered inappropriate for women to perform on stage. So there is a certain tradition in the theatre (which cropped up later in movies, though usually for comedic effect) of men dressing as women on stage. There is also a tradition of characters of either sex on stage and in movies dressing in disguises—sometimes disguises that shouldn’t fool anyone—and carrying on for scene after scene completely pulling the wool of the eyes of other characters.
The disguises that Bugs donned in the various cartoons weren’t always drag. The point of the gag was how gullible Bugs’ adversary could be in light of the disguise, no matter how ridiculous. Which is why I don’t think it ever occurred to anyone back then that how easily the hero of the story could adopt the persona of a woman and seductively entrance the villain might be just a little bit queer. Maybe it was the fact that the audience was in on the joke—Bugs was dressing as a woman to fool his antagonist and make the audience laugh, not because he enjoyed it, and certainly not because he was actually trying to seduce the other character. Maybe it was simply the fact that they understood the jokes in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, but sf/f didn’t appeal to them, and a lot of that cover art looked erotic, demonic, and sometimes both.
To me, the ease with which Bugs transformed himself in his various disguises is a manifestation of a much, much older narrative tradition: The Trickster God. One of the oldest examples of which is the Old Norse story of the time that Loki is tasked by Odin with getting the gods of Asgard out of a particularly unwise bet. The gods had made a deal with a builder to create a magnificent fortification, but that if the builder couldn’t do it in a ridiculously short time with no help except that of his horse, the gods would never have to pay for the fortress. It quickly becomes clear that that both the builder and his horse are possessed of magical abilities and will succeed at the seemingly impossible task. Loki tries various things, but eventually is only able to succeed by transforming himself into a beautiful mare in heat, and thus lure the magical horse away. In the Norse story, Loki actually mates with the horse and later gives birth to another magical steed, Sleipnir, which becomes Odin’s horse and figures in a lot of other myths.
I’m just glad that I never pointed out that little similarity back then. It was one thing when I was sometimes forbidden to check out certain books from the library, or buy certain paperbacks at the used book store. It would have been infinitely crueler to forbid me from watching Bugs and Daffy!