These are complex times where gender identity is concerned. People of ambiguous, fluid or altered gender have a more established mainstream profile than ever before, and yet fierce debates around identity politics have seen feminists attack transsexual people as travesties of 'real' females, and trans women raise objections to the assumption that they should or should wish to 'pass' as cisgender women. Roland Emmerich's film Stonewall which was expected to bring gay political history into the mainstream, has instead met with unalloyed opprobrium for presenting a whitewashed and `straight-acting' version that excludes the significant part played by trans women in the events portrayed.
Whether drag — that long-established outlet for alternative gender identities — is part of a solution or part of a problem is a hotly debated point. The mainstream US TV hit RuPaul's Drag Race has been criticised for `transphohia' over its hostess's use of the terms `shemale' and tranny. London's Royal Vauxhall Tavern has been granted listed status because of its significance to the LGBT community as a site of drag performances; but earlier this year an alternative gay event in Glasgow announced a decision (later rescinded) not to book drag performers in case they offended trans people.
Amid all this confusion (hell, I'm not even sure whether I'm allowed to write about it), Colin Rothbart's warm, thoughtful and engaging portrait of a group of people united by a liking for drag performance acts as a kind of palate cleanser, reminding us that whatever off-the-peg political factions individuals might choose to align with, ultimately every single story is bespoke. The first act, in which our grotesquely glamorous host Jonny Woo introduces a group of hedonistic frenemies with variable artistic skills and stupendous drug appetites, hints at self-indulgence there's only so much fun to be had watching other people get wasted. But the film matures startlingly as it progresses, skilfully picking out what's most fascinating about its central characters and their contrasting journeys through early adulthood.
Watching wild child Amber transition from chunky, tattooed skinhead to lissom Uma Thurman lookalike is a jaw-dropper, although what's most moving in her story is the reestablishment of her relationship with a gruff northern father who pushes her to eat up her peas, evades discussion of her new breasts by criticising the positioning of her gas meter and insists throughout that to him, she still looks like Dean. Watching Jonny Woo and Scottee perform is an utter pleasure in itself, as is their articulate examination of what turned them into who they became, and the contributions of their parents. The lonely tales of Holestar and Pia emphasise that there can be outsiders even in crews of avowed outsiders. Ever-reluctant drag queen John Sizzle, meanwhile, offers a beautifully precise personal account of the interaction between gay identity and anonymous sex, once again accented by the thoughts of his mum.
Sentimentality only crops up here in the most cleverly contradictory of places; and while bitchiness is present, it never overwhelms a genuine investment in character, personal history and artistic identity. It would make a terrific feature film but for the fact that you would never find actors to play these people half as well as they play themselves.
DRESSED AS A GIRL NOW AVAILABLE WORLDWIDE
February 26, 2016
Meet the Cast, Colin Rothbart & Chris Amos
July 15, 2015
Official Motion Picture Soundtrack Will Be Released on 29th April