Gender nonconformity is a common device in contemporary cinema, from “Rocky Horror” to “The Birdcage” to “White Chicks.” Often, it’s comedic, not meant to make us think. A recent study indicates, however, that this trend may have some complex implications.
“Women with Beards and Men in Frocks: Gender Noncomformity in American Film,” by Victoria Kronz, was published in the summer of 2015. It analyzes 36 films, released between 2001 and 2011, that feature characters who flout gender norms. The films are organized into several categories, including genre and apparent purpose. Most of the films are mainstream, Hollywood films.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kronz found that most serious explorations of gender identity are portrayed in independent films, while gender nonconformity acts as a comedic device in most mainstream films.
For example, in the 2007 film “Hairspray,” John Travolta’s gender-bending performance as Edna Turnblad serves as a kind of comic relief meant to diffuse the tension produced by some of the film’s more complex themes.
Cross-dressing and other behaviors consistent with gender nonconformity defy our expectations about what gender should be, and, in an attempt to alleviate our anxiety, we laugh.
Kronz’s research finds, when gender nonconformity is portrayed in most films, the male-female binary is emphasized. A nonconforming character is, fundamentally, either a man or a woman. Most portrayals are consistent with traditional gender roles, without much variation.
“(Films) seem to have made little progress from their origins of early films or even as far back as Shakespeare,” Kronz suggests. Nonconforming characters seem to be devoid of flexibility and complexity.
Additionally, comedic portrayals of gender nonconformity trivialize unconventional gender identities. When we laugh at a male character in a dress and heels, we accept the idea that nonconforming behavior is fundamentally eccentric or abnormal instead of acknowledging it as benign self-expression.
Gender nonconformity is virtually commonplace in contemporary film. However, this doesn’t necessarily represent progress. Instead of breaking down barriers, gender-bending may reinforce them.