There are plenty of different opinions out there about drag queens, from those that think it’s a valuable part of the LGBT heritage or a harmless bit of fun, to those who feel it is a mockery of women and trans people, and plays into harmful stereotypes.
Dressed As A Girl should challenge a lot of people’s ideas of the world of drag – whether they’re positive, negative or indifferent – taking us into the lives of several members of the London East End alternative drag scene. Although there is a sort-of narration and interviews with the participants, there’s generally a bit of a cinema verité feel, with the camera following the performers around (it was filmed across six years) and allowing the viewer to contemplate what’s going on.
It’s a veritable bunch of eccentrics, from veterans such as Jonny Woo and John Sizzle, to up and comers like Scottee. There’s also Holestar, a drag performer who isn’t just dressed as a girl, as she was born one, and Amber, who has gone from the drag scene to transitioning to live as a woman full time.
The camera slightly stands back and observes, so that while it shows just how vibrant, challenging and interesting their world is, it doesn’t shy away from suggesting there’s a negative side as well. That ranges from the fact a lot of the performers have overcome immense personal challenges, with drag almost becoming a way to stand up for themselves and show their worth, to hints that perhaps it’s far more egocentric than most of the performers would want to admit (and that in reality they are stars only in their own mind).
For example, Scottee faced bullying and being disowned by family while he was growing up, and Holestar has an illness that will eventually leave her in a wheelchair. The film doesn’t hide the dark side, or indeed suggesting that no matter how much those involved would like to say they are a tight knit community, almost a family, that may not be true. When Holestar hurts her leg, she comments that no one has come to see her, whether that’s because she was never truly accepted due to the fact she’s a woman or because their community is only skin deep.
Likewise, when there’s a fundraiser to help Amber pay for her breast surgery, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that some involved are less interested in helping to raise cash, than to ensure everyone sees them raising cash. The same is true of their activism, such as one of the artistes who goes off to protest during the Pope’s visit to the UK, but you get the feeling he’d care far less about this if he couldn’t find a way to make himself the centre of attention, and to use it to point out that he’s just released his new single (although I don’t doubt that he wouldn’t see it like that).
There’s also Amber, who may now be a woman, but certainly isn’t interested in slotting herself into a traditional, gender binary view of femininity – indeed she arguably comes across as more of an extreme stereotype of a gay man than any of those who identify as men do. Even here though the film is keen to get the viewer to challenge their assumptions about her.
Amber talks about how getting too much plastic surgery can turn you into a sort of caricature of a woman, but then talks about how she wants to get absolutely gigantic boobs. Later though, when talking to her family, you realise that many women in her family have had boob jobs, and so in that context what she’s trying to do perhaps isn’t as over the top or contradictory as it might have been.
The whole documentary is like that, suggesting one thing in one sequence before challenging it in another. It’s a fascinating look at a world that aspires to glamour but which sometimes has a dark heart, and where those involved may like to think they’re making a difference and shaking up society, but where the reality is (at least for some of them) that it’s all about them and their own egos. Indeed, with some you get the impression they don’t quite realise that although they may be the stars of their world, that world is smaller and less unique than they’d like to think.
That’s not true of everyone, including one of the most successful of the drag queens, who freely admits that he’d like to hang up his heels, but that he needs the money it brings. It’s difficult not to wonder if the drag world eventually becomes a cul-de-sac, which once you’ve found success in it, it’s difficult to find a way out.
It’s also true that it’s a world where real talent can emerge, such as Scottee, whose shows – which dig deep into his own wounded past – appear to show real insight, flair and originality.
Whether you’re a fan of drag or not, Dressed As A Girl is well worth a look. It’s a film that may seem to confirm some of your ideas about this world, both positive and negative, but is also likely to make you think of it in different ways, as well as to realise that when you’re dealing with real people things may be more complex than the boxes we’d like to put people in, especially those who don’t fit into the mainstream.
Overall Verdict: London’s East End drag scene turns out to be a more interesting subject than you might expect, with Dressed As A Girl revealing a world that is as shallow as it is complex, as stereotypical as it is unique and as thought-provoking as it is egocentric.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac