Black Men Wearing Dresses vs White Men Wearing Dresses

This article came to be after I watched a video clip of Dave Chapelle talking about a time he refused to wear a dress in a movie. He went on to explain that he felt that Hollywood always tried to put strong black men in dresses for amusement value and that it was, on some level, degrading to black men. “They put every black man in the movies in a dress at some point in his career,” Chapelle says.

This leaves us with several charged questions. Is Hollywood's habit of putting black male actors in women's clothing an attempt to feminize and mock them? Is it simply innocent fun? And is it, on any level, racist? Does Hollywood not also put white men in dresses on occasion as well?

The last question can be answered first and very simply. Yes, Hollywood also puts white male actors in drag.Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which featured Hugo Weaving (he played Agent Smith in The Matrix,) and To Wong Foo, featuring Patrick Swayze

(though it must also be noted that Wesley Snipes also starred in To Wong Foo) are two movies that immediately leap to mind as having male protagonists who wear dresses throughout much of the film. The Rocky Horror Picture show is another movie that features a heavy dose of cross dressing as pulled off by Tim Curry, who is nothing if not divinely masculine.

However, there is a bit of a difference between the way white male cross dressers are portrayed and the way black cross dressers are portrayed.

Watch this little video clip to get a handle on Chapelle's point of view.

In the instances where white men play cross dressers, cross dressers are often portrayed as noble, fun souls. To Wong Foo and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert both humanize cross dressers and portray them as men anyone could have empathy for.

In the case of the many of the black men in the clips, cross dressing is carried out only as an amusing gag, as something to be pointed and laughed at. 'Haha, look at the black man in the dress.' There's no deeper meaning, there's no exploration of social issues, the dialog the movie has with the audience is entirely puerile and dependent on an adherence to conventional stereotypes to work.

So, I would say that Chapelle had a good point when he refused to wear the dress. Not because wearing a dress automatically makes a man a feminized goon to laugh at, but because it would appear that many (not all, but many) portrayals of black men in dresses are conducted only in order to subvert their masculinity in a way that is not respectful, nor interesting, nor particularly interesting.

Personally, I don't think this isn't really a race issue. It's a respect issue. On the one hand, you can represent cross dressers in such a fashion that the audience actually thinks about the issues to do with gender and dress. On the other, you can turn it into a lame gag that is nothing short of offensive. A man wearing a dress shouldn't be a joke in and of itself any more than a woman wearing jeans should be a joke in and of itself. So although Chapelle and I come at this issue from two very different viewpoints, we come to a similar conclusion.

What say you?

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Comments 7 comments

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foxxyz69 6 years ago from Niles Ohio

Hi Alexander, I'm not sure that Chapelle remembers that he has played a woman on his own show, and some of his favorite idols, have played drag. Like Richard Pryor, in Jo Jo dancer, your life is calling, and the Flip Wilson show. The Martin Lawrence show. People need to think before they speak. I'm of color myself, and i find this not racial at all. Thank you!


Doug 6 years ago

I think Dave Chapelle is the funniest comedian out there. If he doesn't want to wear a dress, I'll certainly give him a pass, but I can't see any racial motivation for it.


rman 6 years ago

Hi Alexander, I don't think that this racial at all as well. I think that hollywood is trying to push the envelope a little bit and it is also for humor. Most people tend to make assumptions on a lot of subjects, when they see or hear certain things. That is the problem with society today. Also most people also have a one track mind and they are not going to change for nothing. But it is a free country, so people are going to do what they want. Thanks again Hope.


Mara Sophia 6 years ago

White men make a better "woman" than black men, is a fact. And the reason could be that black women try to resemble white women while black men don´t try to resemble white men; so is a double task for black men to resemble a woman.


AMM 6 years ago

I doubt that the producers of these films deliberately set out to "subvert black men's masculinity." I doubt that they think very much at all about the context of what they produce. But just because they aren't conscious of it doesn't mean they aren't influenced by society's attitudes about race. Black males are seen as dangerous by (white) society just for being black and male, so when they are dressed up to look ridiculous (and therefore not threatening), the laughs are laughs of relief.

The commenter who wrote "White men make a better 'woman' than black men, is a fact" hasn't been looking at a lot of black men. I work in NYC, and when I ride the subway, I see plenty of black men who look look an awful lot like a lot of black women -- only their clothing, hair style, etc., identifies them as men. Some men (like me), both black and white, would never be able to pass as any kind of women, but plenty of men (both black and white) certainly can.

"Most comedians are laid back about race...." I'm sure most _white_ comedians are -- they're not on the receiving end of the racism. And most black comedians learn not to complain too loudly about racism -- comedians, and especially black comedians, have a hard enough time getting any kind of work without having the added burden of being seen as trouble-makers. But those black comedians who are successful enough to be able to take risks have often spoken out about the racism they face on a daily basis. And many black comedians make the racism they see a basis for their comedy routines.


RAY 6 years ago

It is definitely racial when seeing a black man in a dress is inherently funny. Does black + man + dress = funny? The fact that legends such as Flip Wilson and Richard Pryor had to do this type of comedy adds to Dave's argument not against it. Just because they are legends doesn't mean they didn't experience pressure from entertainment exec's to perform in certain ways. Martin, Jamie, Eddie, and Tyler all play women in their movies and television shows. Yet, the roles they play (i.e. Shanana, Wanda, Big Momma, Raspucia, and Madea) are all stereotypical representations of black women as Jezebels and Mammies. The fact that the people it’s stereotyping find it funny is more disturbing than anything else.


Sarajan 6 years ago

I don't think it's really about feminizing men. It's about mocking women. Mocking black women.

If people think some of these women are outrageous, and hilarious in their scandalousness, well black men are only serving to promote that stereotype when they wear outrageous clothing and act like a crazy-no-morals-no boundaries kind of black women.

Chappelle not wearing a dress was a good decision. His motives were more selfish though. There's a bigger picture here.

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