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
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?