Why Men Wear Frocks
Ch4 9pm Wednesday 16th February 2005
The first intimation I had that Grayson Perry wanted to make an innovative and somewhat unique documentary on the subject of why men (or more to the point, himself) wear frocks was contained in a phone call that I received back in early Summer 2004 from the executive producer of Twofour Productions. It seemed that Grayson Perry, transvestite potter and winner of the Turner Prize in 2002 felt that he wanted to explain why he had the need to wear female clothing. His theory is that it is a 'flight from the stresses of masculinity and it is this that we should attend to and not the crossdressing.' He had approached a production company with the idea of making the documentary which was to become the film that we watched on Channel Four just a few weeks ago.
As word of the intention to get the documentary commissioned spread there was a great deal of resistance to participate in it from the usual personalities who appear in similar programmes. Such was the opposition to Grayson Perry's representation of Transvestism through the wearing of stylised little girls dresses, coupled with paedophilic images of children that were embedded in the artwork on his winning pot, that many shied away from any involvement with the film. This attitude created a huge difficulty in obtaining enough contributors, particularly wives and partners, so that the producers' net was cast far and wide into the very heart of the trannie world. Fortunately Grayson already had a loyal following of fellow transvestites who knew him as Claire in his alter ego and the Scarborough Harmony weekend became the setting for several scenes that encompassed the 'normalities' of the transvestite lifestyle. The Scarborough Harmony weekend is run by Martine Rose of Roses Repartee fame and the forum on their website now runs to 41 pages (at the time of writing) on this thread alone.
Grayson opens the film by observing that most people know what a transvestite is, "they are part of Britain's oldest sub-cultures, shy exotic creatures of the night stumbling to the bus stops in the dark". Having been on several Harmony weekends myself in the past, watching those scenes were for me, very nostalgic. For the less informed viewing public they became a source of delight, (according to many of my friends who 'happened to catch it') and they were almost mesmerised by the images of such an assortment of males fully attired in all manner of female clothing, make up and most of all ATTITUDE! Where were the guilty, ashamed types that one heard about (but never saw of course)? These girls just wanna have fun and they certainly knew how to enjoy themselves to the limit, regardless of the fact that half of them are probably very familiar with a pension book and bus pass. My Cambridge TG friends (some of whom were there) were watching en masse in our local pub and whooped with joy as Martine Rose gave a Dick Emery stumble on the steps and they also took great pride in the fact that they stopped the traffic along the sea front, totally oblivious to the possibility of a sudden surge in RTA's in Scarborough that day.
Grayson as Claire starts with a short explanation of the etiquette expected of the Harmony guests and the standards of dress and appearance that they wished to maintain throughout the weekend. All very matter-of-fact with short cameos by some brave souls such as Yasmine who was an ex-Security officer and took her name from a Baywatch character; an engineer who likened himself to Dolly Parton, ("you'd never see her going shopping in jeans and trainers" - a cliché in itself) and a Gloria Hunniford type. Grayson's own role model turned out to be newsreader Fiona Bruce whose 'groomedness' he responds to, thus adding a new adjective to the English language, at least for the duration of the evening. Sunday morning saw many sad trannies packing away their finery and already planning the next opportunity to wear it again.
Claire maintained her autobiographical details throughout the film, linking the different themes to horror films such as Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs which portray transvestites as 'sickos' in such a ritualistic and clichéd way and, as such, caused a great deal of confusion for a 15-year old growing up in suburban Essex. He identified positively with Dick Emery's 'Mandy' who he describes as 'a funny bloke who looks ridiculous'. He still couldn't make his mind up as a teenager whether it was about the fact that he wanted 'that dress' or whether he was like him. When he first saw Little Britain's 'crap TV' Emily Howard he thought 'oh no, they've got it right, they've beadily explored everything down to her old fashioned dress sense and ridiculous hair' Reference was of course made to the tricky decision on which toilet to use as featured in the Little Britain clip used to illustrate the comic tradition while gently mocking the subject in an innocent way.
Grayson's attempt to imbue an element of honesty into the film becomes an endearing feature of his presentation. He admits that for him, a man in a frock is an intrinsically funny thing. He is particularly forthcoming about the sexual component apportioned to crossdressing, suggesting that it's like an elephant in the room, it's certainly there but no one's talking about it. I was roped in as the wives and partners response, my scene being filmed in the less exotic London's King's Cross, as opposed to chilly Scarborough in November, where I would really have loved to have been. Selected TVs waxed eloquently on the subject in general. One wanted to be fancied as a woman because it brought an erotic element to her dressing experience while others maintained that they weren't seeking sexual attention from men. 'So who from?' observes Grayson which keeps the viewers glued to the next part. I felt that it was a suitable time to mention that wives and partners as heterosexual women usually found it difficult to respond to a submissive husband or lover - it is like asking a right handed person to become left handed. Nothing controversial there then.
The motorbiking section at Brands Hatch could have fallen down badly had it just have been a vehicle for 'look how macho we blokes are, you can see we are not gay' Instead it took the stereotypical excuses straight into the epicentre of the leathered arena and came up with examples of gay and bi-sexual men as well as straight ones who apart from their love of motorcycling, admitted to their narcissistic delight in matching their bikes and clothing to create an attractive image that enhanced their masculinity and sexuality. Nevertheless it was agreed by everyone that the adrenalin addiction that Grayson has as a motorcyclist is matched by the thrill of going out in women's clothes and risking the wrath of the public. The motorcycling however remains less scary than walking down the street crossdressed for the first time or coming out to the wife it seems. This is in turn promoted by the narrow range of acceptable male options. Bikers wearing leathers has a manly display element which is theatrical and they are zipping themselves into another world; "after all it might be the last world you're ever in" commented one sage.
No-one can say that this programme dragged; I know that there was far more material filmed than could ever have made it into this particular production. Claire admits on her posting on Roses Forum that 90% ended up on the cutting room floor. This is the way of film making; it's not because the footage isn't any good but it's often because good as it is, it isn't fitting in with the theme. However, such was the richness of the clips that were used that it was easy to overlook the philosophical element that ran throughout the film. Why DO men wear frocks? Our hero certainly has a very plausible approach to the subject. He sees the descent into feminine role as a "flight from masculinity where men are the most pressured gender and where exclusively masculine things are negative i.e. military pursuits".
The film was crammed with the familiar trappings of femininity, wedding dresses, gowns, models, make up and hair do's and the inevitable history lesson from publisher Peter Farrer with his wonderful collection of more than 300 gowns (no mere frocks these). Claire was also able to indulge herself at the Victorian Costume Collection in the London Museum while the gender role reversal that started in Victorian times was explained, the crux of which was that it was women crossdressing as men to attain a higher social status that was the dominant form of crossdressing in Victorian times. As women were encouraged to become more and more feminine, vulnerable and helpless, men felt pushed into the opposite extreme of being cold, brutal and unattainable. Eventually women felt that it was necessary to take on a masculine appearance while men began the retreat from ultimate masculinity. There is a large collection of publications from this era based on the growing awareness by men of the wonderful benefits of corsets etc and their need to find fellow enthusiasts to share their secret with.
A visit to Nick Fouldes, author of The Last of the Dandies gave us an insight into another alternative male way to wear silks, satins and velvet while not crossing the gender divide. Nick agreed that the textures of these materials were the ultimate pleasure to wear but admitted that he never felt the need to cross over into wearing women's clothes. Grayson commented that he felt that a particular form of male was someone he called the 'exquisite' who's sensitive masculinity was the nearest bedfellow to his own sensitivity as a transvestite woman.
However the most controversial and most talked about element concerned a visit by Grayson to meet Charlotte, an emerging transsexual woman who was self-medicating via the internet. It soon became obvious that Grayson was very cynical about her motivations behind wishing to leave the male identity permanently and a flustered Charlotte found herself becoming defensive in the face of his interrogations. What should have been a device for explaining the emotional difference between being TV and TS culminated with them appearing to be mostly the same except that Charlotte would quite like to get rid of her penis. Not surprisingly the rest of TS society in the UK at that moment hit the internet chatrooms to complain bitterly that Charlotte was not a good example of most TS's and she had put the TS cause back 10 years. These postings can be viewed on Rose's Forum and also UKAngels. Many TV's also felt that the footage didn't do the cause for either side any good.
All very confusing for the uninitiated viewer and probably the bravest, or possibly the most foolhardy scene that was filmed was where Grayson met a group of 6th Formers in an inner-city school, the leader of whom was a black youth called Osama who entered into the spirit of post-puberty reasoning by saying "if you're not gay that's OK, but I admit I pre-judged you." Jamal notes that "you notice transvestites, it's a weird subject - you just don't say anything out of respect" The group freely admitted that at their age they weren't likely to be politically correct and in their culture at least you don't give into doing things that are wrong just because you feel like it. They defended masculinity to the hilt; for them being a man means being at the top, although they admit that there is a lack of a patriarchal society where men have all the power. They had very clear ideas about what being male is all about and one boy commented that women are allowed to wear men's clothes all the time, that's considered OK and they aren't called transvestites.
(This argument is not new but then women don't usually have the feelings that necessitate taking on a full male persona. For us it JUST clothes, we remain female whatever we wear).
A quick visit to a Goth group found the real girls there being very attracted to men who wore make-up within the Goth culture, describing them as being pretty and sexy, while the men described themselves as 'pretty boys, not transvestite' and Claire indulged herself as a fellow Goth for the night.
Another observation came from a real girl called Jodie who runs Boudoir, a dressing service for transvestites. She perceived trannies as being 'lucky really, they can escape the pressures of everyday life and be someone else. I can't do that" All the TV's featured at Boudoir agreed that they didn't enjoy their male side to any great extent with one of them explaining that a night out with the boys with its attendant boozing etc was actually rather sad and she avoided it when she could. Jodie described how the TV's when dressed air kissed each other in greeting but shook hands when they returned somewhat reluctantly to male mode. She described how a particular transvestite told her that when dressed he got rid of his aggressive side and the transvestite came back in agreement, readily admitting that in the past he hadn't always treated women well.
Why Men Wear Frocks consisted of an hour's intensive research into masculinity and as such was successful in explaining that being a man means different things to different people. Being a transvestite woman means rejecting masculinity for a period of time whether it be a couple of hours or a whole divine weekend. Somehow Grayson brought those elements into play to take an enjoyable and fascinating tour through the world of men, and men who don't want to be men all the time. He says that the risk of being thought 'gay' makes life harder for men than for women. Somewhere along the line he referred to gay men as shirt lifters which hasn't gone down too well with them and there seemed to have been regular references to the inherent heterosexuality of transvestites. Does he protest too much? He suggests that transvestites are either a glimpse of the future or a blast from the past.
He constantly describes the men's world as being 'roughty, toughty, cruel and harsh, and throughout there are references to men's hard and soft sides. Often he displays a sad demeanour following an interview with one participant or another as if to say, "well I didn't find what I was looking for there". He suggests that in their clumsy and slightly humourous way, transvestites are a most graphic example that men are under pressure and are quite brave for putting up with a load of stick. The final scene follows him through Leicester market where he is cat called, jeered and whistled at which he accepts as inevitable. After all he says, transvestites are just trying to be whole people, just trying to be themselves and that symbolically, there's something UP with being a man.
I wasn't totally convinced that Grayson or Claire found themselves to any great degree during the filming of the great adventure that the documentary became. Having said that I was very happy with the end result even though it didn't really tell us what we don't already know. Grayson made no reference to the pot and its graphics; neither did he try to explain why he wears little girls dresses. What he did get over to the public was the need to withdraw from masculinity from time to time and create a place where he could leave those pressures behind. In that capacity he could shift his age group to a younger or more innocent time, at least temporarily. At the same time, slightly confusingly, he oft stated his willingness to be a man at other times as in his conversation with Charlotte the Transsexual woman. I felt that he was happy to leave the rest up to the imagination of the viewers. My lasting impression is of a gentle and sensitive man who feels forced to prove his masculinity all the time and can't quite understand why. He wants transvestites to be seen as brave men and one day men will be able to do anything in the male role.
One friend who enjoys a casual friendship with a man who crossdresses, told me that she felt that the film was a refreshing approach which dealt with the subject both in an historical and sensitive way while being 'zingy, up to date and trendy, exploring everything much more positively'. I couldn't agree more.
NB. The programme clocked up 1.9 m viewers in comparison to the usual Ch 4 haul of 1.4.m and will probably repeated at a later date.
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