Thursday 16 May 2013

Why Men Wear Frocks - Final Part

In the final part of this series of blog posts, I finish off discussing Grayson Perry's thought-provoking documentary, Why Men Wear Frocks.

I was wondering when he was going to start talking about bridal dresses, and here he goes. The segment is short, but the insights are quite profound:
Perry: The wedding dress is the last bastion in our society of the fantasy, frilly, feminine, properly symbolic frock. But I had a feeling it was dying out even here. For entirely understandable reasons, many women don't really believe in it any more. What strikes me is that, it's almost like this idea of the feminine, the princess, the bride, is so foreign to the woman's normal every day experience, that it's become theatricalised. For me, for a tranny, dresses are symbols of vulnerability and innocence and submissiveness and things that men don't have access to. There's something about putting on a dress that instantly gives me permission to act out those feelings.
Cecilia Sand
There is a transvestite obsession with bridal dresses. In fact, there are whole social events devoted to crossdressers and the trappings of weddings, such as this one in the UK. Sites like YouTube and Flickr are absolutely stuffed with images of them. My own view is that some transvestites seek out archetypes of femininity (the schoolgirl, the maid, the bride) and attempt to pursue that. If a woman can be pampered and beautified from top to toe on her wedding day, and wear the most expensive dress of her life, to look the most beautiful that she can be, I can understand why a transvestite would want the same. From what I see on the Web, some of them spend a lot of time and money to get the right look, and some of them, it has to be said, look amazing (such as Cecilia Sand here).

On the other hand, I feel vaguely uncomfortable about it all. Though I understand the desire to wear a bridal dress, I just can't help thinking it's a bit too strange for me. And it's interesting to hear Perry talk about his idea that even among women, the idea of the wedding dress is dying out.

For the next part of his documentary, Grayson seeks to explore the idea of crossdressing among the young. I have to say, I tend to associate crossdressing with older men (What is my definition of older? Older than me!) and this fits with the autogynephilia model quite well. What also fits is the idea that autogynephilia is universal; in other words, young men have it too. My niggling suspicion is that they might just get on and do it, but call it something else, in order to spare themselves the discomfort of associating with the established crossdressing scene.
Perry: It's not just traditional femininity that's in decline. I wondered how much the rigid gender distinctions, which transvestites are responding to, really meant to young people today. I spent a night out on the goth scene.
Perry: What do you think about the kind of boys who would wear makeup?
Goth girl 1: We love them very much.
Goth girl 2: We like the boys who wear makeup.
Perry: What do you like about them?
Goth girl 3: They look very pretty.
Goth girl 1: They are pushing boundaries, plus they are much more attractive.
Perry: What I'm interested in, is: are trannies dissolving into youth culture? I mean, would you call yourself a tranny?
Goth boy: I don't think so, no. I'm just a pretty boy.
In this segment, Perry (himself bedecked in ribbons and bows) is talking to a group of young people, more or less identically kitted out in long hair and heavy makeup. And there they are: young men wearing lipstick and eyeshadow and nail varnish, with plucked eyebrows and long hair and ribbons. I am certain they would be horrified to be called transvestites, but from a certain perspective, that's exactly what they are. I think cosplay is another means by which adolescent boys can simultaneously dress up as girls and pretend they are not transvestites.
Gregory Gorgeous; no, he really is a boy

In my email correspondence, I have touched on the topic of whether crossdressing is gradually becoming acceptable, even cool, among young people. I think a reasonable summary of the consensus is that crossdressing is now cool, as long as it's not my dad who's doing it. I think it's easy to talk about "young people" as if they are a homogeneous group; but of course, they are as widely different in their views as everybody else! Still, it seems clear that people like Gregory Gorgeous are raising both the profile and the acceptability of crossdressing for young men.
Perry: It would be great if everyone could act as masculine or as feminine as they felt like, without worrying about the gender divide. And if that ever happened, then perhaps there wouldn't be much point in being a transvestite. In the meantime, there are some lessons I've learned from being a tranny. You don't have to bind to the rigid distinctions between maleness and femaleness we've inherited from the Victorians to see that we could all benefit from sampling a bit more of the whole emotional range.
Perry: I think what I've learned from being a transvestite, over the years, is that it is all about finding myself as a man. It's like there's a part of me, my original male self, that was uncomfortable, so it kind of jumped ship somehow. The way that it manifested was transvestism, a kind of package of feelings and behaviours that had been somehow banished from my kingdom of masculinity, and so they lived in this island off the coast, if you like, called transvestism.
Perry talks of himself here (and throughout the documentary) as being a man, albeit one who (like me) lacks an outlet for his feminine feelings. This ties up quite neatly with similar ideas I've brought up elsewhere on this blog, that crossdressing is driven by masculinity, not femininity.
Perry: I think I've had a fair experience of what is on offer to the transvestite, and it's always kind of like: am I emotionally satisfied with the experience? And I always think it's a crude way of dealing with something that I think could be dealt with more graciously or almost gracefully in my everyday life, and so when I'm out dressed, it's good enough, but often I come home thinking... (pauses) at my core level I'm a little bit unsatisfied with the experience.  
This is another point I wanted to bring out. I like to think of myself as a wholly rational being, whilst also being fully aware that I am not one; indeed probably nobody is. The rational part of my brain asks me, as I am dressing: what possible benefit from this activity could there be? It doesn't solve any problems. It doesn't change anything. Meanwhile the emotional part of my brain says: because it feels absolutely wonderful, it relaxes me, it alleviates my stresses. And afterwards, instead of just looking back and enjoying it, I usually feel a little bit guilty. Couldn't that time have been better spent somehow? I am forced to agree with Perry that, deep down, crossdressing is a slightly unsatisfying activity. What a powerful insight.
Perry: I think what transvestites are trying to do, sometimes in a clumsy, slightly humorous way, and sometimes not with the greatest self-awareness, but often very elegantly and interestingly, are trying to be whole people that show their whole selves. And I think that's a great thing, I think that's an aim for all of us. Maybe transvestites are the most graphic example of the pressures that men are under, and the role that men are expected to fulfil. I think they are showing us something of what men could be. I'm not saying that men should wear dresses, it's just that symbolically they are saying: there's something up with being a man.
Throughout this documentary, Perry has shown great sympathy and tolerance for all the people he has met (with the possible exception of Charlotte). In turn, he has been treated with respect; for example by Dr Oriole Cullen, herself a very beautiful woman. People don't seem to notice that Perry is interviewing them in a dress (in the case of Cullen, a very lavish and elaborate one).

In my very first post about him, I quoted Perry as saying: "Other transvestites think I'm the wrong sort of weirdo because they don't like my dresses". I just wanted to explore that a little more. In this documentary, he has seemingly liked, and been liked by, everyone. Nobody seems to have been bothered by his dresses at any point. In fact, since it was screened he has become even more popular and widely-known.

The themes of this documentary ring out: crossdressing can be sexy; it's a compulsion; it's a symbolic act, it's about escaping the expectations of masculinity, and it's all about the emotion. I absolutely agree with all of that. In this documentary Perry comes across as tolerant, compassionate, sensitive and deeply insightful.

I still struggle with his little girl image, though. If you Google Perry, you can see pictures of him in every situation, but the commonest types of pictures seem to be him dressed like a little girl (even when he met the Queen). If we accept the words of his own mouth; that for Perry, wearing this sort of attire is symbolic, and about emotion, then one can see that he is doing it to express those things to be found in little girls: purity, innocence, cuteness, vulnerability; perhaps even playfulness or mischief. On the other hand, I feel very strongly that those things belong to little girls; they don't belong to grown men. And I guess that grown men need to accept there are some things they just can't have.

I draw a parallel here with Michael Jackson. I accept that, because of his painful upbringing, Jackson spent much of his adult life trying to recapture his lost childhood, partly by reliving it vicariously through small children. Even so, him spending the night with children is not OK, whichever way you cut it. Likewise, I understand Perry's wishes to escape the confines of traditional masculinity (in this, I am right with him!) but to dress up as a little girl is, for me, the wrong way to go about it.

At some point, I will get round to reading Perry's autobiography, and then perhaps I will understand him a little better, and will be able to talk about him a little more. For now, however, I have tried your patience long enough, and I promise to write about something different next time!

Tuesday 14 May 2013

Why Men Wear Frocks - Part Three

In case you are wondering, I am carving up Grayson Perry's documentary, Why Men Wear Frocks, into arbitrary, bite-sized chunks. In this next segment, Perry meets transsexual Charlotte, and later considers the history of crossdressing.
Perry: Although I've been dressing up as a woman all my life, it's never made me feel any less a man. But some men feel so alienated from the whole business that they don't see themselves as men any more. I was on my way to meet Charlotte, who is a transsexual, or TS. He's been taking female hormones which he buys over the internet, and is contemplating gender reassignment surgery-- the chop. Transvestites and transsexuals don't always see eye to eye.
Throughout this documentary, Perry has met with all sorts of people, and been comfortable and relaxed in their presence. In this interview, there is a noticeable tension hanging in the air; it's hard to know whether that comes from Charlotte, or from Perry himself. Rather than laughing about shared viewpoints, they slightly bicker. And notice his somewhat impolite use of pronouns in the intro above. Charlotte is a young slim person with long hair, earrings, breasts and minimal makeup. She is wearing a T-shirt and jeans. Watching Charlotte is like watching one of those optical illusions where the image looks first one way, then the other.

Applying the autogynephilia template, I consider that Charlotte is an autogynephilic. That means that Perry is right in all of the conversation which follows, and I can understand Charlotte's irritation with his line of reasoning. (If you speak American, read "hood" where Perry says "bonnet").
Charlotte: I wouldn't feel that aggrieved not to have a penis.
Perry: Really? I would be horrified.
Charlotte: It's not the be-all and end-all of things though.
Perry: (pauses) No.
Charlotte: It's a case of having the balls, or lack of them, to go further.
Perry: So you think it's quite a macho thing to do then, to have a sex change?
Charlotte: No, I said "or lack of them". It's a very brave decision. You're assimilating being brave with being a man.
Perry: (pauses) Often I feel with the whole transsexual phenomenon, that it's a problem principally with men, that most transsexuals I think are men (pauses)... and it seems that they're dealing with their problems in a very male way.
Charlotte: (hesitates). Erm... Explain a male way for me.
Perry: Quite a mechanical way, quite a rational way. It's like, lift up the bonnet, change the wiring, slam down the bonnet, off you go.
Charlotte: What if it's not the bonnet end of things, what if it's the black box that controls everything else?
Perry: You do strike me as quite a typical male in many ways. The way you talk is quite forthrightly...
Charlotte: (interrupts) I'm just being assertive. Don't attach that to being a man.
Perry: So would you say that transsexuals then are, instead of putting on the clothes, they're using the surgery in the same ways that a transvestite uses the clothes?
Charlotte: I'd have said it was an interesting split between the two, but sort of, yeah. It's not the be-all and end-all of things, but generally it makes them happy. Me being sort of down that road, it would make me happy as well.
Just a couple of comments. First, taking hormones which you buy from the Internet is madness. You don't know whether you're getting pure drugs or stuff cut with talcum powder; real hormones, or worming tablets for camels. The endocrine system is like an orchestra: if you start messing with one part of the orchestra, soon you will ruin the whole symphony. If you want hormones, see a doctor! Second, I have no idea what happened to Charlotte, and it would be interesting to find out if she ever completed her transition, or what she is up to now.
Perry: Oh dear! Here come all the difficult questions. Does a bloke really have to chop off his penis to truly feel like a woman? And is it all a bit old-fashioned and sexist to make such a big deal of the differences between men and women in any case? Is the transgender community a glimpse of the future? Or a bit of a blast from the past?
Perry: To know whether transvestism has a future, you need to know a bit about its past. Until the later part of the 19th century, crossdressing in ordinary life was an overwhelmingly female to male activity. Typically it tended to be a woman just trying to get on in a man's world. But in the Victorian age, the traffic started to switch direction. Since then transvestism has become an overwhelmingly male to female behaviour. So what was it about the Victorian age which led to the flowering of transvestism? Peter [Farrer, historian] had talked about the intoxicating rustle of silks and taffetas, but it had to be about something more. It had to be about the emotions the clothes gave you access to. Dr. Oriole Cullen showed me round the Victorian costume collection at the Museum of London. For her, it's a vital scholarly resource; for me it was an erotic treasure trove.
Fanny and Stella, Victorian entertainers
Throughout this segment, we are shown dozens of photographs of Victorian transvestites. All of them have taken great care with their appearance, their hair, their clothing, their posture. And then they have their picture taken, professionally. And some of them are dazzling; their pictures made all the more extraordinary by being over a century old. These people are just like me! Someone must have found those photos and collected them all together.

And it's interesting that, once again, Perry links clothes with the emotional impact they create.
Perry: The growing gender distinctions of the clothes reflected what was going on in society generally. As the Victorians increasingly corralled all the softer emotions, vulnerability, innocence, gentleness, beauty into an exclusively feminine realm, men were cast as stoical, butch, practical providers, and dressed accordingly. Is it any wonder that some men started to want to cross over? For me, what the Victorians wore is the most striking example of how clothes can come to symbolise complex emotions. But from a transvestite point of view, it's been downhill all the way since then. Walk down any high street in Britain, and you'll be hard pushed to find visions of femininity to latch onto. Perhaps transvestites are the last Victorians, the last people to believe in the symbolic dimension of women's clothes.
I find it interesting that Perry should link transvestism to Victoriana in this way. One day I found myself listening to this BBC podcast, created by comedian Phil Jupitus, who explores the theme of Steampunk. If you haven't heard of Steampunk, where have you been for the last 200 years? It's a combination of the Victorian aesthetic with modern technology; imagine your computer as a thinking engine powered by steam, and you get the idea. Steampunks hark back to the Victorian era, in terms of engineering, civilisation, scientific inquiry... and clothing.

Kaeldra-1. Do ya feel steamy, Punk?
I have always loved Steampunk, even before it had a name. As a student, I spent hours in an old corner of the University library poring through real Victorian science and medicine texts. In those days, a scientist could reasonably hope to master more than one discipline, and many did, making contributions to several fields. (These days, it is sometimes said, scientific expertise is divided finer and finer. We will all go on knowing more and more about less and less, until we all eventually know everything about nothing at all). I used to imagine myself sitting in on meetings of the Royal Society, puzzling over some ancient fossil bone, or peering down a microscope at some fascinating beetle.

In Victorian times, science and engineering and mathematics were expanding enormously, and they built great cathedrals of science: museums and universities and observatories, in all the major cities of the Empire. Scientific instruments were not merely purposeful, they were beautiful: craftsman-made of brass and mahogany. For the first time ever, science was exciting, and sexy. I suspect for many scientists, like me, it has never been quite the same, and I suspect I am not the only one who would love to trade in his laptop for a slide-rule; his biro for a quill pen and a bottle of iron-gall ink; and his car for a coach and four-- at least for a short time.

Of course, this is all a rose-tinted illusion. The Victorian era was riddled with disease, squalor, poverty, misery, slavery and enormous human suffering, on a scale never before seen. But still it grips us.

The Steampunk movement encompasses people of all ages and stripes; it is not confined to the young, or the alienated. Jupitus finds one Steampunk who talks about drugs: "Do we have drugs in Steampunk? I don't think so. Tea, perhaps. Or snuff!" For many Steampunks, it is about the costume play; for others, it's about the history; for others (like me), the science. If you browse through the forum at Brass Goggles here, you find many examples of Steampunks crossdressing. Interestingly, as Perry remarks above, many of the girls seem to enjoy dressing up in male attire, though not unexpectedly, there seem to be a fair few boys who want to dress up in female attire too. Phil Jupitus interviewed one in his documentary; though since it was radio, we couldn't see the costume!

Though I adore Victoriana, I am not really a Steampunk. I've never been to a gathering; never worn a pair of goggles. Though I have once driven a mainline steam locomotive, and I did once strip down a magnificent brass Victorian microscope, clean it, polish the lenses, and reassemble it. So I suppose I do have some credentials. If being a crossdresser makes me one of the last of the Victorians, put me down for that! God save the Queen!

For the final in this series, click here.

Why Men Wear Frocks - Part Two

Tracie's Story interrupted my full flow about Grayson Perry's documentary, Why Men Wear Frocks. Do please read Part 1 first! In this second part of the documentary, Perry considers the relationship between bikers and transvestites, and later, the relationship between dandies and transvestites.

I have realised as I have written this post that most of it comes from Perry himself (or his interview subjects). In a way, that's OK. I think Perry has tremendously powerful points to make, and really this post is about teasing them out a little and exploring them a bit more closely.
Perry: So what is it about being a man today that makes some men so desperate to be women? All men live in a fantasy world, to a greater or lesser extent. It's just that some fantasies are seen as suitably masculine while others are unacceptably feminine. As well as being a transvestite, I'm also a biker. The two things seem to me to have more in common than you might think. I think the two things have in common a sort of adrenaline addiction, really. There's also an element of display as well. I mean, looking at biker leathers, they're quite theatrical.
Biker: I knew exactly what bike I wanted. I knew what colour I wanted the bike. And I guess for sheer vanity I knew I also wanted my helmet and outfit to match. Yeah, maybe it's the whole costume thing, isn't it? You're a bit freer. You've been set loose by the costume that you're wearing, and you're able to be something a bit different. Maybe. (laughs).
Perry: Whatever they say, all men dress to get particular kinds of attention. It's not unique to transvestites. It's just that the acceptable range you can display as a man is quite narrow. Talking to these guys, there's a lot of parallels between transvestism and being a biker. It's just that, instead of putting on a skin of femininity, they are putting on a kind of carapace of masculinity. But it's still for show, I think. It's still about showing the world a role. This time though, it's all man.
Perry's custom made motorbike, the Kenilworth AM1
In the documentary, Perry rides a normal bike on the track. But I should have known better! Perry has had a very special motorbike commissioned for himself. There is an excellent and articulate discussion of the bike here, at The Vintagent website. Paul d'Orleans, the author of the website, writes:
Vintagent: With a matched riding suit of bright yellow boots, an outrageous lavender Peter-Pan-collar jumpsuit, and spring-green helmet, Perry's riding ensemble creates a motorcycling image which borrows nothing from anyone or anything...there's simply nobody else on the road with the cojones to wear THAT outfit while riding THAT bike. While custom shops, tattoo parlors, and clothing outlets are busy selling 'individuality', Perry has taken a brave and lonely path, to BE an individual.
I couldn't put it better myself. But back to men and frocks. I love Perry's turn of phrase: "carapace of masculinity" is a very powerful expression. I can't help thinking of people like Jan Hamilton, who tried to crush her femininity by becoming uber-masculine, a special forces soldier. It didn't work; or to be more correct it worked for a while but made her profoundly unhappy. Hamilton is, however, an extreme case. I wonder how many genuinely sensitive men hide their feelings behind badges of masculinity (bikes, trucks, guns, tattoos, football) because they feel they cannot do otherwise?
Perry: I think it's quite hard for men today, because there's an increasingly narrow bandwidth of behaviours which are seen as exclusively masculine. As women have quite rightly encroached on what used to be seen as male territory, all that's left is the negative things. There's less scope for a sensitive man to feel at home. What kind of men do we actually want boys to become?
To find out Perry visits an inner-city school, where he holds a conversation with a group of teenaged boys, who express, in a forthright and surprisingly articulate manner, their views of masculinity as it is today. But then he comes onto this topic, which is very close to my heart.
Perry: Feelings aren't intrinsically male or female. But you wouldn't know that from the imagery we see around us. It is this apartheid of the emotions that transvestites are rebelling against. But it's a rebellion that's open to everyone. I have always wondered whether I could experience some of the things I get from being a tranny without crossing the gender divide.
(There he is again with the turn of phrase: "apartheid of the emotions"). I too have often wondered the same. For the record, wearing a kilt does nothing in this regard. It just doesn't even feel like a skirt. And it's interesting how Perry associates crossdressing with its emotional content and the role of gender. Another strong theme of this blog is that I pursue crossdressing partly to escape from the masculine expectations placed upon me, in part because of the dearth of emotional expression open to men.

Perry visits a tailor in Savile Row to have a suit made, and remarks "It was lovely, but it wasn't quite doing it for me". He then goes on to explore the role of the "effortless gentleman", a man of impeccable good taste and good manners, and laments that much of this has been lost.
Perry: I think we threw out the baby with the bathwater, because there were some lovely things about those men. There's a kind of straight man that I call an "exquisite", although I fear they are a dying breed. They are dandyish men with a love of dressing up and an old-fashioned confidence in gentlemanly virtues. Deep down, heterosexual dandies strike me as transvestites' closest bedfellows.
Perry: When you were drawn to being a dandy, do you think that you were moving away from certain aspects of masculinity?
Nick Foulkes (dandy): Conventional masculinity, at the time, yes.
Perry: And what was it that you wanted to get away from?
Foulkes: The coarseness. I want life to be as Cashmere soft and as velvety smooth as I can.
Perry: You're not split?
Foulkes: No. I thought there was enough there in men's clothes to actually be getting along with. It never really occurred to me to dress up in women's clothes.
I somewhat agree with Perry about dandies, although, to the best of my knowledge, I have never met one. I have possibly met several men who might be considered an "exquisite", the kind of man who unfailingly makes me mind my manners and watch my language, and makes me feel uncomfortably inferior despite my unshakeable self-confidence and reasonable socioeconomic status. I do not aspire to being one myself!

What completely changed my view of crossdressing is the concept of autogynephilia. I think autogynephilia fits Grayson Perry just as well as it fits me. I suppose dandyism could also be a form of erotic target location error: the love of oneself in fine clothing and manners. On the other hand, it might just overlap with all sorts of other "normal" things: genuine good breeding, snobbery, ostentation. So who is to say? I think there is an overlap.

Finally, I think dandies are indeed a dying breed. But what isn't a dying breed, and in fact is extremely popular and fast-growing, is the phenomenon of Steampunk, and here dandies and trannies find a warm welcome. But that will need to wait for the next instalment.

Tracie's Story

This is something I had heard about at least a couple of years ago, when the story came out that Sean Bean, a British actor traditionally known for playing hard men and villains, was cast to play the part of a transvestite in an upcoming drama. (I wonder if they auditioned Vinnie Jones for the role?) You might know Bean from Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, or even James Bond. So naturally I couldn't wait to see it. However, down here in the bottom right hand corner of the map it's just been screened for the first time on terrestrial TV.

The drama in question is part of a UK serial, Accused, created for the BBC by screenwriter Jimmy McGovern. More specifically, it is the first episode of season 2. I haven't seen any of the other episodes, but I was so taken with the subtlety and brilliance of this one that I will be sure to take a look.
Sean Bean as Tracie

Let me say right up front that I think this is one of the best pieces of television featuring a crossdressing character that I have ever seen. It is clever, fresh, compelling and sympathetic. The dialogue sizzles (every one of Tracie's one-liners is a gem), and the characters are rounded and complex. It tackles all the issues you would expect, head on, but in ways you wouldn't expect. I am not going to spoil it for you, because I think it's just too good, but there are some points which are worthy of comment.
Tony: You get that a lot, do you? Aggro?
Tracie: Unfortunately.
Tony: So why do it?
Tracie: Because it's who I am, darlin'!
We join the action as Bean's character, Tracie Tremarco, gets all dolled up for a night on the town (Manchester), in what I wincingly regard as over-the-top drag: the long blonde hair, the short skirt, the sparkly dress, the long nails. But then we see Tracie expertly (if a little wearily) deflect the critical and mocking abuse she gets from the taxi driver and from some drunken lads in the pub. Later she picks up an apparently straight man, Tony (Stephen Graham), and they go back to Tracie's flat where they have sex.
Tony: What do you do for a living?
Tracie: Nothing, doll. Tracie's a good time girl.
Tony: So who pays for this place?
Tracie: Simon, love. The most boring man in the world.
A crossdressing academic, you say? Whatever next?
By day, Tracie is Simon, a bored and lonely English teacher, plodding through his lacklustre life, trying to interest his disengaged students in poetry. The writer makes a reasonable effort to weave the poetry into the narrative, particularly the Lady of Shalott, Tennyson's romantic ballad of a lonely and beautiful lady who looks out of her tower window and falls in love with "bold Sir Lancelot".

Tracie is surprised and delighted when Tony turns up at her flat unexpectedly, and the two embark on a relationship, somewhat hesitantly at first. Gradually, Tracie begins to fall in love with Tony, and wants him to take her out:
Tony: I haven't got the balls to be seen out with you. But shall I tell you why? It's because you make no bleedin' effort to look like a woman. A real woman!
Tracie: I never claimed to be Cheryl bloody Cole!
Tony: I never expected you to turn into Cheryl Cole. But you're going to have to do a lot better than Old King fucking Cole if you want to be seen out in public with me. So just have a go. Eh?
Tracie: What, and you'll take me out?
As the relationship deepens, Simon gradually rediscovers his zest for life. His students look up in surprise as he reads the poetry with fire and passion. Later there is a powerful scene where Simon, walking along the street, sees Tony coming the other way, and realises Tony does not recognise him. Simon's distress is played out perfectly by Bean, without a word of dialogue being spoken.
Did anyone ever tell you you look a bit like Cheryl Cole?

Later still, Tracie visits a shopping mall for a makeover. A beautiful young woman leans in close to apply the makeup, and we follow Tracie's eyes looking at each feature of this young woman: her pearl earring, her eyes, her lips, her figure. Though we, the audience, know what's really going on in Tracie's mind, the expression on her face mirrors a recurring feeling I have often had when I compare myself to real women: how could I ever possibly hope to look half as good as that?

The theme of the series Accused is legal drama. In each episode, there is a different lead character, and we see scenes from their life as they become involved in something illegal, interspersed with tense courtroom scenes. So I am not letting any cats out of any bags by letting it slip that Bean's character ends up in court. But here is where my revelations end: if you want more, you will need to see it for yourself! It seems to be available on YouTube here. Trust me, though. You won't see all the subtlety on a single viewing.

Reviews have been extremely favourable. The Huffington Post said "Bean has rarely been better, showing a vulnerability and complexity many miles away from his usual tough-man". Metro said the show "could have played out like a cliché but thanks to a gritty, chip-on-the-shoulderpad turn from Bean, matched every uneasy flirt of the way by Stephen Graham as the tightly wound Tony, these characters worked their way under the skin. It was a little heavy on the melodrama but these emotional wounds were palpable".

Bean's performance is a triumph, especially given his background playing hard men and villains. The British tabloid press breathlessly reported that Bean had gone out dressed as a woman to research the role, as if this was somehow a surprise. However, the broadsheet press was a little more enlightened in its reporting. The Independent interviewed Bean and quoted him:
Bean: I got pretty good at [walking in high heels], walking on cobblestones and all sorts. I had a full body wax, the high heels, short skirts, bras – everything – it was proper full-on. I became totally absorbed: it was wonderful being involved in it, I just didn't want to leave it, the character. I became very close to Tracie. It's a brilliant script: very moving, very dark humour.
Who would have thought I'd have been dressing up as a woman and embracing that? It just came out of the blue and it was one of the most enjoyable things I've ever done, one of the things I'm most proud of. I just think I could never have invented that.
I congratulate Bean on his courage taking on this role, and for his ability to bring it to life. He manages to avoid the obvious farcical elements and provides us with a character which is portrayed sensitively and with subtlety, but with moments of wry comedy nonetheless. His performance won him the title of Best Actor at the Royal Television Society Awards.
I mean, do I look like a man in a dress?
So finally, what do I think? First, this programme is seriously bleak. Manchester is dull and grey and hostile. The only places which have light, colour and warmth seem (perhaps deliberately) to feature cosmetics, clothing, or transvestites. The character of Simon-Tracie is sordid and pathetic: a transvestite who looks ridiculous and brings home a series of men for sex. In a very real sense, Tracie had to look grotesque: we, the audience, just wouldn't have bought it if they had cast a pretty man (or a less accomplished actor) in the part. It speaks tremendously of the production team that they were able to bring this off and make us sympathise with the characters.

Second, there are aspects to the character of Tracie which don't quite sit comfortably with me, though it is plain that the writer has tried extremely hard to do his homework on the subject (hitting several nails squarely on the head with powerful lines about married men who are "curious" about transvestites). There is an odd separation between Simon and Tracie: each talks of the other in the third person, as if they were separate people. For some crossdressers, this might indeed be how they compartmentalise their lives; for me, I know it isn't.

Thirdly, Simon dresses as Tracie because he is a gay man.
Tracie: Young Simon... realised he had to tell his parents he was gay, or kill himself. So he decided having a dead son was slightly worse than having a gay one, so that's why he told them.
One of the main themes of this blog is that crossdressers are not gay, and there is plenty of justification for this view. On the other hand, I have a DVD of a 2002 documentary filmed in Manchester's gay community called The Queen's Wedding. The crew interviews several gay crossdressers, some very attractive, and some very unattractive, and the documentary culminates in the wedding of two men, one of whom wears a bridal dress for the occasion. In any case, a theme of that documentary is that some gay men do crossdress for the purposes of amusement and sex. So Tracie certainly seems to fit into that mould.

Finally, by bringing the character of Tracie to a mainstream audience, the writers are belting out a powerful and welcome message: you might find them repellent, but transvestites are human beings too.

Thursday 2 May 2013

Why Men Wear Frocks - Part One

Sorry it's been such a long time since my last post. I have been extremely occupied with (what I laughingly call) my life. You might have thought I had given up this blog: not a chance!

On the other hand, this blog has continued to do very well. In the last three months, the hit count has doubled, to more than 20,000. And I've made contact with some lovely, insightful and interesting people through the blog. Thanks to all of you for posting your comments, and sending emails, and do please keep dropping by.

One of the most successful of my posts has been the one on Grayson Perry. It has attracted well over a thousand hits, and still seems to generate a lot of traffic. Perry is one of my crossdressing heroes, a prize-winning artist, and flagrant transvestite. I finally got hold of a recording of Perry's personal crossdressing documentary, Why Men Wear Frocks, filmed in 2004, and I thought I would share my thoughts on it with you. It's full of honesty, insights and sometimes uncomfortable self-reflection.

At first, I tried to put it all in one blog post. However, there is so much material that I have decided to split it into segments.

Perry took his first outing as a woman at the age of 15. He narrates the documentary in his own distinctive voice.
Perry: You've probably glimpsed us on TV. Shy, exotic creatures of the night, stumbling to bus-stops under cover of darkness. We're one of Britain's oldest subcultures, already well-established in Victorian days. You probably know some of us already. Most of us are still in the closet. Look out for over-groomed eyebrows.
I've been a transvestite all my adult life. But I've never seen a programme that gets close to what it feels like to be one. This is what a life spent wearing frocks has taught me.
Grayson Perry (right) at Harmony Weekend 2009
Perry begins his documentary at the annual Harmony Weekend, (2004) spent in a hotel in Scarborough, a seaside resort in Britain, "for me, the quintessential way of enjoying dressing up... there is a kind of etiquette about how everyone is received. It's always very sensitive and supportive. It's very easy to forget you're in the company of blokes, ordinary blokes". He talks to several of the other girls about their occupations, and indeed they are just ordinary blokes: engineers, payroll clerks, managers.

I was amused (but not especially surprised) to hear him talk of etiquette, in a country whose two national sports are forming queues and apologising. Having been (on one single occasion) to a transvestite dinner-dance, I can see how etiquette would be essential. Some of the girls (no doubt about it) looked absolutely amazing (this is also true of the guests at Perry's weekend), but some looked obviously male, and some were very strange-looking indeed. Each of them, though, is there to be accepted regardless, and I can understand why the etiquette is that (I presume) everybody says nice things about one another's outfit, and (I am prepared to bet) everyone is required to use feminine pronouns at all times.
Perry: It's exciting dressing up as a woman, but there are problems with it. The first is: everyone thinks you're gay... or twisted... or ridiculous. There's clearly something more at stake here than dressing up to recreate historic battles at the weekends.
I slightly cringe when people say "Oh, it's just a bit of fun", because these guys are risking often their marriages, their careers, their relationship with their children and their neigbours-- not to mention their bank balance sometimes, with the size of their wardrobes. So I think it is definitely a compulsion.
Perry and the other girls take a walk along the sea front. There is a very telling segment where a large group of transvestites emerges from the hotel, and all walk down the steps and across the road. Some of them are dressed appropriately; from a distance, you wouldn't notice them. But some are dressed quite outrageously, and stand out a mile. Taken as a group, I feel there is something defiant about them ("Here we are! Out in force! Dare to stand in our way! Hear us roar!") but also forlorn: the weather is grey and gusty, and these people need to travel to this cold seaside resort in winter so that they can strut their stuff in public.

Just for the avoidance of any doubt: if it were me, in that group, I would feel excited and stimulated, and I wouldn't even notice the cold, or the wind, or the stares. For his part, Perry seems quite at home. He behaves like he belongs, and he revels in it.
Perry: Being a transvestite is a complex cocktail of motivations. It's different for everyone, but there's often a strong sexual component to crossdressing, although trannies sometimes find it hard to admit this. I feel it's like the elephant in the room. I feel it's really there, but nobody's talking about it.
Maybe it's this erotic dimension which is the hardest part for others to accept. Some wives in particular find it difficult to deal with, although others come along on the weekends.
Perry: What do you think wives think about the erotic stimulation of dressing?
Di (Jim's wife): First of all, it's all about me, isn't it? About my femininity. Am I good enough as a woman? Is he doing this because I'm not good enough? So of course, what do I do? Over the top: more eyeshadow, more lipstick, higher heels. Also because the sexual balance changes, women will describe the lesbian element. It's like, well look, I'm heterosexual. It's like asking someone who's right-handed to be left-handed.
Here we are, barely ten minutes in, and already Perry is talking about crossdressing and sexual arousal! This sets the tone for the whole documentary: Perry pulls absolutely no punches.
Perry: The high point of the proceedings is the Miss Rose Beauty Pageant, on the Saturday night. That's when the fantasies take flight. The first time I ever came on one of these weekends, I looked across the room, and there are all the kind of slightly wonky wigs and nylon and dresses, and I thought: ooh, there's a lot of pain in this room. They've all been through the mill a bit, and been on a bit of a journey to get there. They were doing their best to meet their own very emotional needs.
I could be wrong, but I think there is a person inside this.
Perry is right: the fantasies really do take flight on Saturday night. Some of the costumes in the beauty pageant are absolutely outrageous: paper parasols, white fur, and the sort of showgirl costume one might expect on stage at the Folies-Bergere. This is the sort of thing which makes me uncomfortable about being a crossdresser. I completely understand the desire to wear costumes of that kind, but the reason I don't is that I would feel more foolish and ridiculous and grotesque than attractive. If I were there, I wouldn't enter the beauty pageant, but would be content to wear a simple evening dress and sit watching from a corner sipping gin and tonic.

Perry's comment about "a lot of pain in this room" is extremely powerful and insightful. It says a lot about him that he can see past the "wonky wigs" to the people behind; I expect I would have some difficulty doing this. Without doubt, he is right. They have all been through the mill. We all have.

"Doing their best to meet their own very emotional needs". I couldn't sum up my attitude to crossdressing better in a single sentence.
Perry: Sunday morning. Time to pack the frocks away again. It can seem quite cruel going back to the toughty-roughty world of men after being in the company of some rather lovely ones. And I think it's painful that we do invest such a lot of emotion in often rather brief glimpses of [pauses reflectively] ...happiness.
In the next part of the documentary, Perry visits a motorcycle track day, and interviews some of the bikers. We will cover that in the next blog post.

But my final point is this one (touched on in my correspondence with Georgia from Broadblogs). It's not a question of why men wear frocks, but why women wear frocks? Quite a lot of women's clothing and accessories are impractical, uncomfortable, and amazingly expensive. Manicured nails are lovely, but some women have them so long they can't easily use a phone, or a keyboard, or open a car door. Women's clothing can, of course, be practical and comfortable as well as gorgeous, but quite a lot of it isn't. Why should this be? What's going on there?

For the next in this series of posts, click here.

The image of Grayson Perry from the Harmony Weekend 2009 was taken from Flickr here. The other person in the image is Jill Kaylee-Yvonne. The image of the white dress from the Harmony Weekend 2004 was taken from Flickr here, and belongs to Saralegs.