Published: Aug. 10, 2005 By

My inspiration for the script came from watching the religious right videotape The Gay Agenda.  There’s a scene where they show drag queens going through a town, and the narrator is warning viewers that these people will take over your town, and I thought, ‘Well, that would be fun.’

– Douglas Carter Beane, Screenwriter, 
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar

[1] As the three main characters of the film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar pull out of the used car lot in the Cadillac convertible they intend to buy, the dealer implores them to reconsider, “Wait.  It’s a wreck.”  In response to this, the dominant lead, Vida, says to her friends, “Well pumpkins, it looks like it comes down to that age-old decision: style or substance.”  The film shifts to a shot of the three “drag queens” looking at a mirror’s reflection of themselves in the car while they strike a pose that signifies pondering, and the audience understands that for these three, it will always be about “style.”  The style thatTo Wong Foo‘s drag queens reflects, a style devoid of connections to power and place, indicates that this very split is a substantive problem.  The Douglas Carter Beane quote that frames this article indicates issues of gay rights and social power that this film covers over with its romp into style.  In this article I will show how this glittery fantasy about socially disadvantaged groups, a format that has found a niche in American film at this historical moment, aligns with a larger agenda of neoliberalism.

[2] I choose to ground my analysis in this film for two reasons.  First, I am interested in To Wong Foo as a text that forged a path for representing the relationships between racial and sexual minorities. To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, released on September 8, 1995, was one of the first mass-marketed drag movies with gay characters and an interracial lead cast.  As such, it offers a particularly intriguing window into the ways that differentiated socially disadvantaged identities are represented in relation to one another.  While the press made quite a bit out of the film’s gay plot line, casting it as the United States’ version of the surprisingly successful 1994 gay themed Australian film Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, no particular attention was given to the interracial casting.  I believe that this response reflects the popular sense that racial integration is no longer an issue in the United States, something the prevalence and general social acceptance of interracial buddy movies illustrates. In Framing Blackness, Ed Guerrero explains, “blacks appear on the screen in the 1980s predominantly in the biracial ‘buddy formula,’ which reveals all the strategies by which the industry contains and controls the black filmic image and conforms it to white expectations” (127).  Michael Rogin supplies an excellent reading of the limits of interracial buddy movies in Chapter Seven of his book Blackface, White Noise.  Both authors illustrate the ways interracial buddy movies present a vision of the U.S. landscape in which racial tensions are no longer a critical issue.   In my analysis, I will show how this “post-racism” assumption informs To Wong Foo‘s narrative.  This is a critical intervention, as the racial politics of the film connect to contemporary tensions that exist between gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual (GLBT) and African American activists.  The paper shows the way To Wong Foo mobilizes a surface vision of equality to mask its circulation of racist and heterosexist cultural ideals.  Further, it illustrates how discourses that attempt to understand gender by separating it from racial and sexual identity formations undergird such narratives.

[3] Second, I am interested in the way To Wong Foo aligns with contemporary neoliberal discourses.  In the mid 1990s, the time of To Wong Foo‘s release, regulations regarding public presentation of homosexuality were shifting.  This was due in large part to AIDS activism, which changed the terms of public awareness of homosexuality.  Mobilized and organized by their fights for AIDS funding and research, the gay and, to a lesser extent, lesbian population became a recognized demographic with some political clout.  This shift led to the active courting of gay and lesbian voters as part of the Clinton campaign strategy. It is important to note, however, that Clinton’s political machinations also involved a very purposeful “whitening” of the Democratic Party.  Thus, a time of new possibility regarding the presentation of homosexuality can also be effectively read in terms of compromised racial politics (Davis).  I situate To Wong Foo as a response to this historical moment, one that attempts to neutralize the new threats of gay visibility with the difference-blind discourses of neoliberalism, the very discourses that supported the “whitening” of the Democratic Party.  In her recent book The Twilight of Equality?, Lisa Duggan notes that “‘the Achilles’ heel of progressive-left politics since the 1980s, especially, has been a general blindness to the connection and interrelations of the economic, political and cultural, and a failure to grasp the shifting dimensions of the alliance politics underlying neoliberal success” (Duggan xvi).  Reading To Wong Foo in relation to neoliberalism and focusing on the economic, political and cultural meanings of the text, I establish social and political costs of neoliberalism and offer indication of how to respond to neoliberalism’s obfuscations.

Building a National Body

[4] To Wong Foo tells the story of three gay male drag performers traveling from New York to Los Angeles to compete in the “Drag Queen of America” contest.  The white protagonist, Vida Boheme, played by Patrick Swayze, and the black protagonist, Noxeema Jackson, played by Wesley Snipes, secure their right to participate in this cross-country journey through a split victory in New York’s regional “Drag Queen of the Year” competition.  Under Vida’s urging, as all of the group’s actions take place under pressure from Vida- the duo extends their good fortune to the Latino performer Chi Chi Rodriguez, played by John Leguizamo.  Vida considers it her duty to socialize the masses striving to reach her level of sophisticated self-articulation.  Thus, she cannot resist “assisting” the hapless and confused Rodriguez.  Vida makes overt her socializing goals as she claims that she will change Chi Chi, who Noxeema declares is currently nothing more than “a boy in a dress,” into a full-fledged drag queen.  While attempting this transformation, the trio encounters a myriad of problems, including an attempted sexual assault by a racist and homophobic police officer and car troubles that leave the group stranded in a small town near the site of the assault.  The police officer, whom Vida knocks unconscious when his sexual aggression leads to his discovery of her “true” gender, takes on the crusade of finding and exposing the trio.  As I will discuss later, the ridiculous antics of this pathetic officer make a mockery of the threats posed by a racist, homophobic, and sexist state.

[5] While stranded in the middle of America, the “colorful” trio wakes up a sleepy town and adds meaning to the lives of the washed out, tired, and abused women they encounter.  The film positions the drag queens, with their racial, gendered and sexual differences, as a means of liberation available to those laboring under the burden of normativity.  Their presence releases these rural folk particularly the women, from their stilted, unsatisfying lives and facilitates a new sense of empowerment.  I question this structure, which allows a small, almost exclusively white and indicatively heterosexual community to actualize itself through contact with and eventual separation from the sexual and racial others.  Thus, I ask, just how new are the identities offered?  And, what or who must be sacrificed to facilitate this vision?

[6] To answer these questions, I connect both the style and substance of the film to the culture and place of its production.  In so doing, I shed light on the ways this film contributes to ongoing discussions that give meaning to racial, sexual and gender identities and indicate how these meanings are connected to structures of power.  It is my contention that To Wong Foo utilizes traditions established in blackface minstrelsy to create the illusion that “race,” “sexuality” and “identity” are terms that exist outside of power. To Wong Foomanages this by presenting these terms in a manner which asserts that racial and sexual prejudice no longer exist, a move that casts identity as little more than a matter of personal style.  Ironically, however, it simultaneously posits that people of color need to be overseen by white people, and that homosexuality is only acceptable when it is devoid of any same-sex sexual contact.  I will further show demonstrate that this film’s claim that queers and people of color have lives that are more fun and full than those who follow heteronormative directives, and that this claim is utilized to justify white heterosexuals’ feelings of resentment towards queers and people of color who are presented as having this social advantage (when I discuss a general group of people whose identities are not heterosexual, I prefer the use of the term queer.  This choice rests in my understanding that the term queer reflects a range of social identities that are outside the heteronormative without limiting these identities to rigid definitional structures that tend to support their subordination).  Finally, I illustrate the ways this narrative serves as a distorted call to women’s liberation, one that offers people of color and queers as vehicles through which women—and in this text, all women are white and heterosexual—can self-actualize.

[7] My analysis highlights the way articulations of identity are always statements of relation, and as such, structures that impact ideas of coalition.  Through my reading of To Wong Foo I show the stakes that articulations of identity have in shaping ideas of interests and establishing visions of power.  In identifying the effects from this coalition/identity arrangement, I offer new insight into why and how formations of identity matter.  My ideas are informed by Slavoj Žižek’s vision of social control, which understands that the terms of identity construct social roles for groups of people.  Žižek writes:

The stake of social-ideological fantasy is to construct a vision of society which does exist, a society which is not split by an antagonistic division, a society in which the relation between its parts is organic, complementary.  The clearest case is, of course, the corporatist vision of Society as an organic Whole, a social Body in which the different classes are like extremities, members each contributing to the Whole according to its function…(126).

Using Žižek ‘s formula, I illustrate how the film’s corporatist vision obscures the actual interests that differentiated socially disadvantaged groups have in one another—in effect, disallowing one hand the ability to wash the other for any reason other than to clean the national body.  I approach Žižek ‘s image of a social-ideological fantasy as a model of regressive coalition.  This move breaks with a dominant trend in understanding coalitions as relationships that have specific aims and are self-consciously negotiated by particular social agents.  I propose this shift because I believe that the dominant vision of coalition strengthens ideas of individualism, focusing on personal choice to an extent that can obscure systemic positioning and deny the degree to which groups of people already exist in an imbricated system that establishes relationships among people.  Seeing social organizations of identity systems as establishing terms for coalition, I am not denying the possibility of choice or self-conscious renegotiation.  Rather, I am claiming a particular starting point from which such choices and renegotiations must begin.  In analyzing the text, I will show how To Wong Foo offers a Whole social Body where people of color and homosexuals are relegated to performing unappealing physiological functions for the benefit of a singularized corporal unit.  These roles, specifically the ways they are interrelated, must be understood if the hegemonic national body is ever going to be changed.

[8] Žižek also presents the idea that a social Whole finds cohesion by introducing dangerous others who are positioned as foreign to the social body (126).  In my analysis of the text, I show that To Wong Foo offers a version of this model, though here the “dangerous” others have been trained to regulate one another and, in so doing, show their deference to the social Whole.  Thus, the dangers offered in the text provide an object lesson in assimilation, even as they illustrate that some identities are not fully assimilable. To explicate my contention, I will trace To Wong Foo‘s connection to blackface minstrelsy.

Passing For Queer and Racing Toward Whiteness

[9] To Wong Foo references the blackface minstrel tradition in two ways.  First, it utilizes what I callqueerface, where heteronormativity is secured and queer voices are silenced through the performance of homosexuality by people who act out a vision of homosexuality while simultaneously identifying themselves as heterosexual.  The forays into queerface are established through the handling of Patrick Swayze’s and Wesley Snipes’ characters and personas.  My claim of queerface does not come from or lead to a politics that says only gay people can play gay characters.  In this, queerface is like blackface, which could be performed by black actors, a possibility displayed in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000).  Rather it focuses attention on the structure of narratives in which gay characters operate.  Queerface involves representing gay/lesbian sexual identity as a playful performance that supports heteronormative ideals.

[10] The terms of queerface and blackface differ, as the terms of knowledge regarding sexual and racial identities differ, and because racial and sexual social identities carry distinct material consequences.  Still, there are important parallels between the two forms.  As noted earlier, the mid-1990s were a time of new social possibility for sexual politics.  I argue that To Wong Foo was produced in reaction to the new social opportunities the 1990s brought to homosexuals.  In The Wages of Whiteness, David Roediger notes, “Blackface literally stepped in as a popular entertainment craze at the very moment that genuinely black performers and celebrations were driven out” (104).  Certainly, homosexual performers have been and continue to be a part of the United States’ entertainment scene.  It is equally certain, however, that the public sexuality of homosexual entertainers has been heavily controlled (Signorile, Ehrenstein).  I maintain that with its insistence on the masculine heterosexuality of its two known stars, To Wong Foo participates in the blackface tradition of erasure, and that this erasure was a response to the new visibility of gays and lesbians.  Roediger has further written that blacking up “usually involved a conscious declaration of whiteness and white supremacy, even as it identified celebration and popular justice with adopting a racial disguise” (104).  Queering up has a similar effect of solidifying heterosexual superiority.  This solidification smoothes over the threats posed by the new visibility of gays and lesbians.  Within the text of To Wong Foo, the terms of justice become the solidification and consolidation of the heteronormative couple, represented by the union of the characters Bobbie Lee and Bobby Ray (to be discussed later in the essay), and the return of pleasure to the white heteronormative women of the small town where the trio is stranded.

[11] Before I go on to explain the second tie to minstrelsy, I would like to emphasize a critical difference between queerface and blackface.  David Roediger and Eric Lott both discuss how blackface provided an opportunity for white people to “act black” (Roediger 105, Lott 4).  While queerface allows people to act queer, the difference in the epistemological structures of race and sexuality places a unique limit on these actions.  Though social theorists have deftly illustrated that race is a social construction, racial identities are still dominantly marked by skin color.  The identity that blackface enacts is signaled by color, which blackface performers apply and remove with aplomb (Roediger, 116-118, Rogin 103-112).  Sexual identities differ from racial identities in that they are predominantly understood to be the product of a person’s actions.  This means that heterosexual identity is something highly tenuous.  For their own heterosexual security, actors performing queerface must avoid the one action—sexual contact between persons of the same gender—that currently defines homosexuality. I do not want to indicate here that sexual identity is determined simply on the basis of sexual actions.  I subscribe to Eve Sedgwick’s fifth axiom regarding sexuality that states, “The historical search for a Great Paradigm Shift may obscure the present conditions of sexual identity” (44).  Thus, I understand that there are many systems simultaneously at play which define sexuality identity in a complex and even contradictory manner.  Nevertheless, I also maintain that the dominant model of sexual identification currently revolves around sexual object choice and that sexual identity is solidified through the act of having sex.  This distinction is important because it illustrates the porous boundaries that exist between sexual identities, how gender and sexual identities are distinctly interrelated, as well as the ways constructions of racial and sexual schemas create distinct spaces of both play and concern.  Queerface cannot act out the central distinguishing feature of homosexual identity because heterosexuality cannot be secured in the same manner that whiteness can be secured.  Thus, queerface is marked by a careful avoidance of enacting same sex sexual contact, lest a performer risk damaging his/her claim to masquerade.  Roediger discusses the ways “blacking up served to emphasize that those on stage were really white and that whiteness really mattered” (117).  Queerface makes a similar attempt, but it is constrained by the awareness that if those in queerface act so queer as to participate in same sex sexual contact, they cease to be performing queerness, and become queer.

[12] In addition to its use of queerface, To Wong Foo plays on traditions of minstrelsy in a second way by modeling a form of racial inclusion that I call whiteface.  In this schema, people of color are encouraged to participate in the social body on the condition that they attempt to adopt the ways of whiteness.  I say “attempt” here because it is critical to this formulation that the connections between people of color and pre-industrial pleasure, connections that justified imperialism and essentialized racism, are not, and can never be, broken (Roediger 103 and 118). Whiteface represents a neoliberal multicultural twist on blackface traditions.  While blackface allowed whites the chance to “act black,” it coincided with movements that forcefully denied blacks that right to act out their projection of whiteness, an “act” that was often accompanied by social rewards (Roediger 125).  In a whiteface system, people of color are encouraged, not mocked, for their attempts to act white.  This creates an image of social opportunity.  This is only an image, however, because nothing has been done to disrupt the aforementioned ideologies that casts people of color as a libidinal, pleasure-driven group who can never fully embody whiteness.  Hence, whiteface encourages people of color to “act white,” while simultaneously illustrating the structural necessity for people of color to be under white supervision and casting the failure of people of color as a reflection of personal limits.

[13] Queerface and whiteface work together in critical ways.  In Time Passages, George Lipsitz explains that blackface shows presented blacks as people who violated everything “considered precious but contested by white society” (65).  Presenting a narrative of queerface and whiteface, To Wong Foo establishes that these contested zones, which Lipsitz exemplifies as the family and the work ethic, are recognized and respected by the non-normative characters.  All characters in whiteface show are made to show a reverence for white heteronormative social institutions.  These social institutions are sites that crystallize and organize many of the battles around non-heteronormative sexual identity, a truth current debates about the right to marry make explicit.  Because of this, whiteface will always be in conflict with queer identity.  Teaming whiteface with queerface, the film is able to present a social model that places both race and sexuality within a neoliberal frame.  This creates a false image of justice within a text that recuperates old prejudices.

Who’s Wong Foo, and What Am I Thanking Him For?

[14] Having laid out this framework, let me turn to the text of To Wong Foo to examine these practices in action.  The film’s title offers insight that can help begin to clarify the social dynamics of whiteface as they motor the narrative.  The words To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar are inscribed on a photograph that Vida encounters early in the film.  Vida finds the photograph right after the trio has decided to take their cross-country drive.  There is a cacophony of background noise, through which Noxeema’s voice emerges saying, “I don’t know if you’ve seen this America place, but it does not respond kindly to our kind of people,” as a third-person camera shows Vida preparing to look at herself in her compact mirror.  The real life actress/pin-up girl Julie Newmar and Vida are then cinematically merged, as a first-person camera shows Vida looking into her mirror to see not herself, but the photograph of Newmar.  Upon spotting the photograph, Vida interrupts Noxeema and demands, “No one say anything frivolous for the next few moments.”  This line is timed to cast Noxeema’s comments about the heterosexism, racism, and gender rigidity of the U.S. as frivolous.  Vida continues, “Miss Julie Newmar has been watching over this entire conversation, and look at her vintage Miss Julie.  She is the perfect, the ultimate, ahh, try to describe her and not use the word statuesque.  Oh Miss Julie, you are statuesque, and you were the only Catwoman.”  This monologue and the construction of the scene establish Julie Newmar’s link to Vida.  But, the adoption of the photo’s inscription as the film’s title establishes Newmar’s importance to the film as a whole.  In so doing, the text indicates a structure of whiteface; it speaks over the voices of people of color and gives undue authority to white ones.  The film makes it clear that only Vida cares for Newmar.  Upon reading the photograph’s inscription, Chi Chi only shows interest in the person whose name marks him out as a person of color, and simply asks, “Who was Wong Foo?”  Noxeema, meanwhile pointedly displays her inattention throughout Vida’s monologue, and when it finally closes she comments, “I’ve had enough of this conversation.  I’m hungry.”  The movie’s title places Vida’s view in a position that obstructs both Noxeema’s and Chi Chi’s, exemplifying a pattern of prioritizing and privileging Vida’s white perspective.

[15] My focus on Vida’s perspective as the white perspective might seem an imposition, but the choice of Newmar as an imposed idol bolsters my insistence on the centrality of race.  In her initial discussion of Julie Newmar, Vida claims that Newmar is “the only real Catwoman.”  This reference to Newmar’s role on the television series “Batman” merits attention, as the other Catwoman—the Catwoman who does not measure up—is a black woman, Eartha Kitt.  It is generally believed that Newmar was replaced by Kitt in an effort to protect an image of white purity.  Eartha Kitt was brought into the series in 1967, the same year the character Batgirl was introduced.  Catwoman’s now black body clearly delineated her as an undesirable mate for Batman and served as a stark contrast to the pure, good hearted, white character of Batgirl (Catwoman homepage).  Newmar’s Catwoman maintained a relationship with Batman that was laced with sexual innuendo.  Batgirl, introduced as a positive dating option, might not have been able to compete with Newmar’s established sexual tension.  Kitt’s blackness was employed to foreclose the possibility of Catwoman and Batman’s sexual relationship.  Thus, what might appear as a progressive integrationist casting decision can be understood as something that upheld, rather than undermined, a rigid racial order.  Affirming Newmar’s status as “the only Catwoman,” Vida questions any sacrifice whiteness is asked to make, even those, as in the case of Newmar’s Catwoman role, that serves whiteness itself.

[16] The importance of race is also reflected in the handling of the character Wong Foo, who is introduced, fore grounded, and erased, in a structure that mirrors the handling of all racial others in the film.  Though having his name in the title gives him a certain omnipresence, Chi Chi’s question, “Who was Wong Foo?” is never answered.  According to the logic of the film, the only thing that matters is that he was thanked by Newmar.  Wong Foo stands as an absent mark of the presence of color.  Further, this film indicates that ‘absent presence’ is the best way color can look, as Wong Foo’s invisible hand has the ability to supercede the actions of the active characters of color in the film.  For instance, when the trio first realizes that their car is broken and that they are stranded, Vida turns to her portrait of Newmar and prays for a ride.  She begins, “Oh Dear and oft thanked Wong Foo….”  While Vida prays, Chi Chi, walks along the road and flags down a car.  When Chi Chi returns with a ride, the camera shows Vida’s hand as it grabs for the portrait of Newmar and Vida says in a voiceover, “Oh, thank you Wong Foo.”  To Chi Chi, Vida says nothing.

Vida: What Kind of Life Is She Offering?

[17] Throughout the film, the white Vida is given the role of leader and mentor, thereby assuring that the opportunities for a progressive vision that this gay-themed, interracial buddy movie might have offered turn regressive.  Power is localized in the character that, as I have already indicated in my discussion of her relationship to Newmar, establishes and supports the primacy of white heteronormativity.  Examining Vida’s control over Noxeema and Chi Chi, one can establish several ways that Vida serves as a marker for whiteface.

[18] Vida’s power is clarified by small acts.  Driving across the country, only Vida is allowed behind the wheel.  Vida’s personal choices, like “I think tomorrow I’ll wear a say something hat,” a line she whispers to herself in the mirror, turn into mandates: “I think tomorrow is a say something hat day,” a declarations she makes to Noxeema and Chi Chi.  Vida’s ability to make choices and institute codes of behavior illustrates and materializes her status as the arbiter of appropriate behavior and the judge of the other two.

[19] Nowhere is Vida’s role imbued with more power to make or break someone than in her relationship with Chi Chi.  It is Vida’s idea to offer Chi Chi the benefits of her knowledge and Noxeema’s overseeing.  I use overseer here in a self-conscious attempt to link this narrative to racist systems that came before it.  This categorization also indicates the complexity of a racial system.  Noxeema’s role as an overseer does not contradict my claim that whiteface requires that people of color submit to perpetual supervision by whites; Noxeema, as I will discuss momentarily, is always ultimately under Vida’s control.  If there were any doubts as to the importance of racial status in the division of these roles, they are disbanded through repeated direct references to racial identity.  When Vida makes her magnanimous offer to teach Chi Chi the ways of the drag queen, she also makes derogatory references to Chi Chi’s racial status:

Yes, you will start off a mere boy in a dress, but by the time we are done with this crusade your Auntie Vida and Auntie Noxie will give you the outrageous outlook and indomitable spirit that it will take to make you a full fledged drag queen.  So now, I want you to turn your sway back little self around on those Robert Clay knock offs, and get back into the car.

As the film unfolds, it becomes clear that Vida’s lessons in drag involve teaching Chi Chi to accept her social position as a racially derided subject, a “sway back,” and to teach her how such a subject might make herself more palatable within a system that values and rewards attempts to emulate whiteness.

[20] The extent to which Vida’s schooling involves instructions in whiteface and queerface is clarified in one of the film’s final scenes.  Each member of the trio is given a chance to explain how she will change herself as a result of their adventures.  Chi Chi, who appears throughout the film with her face caked in a foundation that is markedly lighter than her skin coloring, vows to “try and find a foundation that’s a little closer to my actual skin color.”  I contend that Chi Chi’s initial make-up choice illustrates both her desire for white status and her “confusion” that whiteness was simply a color that could be applied with a brush.  Vida instructs Chi Chi in the need to internalize the lessons and mores of whiteness; Vida teaches her that whiteness must be won through a continual pledge to uphold and prioritize its heteronormative values.  Thus, to fulfill her desire of accessing whiteness and the title of drag queen, Chi Chi must forgo her claims to homosexual desires, an act that proves her deference to Vida, whiteness, and heteronormativity.  In the narrative, this self-avowal crystallizes in her need to give up a boyfriend to a “true” woman, a deserving woman, a biological woman, a white woman.  With this act, Chi Chi shows that she recognizes the sanctity of the heteronormative family, that institution “considered precious but contested by white society” (Lipsitz 65).  Having internalized these lessons, Chi Chi can claim her role not just as a drag queen, but, as we see in the film’s final sequence, as “Drag Queen of America,” crowned by Julie Newmar herself.

[21] Noxeema, who is named after a thick white face wash, a clear evocation of whiteface, is also dependent on Vida.  Early in the narrative it is established that Noxeema’s privileged position as a drag queen, her ability to win the pageant title—in fact, all the rights and powers she can claim—came to her through the tutelage and attention of Vida.  Noxeema’s status as Vida’s Pygmalion is clarified in an early speech in which Vida tries to convince Noxeema that it is her duty to take in Chi Chi.  This scene is shot with Noxeema sitting in front of a vanity table looking into a mirror.  The camera shows the audience Noxeema’s reactions through her mirror image, which she studies along with us.  The construction of this scene visually reinforces the verbal information that Noxeema’s image is an object of concern and that Vida’s words help Noxeema to see herself more clearly.  This scene is also noteworthy because it establishes a technique for casting racism as a problem among people who are not white that can be overcome by the powers of whiteness.

Noxeema: You and your causes!  Look, that child is Latin.  You don’t want to get mixed up in all that Latin mess.  She might turn out to be a Sandinista or something.

Vida: Noxeema Jackson! I have to admit that I am shocked and just a little bit saddened by you.  I mean you of all people.  Hon, I remember the first time I laid eyes on a certain ebony enchantress in the rough, and how through styling and the occasional make up tip I helped her look a little bit less like Moms Mabley.  And who would think that ebony enchantress would one day share a title with moi.

Noxeema’s anti-Latino remarks might draw attention to racism among people of color, a critical issue that requires serious attention.  However, the text as a whole illustrates that this attention cannot effectively be paid in an atmosphere where whiteness is given so much credit and authority.  As it is, Noxeema’s racist rejection of Chi Chi lends credence to the idea that racism, when it is a problem, is a problem created by people of color.

[22] The authority and control whiteness holds is also clarified in this dialogue through Vida’s citation of the fundamental role she played in shaping Noxeema.  The fact that Vida compares Noxeema to Moms Mabley, an actress who got her start in the Chitlins Circuit, a bastion of blackface minstrelsy, is particularly interesting.  Though Mabley’s legendary status allowed her to break through to some television and movie work later in her career, she was renowned for her Negro vaudeville circuit stage persona who “wore a baggy house dress and sported a toothless grin” (Violante). The minstrel circuit has been shown to reflect more of the white imagination as it strived to consolidate and maintain racial control over any “real” black characters (Lott). Though Vida sees Noxeema as a character that she made look less like Mabley, there is no reason to believe that Noxeema’s current image is a radical break from the oppressive, racially limiting structures of which Mabley was a part—especially as this “new” image was authored by the white Vida and requires that Vida maintain a critical eye on Noxeema to assure she not slipping back to her “natural” ways.

[23] Accepting Vida’s authority, Noxeema accesses the film’s rigid and limited vision of queenliness.  But this access can only be maintained through a continual performance of whiteface.  Thus, Noxeema can and must offer appropriate support to Vida’s proclamations.  When she does not, she is chastised and made to see the error in her ways.  In such moments, some means of drawing direct attention to racial difference is usually enlisted. For instance, when Noxeema protests Vida’s idea to include Chi Chi on their adventure, she says, “I ain’t driving you no more Miss Daisy.”  The larger narrative of the film establishes that the only reason Noxeema is not driving is because Vida will not let her behind the wheel.  Most critically to my argument addressing the limits of whiteface inclusion, the film uses Noxeema to illustrate why the social vision, which offers hope to marked others through re-socialization and promises power through the adoption of social mores of whiteness, never presents a moment when the instruction and supervision end.

A Queer Vision of Gay Life

[24] Having focused on the ways whiteface operates in this text, I will now turn to a fuller consideration of queerface.  Film historian Vito Russo maintains, “Homosexuality when it is visible is antisocial.  The only condition under which homosexuality has ever been socially acceptable has been on the occasion of its voluntary invisibility….” (44).  I maintain that To Wong Foo presents a sexual identity that is both visible and socially acceptable because it is fundamentally nothomosexuality, but rather, queerface.  To Wong Foo‘s queerface distortion is achieved through its avoidance of homosexuality on many levels: it does not offer any same-sex romance or sexual displays; it uses stars renowned for their heterosexuality and their masculinity; and it denies homophobia and heterosexism as factors that impact the lives of queer people.

[25] The film played on the known heteronormative star power of its two leading men.  One of the film trailers shows Snipes working over a punching bag while a voice-over intoned, “He’s been a killer and a commando.”  Swayze is then shown throwing martial arts kicks while the voice over says, “He’s been a heartthrob and hero.”  The two are then introduced as facing their next challenge—drag (Dragsters).  But the PR people weren’t the only ones emphasizing the heterosexuality of the two stars.  When discussing his decision to play Vida with Entertainment Weekly, Swayze exclaimed, “I don’t have anything to prove…I am as heterosexual as a bull moose.  That is what made me so comfortable as Vida” (Daly).  Swayze made similar claims in an interview with The Advocate, a gay and lesbian magazine: “(E)verybody knows that I am seriously, terminally heterosexual” (Busch).  This heterosexuality embodied so seriously and terminally in both Swayze and Snipes is a critical player in the film.  Heterosexuality actually facilitates this queerface performance, or, as Swayze speaks this logic in his statement to Entertainment Weekly, clarity regarding heterosexuality made him “so comfortable as Vida.”  This comfort is a result of the character which, I maintain, was not so much a homosexual, as a heterosexist social fantasy.  Swayze’s and Snipe’s “real” identities, and this “real” includes their public personas and movie histories, are, in fact, central players in this film’s narrative.  As one reviewer notes, “There’s never a moment in this film when the audience isn’t absolutely reassured that, should things get really bad, Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes will tear off those silly dresses and kick some serious ass” (Uricchio).  In fact, in the film’s moment of pivotal crisis, Swayze does just this.  Cast with such proven heteronormative stars, the audience can be certain that the film represents play, not identity.  This is a formula that Esther Newton took note of in her pioneering study of female impersonators, Mother Camp, where she notes that “known legitimate performers sometimes do drag in the movies and on TV but are not thought of as drag queens”(5 n13).  What Newton is pointing to is a formula borrowed from blackface, used here to signal a foray into queerface.

[26] Cross-dressing is also a tactic used in blackface minstrelsy.  Though cross-dressing plays with heteronormative assumptions, it appears to me to be most directly aimed at solidifying racist gender assumptions.  The imbrication of gender and race, and the extent to which minstrelsy solidified white power by articulating black gender as transgression, shows how black people have been cast outside heteronormativity—and demonstrates the critical interdependency of race, gender, and sexuality (Roediger 121-2, Sommerville 39-76).

[27] Though Snipes and Swayze’s characters verbally claim homosexuality as one of their definitional characteristics, no signs of homosexual desire are manifested in these two lead characters.  Part of this issue lies in the film’s conflation of sexual and gender identity categories.  The film’s director, Beeban Kidron, has been quoted as speculating, “by the end of the film I would guess that about 80% of the audience have stopped wondering whether they’re men or women.  They’re just characters, and that’s the strength of the film” (Milvy).  But the gender of the characters, at least the gender of Snipes and Swayze’s characters, is never in question.  Though they spend almost the entire film in drag passing as women, the film’s opening sequence presents Swayze and Snipes transforming themselves into Vida and Noxeema. This opening confirms the reality behind the facade and assures the audience that they are viewing the stars they know and trust.  I maintain that the strength of the characters is not their ability to evade the question of their “true” gender identities, but their ability to secure it and, in turn, to secure their heterosexual identities.  In her article, “Kind of A Drag: Gender, Race, and Ambivalence in The Birdcage and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar,” Mary Kirk offers an interesting analysis of the characters’ status as “passing.”  Kirk draws on Leslie Fienberg’s claim that passing involves danger and hiding (172).  This analysis makes sense within the confines of the film, but what I am pointing to here involves another layer of analysis that considers the film’s audience who never views either Swayze or Snipes as passing.  Hence, the audience has every reason to feel sure of their safety.

[28] Kidron’s substitution of gender for sexuality is troubling and needs more attention, however.  It is not that Kidron is unaware of the various forms of sexual and gendered identity; after all, this taxonomy is covered in the script.  In explaining to Chi Chi (ironically, the only protagonist who is denied the on-screen make-over which would secure the actor’s male identity, as well as the only protagonist who makes explicit references to sexual involvements with men), why she is merely a boy in a dress, Noxeema says:

When a straight man puts on a dress and gets his sexual kicks he is a transvestite.  When a man is a woman trapped in a man’s body and he gets the surgery, he is a transsexual.  When a gay man has way too much fashion sense for one gender, he is a drag queen.  And, when a little Latin boy puts on a dress, he is simply a boy in a dress.

Kidron’s aforementioned quote only makes sense in a culture that regularly conflates transgendered persons and homosexuals, and in a film where the lines quoted above are the only clarifying references to Noxeema and Vida’s sexuality.  Tremendous border wars are waged among gay/lesbian and transgendered communities (Hale, Califia).  Claiming a clear position within these fights, Noxeema and Vida are drag queens and, as such, gay men.  Failing to reflect the borders with any specificity, however, this movie panders to social ignorance and promotes the conflation of transgendered and homosexual identities.

[29] It is plausible that drag facilitates such confused reading.  Though it has been hailed as a site of radical destabilizing potential, drag is an ambivalent medium.  Judith Butler notes in Bodies That Matter, “there is no necessary relation between drag and subversion” (125).  Evidence of this is clear in To Wong Foo.  It is my contention that the problem lies not with drag itself, but with To Wong Foo‘s vision of drag.  This vision upholds the hegemonic system of sexual and racial order by obscuring current epistemological structures controlling homosexuality as they relate to visibility.  This is particularly evident in the way the film conflates homosexuality and drag.  After all, while all drag queens are homosexuals, not all homosexuals are drag queens.  Again I turn to Esther Newton, who explains:

Homosexuality consists of sex-role deviation made up of two related but distinct parts, ‘wrong’ sexual object choices and ‘wrong’ sex-role presentation of self.  The first deviation is shared by all homosexuals, but it can be hidden best.  The second deviation logically (in this culture) corresponds with the first, which it symbolizes.  But it cannot be hidden, and it actually compounds the stigma. (104)

Newton’s account was written in 1972, at a time when the desire to “hide” homosexuality was relatively unquestioned, but this does not undermine the importance of her insight.  Eve Sedgwick’sEpistemology of the Closet has shown how critical the connections between sexuality and visibility are to our current cultural understanding of concepts like truth and innocence, and, in fact, all of the terms that hold the modern social order in place.  By offering homosexuals who are clearly marked, To Wong Foo presents a vision of homosexuality that is freed from the dynamics of the closet.  This structures a false vision of equality by denying the current systems that control sexuality.  So constructed, To Wong Foo cannot represent the impact that sexuality structures have on people’s lives.

[30] Given its use of stereotypical views that conflate gender and sexuality to mark out sexual others, it might seem ironic that the film also presents material mocking people who identify homosexuals according to heterosexist stereotypes.  Yet the film’s representation of the overtly racist and homophobic Sheriff Dullard, a man respected by no one, is critical to the text’s neoliberal fantasy.  With Sheriff Dullard, the film creates a sense of assurance among the audience that such prejudices are no longer tolerated.  This bolsters the image that we live in a difference-blind society.  Furthermore, by making a sheriff an object of scorn and contempt, the film critically obscures the relationships between racism, heterosexism, and state power. 

[31] Dullard, the police officer knocked unconscious by Vida after his sexual aggression causes him to discover her “true” gender, is presented as a compromised authority figure from the moment he is first introduced.  Officer Dullard is saddled with his ignoble name due to a misprint on his badge.  So cast, the audience understands that his choice to look for the trio in the locations he has noted on his list “places for Homos”—flower shops, ballet school, flight attendant lounges, restaurants for brunch, and antique stores—represents the limited, stereotyped and laughable work of a dull mind.  The progressive image that this attack on Dullard creates, and the logic that homosexuals might be anywhere and act in any way, is undercut by the fact that the film only presents stereotyped, visibly marked homosexuals.  After all, the film’s ability to mock Dullard is secured, in part, because it presents homosexuals as a clearly marked group.  This visibility is required if homosexuals are ever going to accede to a neoliberal process of inclusion that follows the patterns of whiteface.  After all, whiteface only works because color is understood to provide a clear and permanent mark that indicates those who need constant control.  If homosexuals are going to be included in the social body in terms that align with the terms of whiteface, homosexuals will also need a visible mark.  Otherwise homosexuals, a group whose status allows them only supervised participation, might achieve full social inclusion, and heterosexual privilege would be lost.  Yet, the current structure of sexual identity formation does not offer a universal, visible mark for homosexuals.  It is only To Wong Foo‘s conflation of gender and sexuality that provides this sign.  This conflation results in a film that obfuscates the workings of power and privilege as they relate to sexual identity formations.

[32] To sustain its revised image of gay liberation, To Wong Foo must repackage moments of danger.  The film’s narrative masks and minimizes the risks one encounters living in a body marked as “other” by systems of racial and sexual prejudice.  This mockery of racism and heterosexism undermines claims to victimization or demands for protection that members of these groups might request.  The movie offers a world where social persecution is erased.  As one reviewer notes, “This movie has its own fantasy credo: that heterosexuals are the real objects of pity and scorn” (Corliss).

[33] With a character like Dullard, To Wong Foo makes a mockery of the idea that society is racist or heterosexist.  Though there are moments throughout the film where Vida and Noxeema fear an oppressive social structure, the narrative always exposes their fears as unnecessary.  This dynamic is exemplified in the scene where Noxeema and Vida are reluctant to register in a roadside hotel. Noxeema explains, “People are going to be cruel to us.  It could turn violent.”  Chi Chi refuses to follow this logic and storms toward the hotel declaring, “If you live second class you’ll be second rate your whole life.”  Denying the potential of risk, Chi Chi enters the hotel only to find tremendous warmth and acceptance.  In a bow to the reasonableness of Noxeema and Vida’s social fears, the film includes an explanation for Chi Chi’s warm reception: the drag queens are mistaken for members of a women’s basketball league that is holding its annual convention at the hotel.  Vida turns this experience’s fear and the general threat of social prejudice into a lesson in the neoliberal need to “ignore adversity.” This credo, which supports the belief that the constraints non-hegemonic groups face are constraints of their own making, is uttered by Vida when she explains why Chi Chi’s actions in this scene have drawn her one step closer to becoming a drag queen.

Women, Whiteface, and Playing Queer: The Limits of the Rules of the Game

[34] While blackface minstrelsy projected a mythic image of the Black South that stood “against the deadening aspects of progress,” the whiteface and queerface of To Wong Foo strive to revitalize the deadened space of Middle America by introducing tamed versions of the social movements of the 1960s and 70s (Roediger 120).  Specifically, the characters in queerface and whiteface show women how to self-actualize through a distorted form of second wave feminism.  This feminism is acceptable precisely because it is structured around the safeguards that queerface and whiteface put in place.  It is ironic that, while much feminist scholarship works to redress the race, class, and sexuality based exclusions of the second wave feminist movement, To Wong Foo promotes a vision of feminism that capitalizes on these very exclusions.  To Wong Foo‘s “feminism” revitalizes the image of the lady to create a “new” space for white heterosexual women in the United States by securing limits on the space for queers and people of color.

[35] In the town in which the drag queens are stranded, it seems that men have victimized all the women.  The drag queens stay with Carol Ann, whose husband is physically abusive, but this violence is merely the tip of the iceberg.  A local woman, who informs the trio about the various townswomen’s troubles, notes of one woman, “Oh, her daddy used to call her baby ugly.  She took to the bottle just as soon as she could swallow.”  Another woman, Clara, has gone deaf and dumb since her husband left her.  So goes the lives of the pre-feminist townsfolk. These broken and abused women lack a sense of female community and the feminine empowerment that such a community might produce.  Vida and Noxeema show the women the importance of female bonding by offering them “a day with the girls.”  As the day unfolds, the viewer sees that the empowerment these queens offer is focused entirely on the commercial and superficial.  “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” has a clear antecedent here.  With the help of the drag queens, the local women get new clothes and new hairdos.  This, we are led to believe, gives them new senses of self.

[36] The tension between feminism and a social order that promotes whiteface and queerface can be felt in the centrality of the image of the lady.  What the drag queens package as feminism is, in fact, actually a solidification of traditional gendered, racial and sexual roles that claim to serve women by revitalizing ideas of gentlemanly manners.  This is clarified in a scene where Noxeema confronts the town hoodlum, Tommy.  Tommy makes rude catcalls at the women.  Noxeema intervenes, demanding that he apologize to the “ladies.”  When Tommy refuses, Noxeema grabs him by the testicles and teaches him a more precise lesson in manners: “Now Tommy, when you encounter such gorgeous ladies the correct way to greet them is to say ‘good afternoon ladies.'”  Though Tommy is a violent character who was seen earlier with his gang of thugs encircling Chi Chi in a manner that implied their intention to gang rape her, Noxeema shows no fear of him.  The appropriateness of Noxeema’s actions are confirmed when Tommy appears next.  While the women pose in the streets of their town showing off their new clothes, Tommy simply steps forward, and in his new role of a gentleman, offers up a “good afternoon.”  The film’s feminism seems to imply that what women really need is to be treated like ladies.  This lesson reinforces traditional gender roles and evades any questions that might connect the earlier scene of sexual intimidation to the type of manners women need to be shown.

[37] Whiteface and queerface authority is ultimately celebrated in this film for its ability to assist Carol Ann, a woman whose abusive husband, Virgil, would not even permit her to participate in a celebration of women’s community as limited as the drag queen’s day with the girls.  Clearly, Virgil needs an advanced tutorial in gentlemanly manners.  This intervention is timed to resolve not just the problems of Carol Ann, but, importantly, to address a crisis in the authority of whiteface and queerface that has erupted between Vida and Chi Chi.  This timing clarifies the ways Vida’s “feminism” is tied to the dictates of whiteface and queerface.

[38] When things explode between Carol Ann and Virgil, Vida is locked into her own fight with Chi Chi.  Vida and Chi Chi’s fight centers around the issue of white heteronormative authority.  It crystallizes in tensions over whether or not Chi Chi will give up her local boyfriend, Bobby Ray.  It seems that Chi Chi desires to be queer, rather than in queerface.  This has led her to reject the mores of whiteface.  The fight begins when Vida tells Chi Chi to give up Bobby Ray.  When Chi Chi protests claiming, “We got a lot in common,” Noxeema clarifies that the problem relates to Chi Chi’s gender and sexuality: “Oh yes, for starters the same business in between your legs.”  Still, Chi Chi challenges Vida’s right to control her, a direct affront to whiteface.  Vida maintains her whiteface authority by calling upon the heterosexist logic of queerface, asserting the impossibility that Bobby Ray could love a man in a speech that also highlights the need to defer to the romantic claims of heterosexuality.  She says, “You are deceiving that child.  That boy does not know which end is up, and you know for a fact that Miss Bobby Lee (Carol Ann’s daughter) is in love with him….There are human rules by which we operate sweetheart.”  This last line is noteworthy because it engages debates about homosexuality that have long centered on if, or how, homosexuality aligns with laws of nature.  In claiming that Chi Chi must forego Bobby Ray because her relationship with him violates the “human rules by which we operate,” Vida aligns homosexuality with the unnatural and the perverse.

[39] Chi Chi challenges the legitimacy of Vida’s right to control by drawing attention to the limits of whiteface.  Chi Chi overtly rejects Vida’s system which grants white people authority: “You know I am just so sick and tired of this freakizoid white lady telling the black lady and Latin lady which way is up, down and under because she is vanilla white superior.” Vida and Chi Chi trade insults that highlight their racial, gender and sexual status:  Vida is a “gringa with a pinga” while Chi Chi is a “Puta Spanish fly.”  Chi Chi, making her strongest challenge, proposes that Vida, who demands the right to control others, is the selfish one.  To call Vida selfish is to deny the fundamental ideology of neoliberalism and to challenge white heteronormative hegemony that masks its demand for control as benevolence.  As this charge is issued, the noise of Carol Ann being beaten up by her husband interrupts.  This sound is a call for help that vindicates Vida’s whiteface/queerface benevolence.  Vida understands she has to help.  This help is a matter of social contract and trust that has nothing to do with selfish self-interest or the consolidation of white heteronormative power.  Carol Ann’s trouble with her husband provides the perfect venue for white heteronormative authority to be reinstated.  After all, the attack presents a plausible case for the need of assistance, and racist hetero-patriarchy’s willingness to get involved can be cast as a mark of a well-mannered community rather than power.

[40] The final conflict scene in the movie completes the resolution, thoroughly redeeming the authority of whiteface and celebrating queerface.  This scene, filmed to evoke a western showdown, begins with Sheriff Dullard riding into town, his squad car kicking up dust on the otherwise deserted unpaved road.  Full of bravado, Dullard leans out the window and shouts into a bullhorn, “I got your town surrounded, there’s no escape. I want those drag queens to come out here.  If they just come out with their hands up, no one will get hurt.”  The film cuts between reaction-shots of the now happy residents, many of whom appear in normalized heterosexual couples that have been brought together by the drag queens, and images of Dullard who appears in various locations around town.  A lone veiled figure exits the house where the drag queens have been staying and begins to walk down the deserted street toward the sheriff.  When the figures are positioned face to face, the veiled figure, whom we have been led to believe is Vida, reveals herself to be Carol Ann.  Carol Ann claims Vida’s identity.  Dullard protests, but Carol Ann’s authority is supported by the revitalized townsfolk who have left their doorways to gather around her.  Every member of the town, beginning with the formally mute Clara, proclaims his/her identification as a drag queen.  The confused and angered Dullard retreats in the face of the accepting crowd.  This formula of acceptance, allowing a hegemonically empowered group first to assume the status of a disadvantaged social other and then to replace them all together, must be recognized as flawed.

[41] Because the vision of women’s politics, like the vision of race and sexuality, is one that does not radically challenge the hegemonic order, the “feminism” To Wong Foo presents is doomed to be limited and dated.  As I have indicated, when the film does make a feminist intervention it focuses on feminist issues that, by the time of this film’s release, have become unthreatening.  For instance, there is a general social consensus that husbands do not have the right to beat their wives.  The nature of the trio’s intervention in the town’s gender mores and the place this leaves the racial and sexual others is exemplified in the scene where Bobby Lee, Carol Ann’s daughter, finally actualizes her love for the man Chi Chi leaves behind in accordance with Vida’s demand.  Having been made over and trained in feminine charm by the drag queens, Bobby Lee is left in the center of the unpaved town square to claim her man.  Though major infrastructural changes, like pavement, have not been made, the look of the town has changed as a result of the drag queens’ influence.  The most apparent change is that the café has erected a backlit wall of tissue paper, red cut-out hearts, and Christmas lights, which serves as a backdrop for Bobby Lee’s romantic scene.  This backdrop echoes a filmic version of high school dances and gives the town a surreal feeling.

[42] The prom theme is pushed further when Bobby Ray, the man in question, asks Bobby Lee to dance to music that has no diagetic origin.  The camera cuts from the heteronormative white couple now shown dancing, and focuses on Jimmy Joe, the town’s only African American resident, who is shown approaching Beatrice, to whom he addresses, “Miss Beatrice, I’ve waited twenty-three years to ask you this.  May I have this dance?”  Thus, it emerges that the presence of the drag queens has broken through a significant racial barrier, opening up a space for interracial dating.  Though perhaps not a major breakthrough in this current age, even this transgression is contained by the dictates of queerface and whiteface.  This is made clear by Jimmy Joe’s deference—he waited twenty three years!—a clear sign that he respects white authority and is prepared to engage in his own whiteface performance.  What’s more, Jimmy Joe is Beatrice’s, or Miss Beatrice’s, employee. Thus, the power relations between the white Beatrice and the black Jimmy Joe are structurally secured.  If the structural limits of Jimmy Joe and Beatrice’s relationship are not enough to cast doubt on the progressive possibilities of their union, then Beatrice’s casting of Jimmy Joe, when he is first introduced into the text, surely must.  In a vernacular that seems to be lifted out of the 1950s, Beatrice recites, “He is the nicest colored man you’d ever wanna meet.”

[43] Jimmy Joe and Beatrice take to the square, in an overhead shot that shows white intra-racial heterosexual couples entering from every other direction.  When the frame fills with about a dozen dancing couples, the camera pans up to show the trio of drag queens who are stationed safely outside the scene on an attic porch.  Vida claims the actualization of the town below and revels in the use of her status as an “other” saying, “You know pumpkins, sometimes it just takes a fairy.”

Reworking the Unified Body: Another Vision of Coalition

[44] To Wong Foo offers a social vision of order that is deeply flawed.  While it links the social interest in race to the social interest in sexuality and gender, it does so in a way that substantiates white and heterosexual privilege, thereby offering only the most superficial understanding of women, homosexuals and people of color.  Vito Russo maintains, “Most gay people would like to forget the reasons why they have always been considered outsiders and simply start afresh, but that is not only impossible, it is damaging” (189).  To Wong Foo tries to offer such a fresh start, and in this article I have worked to show why this is a danger.  However, I maintain that the danger of the film does not rest principally in its representation of homosexuality but rather in the relationships between race, sexuality and gender that To Wong Foopresents.  For, not only does To Wong Foo offer a vision of homosexuality that is “unreasonable, contradictory, and destructive” to gay life, it understands connections between racial and sexual formations in manners that structurally limit the lives of people of color and homosexuals, while simultaneously retrenching gender conservatism (Russo 189).

[45] In his book, One More River To Cross: Black and Gay in America, Keith Boykin explains, “When all else fails, the forces of the status quo attempt to divide oppressed groups against each other, and blacks and gays have become the perfect pawns in this plot” (246).  To succeed in a truly liberatory politics, we must find a way to explore the material effects that structures of racial and sexual identity formation have on one another.  Films like To Wong Foo serve to support a hegemonic order that uses racial prejudice to support heterosexism and vice versa.  This system leaves those outside of the heteronormative order, whether queer, colored, non-gender normative, or any combination of the three, no space from which they might counter the logics of neoliberalism and no space from which they can build a liberatory coalition.

I would like to thank Lisa Disch, Dave Roediger, and Joyce Mariano for reviewing drafts of this essay and helping me develop these ideas.  I would also like to thank the Harold Leonard Memorial Fellowship in film studies for providing me funding that enabled me to complete this essay.

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