Published: April 1, 2009 By

[1] Lily Tomlin was perhaps at the peak of her mainstream fame and popularity in the 1970s and 80s. Her body of work at that time includes live performance, television, sound recording, and film. Prominent in all of these, her public persona was shaped mostly in the latter three arenas, what we now call ‘old media.’ This persona was a product of what Philip Auslander calls the “mediatized” culture of that historical moment (1999, 5). That is, as a widely recognized media presence, Tomlin had the cultural influence to make meaning in dominant culture.

[2] Most well known as a television star, Tomlin became a familiar and well-loved personality at the cultural moment when television was at the height of its influence. According to Auslander, “the televisual has become an intrinsic and determining element of our cultural formation,” (1999, 2) particularly in the last half of the twentieth century. Her television career took off through Laugh-In, on which she debuted in December 1969, then as a guest on other talk and variety shows, and finally on six television specials of her own produced with her partner Jane Wagner: The Lily Tomlin Show (1973), Lily (1973),Lily (1974), Lily Tomlin(1975), Lily: Sold Out! (1981), and Lily For President? (1982).

[3] During this period Tomlin was celebrated in the national press as both a comic genius and something of a national treasure. In 1977 she was the subject of Time Magazine’s Cover Story, and long profiles inNewsweek, Rolling Stone (1974), Playboy(1976), People (1976, 1977), to name only a few of the magazines that described her in fascinated terms. A typical description of her work in the June 1977 issue of Voguereads,

Lily’s messages come from Inner Space and catch us on the perfect edge where laughter topples over into self-recognition, pulling us back just before we might plunge into despair (Robinson, 186).

And in a March 1977 profile in Newsweek describes audience reaction to her:

To put it simply, they love her. Barbra Streisand is that increasingly ambiguous thing, a superstar, but Lily Tomlin, at 37, is a culture heroine, something very rare for a woman in this society (Kroll, 63)

She was also clearly recognized in the many profiles done on her in 1977 as a very important multi-media personality. Another typical example in Flightime, July 1977:

Nobody can deny her drawing power, her ability to get people out to the theater, out to a movie, or even more amazingly, to switch television channels (Buckley, 9).

[4] This level of popular appeal, distinctive in its nearly universal affection and admiration for her work in all media, allowed her to create the work that she wanted to create on her own terms. Probably the least mass mediated endeavor at this time was the play written by Jane Wagner, Appearing Nitely (1977); it was made into an HBO special the following year, as well as a sound recording, Lily Tomlin On Stage (1978). During the same period, she made three other sound recordings, This Is A Recording (1971), And That’s The Truth(1972), and Modern Scream (1975). She also made several films at this time. Nashville (1975) her first, garnered her an Oscar nomination. She went on to make The Late Show (1977), Moment by Moment(1978), Nine to Five (1980), The Incredible Shrinking Woman(1981), and All of Me (1984). Tomlin has gone on to make many other films and television appearances, and gained her most significant critical notoriety with the Broadway playThe Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, written by her partner Jane Wagner. The play ran in New York in 1985-86, then across the country for over four years; as it continued to be widely and deeply lauded, became a best-selling hard cover book, and a 1991 film.

[5] I focus on this period of the mid-1970s to early 1980s because Tomlin was at the height of her own influence in popular media, at the same time that feminist politics, with which she was identified, was at a high point in terms of media focus. Coinciding with that, feminist theoretical moves happening in the academy were shifting feminist debates to encourage a more manifold notion of the concept ‘women,’ through a more thorough integration of race, class and sexuality, and the closer examination of the construction of the concept ‘women’ itself. In this essay, I read Tomlin’s 1981 television special, Lily: Sold Out! within this framework, and through a lens of feminist queer theory. Through works like Lily: Sold Out!,Tomlin was able to produce uniquely feminist queer meaning in mass media that denaturalized and thus worked to undermine the very categories of heterogender.

[6] The most obvious subject of Lily: Sold Out! is an examination of the place of live performance in a “mediatized” culture. It enacts the lively—and still alive—debate about the place of theater and live performance in a mass mediated society. Narratively, it is about Tomlin, the performer, reluctantly taking what she calls her “sensitive and moving piece on womanhood” The Seven Ages of Woman, (a show which does not exist seriously outside of this television show) to open in Las Vegas. Thematically, then it is about the conflict over art vs. commerce, with Lily worried about “selling out.” She positions herself as an artist, committed to larger social issues, most especially feminism, who is battling the seduction of fame and fortune.

[7] Although this show aired decades ago, it is instructive to look at today not only as important cultural history, but also as a particular feminist strategy of intervention into dominant culture. Tomlin’s take on, and taking apart of, heterogender was a radical cultural move by a mainstream personality. Yet it tends not to be recognized as a radical intervention—in part—because as a woman, she is not read as queer the way that male performers like Jack Benny, Paul Lynde, or Tony Randall have been. And her queerness was also much more explicitly politicized through feminism, in a way that was unique to her as a performer at this time. The radical implications of her presence were also easy to ignore by viewers who might find them threatening because of her accessibility as a popular performer. This polysemic possibility found in her work is the basis of her popularity in broadcast television and, her appeal to feminists and lesbians at the time, as well as the queer reading possible now.

[8] Lily Tomlin became known as a socially conscious comedian soon after she established national fame. The characters she performs generally offer a critique of oppressive social institutions: most often the gender system, through characters like Mrs. Beasley, Susie Sorority, and later the many explicitly feminist characters like Lynn, Edie, and Marge of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. She also challenges the class system, through characters like Tess and later Trudy, both “bag ladies;” racial oppression most famously through Opal, in a skit with Richard Pryor; ableism through her character Crystal the Terrible Tumbleweed, and ageism through Sister Boogie Woman. On one level the feminist work she did with her characters was relatively straightforward, or as straightforward as satire is: it is easy to see the feminist ideology in her work. Others have written about the importance of Tomlin’s feminist comedy. Suzanne Lavin, in her book, Women Solo Performers: Phyllis Diller, Lily Tomlin and Roseanne, makes the point that many of her characters, like Mrs. Beasley and Susie Sorority, perform the pain and constriction of traditional femininity and thus foreground the price of male-dominance.

[9] Outside of her performances, Tomlin has been a public face for feminist organizations like the National Organization for Women and The Women’s Building in Los Angeles; she campaigned for Bella Abzug and the ERA, self-identified as a feminist in interviews, and in 1972, famously walked off the Dick Cavett Showwhen fellow guest Chad Everett referred to his wife as being among his most prized possessions.

Theorizing Gender

[10] Tomlin’s work took part in the emerging feminist discourse beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s that produced crucial theorizing that worked to dismantle the universal subject, women. And 1981, the yearLily: Sold Out! aired, was a watershed year. Audre Lorde gave the keynote address at the National Women’s Studies association Conference, called, “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism.” Angela Davis wrote Women, Race, and Class, and Gloria Anzaldœa and Cherrie Moraga released This Bridge Called My Back, the first collection of feminist writing by US women of color. [i]These and other key texts worked to expose the “contingent foundations,” of the category “women” as Judith Butler might say, for US-based, ‘color-blind’ straight-defined feminism. Taken together, these texts are a small, yet representative set of examples of the thinking that shifted the discourse and political movement that worked to destabilize the category “women,” into multiple and contradictory meanings. Tomlin’s contribution to a larger theoretical movement by feminists of color, lesbian feminists, and others of this time recognized that feminism was building its politics on the necessarily exclusive category “women.” Her performance was part of the larger shifting discourse that worked to “render it as a site of permanent political contest,” (Butler, 8) rather than a stable signifier of a thing already known. In Lily: Sold Out!, as in so much of her other character work Tomlin performs insistently the many differences among women.

[11] At the same time, and certainly not separate from this de-universalizing movement, feminist poststructuralism was making clear just how complex the construction of gender is. As Wendy Brown writes:

Within Western feminist theory, poststructuralist insights were the final blow to the project of transforming, emancipating, or eliminating gender in a revolutionarymode. . . . The point is not that poststructuralism undermines the project of transforming gender but that it illuminates the impossibility of seizing the conditions of making gender as well as the impossibility of escaping gender (111).

These are the insights that made calls for “women’s liberation” seem hopelessly naïve in their overarching grand-narrativizing. Feminism could no longer talk about men and women as easily distinct social categories, of men as “the oppressors,” of any power structure depending on a simple us/them dichotomy, or of any more pure place outside of the social relations of gender. And these are the insights Tomlin performs as she positions herself as both inside and critical of mass media, celebrity, and systems of heterogender.

Queer Lily

[12] Less public than Tomlin’s feminism, yet still widely known, was her sexual identity. It was rumored but not explicitly spoken in mainstream media that Tomlin was a lesbian and that Jane Wagner, her creative collaborator, was her partner in life as well. Tomlin herself was not closeted, necessarily, but neither was she out in the way that later television celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres or Rosie O’Donnell are out. For example, in 1976, she did a long interview forThe Advocate with Vito Russo, most well known for his book on the history of gay and lesbian images in film, The Celluloid Closet (which was made into a documentary in 1993, with fundraising and narration done by Tomlin).

The interview covering a couple of days over several outings and conversational in structure, clearly shows them as friends. At one point Tomlin says,

“Listen, Vito, this is for The Advocate. It’s going to look funny if we don’t discuss the gay issue.”

Vito says, “Yeah.”

Lily:     Well, what did Bette Midler say about it?

Vito:    She said that it’s okay to be anything you want as long as you don’t let your dog shit on the street.

Lily:     Oh, see? Bette is wittier than I am.

Vito:    Yeah, she is.

Lily:     Fuck you, you commie queer.

If not a “coming out,” this signals clear ease and identification with and as a gay person. It avoids the confession and the explanation. It refuses to participate in the compulsory binaristic categorization that keeps the entire heteronormative system in place. It operates along a similar strategy raised by Judith Butler in “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” in which she poses these questions:

The discourse of ‘coming out’ has clearly served its purposes, but what are its risks? . . . Is the ‘subject’ who is ‘out’ free of its subjection and finally in the clear? Or could it be that the subjection that subjectivates the gay or lesbian subject in some ways continues to oppress, or oppresses most insidiously, once ‘outness’ is claimed? (308-09).

That is, coming out has obvious useful political purposes, but interrogating coming out, questioning the binary categories themselves, is also at least as politically useful. As Butler goes on:

If it is already true that ‘lesbians’ and ‘gay men’ have been traditionally designated as impossible identities, errors of classification, unnatural disasters within juridico-medical discourses, or, what perhaps amounts to the same, the very paradigm of what calls to be classified, regulated, or controlled, then perhaps these sites of disruption, error, confusion, and trouble can be the very rallying points for a certain resistance to classification and to identity as such (309-310).

By not being categorically “out” Tomlin had a lot of room to play with the categories themselves. Whatever Tomlin’s motivations for not announcing her sexuality in a public forum, the result was queerly productive.

[13] Another example comes from a riff on her 1975 record,Modern Scream. This record is thematically similar to Lily: Sold Out! in that it focuses on the meanings made in a mass mediated society and on questions about selling out to the mainstream. It also relies on the character, Lily Tomlin, both celebrity and our familiar, as the anchor to showcase nine of her characters, all in the context of Lily Tomlin being interviewed by a reporter (who is also played by Lily Tomlin).

[14] What is most remarkable on this album is the queer content raised by the interviewer asking Lily about her “frank film about heterosexuality.” She goes on, “Did it seem strange to you, seeing yourself make love to a man on the big screen?”

Lily:     Well, I did a lot of research. And by the time we began shooting I was used to it. I’ve seen these women all my life, so I know how they walk, I know how they talk. Course, I did interview some psychiatrists, but they don’t have the answers.

Interviewer:     No, I don’t suppose anyone does, really.

Lily: Course, I got a lot of flak from straight liberation groups. Some thought I went too far, some not far enough.

Interviewer:     Well, you have your radical element in every group.

Lily:    And my family said, ‘How could you do such a thing?’ People just don’t understand, you don’t have to be one to play one.

Interviewer:     I guess people are pretty amazed that a woman who looks like you do can play a heterosexual so realistically and still be perfectly normal. The voice you use for the part, don’t you…

The record then cuts to Mrs. Beasley advertising laundry detergent.

[15] Taken together, these public winks suggest a queer feminism that challenges the inevitability of heteronormativity. Tomlin does not have to be “out” as a lesbian for this to work as queer. In fact, it is much funnier and more effective with her as a liminal sexual subject. By not speaking “as a lesbian,” in a mainstream context, this is hilarious and not heavy-handed. It is provocative and not prescriptive. It is questioning and not categorical. It is what makes it queer. Reading Tomlin’s work through a queer feminist lens permits one to see more than simply a straightforward challenge to male dominance, but more of a subversive disturbance to the foundations of heterogender and heteronormativity itself.

[16] Heteronormativity refers to all of the ways that the social is based on an assumption of heterosexuality. It is a powerful organizing force that depends on erasing, denigrating, or repressing that which does not fit into its terms. Samuel Chambers has elaborated the concept this way:

Heteronormativity means, quite simply, that heterosexuality is the norm in culture, in society, in politics… The importance of the concept is that it centers on the operation of the norm. Heteronormativity emphasizes the extent to which everyone, straight or queer, will be judged, measured, probed and evaluated from the perspective of the heterosexual norm. It means thateveryone and everything is judged from the perspective of straight (178).

Tomlin’s work queers heterogender from a feminist perspective and thus undermines heteronormativity. Queer, according to Alexander Doty, “is a quality related to any expression that can be marked as contra-, non, or anti-straight” (xv). He goes on to say that queer “suggest[s] a range of nonstraight expression in, or in response to, mass culture. This range includes specifically gay, lesbian, and bisexual expressions; but it also includes all other potential (and potentially unclassifiable) nonstraight positions” (xvi). Tomlin’s work is queered when we read her “anti-straight” feminist challenge to heterogender in her mimicry, parody of, and distance from masculinity and femininity, both in her performances and in the extra textual rumors and hints that she is a lesbian.

[17] In any case, even if one does not know about the rumors, Tomlin does not fit into traditional femininity. There is no man she is attached to. There is no pretense that there is a man, or will be a man. In her most public face, she is a woman alone, with no ties to a nuclear family arrangement and no desire to create that. There is no place to put Tomlin within a heteronormative economy.

[18] Additionally, of course, she is a woman who is funny, which is decidedly unladylike. It is simply a truism that the field of comedy was then, and continues to be, dominated by men. Many have commented on the fact that women just aren’t that funny, or are not allowed to be funny, or that funny women just don’t play in a male-dominated context. I think Jerry Seinfeld sums it up well when he says, “To laugh is to be dominated,” (Auslander, 1992, 128). Seinfeld isn’t talking about gender dynamics necessarily, but that is the essence of the gender issue and comedy. Taken together, all of this makes Tomlin unclassifiable within “mass culture,” the very place from which she operates (the reading from within mass culture is central to Doty’s definition of queer).

[19] So, from this queer feminist position, as a participant in dominant, mass-mediated culture, Tomlin’s work is very much in what Auslander calls the “postmodern resistant mode: [she] seeks to contest the meanings made available by hegemonic discourse, from within the terms of that very discourse” (1992, 165). It is based on a recognition that there is no purer, better place outside of the social structures we all occupy. This is perhaps one of the definitive concepts of the postmodern in relation to cultural politics, and explains why mass media helps produce those politics. Tomlin is a “critical artist in postmodern culture” in that she “exposes the processes of cultural control” and thereby “emphasizes the traces of nonhegemonic discourses within the dominant without claiming to transcend its terms” (24).

[20] The combination of her position as well-known and well-loved comedian firmly embedded in a mediatized culture with the unsubstantiated but widely assumed knowledge of her sexuality allowed Tomlin to make significant interventions into the representation of gender in mass media. Placing herself as a sort of liminal figure in relationship to mass media and celebrity culture, as well as categories of sexuality and gender, she offers no easy condemnation or simple celebration of any of these categories.

Lily: Sold Out!

[21] The television special, Lily: Sold Out! is a particularly sharp example of the work in which Tomlin focused on ambivalence and liminality. It opens with the familiar character Ernestine talking to fellow operator, Fenecia, saying she is trying to put a call through “to that Tomlin woman, from her agent…. Tomlin’s gone highbrow on us again…. Oh, she is at some artsy New York Theater doing that drearySeven Ages of Woman…give me a break.”

[22] Cut to Lily Tomlin on the stage thanking a live audience in her (now) trademark empty stage, grey top and black slacks. She goes backstage, exhausted, excited, to a large crew who greet her enthusiastically, fawning over the depth and meaning of her performance. One woman techie says, “The Seven Ages of Womanwas sheer poetry.” Then the call from her agent comes through, and she says that oh no, she could not possibly do Las Vegas.

Who called? Caesar’s Palace? I’d have to do Seven Ages of Woman, Arthur. It’s what I believe in right now. If I did something else right now it would just be for the money. And I don’t think I could live with myself if I did something just for the money. How much? Is that per week?

Cut to her speeding through the desert in a Cadillac. The comparison set up there—between the purity of “real” theater and the crass commercialism of Las Vegas—is one of the basic satirical underpinnings of the show. The joke first is on the sincerity that the character, Lily Tomlin, (played by the actor Lily Tomlin) “concerned woman,” political artist, expresses throughout about the categorical difference between theater and Las Vegas. Theater, in this debate, is seen as transcending the commercial. It is high art, meant to elevate us intellectually and politically, to raise consciousness. Las Vegas stands in here for mediatized culture. Although it is live as well, it is the kind of mediatized performance that mimics film and television in its use of larger-than-life specatacle. And the difference is about the possibility of creating “real” meaning vs. the dreck of mere entertainment. The assumption is that political or intellectual meaning cannot be made in such a commercial context. The fact that she is using a television show for social commentary is only the most obvious way she is blurring the lines. By doing so, Tomlin performs the conundrum of finding liberation outside of oppressive social institutions that Auslander describes here:

Because postmodern political art cannot place itself outside the object of its own critique, it also cannot claim to depict ‘alternative’ social visions. Because postmodern political art must position itself within postmodern culture, it must use the same representational means as other cultural expression yet remain permanently suspicious of them, (1992, 23).

[23] While the show pokes fun of the idea of a stark contrast between art and commerce, at the same time it takes the question of politics and popular culture seriously. Like Tomlin’s other work, it operates from the assumption that although there is no ‘other place,’ or clear alternative, what passes as ‘normal’ life in America is ridiculous in its oppressive force. And within the terms it sets up, it offers a feminist critique of dominant culture and more interestingly, a feminist queer subversion of heterogender.

[24] As Lily struggles to cope with the unfamiliar and crass environment of Las Vegas, she encounters many opportunities to position herself as a feminist in a hostile land. And she does this in a variety of ways all from the ambivalent position of one who is part of and implicated in dominant culture as well. For example, one thread of the show: In the preparation of her show, The Seven Ages of Woman, as Lenny, the PR guy introduces Lily to ultra-luxurious room at Caesar’s, he tells her,

This is not me speakin’, OK? They’re concerned. I mean they’re concerned that you soft-pedal whatever crazy cause you’re into. You know, the feministic, the hallustic, the ERA, bad water, whatever. You know what I’m talkin’ about. You’re a smart girl. They want more pizzazz, less politics, OK?

[25] He then introduces her to a successful Las Vegas comic, saying, “This is history. Two funny-bones meeting each other for the first time. Lily Tomlin. Mickey Gold.” Mickey Gold, supposedly helping her with her pizzazz, bombards her with an endless stream of canned jokes. For instance he says, “I gotta one-liner. Never fails. I could have had any gal, in your case guy, I pleased. Unfortunately, I never pleased any of them.” As she tries to be polite, but is clearly not amused, her host, the PR guy Lenny, says, “She is into character stuff—with a message.” The comic says, predictably, “Why don’t you save the messages for Western Union?”

[26] This bit allows Tomlin to make a feminist point that her humor is different from, and presumably better than, mainstream male-dominated humor. The contrast is clear and jarring. Yet Tomlin is not positioning herself completely outside of this business. The point is made as part of an ongoing struggle within Tomlin herself, so it is not set up as a definitive feminist victory over the insensitive representative of patriarchy. The categories between inside and outside are productively blurred here. So, to go back to Auslander, we are “permanently suspicious” of the means of representation, but still employing them.

The Seven Ages of Woman and Universal Womanhood

[27] Later, in her rehearsal for The Seven Ages of Woman, Lily is in tights doing interpretive dance and everyone wants her to go for a laugh and create an extravaganza. A tech guy brings in a large “L” to put her name in lights. She says she doesn’t want her name in lights. She says, “If I’m gonna have my name in lights, I want it to say ‘woman.’ Just woman. And I’m proud to be one.”

[28] A large part of what Tomlin is satirizing here with the title and theme of this show within a show is the universalzing impulse that shaped much of the well-known feminist art and thinking of the time. The satire is clearly not from an anti-feminist position, but from an insider’s critique of that familiar yet increasingly questioned universalized conception of the category ‘women,’ by feminists.

[29] Tomlin’s implied questioning of Lily’s, The Seven Ages of Womanis part of the emerging discourse challenging that monolith: women. It is a feminist critique of this unquestioned, unified category, as a conceptual dead-end. The humor here is in how clearly the entire totalizing enterprise of trying to capture “women’s” essential experience is shown to be a meaningless and even insulting exercise. The very effort is a mockery of actual women’s lives—the variety of which Tomlin performs in other parts of this show, and in her other work. Further, the very fact of a feminist spoof is part of the feminist re-conceptualization of power. It recognizes and produces the realization of “the impossibility of escaping gender,” in the words of Brown.

[30] When her show, The Seven Ages of Woman, is unveiled, Lily has gone totally Las Vegas. She lands on the stage in a giant egg and emerges from it in a flashy, revealing costume complete with headdress and dances around the stage with all male troop. She is totally ‘woman’ here, and that alone is funny, given not only the context of the show but Tomlin’s public persona as a feminist, and rumored-to-be lesbian. It is this mass-mediated position that facilitates a reading of Tomlin’s major strategy as taking apart the universal woman here through a queer feminist address. As Doty argues, the pleasure in a queer reading comes in part from the text, yet is always made more powerful by the “extra-textual behind-the-scenes gossip” (9) about the sexuality of the performer.

[31] In the next bit Lily says to her Las Vegas audience,

While we’re having fun, let’s not forget about war. The war between men and women. The battle of the sexes. Yes. I am talking about it. Someone much smarter than I once said, “War is hell,” and I think anyone who ever registered a pattern at Tiffany’s knows just what I’m talking about.

And then she dons a bridal veil—with her tiny little costume—and taps “Here Comes the Bride” with “The Lily Tomlin Dancers.” It ends with her being shot out of a cannon into the audience. She stands up out of the smoke in a new evening gown singing seductively to the audience as ‘woman,’ and breaks into one-liners. She says,

People always say to me, ‘Lily, when are you gonna settle down and get married?’ And I say to them, ‘Listen, I could have had any gal, or in my case guy, I pleased. Unfortunately, I never pleased any of them.’

She goes on in her vampy style, “I’d like to sing a song about the kind of guy we all meet at least once.” And she launches into “The Man Who Got Away.” Then she runs up into the band and grabs a horn, then a banjo, then a trombone, and then the drums, and plays them all madly. It is an abrupt shift out of ‘woman,’ as she grabs agency usually reserved for men. This is merely the last shift in a riff that has seen her move through several gender performances mimicking heterogender in a mocking way that denaturalizes it—again, made possible in part by Tomlin’s position in popular culture.

[32] Lily’s bursting out of the egg to launch the Las Vegas spectacle she seemed to want to resist, already puts this performance at a remove. We know it is not “her.” As she moves to talking about registering at Tiffany’s in the context of the battle of the sexes, and donning a wedding veil, thus alluding to her own bridal experience, she foregrounds the very put-on of that identity. Sauntering into the audience singing and then telling the Mickey Gold joke, her verbatim repetition of the way he told her the joke again foregrounds the put-on, and distances her relationship to heterosexuality, thus denaturalizing it. It is clearly not “natural” for her to say she could marry ‘any guy I pleased.’

[33] As she moves into her lounge singer persona and on to her rendition of “The Man Who Got Away”—the “song about the guy we all meet at least once”—implying a fake address to all women, from a common experience “we” all share, she continues with a parody of heterogender based on a mimicry of ‘woman.’ Elin Diamond explains in “Mimesis, Mimicry, and the True-Real,” that mimicry is a useful feminist performative tool. She writes that “the sign-referent model of mimesis can become excessive to itself, spilling into a mimicry that undermines the referent’s authority” (62). Mimicry is the denaturalizing critical distance between some version of a “real” imitation—mimesis—and its exaggeration. Diamond goes on:

Mimicry can function…as an alienation-effect, framing the gender behavior dictated by patriarchal models as a means of ‘recovering the place of her [the performer’s] exploitation’ (66).

[34] The mimicry of the Las Vegas lounge singer is not making fun of the Las Vegas lounge singer herself, but the absurd and exaggerated gender requirements imposed on women in dominant culture generally, and Las Vegas, more so. One could say that to mimic a Las Vegas lounge singer is to go for a pretty easy laugh, and on one level it works that way. But the queered feminist critique is the deeper level it works on. It is possible to enjoy that joke on more than one level, which is why it can be on television.

Kinging: Tommy Velour

[35] Interestingly, the critique of gender through the character of the Las Vegas lounge singer has another incarnation in this show, in the persona of Tommy Velour, also played by Tomlin. Tommy Velour has a presence throughout the show, with his name on the marquee as Tomlin first arrives in Las Vegas, and then with billboard posters for his show constantly appearing in the background. He is the Las Vegas star, a fixture, a Wayne Newton figure. A centerpiece of Lily: Sold Out!, and within the terms of the show, of Lily Tomlin’s acclimatization to Las Vegas, is to visit Tommy Velour’s show.

[36] Tommy Velour appears onstage moustached, in a sequined jacket, holding a cigarette and sporting a confident manly swagger. The camera moves from Lily Tomlin, sitting in her booth, horrified, looking out of place, not quite dressed for a lounge and very uncomfortable, to a booth with Ernestine and Liberace, seemingly on a date, as they are quite affectionate with each other. As Tommy Velour holds court and half sings, half talks to the audience, Lily is caught trying to escape the lounge. The spotlight catches her and Tommy says, “Come on give us one of those: ‘snort, snort, snort’.” Cut to Ernestine, who says in a brilliant intertextual moment, “That just steams me.”

[37] When Tommy comes to the end of his show, he jumps onto a giant cake as part of the spectacular climax. Sweat drips off him, he rips off his tie to show a big patch of chest hair, (perhaps an homage to Tom Jones?) as he dramatically, exhaustedly finishes his last song. He is spent.

[38] This performance of masculinity fits well the description coined by Judith Halberstam in the late 1990s—”kinging.” Kinging refers to a theatrical impersonation of masculinity, usually a parody of masculinity. In Halberstam’s words, kinging often “exposes the dated look of latter day sex gods (Tom Jones, Elvis Presley, Donny Osmond) and emphasizes the prosthetic nature of male sexual appeal by using overstuffed crotches, chest rugs, and wigs,” (2001, 433). That is an apt description of Tommy Velour, who predates kinging by at least a decade. As Halberstam describes it, kinging developed within lesbian spaces mostly in the 1990s.

[39] To this day, kinging has not filtered much into mainstream representation and remains relatively isolated in lesbian clubs. It certainly has not taken on the mainstream life that the drag queen has in so much camp performance. The campy drag queen has a long and noble tradition in many mainstream venues, both live performances and mass media of all kinds. And it, again in the words of Halberstam (who gives due credit to Esther Newton) “describes the discontinuities between gender and sex or appearance and reality but refuses to allow this discontinuity to represent dysfunction. In drag performance, rather, incongruence becomes the site of gender creativity,” (1998, 236).

[40] One of the major reasons that drag performance has almost always been the exaggerated performance of femininity, not masculinity, according to Halberstam is that masculinity is not generally seen as performed. It is understood to just be: to be natural. She writes, “Indeed, current representations of masculinity in white men unfailingly depend on a relatively stable notion of the realness and the naturalness of both the male body and its signifying effects… masculinity ‘just is,’ whereas femininity reeks of the artificial,” (1998, 234). This is, of course, one of the central mechanisms of male dominance. Within these normative terms, masculinity is untouchable; it is the reference point for humanity. In the succinct words of Simone de Beauvoir,

The terms masculine and feminine are used symmetrically only as a matter of form, as on legal papers. In actuality the relation of the two sexes is not quite like that of two electrical poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral, as is indicated by the common usage of manto designate human beings in general, whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity, (xv).

Femininity is gender, and while it can be the site of gender play and thus a way to denaturalize all gender, as Newton and Butler have demonstrated; the self-conscious performance of femininity by men has also been a way to point not only to the absurdities of gender, but it can also be performed in a way to look at women themselves as absurd. This points to the second major reason—an extension of the first—that there is no well-established tradition of kinging in mainstream representation. It is a very different matter to laugh at masculinity in a male-dominated society than to laugh at femininity. Thus it follows that such a society would not have allowed much of a space for camp humor aimed at the excesses of masculinity, whether performed by mainstream artists or lesbian performance artists.

[41] Whether or not the drag kings of the mid 1990s were inspired by Lily Tomlin’s Tommy Velour, it is clear is that in 1981 on broadcast television Tomlin pointed to the excesses of heteromasculinity and thus undercut apparent male transparency for those inclined to read it that way. Tommy Velour is a classic drag king performance, down to the inflexible way Tomlin holds her body to embody masculinity. Drag kings performing today are very conscious of the ways they cannot move their bodies onstage. Halberstam quotes Maureen Fischer who performs Mo B. Dick. She says, “Usually I move around a lot, but as a man I am much more rigid, and I hold my body a certain way, and it’s much stiffer in the torso, and there’s no wiggle in the hips” (1998, 259). Halberstam elaborates, “Whereas the drag queen expands and becomes flamboyant, the drag king learns to convey volumes in a shrug or a raised eyebrow,” (1998, 259). Tommy Velour can work the eyebrows.

[42] The character Tommy Velour denaturalizes gender in a particularly feminist way. It is not just gender, but this overconfident, outdated masculinity that is shown to be laughable. The parody of masculinity points at the arrogance of male dominance, through denaturalizing it. It works on broadcast television, in part, because it is Lily Tomlin, the woman who does the funny kid Edith Ann, and everybody’s favorite telephone operator, Ernestine. It works on a deeper level for viewers who are tuned in to the possibility—or hope—that Tomlin is a lesbian, and certainly a feminist. This knowledge queers the performance of Tommy Velour; showing Liberace in a booth with Ernestine on a date adds to the queer atmosphere as well. A flamboyantly gay man for the whole family, Liberace occupies that classic queer position in dominant culture that can exist only if no one names it.

[43] Lily: Sold Out! ends with Lily sitting on her couch surrounded by her friends, many of whom are in the show, watching the show on television. As the show ends, and everyone in the room claps, the phone rings. Lily answers it and it is Arthur, her agent. It seems that from seeing the special there has been an offer from Caesar’s Palace. Lily asks, “How much? Is that per week?” We are left in a loop of televisual reality with no clear markers of what is “real” and what is made up, or where the lines of reality begin and end.

[44] This open non-ending leaves us with the palpable uncertainty as to who this Lily Tomlin is. Thus the most obvious question dangles there, begging for an answer, yet there can be no straightforward answer. What Tomlin makes clear is that getting to the “real” story here: about Tomlin herself, about just how much she has sold out, or is out, does not get us to “real” knowledge, wisdom, or clarity. Understanding through categorical imperatives gives us a false sense of mastery that Tomlin will not settle for. Her insistent play with those categories of gender and sexuality, and of the relationship between art and commercialism and politics through her persona, points not to a facile relationship to any of that, but to a serious understanding that for subjects in a late capitalist mediatized world, there is no way out. Tomlin offers no false escape route, and no prescriptions. But by unsettling categories and questions, she works to complicate notions of identity, multiply points of identification, and create new positions of subjectivity that were then, and continue to be, a rare find in mass media.


Thanks so much to Liz Philipose for early conversations and support on this article; and to Mimi Hotchkiss for excellent editing help.

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