In a slight twist to Issue 004, and issue which deals with twists and shifts in gender and culture, we decided to feature a Top Eight instead of our usual Top Ten, and took our inspiration from the original design for the Rainbow Flag.
In 1977, San Francisco supervisor and activist Harvey Milk asked 27-year-old Gilbert Baker to come up with a symbol to unite the wider gay community. Some sources say that Baker drew inspiration from the Bay Area hippies use of rainbow flags in their gatherings and protests, while others cite the Judy Garland song Over the Rainbow and the Stonewall riots in the previous decade. Either way Baker, a self-taught sewer, debuted the eight-coloured flag at the Gay Freedom Parade on June 25th 1978, and assigned meaning to the colours:
- Hot Pink: Sex. (Baker later dropped the hot pink due to the unavailability of the fabric in large enough quantities.)
- Red: Life
- Orange: Healing
- Yellow: Sunlight
- Green: Nature
- Turquoise: Magic/Art. (Turquoise and Indigo later merged to form a single Royal Blue stripe, as an even number of stripes worked better with the San Franciscan lamp posts.)
- Indigo: Serenity
- Violet: Spirit
We present eight instances when actors, writers, and designers alike pushed the gender boundaries in popular culture and opened the door for the next generations.
1.URSULA THE SEA WITCH – Disney approached actor Glenn Milstead, aka drag legend Divine, to do voice work for their next animated feature – a cartoon version of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid.
Animator Ruben Aquino produced draft sketches of the villain of the piece – the evil sea witch Ursula – and based both her look, her voice, and her mannerisms on those of Divine with super arched eyebrows, overdrawn red lips, and bleached platinum white hair.
Milstead passed away from a massive heart attack in 1988 aged only 42, just prior to recording work… but Disney kept the look, which became one of the most recognisable and enduring of the Disney villains. (Just don’t mention to little Johnny or little Susan that if they liked The Little Mermaid they’d probably love Pink Flamingos.)
2. MARLENE DIETRICH – Long before Annie Lennox’s androgynous pop chic Marlene Dietrich ruled as the Queen of gender fluidity.
Born in the Schöneberg district of Berlin in 1901, her destiny lay in cabaret and performance – and cabaret of a rainbow hue.
You can find Schöneberg in the North East corner of Berlin, a vibrant area of bars, cafes, restaurants, and clubs, which has always been the heart of Gay Berlin. Christopher Isherwood wrote his Berlin Stories at Nollendorfstraße 17, and the district once boasted the most famous demi-monde clubs of all – places like The Eldorado and The Kit Kat Klub.
Dietrich performed at the nightclubs and theatres of Berlin and you can see traces of this in her international debut in The Blue Angel (1930) – her smokey, deep voice, her penchant for uniforms and suits, and her blatant flirtation with both the men and the women in the audience.
Never shy of pushing a boundary or several she made tuxedos look sexy, took lovers of both sexes, and exuded bisexual chic way before Bowie ever set foot in the German capital.
3. ED WOOD – Edward D. Wood Jr. primarily made B-movies in the 1950s, and most of his output concerned mad scientists, the supernatural, atomic fears, aliens, and so on – standard fare for the drive-in.
But in his 1953 movie Glen or Glenda Wood explored a subject close to home – transvestism. A heterosexual transvestite in real life, Wood once boasted that he took part in the D-Day landings with full lingerie under his uniform, and never shied away from the truth about his life. Famous for bad dialogue, an eccentric coterie of stars and crews, and a guerrilla approach to film-making, Wood still manages to put across a frank, non sensationalised, and matter-of-fact story of a man terrified to share his secret life with his beloved fiancee.
Wood often filmed in full drag and risked real jail time during the making of Glen as public female impersonation was then a serious crime. But Wood lived his life openly and on his own terms, and this unashamed and honest movie blazes a trail. (One of Wood’s stable, Bunny Breckinridge, later starred in Plan 9 from Outer Space as the head alien, and suffered personal tragedy and loss on his own journey through unsuccessful gender reassignment.)
4. RUPAUL – When RuPaul Charles from Hotlanta, Georgia first appeared on the underground scene in New York in the 80s, she performed gender-queer drag at nightclubs and worked hard, not only to refine her look but also to edge towards the mainstream.
Drag performance and any form of entertainment, gender non-binary or otherwise, did not exist in the light or the spotlight at that time, save for tired Vaudevillian jokes that featured Milton Berle in a dress with a cigar. Through perseverance, determination, and an eye for an opportunity however small, RuPaul began to break through.
The 90s were something of a watermark decade for Ru – RuPaul’s Drag Race was still a long way off – with high-profile appearances on kids’ TV in Sabrina the Teenage Witch as a member of the Witches’ Council, Sister, Sister as Ray’s work colleague who comes out as a drag performer, and in The Brady Bunch Movie as Mrs. Cummings, Marcia Brady’s school counsellor.
But it was the sight of the storeys’ high billboards across New York which featured Ru as the Face of M.A.C. Cosmetics – the first of its kind – which helped seal the deal. Ru continued to work under the radar through the Bush administration when LGBT rights were momentarily sidelined, but re-emerged, triumphant, with Drag Race, and Emmy Award, and a visible presence on the TV screens of America and the world in full drag.
5.HIM – A problematic and rather controversial inclusion in our list, the villainous HIM from The Powerpuff Girls cartoon in the 90s is nevertheless visible and on a children’s network no less.
Creator Craig McCracken based HIM on the Blue Meanie in The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine movie. He kept the strange semi-falsetto voice (which also drops down to a bass on occasion), but pushed the look deep into gender fluid territory.
HIM does not in fact possess an explicit gender and amalgamates both female attire (jacket, boots, and tulle skirt) and male features (facial hair and so on), along with the wildly fluctuating vocal range.
Is HIM problematic then? Absolutely. The different always seems to occupy the villain role, at least initially, which sets a tone of different equals bad, but for all that HIM is the villain of the piece they nevertheless possess such a strong sense of in your face self and unapologetic freedom of expression that the character manages to become something more of an intrigue. Discuss.
6.FRANKENFURTER – Tim Curry admitted that he floundered on a voice for the role of Frankenfurter in Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show. He tried American and German before a chance overheard conversation on the bus to rehearsals between two debs led to the now famous Belgravia “hostess” plummy tones.
The show started off as fringe as you could get at Upstairs at The Royal Court Theatre in 1973 and became the cult must-see production in London. The Rocky Horror Picture Show film adaptation followed, Sal Piro added the audience participation at midnight showings at the Waverly Theatre in New York, and the rest is history.
On the surface, the show spoofs B-movie tropes, particularly horror and science fiction, but at its core it deals with gender and sexuality – in such a joyful, over the top, camp way that generations of theatre and movie-goers take part in the dress-up and the androgyny and the sheer unadulterated deviant naughtiness of it all.
Even your straightest, most gender binary, most assuredly hetero-normative friends have donned fishnets and nail polish at least once in their lives to go and do the Time Warp again – and that’s a pretty subversive triumph.
7.ELLEN DEGENERES – Tennessee native Ellen DeGeneres started her career in stand-up with a routine which consisted of the usual observational humour, delivered in a deadpan style.
After success on the circuit, she made the leap to television with her titular sitcom, again based on observational comedy – dating woes, friendship, and business mishaps (her character ran a bookshop cum coffee house).
But the defining moment for DeGeneres, both professionally and personally came with the April 30th, 1997 Puppy Episode where Ellen the fictional character and Ellen the public figure came out – on the show over a public address microphone in an airport and in real life in a blaze of publicity. Despite a wave of public support, she also suffered a massive critical backlash. Production studio Disney cancelled the show and her career seemed to stall.
But like RuPaul she rode out the wave of criticism and worked under the radar, growing a passionate and supportive fan base and eventually building up a multi-million dollar empire through her popular daytime chat show and with gigs hosting the Academy Awards and voice over work in Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. To see a proudly gay chat show host on mainstream American television is nothing short of ground-breaking.
8.CANDY DARLING – Even die-hard Warhol fans believe that Candy Darling never stepped out of the underground, with film appearances in Flesh and Women in Revolt.
But the Warhol Superstar who “came from out on the island” in Lou Reed’s classic Walk on the Wild Side always dreamed of bigger things, of Hollywood glamour and mainstream stardom.
She trod the legitimate theatre boards with Tennessee Williams in Small Craft Warnings and before her untimely death in 1974 racked up not one, but three Hollywood credits.
She pops up in Klute at the discotheque as Bree Daniel’s fellow call girl and in Some of My Best Friends Are with future Golden Girl Rue McClanahan and Lady Liberty with Sophia Loren (both 1971).
She was a visible transgender actress before Caroline Cossey in the Bond movie For Your Eyes Only and paved the way for later actresses such as Alexandra Billings and Laverne Cox. And legitimate theatre noticed – Gloria Swanson saluted Darling’s funeral procession – a nod from the old guard to the new.
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