I was recently cast as “Albin” in the musical La Cage Aux Folles and it has given me the unique opportunity to have to learn how to act more effeminate and to cross dress. As a psychologist who obsesses about the “psychology of everyday life” you can imagine how I’ve been thinking about what there is to learn from this experience. The show goes up in less than a week but I wanted to share my experiences thus far and talk about issues such as gender roles and why I think the movie (La Cage Aux Folles or the American version which is called “The Birdcage“) and the musical have been so popular.
The fascination that many cultures have with men wearing women’s clothing has a long history, stretching back to when men portrayed women in Shakespeare’s plays (though this was due to women not being allowed o the stage at that time) to more modern movies: Monty Python. Some Like It Hot (and the musical which sprung from that movie – Sugar), Rocky Horror Picture Show, Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and most recently on broadway, Kinky Boots.
Why is the movie and play so popular?
- While the movie does have a gay couple in the lead roles, these men are in their 50s and we don’t typically think of “older people” (excuse me on that one) as engaging in sex
- The gay couple can easily be fit into typical “male and female” gender roles. The “man” in the relatioship (Georges) is not too emotional and not too effeminate while the “woman” in the relationship (Albin) fulfills a more typical female stereotype – more emotional, more effeminate, more communicative, etc.
- The two men have a son, but he is heterosexual (which is easier for many people to accept than if he were gay).
- The key event in the show is the “meeting of the parents”: the son wants to marry a girl he met and so the parents from both families are meeting. This is a common cultural event that most people can identify with.
- One of the key themes in the musical is that Albin just wants to be accepted as who he is (“I Am What I Am”). We can all identify with this need.
- Most western cultures don’t allow men too much leeway in their appearance so seeing a man dressed as a woman is a unique thing. It’s fascinating in part because it is a kind of optical illusion – you see what looks like a woman but you know it’s a man so you try to “find the man in the woman”.
- How we communicate our gender: we socialize women to be expressive with their hands and fingers. Women will often put their hands over their hearts, and in general tend to keep their hands and arms close to their bodies so as not to take up too much space. They are taught to keep their legs together, which is partly because they are often wearing dresses and this is simply modesty, but keeping your legs together also accentuates one’s bodily curves (particularly true for female models). Men tend to try to take up a lot of space as a way to establish their territory (thus, “man spreading“).
- When heterosexuals see a gay couple they sometimes ask themselves, “Which one of them is ‘the man'”? Jean Piaget might say that we are attempting to fit a new, unfamiliar experience into our more well understood schema (Assimilation) – in this case that a “couple” typically consists of a man ad a woman.
- Thanks to Beth Benoit from Plymouth State University who pointed out that these days, gay couples tend to have a much more “playful” attitude toward gender and gender roles and for pointing to the research of Donald McCreary (Handbook of Gender Research in Psychology) who in 1994 stated that men who appear “effeminate” are more likely to be perceived as gay, while women who have masculine traits may be less likely to be seen as gay. This is another observation on the amount of “leeway” we give men and women in the expression of their gender.