Why Crossgender Casting (Sometimes) Works Best In A Bikini

Jill Summerville

  • OnStage Ohio Columnist

On Thursday, August 18, I had the good fortune to discover a theatre company, The Short North Stage, Garden Theatre in Columbus, OH. The summer show is Psycho Beach Party, a 1987 satire of 1960s beach movies (and the sexist stereotypes within them) by drag queen, actor, and playwright, Charles Busch. Busch, who originated the role of eager ingenue Florence “Chicklet” Forrest in the 1987 production for his company, Theater-In-Limbo, spent his career using drag to question why being tall, thin, and waxed in all the right places is so often perceived as being “feminine.” His work shows why creating opportunities for men to play women's roles is sometimes a good (though admittedly controversial) idea.

Chicklet (Nick Hardin in the Short North Stage production) is a naive teen as yet untouched by puberty and its attendant hormones. She's more interested in surfing than making out on the beach, until a surfer unwittingly unleashes her siren, dominatrix alter ego, Ann Boman. Chicklet has multiple personality disorder, but her condition is less of a commentary on the treatment of those with mental illnesses than it is a critique of the virgin/whore dichotomy, which seems illogical once it's no longer placed in the context of a society that normalizes it. In the early 1960s beach movies on which the play is based, all the women are simultaneously wholesome and sexualized (Surf's Up! Beyond The Beach: AIP's Beach Party Movies”). For example, in the 1959 movie, Gidget (from which Psycho Beach Party borrows heavily), Gidget, who's blond but not buxom, is mocked by the men for her appearance. However, the movie audience is actually watching actress and model, Sandra Dee, a conventionally attractive woman who would be vulnerable to every aggressive sexual advance at a luau, which she's told is basically an orgy. The idea that a woman's sexuality is a man's to awaken is present in the marketing for many of the beach party movies (“7 Classic Beach Party Movies”), even though there are no sex scenes onscreen.

The objectification of women isn't openly critiqued in Psycho Beach Party, because the satire would be weakened if the characters were more introspective than the teens in beach party movies. The critique is in the casting; Chicklet isn't played by a woman, but her reluctant decision to change into her bikini on the beach forces us to recognize the physical humiliation and catcalling a biological or trans-gendered woman would endure at such a moment in the real world. Further, while a woman couldn't help becoming an embodiment of the virgin/whore dichotomy while playing both Chicklet and Ann Boman, a man represents both possibilities without becoming entrapped by either.

Casting a man as a woman character is most effective when the character-as-written is representing feminine stereotypes without re-presenting them. The absence of an actual, feminine body allows an audience to confront what's involved in the objectification of women---body shaming, aggressive flirtation, and suppression of sexuality---without seeing a body, like Sandree Dee's, that's daily subject to such humiliations in the real world. This allows audiences to laugh at sexist actions, but it also provides enough distance from real world practices for questioning them.

Of course, the role of Chicklet is written to be played by a man. The script is structured so that all of the feminine stereotypes Chicklet embodies will be cheekily critiqued by the very presence of a male body. However, the women's roles most often offered to men aren't written specifically to be played by men because the woman character embodies feminine stereotypes. They're roles where woman characters, like Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell, embody masculine stereotypes. A man playing a woman in a role that presents unproblematized feminine stereotypes is tacitly asking us to consider why women are subjected to those stereotypes in the real world. A man playing a “masculine” role written for a woman is perpetuating the idea that the strength and power associated with masculinity aren't qualities a woman could believably possess.

Charles Busch says there's “a real fantasy quotient” (Quoteaddicts) to his work. The beautiful thing about making plays is there's a real fantasy quotient to the whole endeavor. The key to deciding when cross-gender casting is most effective is knowing which “truths” about women, men, and everyone in between we want to perpetuate in the world outside the theatre.