Shen Te, You Stay: An Unlikely Link Between Bertolt Brecht and Bianca Del Rio

Good news, Drag Race fans, Hurricane Bianca is finally available to watch on Netflix in Canada. I could easily fill this blog post detailing my lukewarm feelings about what was, overall, a fairly disappointing cinematic experience. But I think it might be a little more interesting to examine the central conceit of Hurricane Bianca within the tradition of the “Drag-as-disguise” movie. For those of you who have not yet had the pleasure, Hurricane Bianca is the story of Richard (played by Roy Haylock aka Bianca Del Rio) a meek, awkward, gay teacher who takes a job in a small Texan city, is bullied by the students and staff and quickly fired. During a blackout at an amateur drag night at the local gay bar, Richard develops his own drag persona, Bianca, a confident, quick witted alpha-queen. As Bianca, Richard becomes his own classroom replacement and whips the homophobic, underachieving school into shape, sweeps the inexplicably glamorous local teaching awards and tadaa: fixes everything.

Drag-as-disguise, as a plot device has a long history in western drama that stretches back to Renaissance English theatre, most notably Shakespearian comedies like Twelfth Night and As You Like it. Drag as disguise has remained a popular choice in film and can be seen in such classics as: Queen Christina, Sylvia Scarlett, Some Like it Hot, Victor Victoria, Tootsie, M. Butterfly, Mrs. Doubtfire, Big Mama’s House, and White Chicks; just to name a few. These films differ from films about drag queens (Priscilla Queen of the Desert, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie, Newmar, Kinky Boots) in that, rather than depicted the lives of professional drag performers, Drag-as-disguise films depict cisgender characters who employ drag for some practical function: either to gain access to a gender specific space and/or to hide their identity, often from the mafia. Hurricane Bianca presents a seldom seen use of the drag disguise film: creating a supplementary alter ego. Unlike films about infiltrating gendered spaces, like Queen Christina and Mrs. Doubtfire, Richard’s transformation into Bianca doesn’t grant him access to a new space- both Richard and Bianca have equal access to the classroom- but rather the drag disguise supplements a lack of authority that prevents Richard from holding the space. The “supplementary drag alter ego” plot device is fairly rare, and to my knowledge only pops up in two well-known works: the 1997 film, the Associate and Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechuan, first performed in 1943.

In the Associate Whoopi Goldberg plays Laurel, an ambitious investment banker who is unable to climb the Wall Street ladder until she invents and transforms into a fictional white, middle aged, male partner who eases the anxiety of her racist, misogynist would-be investors. In the Good Person of Szechuan, Shen Te is a kind hearted sex worker who, after receiving a gift of riches from the Gods, opens a tobacco shop. Unfortunately Shen Te’s conspicuous overnight wealth and notorious soft heart, which Brecht problematically links to her essentialized gender identity, makes her an easy target for extortion and manipulation by her neighbours. Unable to stand up for herself Shen Te takes on the disguise of her own cousin, a stern adult male who has no problem turning away moochers and keeping “his” eye on the bottom line to keep the business afloat.

What’s interesting about Hurricane Bianca visa vie The Associate and The Good Person of Szechuan is how gender presentation is associated with authority within the context of contemporary gay identity. Both Laurel and Shen Te assume male disguises to command respect and avoid gendered- and in Laurel’s case, racial- stigmatization. However, in Hurricane Bianca, Richard a cis gay man who dons the disguise of a woman as a strategy for gaining authority and confidence.

Because Richard discovers drag during a black out, which largely happens off-screen, there’s no real explanation as to where Bianca “comes from” or why Bianca is able to stand up for herself in a position in which Richard is not. But even if the film glazes over the question as to the nature of Bianca’s strength it at least gestures to a larger question about the relationship between cis male drag queens and their drag personas.

It would be easy to read this as sexist exploitation of feminine stereotypes: in becoming a two dimensional caricature of a diva, Richard as Bianca can access that female power. However part of this interpretation requires that Richard VS Bianca be read along a binary of gender which in turn erases Richard’s experience as an effeminate gay man of colour. Much of the bullying Richard receives is more from his effeminacy than his literal sexuality. When Richard, as himself, attempts to project confidence he is forced to do so as a male within the confines of the heteronormative space of the Texas high school. As such, Richard is forced to mimic masculinity in attempt to project confidence. Richard fails miserably not because he truly lacks confidence but because in order to express that confidence in a homophobic space he must do so via masculinity. Richard’s effeminacy, even if expressed as biting wit, will read as weakness in a hostile environment

The Bianca persona allows Richard to inhabit an “authentic” femme confidence that is made acceptable to homophobic teachers and students. Through the filter of Bianca, Richard’s effeminacy is read as femininity, and thus the absurdity of a confident, effeminate man is made intelligible in the appearance of a confident, feminine woman. Richard’s homosexual desire is made safe by being misunderstood as Bianca’s heterosexual desire. Rather than creating a parody of a woman, Richard creates a heteronormative (if we can suspend our disbelief that Bianca’s campy aesthetic can be read as cis woman in a conservative high school) mask that safely allows him to perform his authentic effeminate confidence.

In creating Bianca, Richard personifies Oscar Wilde’s observation, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth”. The scholarship on drag overwhelmingly focuses on drag as gender impersonation and parody, and thus assumes an interaction between a male artist and an external other. This is undoubtedly true of many performers, though likely more so to some rather than others. However the concept of drag as an autobiographical practice, in my experience with drag performers, is a frequently and often overlooked component. Shen Te and Laurel are relatively unaffected in donning their male guises, as in both cases these woman truly appropriate the other in order to subvert prejudices about their race, gender and background. Richard, however, emerges as a more confident gay man, which likely has everything to do with the authenticity at the root of his drag persona. While Hurricane Bianca spends little time considering the implications of this fairly central plot point, the idea of drag as self-expression is something to consider while taking in the latest contribution to the cinematic drag cannon.

Cameron Crookston is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies and the Mark S Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies. His researh looks at drag and queer cultural memory

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