kd lang and the film Salmonberries
This is part of a chapter from my thesis [A critical exploration of cross-dressing and drag in gender performance and camp in contemporary North American drama and film - 1999]. The academically inclined might be interested.
From chapter 2: k.d. lang and the film Salmonberries
I will use examples from the gender performances of singer, songwriter and actress k.d. lang to illustrate some of the notions I have described. There are many examples from k.d lang’s career in music videos, televised interviews, essays and articles and her performance in the film Salmonberries (1991) which exemplify gender play, self-reflexivity, fluidity and rupture that define drag and camp. I will examine how her body is an unstable signifier for gender, destabilizing the notion of the “true” body said to reside in gender beneath the clothes. Lang occupies a contested territory between culturally “appropriate” positions for femininity and masculinity, between theoretically “appropriate” positions for butch and femme and the critical relationship she has to the way she is perceived. The ideas inherent in conventional cross-dressing, where the referent is the true body beneath the clothes, become destabilized in relation to k.d. lang’s gender performance because of her position in relation to femininity and masculinity, that is, her position as androgynous.
I am defining androgyny as a liminal site (a term which refers to a resistance to fixed positions, marked by a resistance to self-identity) that plays between prescriptions for femininity and masculinity, butch and femme. As a liminal site, androgyny simultaneously includes traditional gender traits (e.g. this woman is read as a woman) and excludes conventional gender traits (e.g. this woman is read as a woman who does not conform to her traditional gender assignment). Androgyny is an intersection that appropriates normative notions of gender, blending them in an unconventional manner and forming an amalgamation which, by virtue of the fact that the boundaries are usually considered mutually exclusive (e.g. the division of male and female, femininity and masculinity), uses the norms to resist them. I am not suggesting that these boundaries play out in binary opposition to one another; the proliferation of meanings enables the potential for further intersections or layering of meanings in relation to genderplay.
Normative gender for women in terms of femininity in popular culture often has to negotiate “imperfections” when confronted with uncommon gender play (which itself suggests the inability of the normative gender paradigm to contain itself). Hegemonic strategies abound, as can be seen by lang’s appearance on the cover of Chatelaine, a Canadian woman’s magazine. lang describes an imagined reader of the magazine: “A ‘Miss Chatelaine’ to me is the same thing as an ingenue. It’s an American woman who goes to Paris for the first time and feels very Continental. She’s a naive débutante” (Magnuson, 1992). As an androgyne, lang is an unconventional woman to appear on the cover of a magazine which embodies a “naive” and “debutante” aesthetic.[i] Named Chatelaine’s Woman of the Year in January 1988, lang said,
It was quite a big step for them to put someone like me on the cover, because I’m not a stereotypical woman. . . . I think it’s really cool. . . . I think it’s great because they allowed me to be myself. The only unfortunate thing is that they airbrushed lipstick, but I guess that was their last laugh. (Robertson 1992, 85)
This Magazine commented, “(b)are lips on female singers seems to be too much of a challenge for some” (Robertson 1992, 85). lang is in critical relation with her position as androgynous woman versus debutante or Miss Chatelaine. This resonates theoretically with Trinh T. Minh-ha’s notion of “inappropriate/d others” which does not mean “not to be in relation with,” but rather “means to be in critical, deconstructive relationality – as the means of making a potent connection that exceeds domination” (1986-7). lang is aware that she in not “stereotypical” for her gender and of the “big step” challenges she poses for the perception of women in relation to femininity. The cover of Chatelaine is a liminal site, where meanings of the term Woman (as a Miss Chatelaine) are contested. An amalgamation of the codes on the cover becomes too challenging, and lipstick becomes the dominant weapon of choice to reassert, however unconvincingly, lang’s femininity.[ii]
lang wrote a song, “Miss Chatelaine,” for her album entitled Ingenue in 1992 and made a music video. In the video lang is dressed in a glamorous ball gown as a femme, crossing over from androgyne to hyperbolic femme in female-female impersonator tradition. With the Chatelaine cover as a referent, the parodic recontextualization in the video including the hyperbolic femininity, takes on a camp tone. Over lang’s career, she has played with female-female drag and parodic recontextualization: “In one clip [lang is] sporting a chartreuse brocade suit an elderly lady might wear to a wedding. . . . For another song she turns up in a bouffant 1950’s hairdo and a matronly pink polyester dress” (Bennetts 1993, 98). In the “Miss Chatelaine” video lang croons in a heavily made up face, “I can’t explain why I’ve become Miss Chatelaine.” A Lawrence Welk ambiance and nostalgia are triggered by the appearance of bubbles. The tension between her appearance as androgyne and her video appearance as femme is camp, and unlike the attempt to reassert some feminine value onto lang’s covertly airbrushed face, camp plays upon the normative cues for female gender, in gender play. The video and magazine cover both constitute lang as inappropriate/d other; however the magazine tries to reassert unstable boundaries by trying to naturalize lang’s appearance as feminine (adding lipstick to her photographed bare face) whereas the video plays upon the tension established between the boundaries of feminine, femme and androgyne by heightening feminine qualities self-reflexively. Androgyny is the amalgamation of the boundaries of feminine, femme and butch referents in the video. A review in Interview which tries to liberate lang from the butch references that cannot hide beneath a ball gown into a feminine space, describes lang as “femme” and as “softer” in the video (Fuller 1992, 96-99). “That’s me,” says lang, “I wanted to expose the Lawrence Welk-induced feminine part of my personality” (98). The Lawrence Welk-induced feminine side is a campy and strategic reappropriation of femme codes, not something separate from her androgyny but part of it.
The conflation of signs, codes and configurations that pertain to lang as androgyne, is caught in a tension between her body and the prescriptions for signifying that body as female. The expectations for primary identification and original gender are juggled for critics such as Leslie Bennetts who describes her look at a concert:
Not that you’d necessarily know she’s a woman at first sight. Tall and broad-shouldered, wearing a black cutaway coat flecked with gold, black pants, and her favorite steel-toed black rubber shit-kicker work boots . . . she looks more like a cowboy. Her glossy dark hair is full but short, and when she tosses her head and strides across the stage on those long strong legs, you suddenly realize she’s moving with a kind of physical freedom you’ve never seen a female singer display before. (1993, 98)
Later in the article Bennetts reveals, “You can watch her for years and never even be aware she has breasts. She is as different from a female icon like Dolly Parton as if she were another species” (emphasis mine, 98).[iii] The pejorative tone of Bennetts’ description throughout the article gets caught between referents, those which signify lang’s body as female, and those which refer to lang’s unconventional appearance (clothing, gesture, manner) in relation to her body. It is possible here to see how, in popular culture, notions of the body expressing true gender circulate. Bennetts is increasingly mystified, in the article, by lang’s body which confounds description in relation to her gender performance. lang is described in the same article which says one might never be aware she has breasts as displaying, after shedding her jacket at the concert performance, “a loose, flowing white blouse that drapes fluidly over her body, revealing the womanly fullness of her hips. . . . A black bra is just barely visible underneath” (144). The appearance of the body traditionally conflated with gender, cannot signify “appropriately” because lang’s gender performance as androgyne does not resonate with that conflation. The womanly fullness of her hips becomes the unexpected whereas, according to the prescriptions for female gender, there should be no conflict. The sartorial black bra also hints at a femininity which is apparently contradictory to her “cowboy” image. lang has breasts and is considered, nonetheless, to be a different species from Dolly Parton who is herself constructed as excess in terms of large breasts and big hair, two major signifiers for femme performance.[iv] Traditional meanings accorded to gender are destabilized in a recontextualization of the referents of the female body. The contrasting referents, which circulate as part of lang’s androgyny, contribute to the layers of meaning her character Kotzebue acquires in Percy Adlon’s film Salmonberries. That is, in this film, the character resonates with lang’s off screen persona in a manner which shifts the notion of the true body beneath the clothes and expression of identity onto a further playing field of meanings.
lang’s appearance in the film Salmonberries illustrates how androgyny hybridizes her iconicity and character, confounding notions of truth, disguise and identity. lang’s character in the film, Kotzebue, is an Eskimo foundling, a “boundary creature” (Haraway 1991, 23) on a quest to find her true identity. Kotzebue’s identity has been shrouded in mystery from the time she was found as a baby in a package labeled Kotzebue with only two charm necklaces. Her physical appearance as a young adult prompts the people around her to mistake her for a boy.
Kotzebue’s quest for her genealogical identity leads her to a librarian named Roswitha who is on an identity quest of her own, and who calls Kotzebue “boy” and “young man.” After Roswitha’s remarks in the library referring to Kotzebue’s gender, Kotzebue steps behind a bookcase and reemerges undressed. Roswitha stares and turns away just as an aboriginal man, significantly named Butch, enters. Kotzebue quickly vanishes behind the shelves once again, as Butch says “maybe I do read too much at night, I just thought I saw a naked woman.” Notions of true identity and origins parallel the quest for true gender in the film ironically and self-reflexively.
As opposed to the Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992) where the narrative is contingent upon the revelation of the male nude body (thought to be biologically female) towards the end of the film, Kotzebue strips at the beginning of the film. The notion of stripping to reveal a true self beneath a veil of mistaken identity or crossed-dress is fragmented on several levels in Salmonberries. In his essay “Unveiling the Word: Science and Narrative in Transsexual Striptease,” (1992) Meyer establishes drag “as the basic folk performance form for the gay male subculture” (1992, 71). Significantly, the structure applies to Kotzebue’s stripping in the library.
The plots involve the entrance of the hero, who arrives purposefully disguised and therefore unrecognized. After being misidentified by the other characters and/or audience, the hero calls attention to his deception and makes claim to an alternate and supposedly true identity. The hero is then required to submit to a series of tests to verify his claim. (1992, 70-71)
Kotzebue’s nude body, in the film, is supposed to reveal gender deception and claim an alternate and “true” gender identity. She enters, like the hero in the folk theatre example, disguised and unrecognized to Roswitha and the others in the library. She strips, which calls attention to a deception and “makes claim to an alternate and supposedly true identity,” that is, being female.
Following Meyer, Kotzebue’s performance falls into the category of drag because she is a woman in men’s clothes, a female-to-male impersonator. The claim to an alternate and supposedly true identity more closely resonates, however, with conventional notions of cross-dressing, sexual difference and expressivity than drag. What is interesting is the position she takes up as a male impersonator where the audience expects her to reveal the woman underneath the clothes, hence the claim to her “true” gender identity. It is never made apparent in the film that Kotzebue meant to create a deception or disguise or was impersonating a male. Her position as a male impersonator is in question. Likewise, an audience would know that lang is female so that the revelation of the female body should not be a surprise. It is difficult to separate lang from her character during the moment of revelation, where lang’s appropriation of men’s clothing outside the film does not mistakenly construe her as male but as androgynous. lang signifies an androgyne playing an androgyne, where the revelation of the body, while significantly shocking to certain media, does not fix or stabilize gender or reveal the woman underneath. Stripping for the androgyne plays between the referents for male impersonator and the woman beneath the clothes in this scene and breaches the boundaries between lang and her character. That is, the revelation of the “womanly” body does not establish an alternate or truer identity for lang or the character’s androgyny.
While the fictional character’s stripping reveals she is biologically female, lang as star/icon is visually doing likewise. That is, the character and actor each resonate with their own specific meanings about the body and gender identity which play off one another. Jaye Davidson’s biological identity was carefully concealed from the media to ensure the stripping “effect” in The Crying Game. The effect was to reveal that the deceptively female character was biologically male. In Salmonberries the media and most spectators were well aware that lang was a woman, which is why the effect of her unclothed body in the media is significant in its response of “shock” and “wonder.” The knowledge that lang is biologically female does nothing to alter the shock effect of the body, that is, there is still the expectation that some unknown will be revealed. “Her figure is a revelation. . . . Massive and voluptuous, her body has the gravitas of an ancient female fertility figure, all rounded thighs and belly and breasts. There is nothing boyish whatsoever about that body . . .” exclaimed Bennetts about this scene (1993, 143-4). Like the surprise that she has breasts and a “womanly” figure, revelation does nothing to fix or stabilize her gender outside androgyny. While there is “nothing boyish whatsoever about that body,” that body resonates with boyishness. The body resonating with androgyny complicates revelations about true identity. Stripping, in lang’s case, does not reveal the “woman” underneath because identity is torn asunder from the body as a stable signifier for gender. lang’s androgyny destabilizes myths of origin in relation to the body confounding notions of truth, disguise and identity.
[i] In Feminism and Theatre (1988), Sue-Ellen Case relates the common practice of casting blond women as ingenues and brunettes in the secondary vamp roles which is seen as betraying cultural attitudes about innocence, purity and desireability in relation to certain racial features: “The casting of beautiful women in ingenue roles, or the rise of the beautiful stage star, participates in patriarchal prejudices that control the sign system of the representation of women on stage” (117).
[ii] lang’s current status as the makeup spokeswoman for MAC cosmetics along with transgendered RuPaul plays heavily upon the contradictions inherent in their assuming these positions. lang and RuPaul do not conform to the normative prescriptions for makeup spokepersons or models and are always positioned in reference to this incongruity. I attended MAC’s Fashion Cares: Photo Ball 1997 which is a fashion show event to raise money and awareness for HIV and AIDS which lang and RuPaul attended as spokespersons. At the media conference for the show these juxtapositions were in evidence. I asked lang what she liked most about her character on the Ellen Degeneres “coming out” show, which was a goundbreaking show because the lead female character, Ellen, reveals that she is “gay.” lang answered, “My hair. A lot of girls in the mid-west probably thought I never looked so good.” Hair has been a contentious issue with lang throughout her carreer. She once said “When I first got to Nashville . . . I was given a pink handbook on how to be a country-and-western star. Section IA, the first rule of country-and-western stardom, is, ‘The higher the hair, the closer to God.’ I tried, but it just wasn’t me” (Robertson 1992, 78). A reporter asked RuPaul who made his dress. His reply was fashion designer, Todd Oldham. The reporter then asked “and kd?” lang responded, “I’m not wearing a dress.” There was much laughter from the media, lang and RuPaul because she was obviously wearing a “man’s” suit and had to check the label to find out who the designer was. The incongruities inherent in their gender reversals engage the play between notions of ‘inner’ and ‘outward’ appearance.
[iii] The emphasis reflects the notions of “natural species” mentioned in chapter one (Butler, Merleau-Ponty) in contrast to alternate species significations such as the hybridized characters in chapter four.
[iv] Dolly Parton is another excellent example for femme camp performance but not within the scope of this thesis.