Are Men in Dresses Still Funny?

By  · Published on October 23rd, 2013

HBO knows what it’s getting you this Thanksgivukkah season: the premiere of Australian comedian Chris Lilley’s new series, Ja’mie: Private School Girl. On November 24th, Lilley returns as Ja’mie King, the shallow, spoiled, just-smart-enough-to-know-where-to-cut rich bitch from Down Under, back in front of the (mockumentary) cameras as she’s about to graduate from her fancypants private high school.

Ja’mie – pronounced “ja-may” – is a familiar sight to viewers of HBO’s eight-episode sitcom Summer Heights High and Lilley’s earlier We Can Be Heroes, which originally aired on the Sundance Channel. Lilley has delicate-enough features that, for seconds at a time, provided the lighting is right – that is, when you can’t see his five o’clock shadow – he could pass for an attractive 30-year-old woman playing at 16. He’s certainly nailed the prissy-horsey mannerisms of one. In Summer Heights High, Lilley’s absolutely fantastic in the role: Ja’mie is a hair-flipping meanness machine, a queen bee so skillfully manipulative she could teach Regina George a thing or two.

Yet there’s something a little off about the premise of Ja’mie: Private School Girl — a niggling sense of unfairness and lost opportunities. And that feeling of not-quite-rightness are bolstered by SNL’s Kenan Thompson declaring last week that neither he nor castmember Jay Pharoah will appear in drag anymore, as well as the ongoing debate about what male comedians in dresses mean.

Summer Heights High was written as a showcase for Lilley’s chameleonic skills – he plays the show’s three main characters, including Ja’mie, and he pulls them off effortlessly, even superbly. But there’s a few scattered notes of malice in the writing and the performances. Lilley, a straight white male, plays a character so reprehsible she could be mistaken for an expression of misogyny. He also plays a troubled Polynesian student, part of a disadvantaged minority in Australia, and a drama teacher so flamboyantly idiotic it’s a wonder GLAAD hasn’t launched a protest.

In other words, he plays stereotypes of historically oppressed groups, and his characters aren’t fleshed-out enough to transcend beyond the groups they’re supposed to represent. Unsurprisingly, Lilley’s “brownface” has made certain segments of Summer Heights High — as well as the overt blackface in his most recent show, Angry Boys — controversial. Lilley’s response to these criticisms has been a shrug: “I think I was like ‘whatever’ about the race thing. It’s certainly not a joke about race, and you get over that idea pretty quickly.”

White comedians in blackface are nowhere near as offensive as male comedians in dresses, but it’s undoubtedly the case that the latter has roots in discriminative practices as well. There’s a now famous anecdote from Tina Fey’s memoir “Bossypants,” in which she recounts how Cheri Oteri was once passed over for a role and replaced by Chris Kattan in a skirt. Leaving aside the question of who would’ve been funnier, since we’ll never know, there’s still the undeniable fact that a female performer in a heavily male-dominated industry was denied an opportunity for her gender.

That’s a problem Fey, as SNL’s first female head writer, endeavored to fix behind the scenes. She’s probably to thank (among others), then, that a (straight) man in a dress now just feels passe, as stale as a Catskills joke, a sign of creakier, more sexist times. That impression was confirmed by the swift cancellation of the sitcom “Work It,” the premise of which was two dudes in Spanx because no one but ABC execs thought the idea that men might have feelings was all that funny.

Summer Heights High and Ja’mie are, ultimately, small events in pop culture history – it’s unlikely Ja’mie will get extend beyond its six 30-minute episodes. That smallness seems appropriate. Over the years, the outrageousness of seeing a man in a dress, already shopworn by the time The Kids in the Hall did it in the frumpy nineties, has changed from hilarious to hackneyed, and from a necessity to a sign of chauvinism.

Now if only we could get rid of that gag about two guys kissing.