Well technically that probably isn’t true, but looking back into popular entertainment, the earliest version of transgender representation I could think of was Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. This classic Shakespearian tale focuses on a set of fraternal twins, a brother named Sebastian and a sister named Viola. When Viola believes her brother has died she assumes his identity and proceeds to befriend and fall in love with a man named Orsino. In the end Viola reveals herself as a woman at which point, Orsino allows himself to rectify his feeling toward Viola and the couple is united as man and woman. This story sets up the president for Hollywood’s representation of women or men in ‘drag’ for the better part of the twentieth century. Yental, Just one of the Guys and She’s the Man are all Hollywood adaptations of Twelfth Night that repeat the idem that balance is restored and all is righted when the normative gender roles are resumed and the socially prescribed male, female dichotomy is reestablished.
While on the subject of films that represent drag, I would be remiss to omit Breakfast on Pluto. Directed by Neil Jordan the film was based on the novel by Pat McCabe, author of multiple popular Irish novels including Butcher Boy which was also made into a film by Jordan. McCabe writes to explores the darker side of Irish society and acceptance. Breakfast on Pluto is the story of Patrick “Kitten” Braden on his quest to find his mother. Patrick is a young man who knows, understands and accepts that he feels more comfortable in the role of a woman than a man. Unlike the Hollywood versions of characters in drag, Kitten is not confused, or trying to achieve a goal by dressing in drag, she simply dresses the way she feels most comfortable. Kitten’s identity as a transgender Irish woman in London during the height of IRA military resistance in the city allows the film to expound on societal values. Kitten is accused of setting an IRA bomb in a night club when she is discovered to actually be a man dressed in drag. She is then detained and beaten in an attempt to get a confession that she was only dressed in drag as a disguise. Unlike the Hollywood films adapted from Shakespeare, McCabe does not rectify gender norms, instead closing the film on Patrick “Kitten” Braden happily established in London as a transvestite.
The Shakespeare version and McCabe’s version of drag offer two very different varieties of drag’s representation in entertainment history.