The Cultural Significance of 'To Wong Foo' and Why We Can't Get Enough 26 Years Later
By Lazarus Rise
This month's featured film is the cult classic To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar and Queerport will be screening this movie at 7 pm on Thursday, Sept. 30 at Fairfield Studios in Shreveport. The team at Queerport will also be assembling a potluck for guests to enjoy. Masks will be required. Seating is limited to 30 and will be socially distanced. This is FREE and ALL AGES, but reservations must be made here.
CONTENT WARNING: brief discussion of spousal/police abuse and movie spoilers.
“Your approval is not needed." / "Neither desired nor required!”
The road of cinematic depictions of transgender and gender non-conforming people is a scarred one (sometimes paved by the wrong people), but nevertheless, it is a road that leads to engrossing finds, and at times, a few rare gems.
The 90s were a very experimental period for exposing audiences to LGBTQ issues on a more mainstream basis, especially with the camp road trip classics, The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar! To Wong Foo holds a lot of sentimental value for me. It was one of the first times I was introduced to the world of drag, which is funny because it stars three of the most straight and popular actors of the 90s: Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes, who were at the top of the masculine ideals of that time period, along with John Leguizamo. All three were completely committed to their roles so much that the audience could almost forget who was underneath the ensembles. On the topic of straight actors playing queer characters, I believe LGBTQ roles should be given to LGBTQ people. But as this was 1995, I couldn’t fathom this happening openly on a major production such as this, though there are an impressive number of drag legends who have minor roles in this film that you will recognize.
“Little Latin boy in drag, why are you crying?”
As the opening credits unfold, we’re shown an unrecognizable Swayze, transforming into the matronly glamor queen, Vida Boheme, and Snipes becoming submersed in his role as the stern and glittery queen, Noxeema Jackson (both established, local legends of their scene). When they tie at a pageant competition, they encounter a disheveled, naive, young queen, Chi Chi Rodriguez (played by Leguizamo), and reluctantly become newfound drag godmothers.
For three characters who weren’t written explicably to be transgender, only dedicated drag queens, this film rather treats them as if they could be transgender, whether it was intentional or not, especially with Vida and Chi Chi. All three are consistently in drag and are never without it in a scene, even when they are by themselves and stranded in the middle of nowhere. They live as their feminine identities. A moment in particular stands out, when Vida accidentally rips her wig off and looks in the mirror with a jolt of shock and pain, as if it had been so long since she had looked at herself in the mirror without her hair on. It has those kinds of undertones.
This is a big distinction from Priscilla, where the two main characters are also established drag queens, but spend much time in the film out of drag. Only when they are going somewhere to show off or perform do they get dressed up. It felt like To Wong Foo’s writers wanted to make a road trip movie like its unofficial Australian sister. Priscilla follows a very similar story, except it does have an openly trans woman character who travels with two queens who are going to perform in a small desert town. It was also an early trans portrayal that stuck with me, but Priscilla is more gritty with the homophobia and transphobia the characters face.
“Vida I do not think of you as a man and I do not think of you as a woman, I think of you as an angel.”
When the three characters get stranded in the small midwestern town of Snydersville, the queens encounter the wary townspeople and transform their lives, among them a repairman and his wife who are willing to fix their car and take them in for the weekend. Vida quickly learns that the wife is being abused by her husband and a particularly satisfying scene plays out where Vida kicks down their door and beats him up, throwing him out of his own house. Meanwhile, the awful side plot of a racist/rapist cop who tried to assault Vida during a traffic stop and hunt them down during the course of the movie is painfully unfunny and an irrelevant side plot. However, I still find myself watching To Wong Foo at least once a year, for the performances from the main characters, the iconic drag artists featured, its soundtrack, and the wholesome conclusion.
I can’t deny there’s a special charm to it. It was one of my first experiences seeing drag queens portrayed in a warm light. At the end of the movie, when the cop finds the queens in town, he endangers them by exclaiming something akin to “But they’re all men! They’re drag queens!," which makes the entire town one by one admit they too are drag queens to save their lives, and he leaves defeated. Vida, Noxeema, and Chi Chi are portrayed as the town saviors who bring life and a sense of metamorphosis to any place they go, and there’s a reason why it still resonates 26 years later.
Lazarus Rise (he/him) is a writer, artist, and creative from Shreveport, Louisiana who now resides in Colorado Springs, Colorado. To stay up-to-date with Lazarus, follow him on Facebook and Instagram @dungeoncowboy. You can visit his official website here, dungeoncowboy.squarespace.com.