Connie & Carla: A Movie Review

Connie and Carla should have made it bigger, or become more of a cult hit. It’s got all the right elements – wacky plot, over 20 songs from musicals, drag queens, quotable lines (“your voice is giving me shingles!”), Toni Collette. But a combination of it being made in 2004 and directed by Michael Lembeck, whose other notable directorial credits include the Santa Clause sequels and some episodes of Friends, means that what could have been a brilliant gender-bending comedy stuffed to the gills with songs to sing along to was instead a fun bit of misdirected fluff weighed down by a dreadful hetero romance subplot. 

Written by and starring Nia Vardalos, the plot is a gender-flipped Some Like It Hot: Friends Connie (Vardalos) and Carla (Collette) witness a mob murder in Chicago, and they flee to West Hollywood, where they hide from their pursuers by dressing up as men dressed as women in their own drag show – which they sing in, rather than lip synch as is usual. The drag queens of the establishment befriend them, and Connie and Carla feel increasingly uncomfortable lying to them and hiding who they truly are. In the end, the mob guys are defeated, the women confess their secret to their fans, and everyone lives happily ever after in a dinner theater bonanza featuring Debbie Reynolds.

It should be camp af, but despite the best efforts of the actual drag queens who appear as Connie and Carla’s friends and co-performers in the film, it never reaches those flamboyant heights. One of the main reasons for this is the subplot involving Jeff (David Duchovny), who can’t cope with the fact that his brother Robert (Stephen Spinella) feels free and beautiful in heels and makeup. Connie falls for Jeff, and Jeff is confused and disgusted to find himself attracted to her (who he thinks is a man he only ever sees in drag). In the end, Jeff reluctantly declares his brotherly love for Robert, and he’s relieved to find Connie is a Real Woman so he doesn’t have to question anything about his sexuality. I love the story of the friendship between Connie and Carla, but the way to add to that story isn’t to add a casually bigoted dude or gloss over their other friendships.

In a better movie, there wouldn’t be a Jeff to drag time and focus away from the other characters, and the issues of sexual attraction and gender expression, as well as the many layers of identity and oppression would be explored from the perspective of the drag queens and the women in double drag. Instead, Connie and Carla have a few sadface moments when they hear about how cruel people are to their gay friends, but mainly Carla misses her boyfriend and Connie wants to sleep with Jeff. I can imagine a movie where they all sit around talking about their ideal man – it’d be hilarious, and we’d also get to hear more from the gay men and how their desires do and do not intersect with the women’s.

If you’re going to make a movie about drag queens, you have to center them; otherwise, they’re just backdrops and props for the hetero women learning lessons about how to love themselves for being different. The movie has some of those moments but doesn’t make the leap. It inserts a straight man who is both an audience proxy who learns tolerance (you can hardly call it acceptance let alone allyship) and a reassuring sign that this movie isn’t going to be Too Gay for middle America.  

The best part of this movie is the joy it takes in musical theater, performance, and being way too much for normal life. This is what unites the drag queens and Connie and Carla, and it’s the main message of the movie. If only they’d committed to that world and all the layers within it, and left the people who just don’t get it to watch something else.


The Lady and the Unicorn, a Lesbian Love Story

The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, masterpieces of the form from the late 15th/early 16th centuries on display in the Museum of the Middle Ages (formerly the Cluny Museum), have appeared in novels, poems, songs, and as some sharp viewer noticed, on the walls of the Gryffindor common room in the Harry Potter movies. Ever since George Sand rediscovered them and wrote about them in the mid-19th century, these tapestries haven’t been exactly obscure. And yet, no one knows quite how to interpret them. There are several theories, the most prominent being that they are about the five senses and the soul, since at the time the tapestries were woven, the senses could be seen as doorways to the sacred but also reminders of our base humanity. The final tapestry, which bears the inscription à mon seul désir (“to my one desire/love” or “by my desire/will alone”), is usually seen as the lady putting aside material things for higher ideals. It could also be about the lady preparing to give up her virginity (unicorns are symbols of chastity but that long horn is also a bit suggestive, so unicorns are generally sexually ambiguous). But these interpretations are all wrong. Clearly, The Lady and the Unicorn series shows the lady and her maidservant falling in love.

the lady and the unicorn tapestry paris

Okay, here’s our first tapestry, “Touch.” Our lady is bracing herself, holding on with one hand to the flagpole bearing her family’s crest, and with the other to the unicorn’s horn. The unicorn looks up at her calmly, secure in the knowledge that he is what she needs. She knows what’s expected of her, that she will be married off to a man, but she can’t even bear to look at him, to admit what her future will be. The lady is isolated, just her and the lion and unicorn, and one brave little bunny. Notice that many of the animals here are shackled, chained and unhappy.

the lady and the unicorn tapestry paris

Ooh, our lady and her maidservant meet here in “Taste.” Right away, the lion and unicorn are up on their hind legs, reflecting that feeling you get when you meet someone you’re immediately attracted to–you feel alert, alive, like you have to stand up and take more notice of the world. Notice that the animals are unchained and free now, and several of them have joined the women and lion and unicorn on the little island. Everyone feels like more things are possible now. The maidservant is offering up a bowl of sweets to the lady, literally offering up something sweet for the lady to taste. How does the lady feel about that? Well, she would never be so unrefined as to have her hair blown back, but her veil is waving about behind her. A little bird lands on an outstretched finger, a little symbol of freedom. Check out the look on the unicorn’s face; he knows that serious competition has just arrived.

the lady and the unicorn tapestry paris

In “Smell”, our lady and maidservant get to know each other better, as they hitch up their skirts for the work of the day, a gesture of intimacy we haven’t seen yet. Our lady, who before was so overcome with feeling that she had to glance shyly away from her maidservant, is now able to look her right in the eye. Our maidservant holds up a tray of flowers, from which our lady gathers blossoms to make into a garland. Delicate lady-flowers are definitely in play here.

the lady and the unicorn tapestry paris

Look, now they are literally making music together. In “Hearing,” our lady plays the notes on the organ while our maidservant works the bellows. This is a two-person job, and dare I say they have to be perfectly in tune with one another to do it properly? The lion is even sort of turned away to give them some privacy, although he can’t help peeking. The unicorn is coming around to the idea of this whole arrangement; the tilt of his head seems to be saying, “Go on, babe, I see what you’ve got going here.” Our wonderful maidservant looks frankly at her lady, as she has done in all the tapestries she’s been in so far. No maidenly shyness here; she knows what she wants and she’s looking right at her. I’m pretty sure we have not one but two goats on the little island as well (goats being well-known symbols of randiness).

the lady and the unicorn tapestry paris

In “Sight,” our lady bids farewell to the unicorn. Our maidservant isn’t here–she has tact–so our lady looks almost sorrowfully at the unicorn as she breaks it to him that this is never going to work between them. But look at him, he’s pretty sanguine about the whole thing. He rests his hooves on her legs and gazes at her with affection. He’s not going to get in the way. She holds up a mirror so he can see himself, and what he sees isn’t a reflection of himself now but as he will be in the near future–alone, maybe, but head held high and looking out for what’s next.

the lady and the unicorn tapestry paris

Finally, here we are on the final tapestry, which shows a little tent, a bench, and our maidservant holding up a big ol’ chest of jewelry for our lady. Perhaps she’s placing the necklace back in the chest because she doesn’t need material items to be happy, just the love of this woman. Perhaps she’s taking a necklace out of the chest to give to this woman as a token of her affection. Perhaps she’s getting undressed because they’re about to go inside that tent and get busy. But whatever she’s doing with the jewelry, it’s clear what she’s doing with her future: she’s building it with this woman, her maidservant becoming her partner. A little lap dog appears for the first time, a symbol of domesticity. The lion and unicorn hold up a long veil that looks remarkably similar to what women often wear on their wedding day. And now that ambiguous phrase overhead makes sense: à mon seul désirIt both means “to my only desire/love,” as she gives her heart over to her maidservant, and also “by my desire/will alone,” as she lives her life according to her own desires and not by what was expected of her. She still displays her family’s flags proudly, she’s not trying to reject them, and look she’s even still friends with the unicorn (in a he’s-bowing-down-to-her kind of way). But she knows what she wants, and she’s looking right at her.

Labor Day: We Still Have So Much Work to Do

Happy Labor Day, fellow Americans! I hope you’re all enjoying barbecue with loved ones. For my friends outside the US who may not know, Labor Day is the American version of May Day; it used to hold a lot more power as a holiday recognizing workers’ rights, but now it’s generally seen as the the last party of the summer. Let’s take a moment to remember why we get to have the party.

Especially this year, when we’re remembering the March on Washington 50 years ago, I think it’s important to be grateful on Labor Day for the protections and opportunities we have, while we fight for the ones we’ve lost or haven’t gained yet. The nationwide attack on teachers–especially nasty in Chicago–in the guise of helping students. The “right-to-work” laws passed in 24 states (an amazing semantic victory for the right). The gender wage gap. Crippling student loan debt–and the recent doubling of interest rates on those debts. Blocked immigration reform. An unlivable minimum wage. Minimal support for new families, especially mothers in the workforce. Legal discrimination against LGBT folks. There’s a lot about employment in the US that needs fixing. (Click on those links to see groups that are taking action; you can join them.)

Obama’s speech this past Wednesday was pretty good, but the line that adapted MLK’s famous one is great: “The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.” He then urges everyone to continue fighting the good fight, a point he makes in a lot of speeches but far too frequently contradicts in his actions as president. Still, he’s not wrong. The reason we have the workers’ rights we have is because people fought for them, and not just the union leaders and lobbyists paid to fight for them. People who were tired after a long day at work then went out and rallied in the streets, wrote to members of Congress, went on strike, made changes to local laws, talked to their friends and neighbors about what was going on, elected leaders who promised to fight the fight with them. You don’t have to come home from work tired and angry with workplace injustices and your lot in life. You can come home from work tired and happy with the work you do and the conditions you work in. You can come home from work fired up to make work a place you want to return to.

So raise a toast to the unions and workers of yesterday and make a pledge to join with the ones who are fighting for a better life today. Because Labor Day means a lot more than the last day of the season to wear white.

Normal in Toronto

I’ve lived in Chicago for five years, and I’ve been to New York, LA, London, Sydney, Tokyo, and Paris. All have their own vibrant queer scenes, of course, but it was the subway in Toronto that actually showed how normalized the LGBT experience might be in that city. While waiting for a train I saw an ad for the personals:

toronto train ad

And when I got off a couple stations later, I saw an ad for HIV medication, showing a gay couple discussing whether to use single tablet drugs to manage the virus:

toronto train ad

I don’t know what the daily life situation is like for LGBT folks in Toronto, but seeing those two ads made me think that at least the first hurdle of being seen, and being seen as normal humans at that, has been crossed. Other cities, take note.

The Good, The Bad, and The Silly

The Good

Obama has finally removed most of the provisions of the infamous Bush-era “conscience clause,” so now pharmacists can’t say, “nope, sorry, no birth control for you, I don’t believe in it.” They’ll have to do their job instead, which is providing quality care to all their patients.

Some good news for LGBTs in Wyoming: a proposed constitutional amendment to bar the state from recognizing same-sex marriages performed out of state was dropped in the House because it was unlikely to pass. (However, the bill to amend the constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman is still pending.)

Read this heartwarming story about how the military is tentatively stepping out into this new post-DADT world and treating same-sex spouses of deceased servicemembers with respect.

Women are an integral part of the revolutions sweeping the Middle East and northern Africa, and it is quite inspiring.

A great piece from the former state treasurer of Michigan on why Walker’s destroying his state by not bargaining with unions.

The Bad

Walker is instituting layoffs, smuggling in ringers to his budget speech, falling prey to crank calls that reveal his dastardly motives quite clearly, hides the even scarier provisions of his budget bill, and just generally is the worst. Kudos to all the Wisconsinites who continue to stick it to him, including the protesters, the few media people reporting honestly on it (ahemnotFoxahem — how is that legal?), and the Democrats who brought their desks outside in the winter weather so they could meet with their constituents after they were locked out of the Capitol.

Gaddafi is doing his damnedest to destroy Libya, and staging an all-out attack on his own people. That’s the bad part. The good part is that Obama has called for him to step down, and the UN is imposing sanctions on him. Vive la revolution! And thoughts for those who have died and those who have lost loved ones in the battle.

Bahrain is also not handling its people’s peaceful protests well.

Military servicemembers have sued the Pentagon for ignoring, downplaying, and otherwise mishandling the thousands of cases of sexual assault reported in military ranks every year (and this doesn’t even take into account the unreported cases). Good luck to them.

In the popular understanding, women trick their men into getting them pregnant so they can keep them and have control over them. But the reality is that it works the opposite way; recent studies show that reproductive coercion is a big problem. One study reported that 1 in 4 women calling a domestic violence hotline said they did not want to be pregnant but their partner removed their access to contraceptives, pressured them to get pregnant, or forced unprotected sex on them. Amanda Marcotte takes a look at this issue and its connection to the shelved (for now) South Dakota law allowing people to murder those who provide abortions to their family members.

Okay let’s look at all the states doing horrific things in the name of “pro-life”:

The Silly

Happy National Grammar Day!