Playing the part?

Recently, a number of friends have been sharing an interview of Dustin Hoffman in which he talks about preparing for his role in Tootsie (good film; if you haven’t seen it, try it – you might like it):

A couple of things he said struck a chord with me.

First was his desire to ‘pass’ as a woman without people realising he was a guy, or thinking he was a freak. I share this to a large extent, but with a crucial difference. I don’t mind people realising I’m a guy if they think I’ve done a pretty good job of crossdressing. I’m not a female impersonator, I don’t walk or talk ‘like a woman’, I just think the clothes are a great way to dress up and look and feel more interesting and glamourous than I do when I’m in my work shirt and tie or slobbing about in my trousers.

The second was when he talks about wanting to look beautiful and, upon realising that wasn’t going to happen, having an epiphany: there are plenty of women who don’t fit typical ideas of ‘beauty’, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less interesting or engaging for it. (I’ve mentioned before my pet theory that for some crossdressers, looking feminine isn’t necessarily the goal, looking young is.)

I had a similar experience when I realised there were a whole load of clothes I’d never be able to wear (halternecks, backless or strapless designs) because my body – or the engineering works I use to give myself a more convincingly feminine appearance – won’t let me. There will be countless women who feel can’t wear these clothes for the same reasons; somehow they just won’t suit us, or we’ll never look as good as the models and mannequins. I’ve also talked about the epiphany I had that dressing up in sexy clothing isn’t about wanting to have sex, or even to look attractive; it’s about feeling confident.

I really do feel that crossdressing would make for an interesting lesson for guys, not so they can learn what it’s like to be a woman (I’m not sure that’s possible), but so they can experience what it’s like to be seen as a woman.

The most interesting part of the Hoffman interview was when he admitted to himself that he probably wouldn’t have been interested in getting to know his female alter-ego if he met her at a party, even though, on the inside, he felt she was an interesting person. This got me thinking. Would I, as a guy, be interested in talking to Twist? I look at the things I wear as Twist – bold, bright colours, short skirts, tight tops, a bit of cleavage – and I’d have to say probably not. Maybe I’d think she was a shallow party girl who didn’t have anything worth saying? If I met her amongst friends, I’d probably wait and see (knowing we had shared interests would help).

Take the question further: if my friends didn’t know me underneath the makeup, what would they think of Twist? Loudmouth? Attention-seeker? Maybe a bit self-absorbed? I’ve already written that when I’m Twist I’m apparently a bit different to my male self. I think part of this is because I am used to getting certain reactions as Twist, and I’ve developed a way of behaving or interacting that encourages and reinforces those reactions… which, in turn, encourages and reinforces the behaviour.

It can be a trap, and people may not always realise that the clown, or the apparent life-and-soul-of-the-party is always fully aware of what’s going on, despite themselves. Another interview I re-watched recently was with Oliver Reed in 1990. It was his second appearance on the chat show Aspel, after a car-crash first appearance when he staggered on stage with a pitcher of alcohol, three sheets to the wind, and not-quite-singing Wild One. The first 90 seconds are the most revealing and quite touching:

(NB: he had one of the most mellifluous voices, didn’t he?)

We tend to dress or behave in ways we think we’re expected to. We can call it habit or we can call it ‘just the way we are’; but I think these only make sense if you’re not in the least bit introspective. We don’t live in a vacuum and like it or not, the way we are can be shaped by the reactions of others.  If we don’t like the person we’re becoming, we don’t have to play the part we and they have created for ourselves; we can experiment. When I was younger, I felt a bit shabby and scruffy, so I started wearing a (cheap) light suit jacket to feel smarter, and it worked. If I feel life is getting a bit dull or humdrum, I can dress up as Twist to brighten things up for myself. In both cases, I relied on the reactions of others.

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut, feeling yourself to be dull or disregarded, or resentful of those who are getting all the attention (whether they’re enjoying that attention is another question entirely). If putting on makeup, or dressing up can boost your confidence, then I heartily recommend it, no matter what you choose. What does anyone have to lose?

Conversely, if people come to associate you with liveliness, parties and good times, and you feel a pressure to be outgoing all the time, you don’t have to live up to it. As Oliver Reed put it, “I have to get away with my nervousness in different ways.”

Don’t we all. We can act the clown, we can hide away, we can put on a suit, or we can put on makeup and a short dress. If it makes you feel better than you did before, you’re probably doing something right.

This entry was a bit serious, wasn’t it? Don’t worry; I’ll talk about my breasts or something next time…

Postscript: the idea of changing yourself by changing your clothes was the theme of a show called The Week Of Dressing Dangerously. Not caring what others think of you can be a confidence-booster, rather than a statement of apathy.
Here, a shy young woman was encouraged to go out in public wearing two outfits she would never contemplate by herself, in attempt to bring her out of her shell (annoyingly, split over three badly edited videos, none of which show the before-and-after):

(As I recall, she became more outgoing and confident and dumped her useless boyfriend…)