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Essay: Queer Performance is a Protest

by Gina Tonic on 17 April 2020

From Cabaret to Drag Race, writer Gina Tonic on why queer performance in film is a political act.

From Cabaret to Drag Race, writer Gina Tonic on why queer performance in film is a political act.

Still from Cabaret (1972)

The ending of Cabaret mirrors the beginning - both with a literal mirror to reflect the compère and his relentless forced optimism, and with the framing: a performance inside the never-changing, never-ending setting of the Kit Kat Club. The marked difference–and the most important one–is that an audience that threw out a Nazi party member in the first scene of the film, has become an audience filled with Nazis in the final shots.

The age-old adage ‘the show must go on’ is one that reiterates itself throughout Cabaret, but the meaning behind this repeated message can be found when digging a little deeper into the film. In pre-war Berlin where their sensibilities and safeties are crumbling around them the queer characters of Cabaret need a constant among all the cruelty. Imagine watching your favourite film after a break up and the comfort it affords you: The feeling is similar to knowing that whatever is happening in the German streets and political sphere, the cabaret marches (or high kicks) on.

In the musical numbers of the Kit Kat Club, which are often split with brutal scenes from the outside world, protest occurs through their content. Throughout Cabaret, hierarchies and contradictions are exposed through exaggeratory scenes, songs and stagings. Whether it’s as obvious as a salute and a mud moustache on the Master of Ceremonies, or a more subtle drag scene that morphs into a goose step, these skits unmask Nazi symbols as performances within themselves. The protests of the queer communities that can’t be done in the street–for fear of being beaten, as Brian is near the end of the film–are accomplished on the stage of the Kit Kat Club.

Still from Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

Presenting performance as a political act - both by reflecting the politics around us as well as by celebrating queer performers themselves - is not unique to Cabaret. It’s a notion that has been a constant in the world before 1972 (when the film was released) and in the time since. The current series of Ru Paul’s Drag Race is operating under an election theme, in reference to the run up to the US election itself. Films like Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) and Rent (2005) offer up politicised performances that reflect LGBT issues and, while movies like Milk (2008), Moonlight (2016) and Brokeback Mountain (2005) aren’t musicals in themselves, the plots and performances are heavily entrenched in a mixture of queer and political topics.

The musicals mentioned above follow similar rules to Cabaret, by hiding political meanings behind a creative curtain. The issues that unfold in the worlds around the main characters are reflected in their personal turmoil. Both Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Rent revolve around trans leads, and titular characters Hedwig and the former film’s Angel rebel in their own spaces not just by being, but raucously filling rooms with their performances, their appearances and their joy. There is a point to be made that whether your enemies are Nazis, the AIDs crisis or having your hit songs stolen, by providing joy in the darkest of times, characters like Hedwig, Angel and Sally Bowles inspire hope; and hope is the real reason anyone rebels with a protest, or even in one’s presence on the street or the stage – in the hope that things will change.

As the song reinforces that life is just as much of a performance as those shown in the club, it also follows that if queer performance is a protest, so too is queer existence.

It is also worth noting that telling queer stories on film and television is revolutionary in itself, when considering the history of LGBTQ film and the fact that it wasn't until 1965’s Inside Daisy Clover that a queer character was depicted as anything other than suicidal or evil in mainstream cinema. Not only is Cabaret a protest against the society in which it is set, its very production also challenges the society in which it was made just 40 years later.

Even more than just getting the film Cabaret made in a deeply homophobic American cinema industry, the critical and box office success (the film grossed 42.8 million dollars and was made on a budget of just 6 million) of an obviously queer and obviously political film just three years after the Stonewall protests makes Cabaret a victorious protest in itself. This notion is also reflected in the film, that queer and political performance can be appreciated by those it is actively critiquing - be that a homophobic cinema audience or the Nazis sat in the front row of the Kit Kat club.

The notion of performance being all around us, and not just confined to the stage or screen is exemplified also in the final song of Cabaret, the eponymous Life is a Cabaret. As the song reinforces that life is just as much of a performance as those shown in the club, it also follows that if queer performance is a protest, so too is queer existence. By living boldly and brightly as themselves, within the walls of the Kit Kat club and on the streets of Nazi Germany, Brian Roberts and Sally Bowles are protest personified.

Cabaret is a film with no marches, no sit-ins, no moments of silence and no demonstrations. The acts of defiance found within the film are made through politically charged performances and a cast of characters unapologetically being themselves at a time where being so could ultimately be punishable by death. In a world where Nazis proclaim in the streets that ‘tomorrow belongs to them,’ the Bowles, Roberts and compères of Cabaret prove that it does not, simply by existing where they are not wanted.

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