In the mid-1990s, when the original line-up of the rock band Kiss briefly reunited, I was a teenage alternative rocker. I took my rock music very seriously, and although I had never heard anything by Kiss other than “Rock and Roll All Nite,” I instinctively knew they were precisely the kind of music to which the self-serious rock of the ’90s was meant to provide an “alternative.”
So, I assumed they sucked. I mean, they looked like they would suck — all that dumb make-up, the frizzed-out perms, and studded leather? It all seemed to typify bloated rock excess and, by extension, inauthenticity. I didn’t listen to a full album from Kiss until about 2005, but when I did, I quickly realized I had been wrong. It was fantastic. I loved it. I loved it so much that years later, I delayed taking my son to his first rock concert to make sure it would be Kiss. If that didn’t turn him into a lover of the genre, nothing would. It worked.
Still, there are things I don’t like about the band. Most recently, my frustrations have stemmed from various public statements from frontman Paul Stanley. Stanley has a tendency to wade into contentious political debates. His opinions on Covid-19 were especially grating to me: He was among the many celebrities who railed against those of us who refused vaccination. He often made social media posts that touted his fully boosted vaccine status (he still got Covid, of course).
I tolerated this because Kiss is also very patriotic — but individually, Stanley is not usually known for his conservatism. Instead, he seems to be a mouthpiece for a kind of leftism-lite: one that is pro-America but never seems to commit him to any position that deviates too far from the views of establishment elites.
Thus, I was pleasantly surprised last week to see that Stanley used his sizable platform to speak out against the medical malpractice being inflicted upon children who are labeled “trans.” His primary concern seemed to be the normalization of leftist responses to sexual confusion in pre-adolescents (read his full statement here).
It’s not very well-written, but then, this is the writing of a man who penned unforgettable romantic ballads like “Love Gun” and “Lick It Up.” No reasonable person could say Stanley’s statement was insensitive to the families and children dealing with these issues. Speaking empathetically, he simply warned that the current faddishness of transgenderism might be encouraging parents to subject their children to medical interventions that could harm them in the long run.
Because nothing so sensible can be tolerated in current-year America, people from all over the political spectrum (except Twisted Sister vocalist Dee Snider) set to attacking Stanley. Predictably, the chorus of loons on the left (including much of the corporate media) howled that his statement was “transphobic.” Some traditionalists on Twitter noted that Stanley and Kiss played a not-insignificant role in “normalizing” what had been transgressive attitudes about sexual practices and norms.
Sadly, it took only a few days of pressure from the flocks of Twitter leftists for Stanley to reverse course and post a mealy-mouthed apology. Nevertheless, the reaction that his initial comments elicited is instructive.
Two Forms of Criticism
Stanley’s critics fell into two camps. When it came to the substance of Stanley’s remarks, some felt he was unqualified to make them. Their complaint was that he was being hypocritical: How can a man who fronted a notorious band like Kiss now support traditional views on the sexes? Others had no problem with Stanley’s past or his band’s legacy but thought his opinions were wrong. Many of these people note that gender-bending has been a part of popular culture for a very long time, which they offer as proof that cultural trends didn’t (and don’t) produce the (comparatively new) trans phenomenon. One such Twitter commenter argued that although her generation “watch[ed] Bugs Bunny dress up as a girl plenty of times,” almost none of them ever “transitioned.”
But the critics in both camps are wrong. Kiss didn’t play a role in fomenting the trends that Stanley is now challenging. And the cross-dressing of Bugs Bunny and other popular children’s characters was not a neutral, incidental bit of comedy: It served an important cultural function, though not the one most people think. Understanding the true ideological functions of cross-dressing in the entertainment of the 20th century is important because it illuminates the enormous differences between the America of yesteryear and today’s transgender phenomenon.
Comedic Cross-Dressing vs. Transgenderism
It is true that popular entertainment has often depicted men and women (and rabbits) who tried to pass as the opposite sex. Bugs Bunny is one example. “Mrs. Doubtfire” is another. Countless others could be cited. But these are in no way similar to the trans propaganda aimed at today’s youth. The difference is that 20th-century depictions of cross-dressing characters actually functioned to reinforce traditional norms related to sex.
Bugs Bunny in a dress was supposed to be funny. The reasons aren’t hard to ascertain. First, audiences grasped any man who would want to pretend to be a woman (or vice versa) was patently ridiculous. The comedic dimension of such displays has been evident for millennia. Secondly, when characters from entertainment history dressed as the opposite sex, it was typically an effort to disguise themselves. The humor, then, derived from the fact that men in women’s clothing almost never fool anyone. Thus, these depictions generally taught children that any attempt to portray themselves as the opposite sex was doomed to fail: Certain features of the body unmistakably conveyed the natural, biological truth of sex.
The gender-bending in Kiss functioned in a similar way. The incorporation of feminine clothing and style into a rock-and-roll performance by men was intended to be a spectacle — one that shocked the audience. The femininity was insincere: This was underscored by the aggressively heterosexual themes addressed in the music and the bombastic sonic conventions of hard rock.
But while the lyrics embraced a libertine sexuality, they also (crassly) affirmed traditional notions of masculinity and femininity. Offstage, the band’s appetite for women provided what the left would call a toxic advertisement for heteronormativity. As part of the spectacle, the feminine aspects of the band’s presentation ultimately affirmed norms of the sexes via an implicit acknowledgment that it is, in fact, odd to encounter a man or a woman who pretended to be otherwise.
It may seem, then, that earlier cross-dressing in popular media encouraged audiences to defy the norms of the sexes, but in most instances, these displays actually affirmed the legitimacy of those norms and basic biology.
Comparing the treatment of so-called gender in popular entertainment from decades ago to that of today’s media proves illuminating. Older examples of gender-bending in popular culture were usually accompanied by an implicit wink to the audience. Put differently, the content always found a way to confirm to the audience that what was happening was silly. That “wink” is completely absent from popular media today. In fact, aside from racial identity, no other topic is treated with as much gravity and self-seriousness as questions of sex.
Funny Cross-Dressing a Thing of the Past
Indeed, humorous presentations of cross-dressing — which have consistently been a feature of Western forms of entertainment since the ancient Greeks — have all but disappeared from our media. It is not uncommon in children’s programming to see situations when a boy or girl adopts the signs, preferences, or mannerisms of the opposite sex, and other children in the program start to snicker, only to have an adult character step in to teach them the moral lesson that all these stereotypes about sex and so-called gender identity are obsolete and hurtful.
Consider the premise of “Mrs. Doubtfire” (a huge hit in 1993): A divorced dad (late comedian Robin Williams), frustrated by the limited time he gets to spend with his children, begins dressing up as an older woman so he can maintain a job in his ex-wife’s home doing domestic work. Does anyone doubt that such a film would never be produced in the cultural milieu of 2023?
The point here is not that we need more humorous depictions of cross-dressing in our entertainment. The point is that those depictions have all but disappeared, and the reason for that is that they were doing important ideological work in maintaining traditional ideas of sex.
The zeitgeist now views those older norms as retrograde and obsolete. This explains why although the culture industry’s fondness for gender-bending remains as strong as ever, its comedic elements have been banned from public life. Even drag — something that mocked the self-serious policing of so-called gender and sex — is now something we have to treat in the most serious way. The kids at Drag Queen Story Hour are not learning to laugh at and enjoy the spectacle of drag, they are learning to respect it. Its function is not to drive the immutability of sex home to kids — its purpose is to familiarize children with nonconformity at an early age in hopes that it will soon be normalized.
These troubling trends are what Stanley was warning us about. It is a great irony that a famous rock-and-roll clown is one of the few celebrities with enough maturity (though just momentarily!) to grasp the serious business of an ideology that is normalizing medical interventions for kids with sex confusion.
The enablers of “trans” kids, if anything, are taking sex and its cultural implications too seriously — and in all the wrong ways. Sadly, within a decade or so, many of the children who suffered irreversible harm through the currently fashionable process of what they call “transition” won’t be laughing either.