Words by Jack Holmes
Photography by Rachael Burns
The SEX strand of Manchester Metropolitan University’s (Manchester Met) Humanities in Public Festival continued last Friday with a particularly insightful screening of cult comedy Myra Breckinridge. Described by Time Magazine as “about as funny as a child molester”, the 1970 film is a perfect catalyst for debate on modern gender roles, transphobia and sexuality as a whole, within Hollywood movies and beyond.
Hosting the event was Manchester Met Reader in Cinema History Dr Andrew Moor, with guests Cheddar Gorgeous star of the Manchester drag scene and anthropology expert, and Kate O’Donnell writer and performer of the Big Girls Blouse show now touring across the UK.
Myra Breckinridge is based on the 1968 controversial novel of the same name by Gore Vidal and was adapted into film by Michael Sarne. The film follows the exploits of Myra, a transsexual, played by Raquel Welch, who is determined to turn Hollywood upside down and, in her own words, “destroy the American male in all its particulars.” With its unique and ground-breaking view of sexuality, which at the time of its release resulted in it being labelled “one of the worst films of all time”, the film is a perfect subject for debate, despite being hit and miss when it comes to entertainment value. Seemingly random cutaways are both the highlight of the movie, as well as its main source of jarring pace. Its dialogue, however, shines from start to finish, with a surreal camp humour largely giving the film its seemingly timeless appeal.
The event also featured a Q&A session that drew attention to the possible meanings and interpretations of the film. The Q&A largely focused on the film’s overall view of gender roles, stereotypes and repressed sexuality, issues that at the time of the film’s creation were virtually never discussed, let alone within a Hollywood movie. “I think it’s really relevant today,” Cheddar Gorgeous commented. They added, “It has more cult status now than it ever did have”.
The scene that the film is largely remembered for is its shocking “pegging” scene, in which Myra attempts to prove “there is no such thing as manhood” whilst donning a red white and blue costume and cowboy hat. The scene was one of the largest talking points of the night, some focusing on the anti-American aspect of the costume, asking if the American symbolism represented freedom, or if it instead represented the way in which the American film industry had dictated what it means to be masculine. Other debates focused on notions of why the image was so shocking, both at the time of the film’s creation and now, and others on the slight pause in the film after the event: an aspect possibly included to give the audience a moment of reflection but that seemed odd for a film with such an over-the-top and explosive style.
Although focusing on Myra Breckinridge, the debates at the event also reflected upon larger issues, such as “what it means to be a man”, transgender identity and feminism, with the film acting as a catalyst for a debate on the very idea of identity. Despite the seriousness of the issues raised, the three speakers ensured that an upbeat attitude was maintained, with the audience completely engaged in the debates.
For more information about upcoming events in the SEX strand of the Humanities in Public festival, you can view the brochure here and their website here.