My husband and I recently watched Connie and Carla, a 2004 comedy starring Nia Vardalos and Toni Collette.
Connie and Carla are less-than-successful lounge singers, stuck belting out “Oklahoma” in a near-empty airport bar. Both have boyfriends, though Connie’s is less than supportive of her singing career. When the women witness a murder, they go on the lam, finding along the way that the bad guy has stashed cocaine in their bag. They wind up in L.A. and discover the drag scene, where large audiences gather to watch men in drag perform numbers that are Connie and Carla’s forte. The women decide to sing in drag and meet far more critical acclaim as men dressed as women than they ever did as women.
As the story develops, Connie and Carla make friends in the drag community and begin to understand its social and familial ostracism. When one friend’s straight brother appears hoping to reconcile the family before his pending nuptials, Connie serves as a mediator, helping Mr. Straight value his brother and his brother’s life.
But the charade begins to wear thin. Connie and Carla grow tired of the stares. They can’t pursue their love lives. Things are most complicated for Connie, who has fallen for Mr. Straight but can’t let him know who she really is. In a poignant scene, the women recognize that, like their friends, they are in the closet.Of course, everything resolves in the end. The bad guys show up with guns, cause a ruckus, and are arrested. The coast clear, Connie and Carla come out as women. Seeing Connie for who she really is frees Mr. Straight to kiss her, and Carla reunites with her former boyfriend. The two brothers are reconciled, and everything, it seems, is right with the world.
The movie offers an up-beat message. Everyone is in some kind of closet. If we would all just be ourselves and accept other people for who they are, then we would all find happiness and love.
Sounds great, huh? But this message downplays the reality that not all closets are the same. Even this light-fare movie shows just how much privilege heterosexuals enjoy. A few bad guys locked up is all it takes to provide Connie and Carla safe space to be themselves; their drag/gay friends, on the contrary, will face the daily threat of hatred and anti-gay violence. In climactic happy ending, the straights find love and romance, as the rest of the room says “aaahh.” None of the drag/gay friends, however, is shown with a love interest. The straight and drag brothers may have become closer by the end of the movie, but there’s still the matter of their parents who (we learned earlier) had long ago kicked their gay son out of their home.
Like Sister Act or The Bird Cage or Mrs. Doubtfire, movies like Connie and Carla exploit the comedic potential of “passing.”
Will a Las Vegas lounge singer really be able to convince everyone she’s a nun? Can a gay couple play it straight? Can a mercurial father really stick with the role of matronly nanny? Slip-ups, quick-changes, absurd situations–all are played for laughs.
These comedies work because, when the crisis has passed, the characters can safely return to their “real” lives. After the big reveal, friends and family briefly protest the deceit but soon embrace the one who now owns up to his or her true identity. It’s sad that real-life coming out stories don’t often work this way. That LGBT people who muster the courage to quit passing as straight aren’t met with applause, much less with open arms or even safety from physical harm. It may be true that all of us inhabit some closet, but some closets are a lot riskier to leave than others.