At first sight, Stormtrooper in Drag provokes, horrifies and confuses. A beautiful young man stands at the centre of the film frame, pointing a gun at an unseen figure to the left of the camera, to whom he recites the lyrics of Smokey Robinson's 1970 hit The Tears of a Clown. Yet, it is not the eccentric performance itself that shocks, but its staging. The man is dressed in the tunic from a Totenkopf dress uniform, worn by the most extreme and brutal branch of the SS, and he is pictured in front of a Nazi flag with his head concealing the swastika.
From this initial glance, the performance might be read as a casual endorsement of Nazi aesthetics; what the theorist Susan Sontag calls the 'eroticization of fascism', where the stylish appearance and restrictive nature of SS regalia has led to Nazi symbolism being appropriated and incorporated into the paraphernalia of subversive sexualities and camp. On closer inspection, however, we see that under the tunic, the man is wearing a polka dot dress made by the designer Comme des Garçons. The introduction of a feminine piece of clothing subverts these initial, overtly macho and violent connotations and alludes to a lack of these qualities, a sense of masculinity in crisis.
The subject of Stormtrooper in Drag, the photographer Jason Evans, is also the maker of the film: in essence, the project is a kind of self-portraiture in motion. Inspired by a paper given by Mike Kelley on the appropriation of queer aesthetics and attitudes in early Glam Rock and a performance by musician and gender theorist Terre Thaemlitz at the Steirischer Herbst 99 symposium in Graz, Evans uses popular music as a trope to explore the complex territory of identity, masculine love and its representation in image making. Adopting Thaemlitz's cover of Gary Numan's 1981 track Stormtrooper in Drag as his point of departure, Evans constructs an 'anti-persona' composed of everything that he is not, what appals and offends him, against which to define himself. Through this negative identity, he acknowledges that the obscene and profane things we regard as being at the periphery of our consciousness are actually central to who we are.
Evans explains: 'the ineptitude of the performance, the crassness of the cultural signifiers betray my anxiety over the camp role, the frustration with the scope of being a gay man'. Once the viewer registers the self-consciousness of the hammed performance, the third component of the role becomes apparent: Evans is the clown. It is only then that his overarching intention for Stormtrooper in Drag can be understood: the lyrics are in fact a heartfelt address to a former lover. 'It's about the strange behaviour at the end of a relationship, about what's excusable and what's embarrassing later', he says. Contrasted against the problematic Nazi drag character, the tragedy of Smokey Robinson's words and the sincerity of Evans' delivery reveal the beauty and tenderness at the heart of the piece.
Notes : Sontag, S. (1983) 'Fascinating Fascism' in Under the Sign of Saturn, London: Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative. Vinken, B. (1999) 'TranvestyTravest: Fashion and Gender', Fashion Theory, Vol. 3, Issue 1.