CN: Mentions of transphobia, transmisogyny
My Dad Wears A Dress is a one-woman comedy show in which Maria Telnikoff takes us through various stages of her youth growing up with a father who is a trans woman.
To talk about this show it is necessary to start with the title. It is not only a marketing tool but also key to the expectations that you set your audience up with – the title is also directly referenced multiple times in this show. The idea of a trans woman (like Telnikoff’s dad) being a ‘man in a dress’ is a classic piece of transmisogynistic rhetoric. She is clearly seeking to subvert that rhetoric, but it is a strange place to start from as an audience member. If this title was for something written by a transmisogyny affected (TMA) person I would say it was a little edgy and possibly playing too much into a presumed cis audience’s notions of gender, but I could be convinced otherwise based on the piece that follows. However, when it comes from a transmisogyny exempt (TME) person, it feels a little exploitative, instrumentalising a trans woman’s experience to make your show seem more subversive than it actually is.
The basic structure of the show itself is Telnikoff moving back and forth between different time periods of her childhood. She is excellent at capturing the spirit of each of those ages through her costume, vocal tone and even down to specifics like posture. The precise performance helps avoid some of the potential confusion from the non-linear narrative, and it’s fun to watch a full adult embody a six-year-old singing on the toilet. There are also a wealth of references in the script which help construct the time period, with the show broadly taking place between the late noughties and mid-2010s, from Britney Spears to fruit winders. At points, the text feels a little too reliant on referential nostalgia-based jokes but Telnikoff is skilled enough at working a crowd that the fifth “remember this thing from your teens” in as many minutes still manages to bring out a chuckle.
The one-woman show’s star performer is absolutely its greatest strength. Her dynamism allows her to dominate the stage and keep the audience at the edge of their seats waiting for the next joke. She quickly created a warm dynamic with the audience, to the point where the few times something went wrong it actually added to the experience, feeling like a friend doing something silly rather than an awkward faceplant. When she dances to Boney M’s “Daddy Cool”, or talks about her formative crushes with a mouth full of Thorntons chocolate, the show shines the most. Not all of the emotional beats land and we should have been given a deeper sense of Telnikoff beyond rose-tinted nostalgia and relatable stories – but there is no doubt that the performer and her talent are key to everything that works about this show.
However, therein also lies the biggest problem and the elephant in the room. When My Dad Wears A Dress wants to say anything beyond fun storytelling it is at best shallow and at worst deeply exploitative. As I sat and watched the performance there were points where I almost forgot the premise and was having fun following along with her life. But then we (often abruptly) come back to the central premise which Telnikoff will not let us forget – “A comedy show about growing up with a transgender dad” and it all falls apart. At the start, there are only a few fleeting references to Telnkoff’s transfeminine father, and they feel a little ancillary but are mostly fine. However, as things go on there is more and more direct engagement with transness and none of it lands. We get trite speeches about hetero-normativity, enforced ideas of the family and the binary nature of fathers’ day cards. We also get a weirdly placed use of Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman” (which has slightly odd race/gender/transness dynamics that I don’t have the space to get into). At another point, there’s a diatribe about French being a gendered language and how that ends up making her a liar when referring to her female father. “ELLE EST MA PERE!” she stands on a chair and defiantly declares, backed by raucous applause from the audience. It’s all so flat. I’m not suggesting the show should have featured a video of a trans woman being brutalised by the police. However, for a piece that is so insistent on its subversiveness that it is willing to use the shock value of a blatantly transmisogynistic trope for a title, I would have expected an engagement with transmisogyny that wasn’t so toothless.
Even if I thought the message here was radical or interesting (it isn’t), there is a broader problem of where the attention is focused. Telnikoff puts lying about having a trans femme parent in parallel with lying about having a conservatory, or pretending to have watched iCarly, which clearly undersells the actual dangers of disclosure. This is because it centres the effects on her as the cisgender daughter rather than the actual transmisogyny affected person in the situation. We never really get a deep sense of her father as a person and instead get statements like “my dad is strong enough to lift a boulder while wearing a dress”, which play into a weird quasi-fetishistic image of transfemininity as a sort of superhuman Other or ‘the best of both worlds’.
There is a long history of artists and art, from Andy Warhol to The Danish Girl , that use transfeminine people as as muses for cis people to work through their emotions and fascinations. While it comes in compassionate liberal-minded clothing, My Dad Wears A Dress is no different and it is disappointing to see a performer as talented as Telnikoff construct something so hollow.
Telnikoff gives a knowing look to the audience, who has watched an hour of her ‘making a song and dance’ about her proximity to the unusual occurrence of a transfeminine father as “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” by Eurythmics, Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart begins to blare out of the speakers and a standing ovation begins.