Dayna McLeod’s Feminist Celluloid Fantasies, Queer Revisionary: Making It Better – T.L. Cowan

When I started thinking about what I would say about Montreal-based cabaret, video-performance artist Dayna McLeod in this NMP “Motive” issue, I thought about my own motives for writing about her. Mostly, I write about her work because it is smart, bold, hilarious and under-discussed, but also because, since forever, McLeod’s videos/performances have resisted the tidy, safe narrative of aspirational gayness that circulates in mainstream North American discourse (most recently this narrative went viral with the “It Gets Better” YouTube videos of 2010) and rather, affirms over and over again—without the reassuring capitalist backdrop of red-bricked, vanilla-flavoured affluence—that being queer is, well, about being really queer.

The “It Gets Better” campaign, started by Dan Savage in September 2010 in the wake of an alarming number of early-school-year gay teen suicides, has already been well-lauded and well-critiqued, and I know that it does not make logical sense to compare Dayna McLeod’s video-performances with the “It Gets Better” campaign. It’s like comparing g-strings and boxers: they are both kinds of underwear, but not meant to do the same thing. However, in the wake of “It Gets Better,” wherein most of the celebrity (i.e. most-watched) videos either tacitly or explicitly self-applaud the ways that gays and lezzies produce, strive for, pass as and achieve a kind of neutered, apolitical, middle-class normalcy (or, homonormativity, to use Lisa Duggan’s now famous term), I think it is monumentally important to showcase feminist queer work like McLeod’s that relishes, normalizes and hyperbolizes the unneutered realities and fantasies of all of us who don’t.

But when I began to think about my “motive” for reading and loving to think about McLeod’s work, it struck me that my motive to revel in her celluloid fantasies brought to stage and screen in video-performances like “That’s Right Diana Barry, You Needed Me,” “Ultimate SUB Ultimate DOM” and “Sex Accidents & Home Repair” is that I find the work reassuringly irreverent, unpredictable and twisted, all the best parts of being queer that are rendered invisible in homonormative culture. While I often feel smothered by the PotteryBabyWeddingBarnBoomBellsification of contemporary dyke life, McLeod’s work, and the ways that it instrumentalizes that grand queer cultural tradition of reading against the grain, reminds me that being against the grain is a mode of living and way of knowing that is available, valid, necessary and—when done with the right amount of irony—devastatingly, on-the-nose amusing.

Since it’s early-20th Century beginnings, cabaret has been a stage for politically-motivated pastiche; and it is on the contemporary cabaret stage, I think—a stage that does not require season’s tickets and is often pay-what-you-can—that queers can satirize to themselves the complicated and conflicted ways that we are compelled into, and lured into conversations about, low-interest mortgages, wicker patio furniture, matching flatware, professionally sanded hardwood floors, Diaper Genies and where to get these things. Cabaret, I suggest, might be taken as a tonic to counteract the effects of such conversations. Cabaret artists like McLeod, for whom the short form is their major form, might be understood to be challenging the standards of normative “grown-up” performance, of adult, professional “success.” In Canadian and US contexts, cabaret might be understood as a mode of queer temporality that invites liminality rather than longevity, a kind of living that (in theory) thrives in the polyamorous (multiple) rather than the monogamous (single), and the low-paid rather than the lucrative.

While I do not think that artists who make work in longer forms are all a bunch of sell-outs, I propose that McLeod, for example, whose artistic gears are not cranked to pump out a “full-length” solo show, resists the matriculation model of a performance career in the same way that many (okay, today maybe not so many) queers, in Judith Halberstam’s framing, resist “adult responsibility” in the form of marriage and reproduction. Contemporary cabaret itself, then, as a transnational phenomenon of predominantly artist-produced events, is a performance space and mode of existence, even a way of understanding the world that can undermine the normal (boring) and celebrate the outrageous, the gaudy, the raunchy (not boring). In many ways, I’d argue that contemporary feminist and queer cabaret and the performances/performers that thrive in this milieu operate as a genius antidote to (the well-meaning, to be sure) “It Gets Better” campaign and the (well-groomed, to be sure) horse it rode in on, counteracting the sanitized version of gay lives that get packaged for mass consumption, flaunting instead the dirty secrets of anti-normativity.

McLeod’s “That’s Right Diana Barry, You Needed Me” was originally commissioned for the 2008 Buddies in Bad Times’ “Anne Made Me Gay” cabaret, curated by Moynan King and Rosemary Rowe. It now lives primarily as a short video performance available on McLeod’s website. In this performance (my version is documentary footage of a performance at a 2008 Meow Mix, Miriam Ginestier’s long-running Montreal cabaret “for bent girls and their buddies”), McLeod arrives onstage to a minimalist set—the only prop, the cover of Anne Murray’s Greatest Hits album projected onto a screen beside her. McLeod asks the audience if they like her dress, which is a red tassel number she “picked up at a Value Village in Oklahoma for $7.” She then explains that when she was a young girl she fell in love with Anne Murray and that her affection/admiration for Anne Murray took the form of self-transformation:

I would put on the long-sleeve white turtleneck, total 1980s signature style for Anne Murray, liberally apply blue eye shadow and frosted pink lipstick [says to audience member, “You know what I’m talking about”] I know some of you hadn’t been born yet in 1980. I’m dating myself. I was seven. I would also tuck my white turtleneck into my tights. I don’t think Anne Murray ever did that, but I would rock it! [Strikes a pose with dress tucked into tights]. Cuz I was seven, and it felt fuckin’ awesome.

With her red tasseled dress tucked into her patterned black nylons, McLeod demonstrates the dance moves she would perform as a child “in the garage that my dad turned into a family room.” She then tells the audience that the other “Anne that was important in my sexual identity” was Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables, thus introducing “Canada’s song-bird” Anne Murray to Anne of Green Gables, the Canadian cultural export par excellence.

As she begins her tribute to Anne of Green Gables, McLeod compares Anne’s Diana Barry with her own first girlfriend, “whose name I’m not allowed to say in public, for legal reasons (hers, not mine, frankly).” This girlfriend, McLeod tells us, “was all like [tongue tongue tongue] ‘I’ve never been with a girl before’ [tongue tongue tongue]. ‘Don’t worry my boyfriend won’t mind’ [tongue tongue tongue]. ‘He wants me to experiment’ [tongue tongue tongue].” McLeod responds to the girlfriend’s ambivalence: “Right! Cuz I’m really worried about your fuckin’ boyfriend when I’m fingerbanging you in the back of your station wagon when we’re camping with my parents after we play Pictionary!”

Following this mini-rant, McLeod asks the audience to indulge her in a celebration of her two Annes, at which point the projection changes to a video mash-up of the intimate scenes between Anne and Diana Barry in the 1985 Kevin Sullivan CBC mini-series based upon Lucy Maude Montgomery’s books (starring Megan Follows as Anne and Schuyler Grant as Diana Barry). Accompanying this mash-up of intimacies is a fantasy soundtrack of Anne Murray’s love song, “You Needed Me,” with the lyrics projected karaoke-style below the video. McLeod sings along to the song, performing what seem to be ABBA-inspired dance moves with her dress still tucked into her nylons, all while cajoling the audience to sing along as well. As the song ends, the video closes with a scene of Anne and Diana standing on an iconic P.E.I. cliff, the long grass blowing in the wind, the “bosom friends” looking out over the Atlantic Ocean. (Just as an interesting aside: during the 2000 Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English conference at the University of Alberta, Laura Robinson gave a paper entitled “Bosom Friends: Lesbian Desires in L.M. Montgomery’s Book,” which caused an uproar in the national media: newspapers across the country featured stories reporting that there is “no proof” that Anne was a lesbian or harboured lesbian feeling toward other women in the novels. Also, in her memoir, All of Me, Anne Murray denies being a big ol’ dyke, but she acknowledges that she has lots of lesbian fans, whom she appreciates.)

That’s Right Diana Barry, You Needed Me

I think what thrills me about McLeod’s work and makes it so interesting to me is that she seems to be driven by a consuming desire to prove that nothing is not queer. Queer fantasy is the proof that everything is potentially gay. In “Ultimate SUB Ultimate DOM,” she produces a mash-up video-performance similar in structure to “That’s Right Diana Barry,” again placing her own fantasy-driven monologue at the centre of a piece that writes a queerly revisionist fantasy of two much-loved family favourites. McLeod begins: “Imagine if you will, Maria Von Trapp from The Sound of Music as the ultimate submissive. Okay? Now imagine that she is being topped by the ultimate dominatrix, Mary Poppins.” She then goes on to narrate an SM scenario, set “in the nunnery,” in which Maria Von Trapp confesses to being a “bad, bad little nun” to Mary Poppins, who is in the Mother Superior’s office, doling out punishments. McLeod explains that Maria Von Trapp is on her knees on the stone, which makes “her knees very, very tender.” While McLeod’s video mash-up combines scenes of Maria Von Trapp begging for forgiveness, McLeod mocks the codes of appropriate feminine behaviour that makes “singing in the hills” and “dressing children in drapery” serious offences and, in so doing, she subverts the tropes of gender and class discipline so central to The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins. Maria Von Trapp then exclaims the degree of her trangressions, “And what’s worse, I just can stop saying things!” and McLeod interjects, imagining what might follow, “Fuck me, fuck me Mary Poppins. Fuck me, fuck me with your umbrella.”

The rest of “Ultimate SUB Ultimate DOM” is a frenzied manifestation of a dungeon-appropriate encounter in which Mary Poppins tells a ball-gagged Maria Von Trapp that she is going to whack her again and again with her umbrella “until your ass is red, raw and rosy like my cheeks.” McLeod’s Mary Poppins demands, “You’re going to call me Sir, you’re going to call me Captain,” transforming the patriarchal cruelty of these classics into role-playing fun. The encounter culminates with Mary Poppins explaining to her submissive, “Lucky for you the head of this umbrella turns into a big, fat five-inch dildo that I’m going to just jam into your wet, tight little pussy.” She then commands Maria Von Trapp to sing “The Hills are Alive” with the ball-gag still in her mouth. The scene ends with a flushed McLeod concluding, “That’s just a little something about how I think it might go,” and the credits roll with Maria Von Trapp’s famous yodeling. While McLeod’s website explains that this piece is meant to “satirize homophobic theories of homosexual narcissism, which dismisses same sex attraction as a treatable narcissistic disorder,” it is also satirizes the inherent power imbalances within the “family values” rhetoric that these classic films produce and reproduce.

Ultimate SUB Ultimate DOM

Since I’m talking about narcissistic fucking, it seems only right to conclude with a brief discussion of McLeod’s “Sex Accidents and Home Repair,” a video-performance originally commissioned in 2004 by Studio 303 for The Home Show, featuring McLeod as “Dayna McLeod,” host of a sex-safety home improvement program, and—appearing as a projection on a screen at the back of the stage—McLeod as Butch Johnson, the show’s tool-savvy “sex-carpenter.” “Dayna McLeod,” performing with a projected Butch Johnson (you get that they are both McLeod, right?), explains that the mandate of their show, “Sex Accidents and Home Repair,” is to “make sex safe in any room of your home.” “Dayna McLeod” and Butch Johnson work together to help a sex-accident prone, “lady-lovin’” couple, Alyson and Mary Ann (who, like most T.V. girl-on-girl couples, always have sex fully clothed), whose furniture is not safe for “heavy petting fun.” Based on HGTV-style home-improvement-on-a-budget shows and featuring Butch Johnson fucking “Dayna McLeod” on Alyson and Mary Ann’s newly-reinforced living room furniture, this performance is a commentary on what I now understand as the “It Gets Better”-style aspirational lifestyle politics of home renovation culture, and, importantly, a cautionary tale against lesbian bed death (literally).

Sex Accidents & Home Repair

So, what does narcissistic fucking have to do with my claim that McLeod’s work serves as an antidote to homonormativity? Obviously, the answer is in the question. If only all the LGBTQ teens out there could find their way to the work of McLeod and other artists who make it clear that adult queerness is not necessarily about being as straight as possible, but is sometimes about being as unapologetically queer as possible, things might get a lot better.

T.L. Cowan is a queer feminist writer, performer, activist and professor currently living in and between Saskatoon, Toronto and Montreal (and, as of August 2011, New York City). She is an Assistant Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and English at the University of Saskatchewan and a writer/performer/curator. T.L’s academic work is primarily concerned with the social and political life of transnational feminist and queer grass-roots performance scenes; this work has led to a book project, provisionally entitled Sliding Scale: Transnational Feminist and Queer Cabaret Cultures, from which the essay here is drawn. In 2011-12 T.L. will be a Visiting Scholar at the Centre for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at New York University, where she will be developing this project as well as infiltrating the fabulous cabaret scene in NYC. For more info go to

Comments from old site:

Submitted by Wayne Brasler (not verified) on Fri, 07/15/2011 – 21:08.

I’m wondering what Anne Murray thinks of all this. She is such a fresh-faced, square-deal lady, with a great sense of humor but very self-confident in that way that oddness sort of either isn’t recognized or maybe just not acknowledged. I once sent her a C.D. I liked to listen to on the road AND I GOT A THANK YOU NOTE BACK FROM HER SECRETARY THE SAME WEEK telling me how much Anne appreciated me doing that. That told me EVERYTHING. And in the days her recordings were not available in the U.S. a member of her staff helped me get them from Arc and then Capitol Records. I was amazed by the caring and the good manners in an era when NO recording artist ever wrote to ANY fan for ANY reason. So I wonder what she’s thinking of this very funny and very honest routine.

Submitted by mel on Fri, 07/08/2011 – 16:56.

This is an amazing piece. Thanks T.L.!