Monkey Drag: Gendering and Deconstructing the Sasquatch Masquerade
by James R. Keller
[page 56] The purpose of this paper is to examine a series of tropes related to the human propensity to masquerade as other species of creatures, and specifically the impulse to simulate simian demeanors: to ape the apes. The ape so resembles us in its physical and behavioral morphology that it appears to be mimicking humans with every gesture. Within this human/ape dichotomy, the former’s attributes are construed as prior to or more authentic than the latter’s. The ape may even be understood as the embodiment of alterity—the other within—operating as a boundary that defines the human, the margin whose transgression signaled the genesis of the bestial and one that was consistently crossed, erased, redrawn, and repudiated. The human apes the ape frequently enough to be recognized as a costuming cliché. The man in the monkey suit is not a novelty, but a recognizable and predicable type among maskers, and the ape or gorilla suggests the brutish, primal, and atavistic qualities of our own natures.
Perhaps an exploration of drag and crossdressing can offer insights into the propensity of humans to impersonate. In many ways, the choice of an individual to mimic the dress of the opposite gender seems almost as curious a practice as putting on a monkey suit, and each behavior is laden with occulted meanings that can only be teased out via esoteric speculation on human motivations; even the suggestion that such practices are entirely for the purposes of amusement leads inevitably to the related question—why is that entertaining? There is, after all, something potentially aggressive or judgmental about crossdressing, even when the gender bender offers the most loving portrait of his or her model.
Of course, the most influential work done on gay drag in recent memory is that of Judith Butler, who created an intellectual benchmark with her post-structuralist analysis of gender performance. Butler argues that gay drag is exemplary of a broader gender practice. Unlike biological sex, gender is a social construct that is entirely performative, enacting imaginary standards that have no prototype (Gender Trouble 8). Drag is a reminder that all gender is performative and that gender is never authentic because such an ascription suggests a unified and enduring standard against which each reenactment can be analyzed. Butler recognized and theorized that gender acts (re)produce a behavioral code that does not exist, that is constituted in the process of supposed emulation. Paradoxically, the act of gender imitation or performance precedes and [page 57] even constructs the standard that is ostensibly its inspiration, guide, model, impetus, and/or origin. Gender is a copy that has no original (“Gender Insubordination” 722), a simulation of a model that is created via the act of its replication, the act of its aping.
Despite their seeming incongruity, drag intersects with the Bigfoot phenomenon in a variety of interesting and meaningful ways; chief among them are the practices of artifice, performance, and impersonation. Bigfoot skeptics argue that our towns and countryside are populated with men and women donning monkey suits, even in those locations where they would have no reasonable expectation of running into another person to frighten or deceive. However, if we nevertheless proceed from this same position of skepticism, assuming that all sightings of Bigfoot are frauds and hoaxes, then we are left with what may be the most interesting question of all: why would people want to dress up like an ape and fake a Bigfoot appearance—crossing the road in front of oncoming cars, harassing and horrifying rural dwellers, pounding through the rugged mountainous terrain of our wilderness parks, wading through the muck of our southeastern swamps, and most amazingly, confronting and threatening horrified hikers and armed hunters on the trails of national forests and recreation areas, being shot at by the same astonished outdoorsmen who fear for their lives, and running away howling into the tree line? This seems like a very dangerous endeavor and one with little reward. The most obvious motivations for the phenomenon would be money and notoriety or fame, and these are of course powerful inducements; however, these may not account for the entire phenomenon, since fame and wealth would be a long shot in such a venture. Nevertheless, we know that people do indeed dress up like apes on occasion and camp it up in front of the camera, a phenomenon that requires only a brief visit to YouTube for confirmation. If we assume, then, that the Bigfoot sightings are merely a long series of mistaken identifications of men in monkey suits, what meaning is then produced by these performances?
“Monkey drag,” as I have termed it in the title to this article, shares many features with camp humor and crossdressing. Indeed, the varied compulsions to ape the ape or to monkey with the Sasquatch sightings can be categorized according to the same criteria that distinguish high- from low-camp, the latter involving an element of mockery and parody that derides the subject matter, that refuses to take the impersonation seriously, exaggerating all of the expected qualities of the performance (Bergman 4). A visit to various internet video databases reveals the frequency of low-camp portrayals of Sasquatch clichés, including, for example, the production “Sasquatch, Bigfoot, Yeti Attacks.” Obviously [page 58] camping or parodying the horror genre, the brief narrative begins with a woman in bed waking up to an unidentified disturbance that brings her to the window of her room, where she pulls the curtains and sees a creature scrambling across her lawn. While much of the film is coded as horror, including the cinematic realism typical of the genre, the monster itself creates an incongruity with these otherwise well-painted passions. The monster, resembling a cross between a panda and an Ewok, rushes toward the house and tries to crawl in a window while the terrified woman screams, cowering against the cottage door. While portions of the sequence attempt to take the material seriously, the monster itself undermines the terror of the moment by virtue of its obvious burlesque; the threat is to be ravished by a teddy bear. The mockery lies in the tension between the structure and the content, and it effectively associates the Sasquatch with the fictionality of the horror masquerade as well as the absurdity of the monstrous and the paranormal. Perhaps it is a metaphor for the seemingly authentic passions wasted on preposterous premises, a concise account of the inveterate Bigfoot skeptic’s assumptions. The parody of genre is native to camp, the performer adopting a narrative or discursive structure while undermining its content with hyperbole.
“AButchyKid624” is creator of several low-camp performances of faux Sasquatch sightings, two of which are particularly pertinent to the discussion since they purport to depict a female Bigfoot, and here too the idea of monkey drag comes into full view. The brief videos, credited to No Budget Productions, discard realism and respect, offering a full-on mockery of both women and the Bigfoot phenomenon. Indeed, in both cases, it is a man, mocking an ape, mocking a woman. One document wastes no time creating suspense leading to the revelation of the monster, but immediately depicts an ambling creature with gigantic, pert, hairy breasts, which it accentuates as it walks, its chest thrust forward. The walk is that of a seductress striving to attract the libidinous male, and it swings its hips and shakes its shaggy hair like a temptress. While ostensibly speculating on the absurd femininity of the mythical primate, the film reserves most of its scorn for female humans. The portrait has the quality of a low-camp drag performance, making no effort to conceal its artificiality–the Sasquatch hide, a cheap gorilla suit. The portrait retains all of the qualities that some feminists have found most objectionable about drag performances that overly sexualize, stereotype, and burlesque women, representing them as drunken, trashy, foulmouthed, dancehall sluts.
The popular series of Jack Link’s Beef Jerky commercials “Messin’ with Sasquatch” constitutes a higher-camp performance of the Bigfoot sighting phenomenon, one that is a little more respectful of the subject matter. The Jack Link’s ads are unique insofar as they seem to take the [page 59] Bigfoot phenomenon seriously, creating a monster who is well-wrought, a convincing composite of multiple reports of the beast. Each ad in the series reveals a separate prank played upon the creature, usually by a group of foolish and reckless twenty-something men and inevitably with disastrous consequences. While most Sasquatch media ridicules the idea of the monster by creating an unconvincing creature that is obviously a man in a gorilla suit, the Jack Link’s ads ridicule the humans involved instead. The pranks played by the young men on the unsuspecting beast include many of the most familiar teen practical jokes: the warm water intended to make the target wet him/herself (in this case, the Sasquatch pisses in the prankster’s face); the flaming bag of feces, which the Sasquatch ends up throwing at one of the fleeing jokers; the towel snap that results in a teen being thrown into a nearby pond; the joy buzzer that also earns the prankster a tossing; and the spraying beer can that gets two middle-aged golfers turned over in their cart. In each case, the Bigfoot is minding his own business, unaware that he has company, so the violation of his peace and solitude legitimizes his violence. The “Messin’ with Sasquatch” commercials constitute a reversal of the satiric point-of-view in most Bigfoot sightings, implying that the same people who pull the practical joke on the beast are those who would dress in an ape suit to frighten a passing motorist or generate a fake monster sighting, but in these cases, the inventions always fall upon the inventors’ heads, ending in a thrashing. Perhaps the young men believe that the Sasquatch is another practical joker and that there is no danger, in which case the reversal in the brief narrative is accompanied by the added revelation that the monster is real, or perhaps the young men are simply too dim, too fraught with adolescent daring and a belief in their own invulnerability, to apprehend danger.
In a manner of speaking, the encounters in the “Messin’ with Sasquatch” ads juxtapose two types of masculinity—a puckish and harebrained masculinity that is complex, social, reckless, cowardly, and juvenile, and a more mature and traditional masculinity, represented by the Sasquatch, that is sober, silent, and resolute, characterized by a quiet strength, committed to solitude, but ferocious when roused. Usually, the discrepancy is intergenerational–the lads versus the mature man. Here the Sasquatch is subtly equated to the hegemonic masculine ideal of the frontiersman, the same that might have encountered a subhuman primate in the wilds of the American West as he beat a trail from coast to coast, the rugged individualist upon whom the American idealized concept of manhood was presumably constructed—the individualist who, as the cliché goes, may not have been smart but knew how to survive in the wilderness by practical knowledge and sheer strength of body and [page 60] character. The young men represented in the ads signify a frivolous, modern, urban masculinity that has surrendered the survivalist’s practical wisdom of the earth for childish pranks—the pampered urban male who regards nature as a novelty for his entertainment and recreation pitted against a raw instinctual existence of the primitive half-human. The ad campaign creates a high-camp representation of the half-human masquerade, effectively parodying not the ape or the apeman (what would be the point?), but instead human pretensions. Gay drag parody is directed not at women but at gender roles. Similarly, monkey drag does not degrade monkeys but men in the above cases (specifically) and humanity more generally.
When a human dons a gorilla or monkey suit to ape an ape, several things of interest occur. First, the human can only approximate the correct behavior since he or she does not have the physical abilities or the requisite instinctual knowledge to make a faithful and accurate portrayal of the beast. If a human mimics an ape’s grunts and squeals, the person cannot know what those sounds signify—pleasure, fear, warning, contentment, etc.—so the performance is emptied of meaning, merely a human’s view of an ape’s behavior, and one that does not take into consideration species or gender difference within species; the simulation may be a composite of those observations of ape behavior made by the parodist, but even more likely (since the average individual does not have a great deal of experience observing apes even from watching television), our mimicry of apes is constructed upon those experiences in which we have seen other humans mimic apes. For example, when we do ape the ape, we always ape a bipedal ape. We may simulate an unsteady waddle to signify the ape’s limited bipedalism, but we rarely get down on all fours and walk on our knuckles, because our arms are not long enough and the posture is uncomfortable. In simulating the other primates, we may scratch our heads or our underarms in a gesture that humans consider simian, but we will not groom another person, picking lice from his/her head and eating it. Our construction of the ape is a human construction of “apeness,” and one that, like gender in humans, has no original, but is constructed as it is performed. Others will know you are figuring the ape, with or without the fur.
There is an even more interesting displacement that occurs in the simulation of a completely unidentifiable species such as a Sasquatch, which is presumably a primate believed to lie halfway between a human and a chimp or gorilla. Since the behavioral patterns of a Sasquatch are a matter of speculation based upon anecdotal evidence, the emulation of a Bigfoot is and can only be presumptive. Indeed, the creature that is being caricatured probably does not even exist, so the qualities of its activities must be constructed even as they are purportedly reproduced. The post- [page 61] structuralist premise of Butler’s gender theory—the structure without a center and the copy that precedes the original—is literalized in the reproduction of Sasquatch behavior. The Sasquatch copyist must produce the crypto-primate’s behavioral attributes even as he seems to reproduce them, and the primary distinctive attribute of the Sasquatch that is not related to its appearance is its bipedalism, a feature that a human can hardly mimic since it is his/her own form of locomotion. Thus, the Sasquatch mimic must play the ape and qualify the performance with human attributes, to reproduce what is believed to be halfway between ape and human, and since humans in mimicking apes do not get down on all fours and walk on their knuckles, the human’s emulation of the Sasquatch would be indistinguishable from his/her performance of the ape, and the differences would be entirely situational.
Those who emulate Sasquatch do so by donning an ape suit and placing themselves in geographical contexts where they will be interpreted as out of place. Besides walking upright, there is no distinguishing Bigfoot behavior; all recognizable features are connected to appearances, which are those of a gigantic bipedal gorilla or chimp. In an internet parody entitled “Bigfoot Lives,” theanswerman.com dresses in a monkey or gorilla suit, situates himself beside and sometimes in the middle of a road near the Tahoe Wilderness Park, and tries to fool motorists into believing that they have seen Bigfoot running across the road in front of traffic (Slatis). His intention is to demonstrate the potential origin of some Bigfoot sightings as hoaxing. If the traffic were close enough, the drivers would easily see through the cheap monkey suit to the trickster underneath, but the illusion is maintained by the situational circumstances—a dark, hairy, blurry, upright figure on a desolate road (often at night) equals Bigfoot, so in a sense, Bigfoot has no self, only a place and time, and here the place is actually a misplacing, since one would probably be less alarmed by such a sighting in an African country where large apes are more common.
In effect, the Sasquatch hoax is a human impersonating an ape poorly, but the ruse is further destabilized discursively when one considers the close kinship between humans, apes, and the mythic Sasquatch–all of the order of “primates.” The Sasquatch becomes an embodiment of one way of thinking about humanity. If people can, in a manner of speaking, be understood as part human (the spiritual or intellectual half) and part animal or ape (the physical half), then the Sasquatch is a figural embodiment of the duality of human nature, being half man, half ape, and the man in a monkey suit is in effect a monkey in a monkey suit or an ape in an ape suit, and if the human is impersonating the Bigfoot, then the paradox becomes an ape aping an ape aping an ape, each a move further [page 62] away from an essence, from a human genetic determinism, to a human’s perception of an ape’s essential behaviors, to an empty and mythical Sasquatch whose behaviors are simply a projection of human and simian qualities onto a geographical context. In a manner of speaking then, the Sasquatch is a human impersonating an ape in order to illustrate his own divided nature, in order to impersonate himself.
It is pertinent to consider whether simulating the simian is fundamental to human subjectivity. The ape permits the human to define humanity through difference; thus, the ape becomes a radical, even an abjected, alterity that, by occupying the margin and threatening the integrity of the center, constantly serves to define the center. If the antithetical categories of human and ape constantly intrude upon each other’s definitional integrity (anthropologists, primatologists, and geneticists are constantly contesting the boundaries between the human and the simian with the revelation of some shared traits in character, social patterns, and DNA), then they each in a sense become a fictionalized ideal that must negotiate a middle—the half human. The human/animal or human/ape binaries are discursive structures, and as an imaginary concession between these binaries, the Sasquatch may be an ideation with more substance than either of the polarities. The half-human/half-ape operates as a repository of shared traits in the human/simian opposition. If the idea of the Sasquatch did not already exist, we would need to invent it to operate as a deconstruction of an overly rigid categorization of species, including a metaphysics so completely prioritizing humanity that it places us outside of natural processes. The center of the structure is liminal, always already having fled the scene, leaving only a phantom trace of its former presence. So too, the Sasquatch’s absent presence subverts metaphysics, synthesizing the human and animal even as it disappears into the tree line leaving only the oversized traces of its former presence, signs that may or may not be of human invention, the product of pranksters playing with signifiers.
The invocation of the Sasquatch tradition by the skeptic/fraud constitutes bringing together the pieces of a cultural practice that exist only in brief anecdotes, zoological collages and fragments, and suspicious snapshots. Thus, the Bigfoot con who may protest a desire to debunk the phenomenon recreates it with as much reality as it ever possessed each time that he or she generates another trace encounter—a footprint, a body print, a hair tuft, a sound effect, a foul odor, etc. With this in mind, the debunker debunks nothing, but creates more bunk. This inadvertent perpetuation of the Bigfoot lifeform might then be understood as another type of faith, the false creation of an absolute reality. If such a thing is intentional, then the motivation may be apostasy, this time against the [page 63] positivist orthodoxy of the scientific or rational world, resulting in the creation of a chimera that attacks the smug self-importance and condescension of the scientist toward the “folk.”
Is not the expression “apeman” itself central to the faux ape making in the Sasquatch phenomenon? The concept of the modern human involves a recognition of our shared characteristics with the ape; thus, in a manner of speaking, the human is already an apeman, or “ape person” if you will, in which case the Bigfoot is an expression or symbol of our simian source. While faking an apeman may draw attention to our duality, that performance of our duality can be doubly interpreted. Creating the ape-human hybrid—Sasquatch—can either suggest our shared heredity and simian qualities or draw attention to the differences between human and ape. The appropriator of the fake may seek to collapse that difference emphasized within the original apeman, to deconstruct the apeman, or perceiving the apeman to be deconstructed in the original, he may seek to redraw the boundary between human and animal. Men are already apes or primates; thus, the expression itself is a tautology, and perhaps putting on an ape suit is parallel to putting on another identity. Although we classify ourselves as primates, we also set ourselves apart as the only group capable of classifying; we claim to be mere primates, but do we really accept the idea? Thus, the faux ape charade represented by the presumed Sasquatch hoax may simply constitute a return of the repressed, an uncanny encounter with an inner self that has been abjected. Just as a parade of Halloween demons can be understood as a momentary manifestation of our inner antisocial urges and fantasies, repressed in the interests of maintaining human society, the ape charade too can be the expected projection of the repressed primate in us, obviating a primitive core that is not often allowed out of the psychic cave. Shoving in our dim little torch only serves as a reminder that the ape is still there shadowing, aping, or perhaps compelling our every move and gesture.
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MLA citation (print):
Keller, James R. "Monkey Drag: Gendering and Deconstructing the Sasquatch Masquerade." Supernatural Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, 2016, pp. 56-64.