This year’s Broadway sensation ‘Kinky Boots’ is based on a 2005 British film by the same name. It’s about a struggling, family-owned shoe factory, Price & Sons, that avoids bankruptcy when its young boss, Charlie, crosses paths with a drag queen, Lola, and is inspired to turn his business around from “making a range of shoes for men to making shoes for a range of men”. Soon the factory is producing fetish-type stiletto boots – hence the “kinky” in the title – and scaling new heights in fashion and in business.
Make no mistake, ‘Kinky Boots’ is an uplifting story. The audaciously free-spirited Lola comes like the fairy godmother and changes Charlie’s conservative world. Price & Sons makes brogues that fit form and function but Lola is there to show them that shoes also need color, charisma, and sex appeal. It’s a remedy that the stodgy Charlie himself needs. With Lola’s help Charlie also realizes that he is in a relationship with the wrong woman. In the end, Lola and the kinky boots become the star attraction at Milan fashion show, Charlie finds the right girlfriend, and – the best part – he hires Lola as the chief designer in his shoe factory.
‘Kinky Boots’ won top honors at the Tony awards including Best Musical and awards for openly gay choreographer Jerry Mitchell and openly gay actor Billy Porter for his portrayal of Lola. American music legend and LGBT rights activist Cyndi Lauper became the first woman to win the Tony for best music direction and Harvey Fierstein, another long-time activist and four-time Tony winner, was nominated for his adaptation of the story.
While this is a big victory and a cause for celebration in our community, it is easy to get swept up in the euphoria and overlook what ‘Kinky Boots’ – the story and the Broadway production – is really about.
The queer politics of Kinky Boots
Charlie first meets Lola on a dark, rainy night. Lola is running from a gang of hooligans shouting homophobic slurs. The heel of her boot breaks, Lola trips, and the thugs catch up to her and are about to beat her up when Charlie shows up. The thugs beat him up and run away thinking they might have killed him. Lola takes the wounded Charlie to the nightclub where she works as an entertainer. This is when Charlie realizes that sturdier, well-made boots might have helped Lola defend herself or run faster.
Sadly, not every Lola in the world has a Charlie to rescue her. Hate crime statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation indicate that 21% of crimes in the U.S. in year 2011 were committed out of bias against sexual orientation or gender identity. Just in the first six months of 2013, 68 bias crimes were reported in New York City with at least two cases resulting in death.
LGBT and gender non-conforming people are not safe from law enforcement personnel either. In New York, LGBT organizations and social justice activists have been focused on the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) stop-and-frisk practice. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), a social justice and human rights organization, first challenged the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practice in 1999 and since then has been gathering data and personal stories of those wrongfully profiled by the NYPD. In a report titled “Stop and Frisk: The Human Impact”, CCR states that “it is a common occurrence for people to be subjected to stops and frisks because of their sexuality or gender expression. Transgender women in particular are a huge target for NYPD discrimination.” Amnesty International also conducted research that revealed that “law enforcement “profile” LGBT individuals, in particular transgender and gender variant individuals and LGBT individuals of color, as potential criminals in a number of different contexts.”
In August a federal judge ruled that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practice violated the constitutional rights of minorities in the city. Soon thereafter, the city council voted to ban the NYPD’s discriminatory profiling and established an independent review committee to oversee the department.
It remains to be seen how this translates to life on the streets where a homophobe doesn’t really know, or care about, the difference between a drag queen and a transgender woman. The fact remains that the Lola of ‘Kinky Boots’ is either a rare exception or does not exist. Sure we can characterize ‘Kinky Boots’ as harmless, light-hearted entertainment that boosts LGBT visibility and perhaps leads to greater tolerance. But if supposedly progressive cities like New York can be a threatening environment to its LGBT citizens then the idea of a Lola coming into any workplace like Price & Sons and having the agency to change the hearts and minds of its narrow-minded workers remains a fantasy. The facts, unfortunately, do not add up to light-hearted entertainment.
The economics of Kinky Boots
Let’s not kid ourselves. Kinky Boots is a story about class and the economic divide.
It is a true story about a shoe factory in Northamptonshire, UK. The Northampton Chronicle wrote an intriguing article about the factory’s background, how it got involved in the film production, and its sad demise. Most conspicuously there is no mention of a drag queen so, Lola may very well be a fictional character in the theatrical version. Still, the story has themes that will resonate with people battered by the economic downturn: the value of family-owned businesses; how heartbreaking it is to fire employees; the tough choices and risks faced by many business owners to either perish or reinvent themselves.
But one thing the story cleverly avoids doing is the math.
Lola is wearing boots that she can afford. She earns a living as an entertainer at a nightclub. She rents a small apartment and makes her own clothes. Her family has abandoned her. Her entourage at the club is all the community she has. Lola, and anyone in her position, cannot possibly afford to buy the kinky boots that Price & Sons ends up making. Knee boots by Kenneth Cole cost anywhere from $300 – 500. Over-the-knee Alberto Feramis start at $675. A pair of thigh-high designer Louboutins cost $2500 and up. So, while ‘Kinky Boots’ ends happily with Lola’s place and influence at the factory, ironically the factory’s product is beyond reach for a working class drag queen.
When the film arrived on US shores in the spring of 2006 it flew under the radar making the film festival and art-house theater rounds for about four months, riding on word-of-mouth publicity before conceding to summer blockbusters. By then the film’s total box-office returns in the U.S. were roughly $18 million, not bad for an independent film with a drag queen as a principle character. The Broadway musical opened in April 2013 and by the time it swept up six Tony awards in June the box-office returns were roughly $13 million according to data from the Broadway theater industry. The show has grossed over $35 million to date, a $22 million uptick in just three months!
I recommend you watch the film. All it will cost is your monthly Netflix or Hulu subscription or you can find it on any number of free online channels. It’s a quirky little film with hilarious lines like these:
Charlie shows Lola the first boot he’s made. It’s burgundy color and he brags about how functional it is but the boot, obviously, has zero sex appeal. Lola shouts at him that the color should be red.
Lola: Red is the color of sex and fear and danger and signs that say “DO…NOT…ENTER”!
Charlie (meekly): But it’s comfortable.
Lola: Comfortable? Sex is not supposed to be comfortable!”
Neither is poverty.