You’ve come a long way — in drag

My paternal grandmother was a heavy smoker all her life. One of the brands she smoked was Virginia Slims, whose slogan then was “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

I remember this well, because when I was a little kid, my grandmother gave me a pack of playing cards that was some kind of Virginia Slims freebie. The backs of the cards had the slogan printed on them in tiny type, over and over again, in close-set type.

This was the first deck of cards I can remember ever having, but they kind of repelled me. The backs were shiny gold, with crowded writing in navy, set at an angle, so that the text was crawling “uphill”. The fronts had rococo frou-frou all over them.

Most hideous and baffling of all were the face cards. To set the stage: first of all, I knew nothing about branding, or how Virginia Slims had positioned itself as a “women’s lib” cigarette. (Of course, I’m sure the company’s feminist angle was purely for show, and that the place was run by unreconstructed males.) And secondly, the idea of gender-bending was pretty foreign, if not utterly unknown, to me as a seven- or eight-year-old.

So, what exactly did these face cards have on them? Answer: photos of women in drag as kings and jacks. (There were also women dressing like women for the queen cards.)

Now, I knew that kings and jacks were supposed to be boys. But their hair… looked like girls’ hair. When I asked my parents about that, I was told, “Men used to wear curly wigs.” It wasn’t a fully convincing answer for two reasons:

1) The hairdos seemed pretty girly to me at the time. And, in retrospect, these hairdos look nothing like 18th-century perruques.

2) Wigs or no, there was the matter of these kings’ and jacks’ faces. They looked like… girls’ faces.

I actually brought these cards to school for use in playing war and “Go fish” with my friends, who were all quick to point out that those noblemen looked like women. I was in denial about it at first. “Kings used to wear wigs!!” was my heated rebuttal. After all, if it turned out that those noblemen really were women all along, then that could only mean I had cards that were for girls, not boys! The prospect was too horrifying to contemplate, so I publicly maintained that those clean-shaven monarchs were men. My first taste of cognitive dissonance, and of arguing against the facts!

Years later, thanks to the Internet and to people who never throw anything away, these cards can still be viewed in all their glory. Looking at them now, they don’t seem so ugly to me anymore. Actually, they’ve got a pretty awesome Belle Époque vibe to them.

In a way, these cards were even more educational for me than Safari Cards. And I’m left with a final mystery: is the joker a woman, too? Or would it have been more appropriate, somehow, as a satirical dig against masculinity, if the joker were actually a man?

Maybe I’ll find out in another couple decades.


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