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‘Shania Twain Made Me Gay’: The Accidental Queer Legacy of ‘Man! I Feel Like A Woman!’

Inspired by her fascination with the gorgeous Toronto drag queens she hung around in the 1990s, Twain’s 25-year-old masterpiece has resurfaced amongst queers looking to put their own stamp on gender

2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.

In her third year of college, 24-year-old comedian Skylar MacDonald came out to her friends as a trans woman. Soon afterwards, she headed to a campus karaoke night with a grin on her face and a trick up her sleeve. “I asked my friend to write down what song he thought I was going to sing,” she tells me via Zoom, laughing at the memory. Shortly after she stepped on stage, the audience erupted. As MacDonald grabbed the mic, the infectious opening riff of Shania Twain’s country-pop masterpiece “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” blared out of the speakers. “My friend guessed correctly,” she chuckled. “I was like, ‘Wow, am I really that predictable?’”

MacDonald hadn’t even been born yet in 1997, when the song was originally released. Her first exposure to the tongue-in-cheek, gender-bending classic was “through some kind of queer playlist on Spotify.” She wasn’t alone, either — 25 years later, the song is finding a new audience of queer, trans and gender non-conforming fans who embrace the track’s endless shitpost potential. “It’s not like I chose that song because I think it’s the pinnacle of female empowerment or anything,” explains MacDonald. “I just thought it would be a good laugh, and it was. It killed. There were actual cheers and everything.”

To understand the song’s cult appeal, it’s worth revisiting the earliest years of Twain’s career. In 1993, she released a debut, self-titled album to little fanfare, one full of god-fearing country covers and yearning, heartbroken lyrics. Initially, nobody really cared. The album was quickly deemed a commercial failure, despite what Rolling Stone described as a “sexy and splashy” music video for debut single “What Made You Say That.” It’s a tame video by most standards, but it stood out in the super-conservative country music industry, simply by giving “viewers their first peek at the singer’s controversial bare midriff.” Immediately, she was judged — and the judgments were obviously laced with misogyny.

Lack of commercial success aside, Twain’s debut album did attract the attention of Robert John Lange, known professionally as Mutt Lange. He heard the record, got in touch and asked to work with Twain. Within six months, they were married.

The duo were a match made in heaven. Twain’s follow-up album, The Woman in Me, proved their knack for nailing a Top 40 chorus, and brimmed with crossover hits. Lyrically, the album was a mixed bag. Song titles like “God Bless the Child” co-existed with sassier, a-woman-scorned numbers like “(If You’re Not in It For Love) I’m Outta Here!” Twain was rebranded as a nuanced, country-pop powerhouse — respectable enough to maintain a sizable conservative fan base, but with an underlying grit that hinted she was not to be fucked with.

Despite the early country branding, plenty of Twain’s biggest influences were — for lack of a better term — gay as fuck. In the early 1990s, she performed at Ontario’s Deerhurst Resort alongside glitzy cabaret stars and drag queens, falling in love with the spangle of showbiz. Then, in 1997, these reference points rose to the surface with Twain’s world-dominating album Come on Over, which spawned the infamous “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!”

Believe it or not, the song was initially inspired by drag queens. In her 2011 autobiography, From This Moment On, she describes moving to Toronto for college at 18, and hitting the city’s gay bars with a “flamboyant guy from Trinidad named Sheriff.” In her late teens, Twain was “back-combing [her] hair until it was too big and all spiky,” and building a steady catalog of makeup tips from local queens. “I marveled at how artistic and glamorous some of the men were,” she writes. “They looked so gorgeous, with features that had been defined and exaggerated with blushes, liners, shadows and accessories.”

Week after week, Twain saw these queens creating larger-than-life, immaculate portrayals of womanhood, and wearing them with campy, charismatic flair. Twain was hooked — so much so that, according to the book, her “fascination with men transforming themselves into beautiful women likely sowed the seed of inspiration” for “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!”

Twain doubled down on these “seeds of inspiration” with a gloriously camp video, a gender-swapped twist on Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love.” “Let’s go, girls,” she says in the song’s classic opening line, a gleam in her eyes as she tilts her top hat. Over the course of four magical minutes, she transforms from a Victorian-inspired daddy dom, with a full-length tailcoat and leather gloves, into a corseted, 1990s sex kitten.

The video cemented her reputation as a bona-fide camp queen, and queer folks took notice. “I was turned gay by Shania’s music videos,” says 27-year-old Hank McAnallen, who first stumbled across the video as a kid. “The video is entirely gay from start to finish,” they say. “How did she find the most painfully dull, beautiful men to sway gently while pretending to play instruments? The tiny veil is drag, the hair reveal is drag, the thigh-high boots were a reference to Johnny Cash doing drag, for me at least. She’s styled in such a sharp, aggressive way in contrast to the soft, wavy hair and natural makeup of country music videos that it feels intentionally shocking to viewers. It 10 out of 10 made me gay.”

So, it’s been established: The video is gayer than a masc4masc orgy in a darkroom (no, not the photography kind) with poppers aplenty and a RuPaul soundtrack. But what about the lyrics?

Basically, they’re cringe. Brilliantly cringe. They’re so cringe that they are, in fact, genius. At surface level, they’re a straightforward feminist statement that make some extremely basic assertions about what it means to “be a woman.” Apparently, “the best thing about being a woman is the prerogative to have a little fun.” Better still, you too can “feel like a woman” with the classic sartorial combination of “short skirts, men’s shirts, whoa-oh-oh!

These standout lines are punchy and obviously tongue-in-cheek, and the feminist thesis of the song is simple: Feeling like a woman means whatever you want it to mean. It’s the freedom to assert your womanhood however you like. 

It was in 1949 that French feminist theorist Simone de Beauvoir wrote: “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.” It was a foundational statement, which paved the way for today’s understanding that “womanhood” is culturally constructed. Basically, it’s a series of visual and behavioral signifiers rather than something innate. To be read as a “woman” by society at large means performing an identity. In the case of Twain’s beloved drag queens, it means performing that identity so convincingly that you then get to rip off the mask. To do so means to expose the myth that gender is fixed as opposed to fluid.

In 2019, Twain spoke about the song representing her realization that she could “really have fun being a woman” once she let go of the bullshit stereotypes and started defining her womanhood on her own terms. “I didn’t realize it would have so much impact on others, and that so many other people related to this,” she said.

“The first time I started really paying attention to the lyrics was around the time I first started doubting my birth gender,” explains Jordan Hoffsteter, a 26-year-old writer and marketing exec who describes herself as a “proud trans woman.” “This song is about a woman being who she wants, doing what she wants and just having fun. That tickled my pre-transition brain more than I think I would have liked to admit at the time, and it just grew into a greater appreciation of how much fun the song was.”

Here, it’s worth noting that trans women are often held to higher standards of femininity than the vast majority of cis women. As a result, many have proudly claimed the song as their own. YouTuber Natalie Wynn, who creates in-depth video essays under the name ContraPoints, is exemplary. One of her best-known catchphrases is “Man! I Feel… Like Shit,” delivered deadpan as the song’s opening riff blares in the background.

In a video on so-called “Gender-Critical Feminists” — also known as TERFs, or Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists — Wynn talks about the fact that plenty of TERFs reduce womanhood to pregnancy, reproductive rights and biological sexism, in order to exclude trans women. “Not all women experience their womanhood as essentially oppressive or centered around the pains of reproductive capacity,” she says. “When Shania Twain sang ‘Man! I Feel Like A Woman!,’ she wasn’t talking about having a coat-hanger abortion in the bathroom of a Greyhound station in Chattanooga. Man, I feel like shit.”

It’s easy to write something of an academic shitpost describing Shania Twain as an anti-essentialist queen and an unintentionally queer icon — don’t worry, I’ll spare you — but the fact is that queer people often have to grasp at representation where there is none. “The song does still have this hold on us,” explains MacDonald. “We’re often making quite cheeky references to it, and we definitely don’t take it too seriously. But there is a sort of tiny, serious message in the campy, joyous nature of the song.”

We don’t know too much about the song’s actual creation process, but what we do know is that Shania loved the wordplay of “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” and built the song around it. In her autobiography, she describes hearing the opening riff for the first time and immediately knowing she had a hit on her hands.

As for her long-term creative partner Mutt Lange, who’s credited alongside Twain as the hit song’s writer, his thoughts on the track are unknown. It’s pretty wild to think that Lange, a rootin’ tootin’, ostensibly cishet country rocker, played such a huge role in crafting such a timeless queer anthem, especially in the 1990s. The exact extent of his input in the song is unknown; in fact, he’s one of the most reclusive men in the history of music. Few writers know this better than Christopher Noxon, an author, journalist and artist who made it his mission to track down Lange more than 20 years ago. “He’s the rarest of the game, a guy who NEVER talks to the press,” Noxon writes via email. “I was a young, eager investigative arts writer and I craved a challenge. With enough digging and perseverance, I was sure I would be the one to succeed where so many reporters had failed. Ha! A good early lesson in journalism (and life): People don’t have to talk to you if they don’t want to.”

Noxon’s fascination with Lange was sparked by the “diversity and singularity of his talent.” His turbulent relationship with Twain is the stuff of country-pop legend, but Lange had honed his skills long before meeting Twain. According to Noxon, “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” is “quintessential Mutt — direct, cheerful, naughty, apparently dumb but maybe smart?” Lyrics about “coloring hair” and “doing what you dare” don’t exactly scream genius, but they’re packaged in what Noxon describes as a “hooky, bright, steering wheel-tapping radio single about feeling hot and horny and rarin’ for a good time.” The results are “subversive and maybe even prescient in the way it handles gender,” to the extent that Noxon believes it “expanded and even exploded gender expectations.”

Twenty-five years later, the song holds up. It’s a beloved queer playlist staple, but it also marks a landmark moment in the history of country-pop. After all, it’s not exactly known as a queer-friendly genre, given its reliance on “conservative family values” motifs. Just a few months ago, Out Voices Nashville published an article that asked: “Is country music irretrievably homophobic?” Industry figures gave mixed answers, but there’s a growing body of evidence to suggest it might not be. The likes of Kacey Musgraves and Carrie Underwood are vocal in their support of queer communities. Orville Peck has earned a cult following as a subversive “queer cowboy,” whereas Lil Nas X added his own flair to “Old Town Road” and earned a coveted co-sign from Billy Ray Cyrus, catapulting himself to gay country stardom in the process. It’s not too much of a stretch, then, to argue that Twain’s camp classic paved the way for this more open-minded country music industry, at least in some small way.

There have been some blips along the way, though. In 2018, Twain said she would have voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election if she lived in America. After backlash from her queer fans, she backtracked. It’s not surprising; YouTube is packed with drag tributes to Twain, and it’s not gone unnoticed that “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” has become somewhat of a community anthem. “People relate to it whether they’re men, women or trans,” she said in 2019. “On a lot of different levels, everyone has their own fun with the song, and it means something to them in their own gender.”

As for MacDonald, her glorious coming-out karaoke moment is seemingly one of her most joyous memories. “I think you need to have this sort of lighthearted attitude toward your own identity,” she explains. “Our identities exist in the face of significant adversity, particularly when it comes to trans health care, transphobia and queerphobia. Being able to laugh at the more lighthearted parts of your queer identity can balance out the torrent of negativity, in quite a healthy way.”

In MacDonald’s eyes, the trans embrace of Twain’s mega-hit will withstand the test of time. “It’s only a matter of time before someone writes a coming-out post with ‘Man! I Feel Like A Woman!’ as the title,” she says. “I’m absolutely sure of it.”