I don’t intentionally go to many drag shows. Not as a political or even personal decision — in fact, it’s not really something I’ve thought about all that much. I suppose that form of entertainment simply has never interested me. That said, it’s been around for so many years that these performances are practically mainstream — many a documentary has been made about drag culture and drag queens and drag performances are often a part of gay/queer nights, fundraisers, and other events. It’s pretty impossible to have missed drag. But because it isn’t very much a part of my world, I think it’s escaped my radar in terms of a feminist analysis.
The other night I was at a bar for a gay night and a portion of the evening featured drag queens. As I watched, I was struck by how accepted drag is by liberals and progressives — people who will, without a second thought, call out things like blackface and yellowface, which are understood by most (frustratingly there are some who continue to need education on why blackface isn’t funny or ok) to be racist.
Why is drag any different? Really, I’m asking. It’s possible I’m missing something here…
To me it seems equivalent to cultural appropriation or the way in which white people have mocked black people, Asian people, Indigenous people, and pretty much every other race/ethnicity that isn’t theirs, under the guise of “performance” or “satire.” Why is it cute or funny or entertaining for men to mock women via drag? Why is it not considered to be a form of cultural appropriation, but with regard to gender? Why have progressives and mainstream feminists avoided critique of these performances, in large part?
I imagine that the defense of drag would include arguments that say this performance of femininity is so exaggerated that it doesn’t mock women so much as it mocks a cartoonish version of extreme femininity, but I’m unconvinced that turning women into extreme, cartoonish charicatures that are to be mocked is particularly progressive — rather, it feels regressive to me. There must be a reason women don’t do this to men — turning masculinity into entertainment or a joke, that is.
Why is it funny for men to dress up as women and not for women to dress up as men? There’s something about this performance that says that femininity and, in turn, women, are a joke (just like white people dressing up as “Indians” for Halloween turn Indigenous peoples and cultures into a joke or simply a costume one can put on or take off at will). If only being a woman was simply a costume one could take off…
Last year, a drag queen named Daytona Bitch was fired from a Toronto Pride event for a blackface performance in which, as Laura Kane reports, “she dressed up as Miss Cleo, a kitschy telephone psychic from the late ‘90s, complete with black face paint.”
“After tweeting photos of the costume, she received several outraged responses on social media from members of the LGBTQ community.” And rightly so. But where is the LGBTQ community on drag? Why is it understood that the appropriation of a marginalized ethnicity, race or culture is facilitated by white privilege and that it’s offensive, but not that the same arguments could be applied to a group of men (who benefit from male privilege) who appropriate femininity as a form of entertainment?
In a 2006 paper, entitled “Imitating Others As Control: Is Drag Sexist/Racist?” Kirsten Anderberg writes:
“When men dress in drag and supposedly imitate women, it is most often very sexist in a remarkably similar way to the whites imitating racial minorities… All the things I have shunned as part of the ancient ‘cult of womanhood,’ all the superficial, commercialized, and fake aspects of ‘femininity’ that I have fought to be freed from, these men were embracing as their ‘womanhood!’ Tons of make up, huge dyed bouffant hair-dos, binding lingerie, heels, nylons, shaving…and these men in drag who were supposedly acting like women, also acted giddy, stupid, shallow…it is odd to me that this could be seen as anything but blatant sexism.”
While there have been the odd critique here and there, I’ve seen little from mainstream feminism or from the LGTBQ community about the sexism of drag. In a post from back in 2011 called “Is drag sexist,” Kelly Kleiman asks: “Why do we despise performance in blackface and celebrate performance in drag? Is blackface considered an insult and drag a joke because of some inherent difference between them, or because African-Americans won’t tolerate ridicule while the women’s movement is still trying to prove we have a sense of humor?”
And I can’t help but wonder the same thing. Feminists are routinely accused of being “no fun,” having no sense of humour, and generally hating everything. We try very hard, as women, to be “in on the joke.” We pretend to like porn, join in on rape chants, laugh at rape jokes, and self-objectify, claiming that we like and feel empowered by our own oppression — we’re owning it, and therefore it’s ok. Wishful postfeminism, I’d call it.
Kleiman writes: “There was ridicule of African-Americans. ‘Look how silly they are! But look how they laugh, and doesn’t that prove they’re happy in the confinement in which we’ve placed them?’ Likewise, men who dress up as women and adopt stereotyped feminine behaviors are comical because of their stereotyped behavior, and the inference the audience is encouraged to draw is not that stereotypes are comical but that women are.”
Beyond that, it feels as though drag queens are given free reign to insult women and adopt over-the-top sexist language (bitch, ho, etc.) and objectified depictions of women in ways that women don’t even get away with, within a feminist context.
After watching a documentary about the famous drag queen, Divine, Julie Bindel wrote: “He played, according to his manager, female characters who were ‘trash’, ‘filth’ and ‘obscenity in bucket loads.’ But Divine was born into a conservative, middle-class family and played on nasty stereotypes of trailer trash women to get a laugh. In his films Divine called his female co-stars ‘sluts.'”
So a privileged male is permitted to mock women and use sexist, derogatory language because, what? “Performance art?” “Humour?” Help me out here…
To be clear, I don’t think that drag queens are all intentionally working to subordinate women (but who knows, I’ve never asked any), nor do I think your enjoyment of drag performances (if you do indeed enjoy them) make you a necessarily Bad and Wrong, misogynist person. But I do think that the unwillingness of the LGTBQ community and mainstream feminism to talk about drag as something that is no more acceptable than any other kind of cultural appropriation or than white people’s efforts to turn ethnicity and race into a stereotype and a joke, is significant.
After Daytona Bitch was fired, Toronto Prides’ executive director Kevin Beaulieu said about the performance: “It doesn’t meet our mission or our mandate, which is to celebrate the full diversity of Toronto’s LGBTQ community.” The statement begs the question: where are women in that “celebration” of “diversity?” Do we matter at all? Or are we just a joke?