I once took a women’s studies course in university called “Introduction to Gender Theory”, or something like that. Oh my god, I was in heaven. For me, it was like going to church and singing, “Hallelujah! I have reached the Promised Land, and it is full of all sorts of delicious fucking freaks.” The course was basically an introduction to, well, gender theory, but from a poststructuralist perspective. That basically means when you look at identities and what makes people who they are in a critical, sceptical light. Anyway, at one point in the course handbook the professor discussed drag and explained how some people see drag as reinforcing gender stereotypes by embodying what they think women should be, which is traditionally feminine. The flip-side of this argument, however, is that drag queens are actually challenging gender stereotypes by mocking traditional feminine expectations placed on women.
The latter argument makes more sense to me, and here’s why. Drag is an incredibly complex form of art. It sends out so many messages at once that it is easy for the untrained eye to miss the ultimate point. It is so sophisticated, so full of so many layers of meaning, and so wrought with irony that it is almost too difficult to distil its essence in words. You can’t simply say, “Oh, it’s a man with fake boobs and high-heels, so he must be saying, ‘This is what women are like'”. That kind of answer is just too pat, and it’s an intellectual cop-out. Drag deserves a more nuanced explanation. When men do drag, they do so with a subversive goal in mind: to satirise the crass feminisation of women.
OK, so there are many different types of drag, and each has a unique purpose, but I believe the one I described above is probably the commonest or most salient of them all. And while most drag queens might not be able to articulate what I have just stated, I think they’d probably agree. For them, it is a highly instinctive and subconscious act. It usually is with artists.
To illustrate my point, let’s take a look at drag queen Tammie Brown (who I believe was a contestant in the reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race). Do you really think she is saying, “This is what women should be like”? She looks like a cross between Tammy Faye Messner and Faye Dunaway’s version of Joan Crawford, for goodness’ sake. Tammie Brown’s art is so absurd that you cannot seriously think she is saying that women should have 1940s hairstyles, Joan Crawford lips, skin the consistency of puddy, and eyebrows in the middle of their foreheads. It’s satire. Drag queens are not stupid; they are socially savvy, culturally perceptive, and very streetsmart. I haven’t met an autistic drag queen yet (although that would be fucking awesome). What drag queens like Tammie Brown are doing is creating an over-the-top caricature of feminine standards of beauty placed on women. By embodying a cartoonish femininity, they are saying at least two things: “The feminine expectations placed on women are so aburd as to merit the sharpest satire” and “As a man, I will relieve women of this ridiculous ‘duty’ by placing it on my own shoulders”. Drag queens—at least the highly abstract and conceptual ones like Tammie Brown and Raja—are all about confusing people with regard to what men and women should be and do, and they achieve this by transferring traditional responsibilities from one sex to the other.
Sometimes, the drag community’s mockery of sexism is accompanied by a mockery of racism, too. This is a delicate subject, and it deserves the utmost sensitivity, but I do think some forms of racial drag actually satirise racism. Consider Shirley Q. Liquor, a.k.a. Charles Knipp, a white man from the American south who dons blackface in drag. Now, she’s controversial. She’s been on CNN, and leaders in the black community have vilified her as racist, but other black people have defended her in praise of her mockery of racism. One of these is RuPaul, who included Shirley on her album RuPaul RED HOT. In RuPaul’s own words, “[c]ritics who think that Shirley Q. Liquor is offensive are idiots. Listen, I’ve been discriminated against by everybody in the world: gay people, black people, whatever. I know discrimination, I know racism, I know it very intimately. She’s not racist, and if she were, she wouldn’t be on my new CD”. Now, just as one woman cannot speak for all women, one black person cannot speak for all black people, but it helps to know that some black people see a certain satire in Shirley Q. Liquor’s art. And I think RuPaul sees the sweet irony in Shirley Q. Liquor’s absurdist blackface. From my perspective (and please correct me if I am misguided), Knipps mocks racism by donning blackface and showing how absurd racial stereotypes are. And when it isn’t clear that he is mocking racial stereotypes, I sort of think he is expressing a deeply human affection for the quirks he recognises in the black women he knew growing up. That said, I highly recommend against doing blackface unless you are absolutely certain of the purpose and context of your art and you have support by a sizeable contingent of the black community, and if you fail to heed this warning and proceed to do blackface in a messy, thoughtless way, you are probably an ignorant fool.
Just in case some of you still think Charles Knipps is racist, let me share with you a horribly beautiful video of him impersonating Barb, the stereotypical “narthern” Great Lakes housewife with an obnoxiously twangy, vowel-fronted North-Central American English accent:
I know. Now he’s doing drag in whiteface. So that’s just in case you think his racial drag is mere racism, and not an ironic mockery of racism. Now, we might be able to say, “Oh, look. He’s racist toward white people, too.” But I don’t think we have to say that he’s racist toward anyone. In every face he does, he is mocking some stereotype or another by exposing its absurdity as plainly as possible. It’s hard to take patent bullshit seriously.
Drag queens are inscrutable creatures; they create a disturbingly comical image of beauty, challenging our assumptions about what is pretty, who should be pretty, and why. The simple-minded philistines among us, with their intolerance for irony, will view drag queens as horribly sexist, racist monsters, but those of us with a capacity to think critically and apprehend the intent behind the art will think the exact opposite—they will view drag queens as highly perceptive cultural critics of sexual and racial stereotypes, as people who have been to hell and back and have something to say in defense of the underdog. The purpose of drag is to mock feminine expectations placed on women, it is to toy with our cherished notions about who can be feminine—women, or men?—and it is to defuse racist stereotypes through crass caricature. At the same time, though, drag queens seem to exult in a certain bizarre, twisted, exaggerated beauty in the very femininity they satirise, perhaps because they value it for its own sake regardless of which gender is performing it. You can have crazy eyebrows or an overdrawn lipline whether you’re male or female. It’s all supposed to be messy, but it’s beautiful nonetheless. At any rate, drag challenges our deepest assumptions about who we are, who we should be, and who we can be, and this is an invaluable tool for deepening and enriching our understanding of what it means to be human.