Mockery or Reverence: The Responsibilities of Drag

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By Kenneth Jarvis

Introduction

Drag has been creeping into mainstream consciousness since the release of Paris is Burning in 1991, the seminal documentary following the ball culture of the late 1980s. This familiarity has reached a new level with the success of RuPaul’s Drag Race, introducing a new generation to contemporary drag culture and its current top stars, including Alaska Thunderfuck, Willam Belli, Sharon Needles, Latrice Royale, as well as reintroducing RuPaul into American popular culture. While the show has mainly been shown in the United States, it has a worldwide fan base and has proven an influence on LGBT communities everywhere, representing a global drag culture.

While the growing influence of drag culture has received mostly positive reception, there is the question of what it means for men to dress as women for entertainment. For many drag queens, their performance is reverent to womanhood as well as challenging social gender constructions, but for some women drag is offensive mockery. There is also the question of whether drag queens as performers of womanhood should help advance the state of feminism, and the question where to put the boundaries between offensive and comedy. It is possible that because under the drag many of these queens are biologically men they are manipulating their male privilege in being able to use womanhood to comedic effect, but then cross back into their privileged position as men.

To collect different views on this matter, I interviewed Dutch drag queen Diva May Day, 25-year-old British artist and gender academic Benjamin Britworth, and my friend Luci, a 21-year old Australian currently studying in Amsterdam. May Day has been referred to as the “Dutch RuPaul” due to her dominance in the Dutch drag scene. She is the most recognized contemporary Dutch drag queen internationally and is well respected by her peers. I met May Day at Amsterdam’s The Queen’s Head bar during their weekly Drag Bingo event. Benjamin can be considered representative of the main audience of drag fans as well as demographically representative of the crowds I have seen in drag bars. While the Queen’s Head’s crowd mostly consists of older men, the majority of bars where drag performances take place cater to white, gay men between the ages of 21 and 50. Finally, Luci has been exposed to drag culture for the past two years through her boyfriend and friends who like to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race and attend drag performances. Unlike May Day and Benjamin, she feels opposed to aspects of drag culture that she interprets as disparaging to women. With each I discussed the ways in which drag can challenge, as well as reinforce, gender stereotypes.

The Queen’s Head served as the main location for my research in Amsterdam, though I also attended a variety of drag events at other clubs in Amsterdam. Located in the Red Light District, Queen’s Head has existed in Amsterdam for almost two decades, claiming to be one of the oldest gay bars in Amsterdam. Each Tuesday evening for seven weeks, I attended the Drag Bingo night. The Queen’s Head caters to a majority of older men, many of whom are Dutch regulars, mixed in with foreign visitors. Due to this mixed crowd the bingo is always announced in both English and Dutch, unless there is a large group from another country, in which case the hosting drag queen attempts to sing in their language from the mirror-walled stage. Exempting the stage, Queen’s Head has standard décor with mostly wood paneling on the bar and floor as well as the compulsory disco ball. At the back are tables that are often reserved by groups of regulars during the bingo night.

The Rise of Drag in Popular Culture

In order to make sense of drag’s relationship with women as its influence spreads, it is important to make sense of the origins of drag. Contemporary drag is based in the ball culture documented in Paris is Burning as well as the nightlife of the late 80s of which the most heavily documented is the club kids. For the American drag scene these touchstones inform RuPaul’s Drag Race as well as drag performance culture. Amsterdam had its own version of this movement based around legendary clubs iT and RoXY, both of which had striking similarities to New York’s Studio 54. To understand how drag affects its audience, especially women, it is important to note the origins of this style performance and its evolution.

Club culture has played a huge part in the forming of present-day LGBT culture with Studio 54 being the most influential. Founded in 1977 by Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, Studio 54, located in central Manhattan, quickly became well known among New York’s elite. Stars such as Diana Ross, Grace Jones, and Andy Warhol were known for frequenting the club among many other well-known icons. In addition to becoming a haven for celebrities, the club built a reputation as an accepting space filled with a revolving door of eclectic personalities. According to Anthony Hadden-Guest, a British writer who reported on Studio 54 during its existence, Rubell would get a feeling for who should be in the club on a given night. This would range from “straight-looking Harvard kids, but then they’d also want a bunch of drag queens or whatever” (Dowd 2012).

Due to the social activism of the time surrounding feminism, LGBT, and various ethnic groups there was a level of freedom and lack of stigmatization that club goers felt at Studio 54. The club had a reputation as a sexually liberated space filled with drugs and debauchery, which Haden-Guest says was overblown, but he agrees that Studio 54 was a unique space for expression in its time. Due to the legal troubles of Rubell and Schrager the club closed in 1980; it was revived after their release from jail, but Rubell’s death in 1989 sealed the club’s fate. Although the club closed down, its influence can be traced into two movements that came directly after, ball culture and the club kids.

Female impersonation has a long history of use for performance, but was introduced to the American mainstream through Paris is Burning and the ball culture of the 80s. Paris is Burning focused on drag queens and the black and Latino LGBT community of New York in the late 1980s. The film broke down elements of drag performance, such as categories, as well as explaining terms such as “houses”, “shade”, “realness”, and others, which still pervade present-day culture. Within Paris is Burning, ball culture is shown as a way to practice being a member of a higher class. The categories section of the ball is different types of impersonations, not only female impersonation. An example would be “business man realness”, where gay men or women would be judged on their ability to pass as a straight business executive. When impersonating women, it was with the hope of being able to acquire the ability to pass in life outside of the ball and gain access to the privileges of being a white woman, privileges which the black LGBT community felt they were being denied. To support each other families, referred to as “houses”, were created and led by “drag mothers” where an experienced ball goer would teach others how to become better at these various performances. These houses would often be the closest things that these youths had to families as many times these youths were homeless.

In 1992, a year after Paris is Burning was released, prominent African-American feminist bell hooks wrote about the film in her book Black looks: race and representation. According to hooks, the stereotype of black men being viewed as hypersexual beings allowed for them to “cross this gendered binary more easily than white men without fear of possibly being seen as gay or transvestites” (1992: 146). To hooks, black men were feeling denied their patriarchal birth right as men, so in order to subvert their race and gain a level of power they traded in their masculinity for femininity. Initially, this seems counterintuitive, but hooks’ claims that this gender trade is not only based in gaining femininity, but is about attaining white femininity allowing a level of power these men were denied due to being black. Within the hierarchical structure hooks lays out whiteness provides a person with the most power even though femininity is less than manhood. For hooks intersectionality politics leaves black women feels oppressed and mocked when black men are able to take on “white femininity” and move up social hierarchies.

Concurrent with New York ball culture, club kids, led by James St. James and Michael Alig, were reclaiming downtown New York after the passing of Andy Warhol and the demise of Studio 54. The founding of Disco 2000 by Alig encouraged club goers to wear glittery, outrageous outfits with outlandish makeup marked the creation of the club kid movement. If the ball culture movement was about taking on another identity, the club kid movement wanted to reject current identity replacing it with their own creations. A notable aspect of this movement is that many of their icons were white, possibly allowing for this subversion compared to the mostly black ball culture movement. Following a similar trajectory to Studio 54, the club kids gained more notoriety over time, with its icons Alig, James, Amanda Lepore, and Superstar DJ Keoki, among others, appearing on The Joan Rivers Show and The Phil Donahue Show. The club kid movement continued to rise in fame until the murder of drug dealer and club kid Angel Melendez by Alig in 1996, subsequently leading to his arrest and the end of the club kid movement.

Involved in all of these movements is the current queen of drag, RuPaul. During all of these movements, RuPaul lived in New York and was a patron on Studio 54 as well as partying alongside the club kids and the ball goers. RuPaul did not begin to break out as a national star until getting signed to Tommy Boy Records in 1991 and the release of her debut album Supermodel of the World kcmwjh6x5dwxin 1993, featuring the hit track “Supermodel (You Better Work)”. RuPaul used the momentum from her music career to begin appearing in films and rise to being a leader in the United States gay movement, leading marches against the Ku Klux Klan in drag (Lifetime).

In 1996, RuPaul was able to land a deal with MTV to have her own talk show, The RuPaul Show. The show ran until 1998, interviewing icons such as Cher, Duran Duran, and Olivia Newton-John.  After the show ended, RuPaul continued releasing albums, founding her own record label in 2004, RuCo Inc, through which she still releases albums as well as appearing in films. In 2008, through a deal with LGBT focused channel, Logo TV, RuPaul was able to air the first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Since the first season, there has been at least one season of the show per year, with season five in 2013 recording the highest rated premier in Logo’s network history (TV By The Numbers 2013).

Contemporary Criticism

As RuPaul’s Drag Race has risen in fame, drag has been brought to a wider audience than it has historically. While much of the reaction has been positive there has been criticism about how the show, and cis-gender men performing in drag reinforces harmful stereotypes of womanhood and femininity. As shown by bell hooks and her criticism of ball culture, this is not a new argument, but as drag reaches new levels of mainstream exposure these questions do become more pressing.

In 2014, in the midst of season six of Drag Race, writer Ashley Clarke published an article for Huffington Post U.K. titled “The Problem with Feminism in RuPaul’s Drag Race”. In this piece Clarke made clear her affection for the show stating that we could “all learn a thing or five from a drag queen”, referencing their confidence, wit, and fabulousness as positives. What Clarke did take issue with is the offensive terminology “serving fish”, referring to when a cis-gender drag queen is able to pass as a biological woman due to their feminine appearance.

Clarke’s argument against “fish” is that the term also refers to an unwashed vagina that smells like fish due to bad hygiene. Clarke equates the disdain the gay community has for use of the word “gay” being slang for an event or thing being “stupid” with women not liking the term “fish” because it is inconsiderate of the possibly offended groups’ feelings. Is the term “fish” misogynistic because of this disregard for the possible offense it could cause women? For Clarke, the answer is yes, but still she excuses drag because she believes that it is impossible for anything that plays for gender to not be problematic. Clarke concludes that it is not drag’s job to properly represent femininity, but calls for the removal of “serving fish” from drag terminology.

By accepting that anything that plays with gender will be problematic, Clarke subdues the affect of her call for change, which is interesting because she is not the only person who views drag as problematic. Magazine Dazed & Confused published an interview with RuPaul’s Drag Race stars Sharon Needles and Alaska Thunderfuck in 2015, in which they question if drag queens are doing enough for women’s rights. The basis of this question is that drag queens are using femininity and womanhood to further their careers, but often are not giving anything to women and insist on using terminology, like “serving fish”, which women may find offensive.

Another important aspect is the fact that drag queens—excluding women who perform as drag queens—are able to leave their female performance and cross back into the privileges of masculinity. This idea is supported in the article “When Sissy Boys Become Mainstream”, in which Shiau and Chen pose that “hegemonic masculinity is seen as the dominant style of masculine performance in traditional Western societies” (2009: 58). Within the gay community, masculinity and the ability to appear heterosexual is valued over femininity, with the only exception being drag queens. These queens use femininity as for performance and comedy, but then nothing else, hinting at the possibility of traditional hierarchical structures of masculinity being more valuable than femininity.

A question that looms over this debate is the importance of intent. In their Dazed & Confused interview, when asked about the idea that the drag scene is often criticized for appearing misogynistic, Needles acknowledged that she understood how it could be perceived in that manner. Even so, Needles claims that drag queens do not intend to be misogynistic, implying that it is not their responsibility to change their action to reduce that perception. Similarly, when asked if terminology such as “fishy” needed to be removed from their vernacular, the response was dismissive with Needles saying, “our culture is ours, and it’s complicated, let’s fix the shit around us before turning on our phonetics” (Segalov 2015).

The question of intent is not new with performers, especially comedians, asking when and if they should take the audience offense seriously. In her article, Clarke asserts that it is not necessary to “dismantle drag culture and reprimand queens guilty of saying ‘hunty’ and ‘fishy’ as vile misogynists of the patriarchal agenda”, but it is necessary to respect women. The core of the argument against drag does not have the goal of destroying the culture, but instead of reforming it in a way that is not hurtful to women. With the argument of intent, there appears to be an element of dismissiveness that perpetuates the hurt that critics like Clarke are indicating. From this perspective, it is the responsibility of the drag queens to challenge the status quo of drag culture and make the intent of their performance clear, either as challenging gender roles or mocking women.

My interview with Luci echoes many of the negative sentiments that I have encountered in my online searches. When asked why she finds drag offensive Luci responded, “too often it’s this sense of carelessness that doesn’t respect the politics that surround womanhood and what it means in society and what power imbalances still exist for women”.  For Luci and others, including Clarke, the idea that women and others who are offended by drag should be able to take a joke “reeks of male privilege”. It is important for Luci that drag queens take responsibility for their representations of womanhood and take seriously the criticisms that are being targeted at them.

During our interview, Luci made it clear that she distinguishes between drag’s use of femininity and their representations of womanhood. According to Luci, “men can use, or embody, femininity naturally as much as women – but drag personas are representations of women, not just femininity”. Luci’s concepts are similar to an idea Judith Butler presented in her 1990 book Gender Trouble. For Butler, the idea has been instilled in culture that there are  “asymmetrical oppositions between ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine,’ where they are understood to be expressive attributes of ‘male’ and ‘female’” (1990: 17). According to Butler, this perceived link between femininity and masculinity to biological sex perpetuates heterosexual hierarchies with masculine men being the most valuable, while women are expected to have feminine traits or they will be deemed as deviant. For Luci and Butler this societal hierarchy is socially constructed, supported by Luci’s claim that femininity and masculinity are not owned by specific biological sexes, but can be embodied by either sex. The issue that Luci takes with drag is that it is representing women and instead of using its influence to subvert the gender hierarchy, reckless performance reinforces it.

A Dutch Drag Queen’s Perspective

Up to this point much of the focus has been on American drag culture. This is because American drag culture has influenced and shaped much of contemporary drag culture, with many queens aspiring to transition into American drag, in hopes of becoming international superstars. The bar I frequented for my research, Queen’s Head, maintains many of the same aspects of American drag bars, such as its bingo night. It was at this bar that I met my first interview subject, Diva May Day.

As described earlier the bar is generally unremarkable in style, but the first night that I went the club was packed with people, partially due to the large group I came with. There were about twenty of us, eighteen of whom were American and the others Dutch. The theme of the evening was international night, with the host, Coby van Dam focusing on Italy due to group of Italians reserving a table at the bar. Coby is a cis-gender female who performs as a drag queen, an anomaly within both the Dutch and international drag scenes. Prior to her arrival, both of the Dutch men warned that Coby’s performance is risqué, often referencing her vagina, dildos, and flirting with patrons. They had requested her performance be toned down for us, but were not liable for anything that might be said.

The night went off without a hitch. Coby stood on the stage and told all of the jokes she wanted to, taking time to explain to me personally that at the age of 18 it is acceptable if I go to a brothel in the Netherlands, information that I thanked her for. At the end of the show, I was able to chat with Coby who introduced me to May Day. For the final hour of the show May Day, out of drag, had been observing the bingo, as she was a fan of Coby’s, while Coby explained to me that May Day was the best drag queen in The Netherlands. It was at this point that I asked May Day if she would be interested in being interviewed for my project.

The following week May Day and I sat down for our official interview. It was at a café that had just opened which May Day chose in hopes in “supporting new local businesses”. Due to my love of drag culture and her experience within the industry much of our initial chatting was about which queens we liked or thought were going to become popular. May Day’s delivery of her opinions is very direct, not holding back with her praise (“oh that’s gorgeous”) or criticism (“she is just ugly, she can’t help it”). I was not getting a persona when speaking to May Day, but was actually hearing her thoughts unfiltered. The drag world is so much about persona that it was refreshing to see a person behind the makeup.

At this point in her career May Day has reached the top of Amsterdam’s drag scene having been a performer for over two decades. I asked May Day to compare the drag scene from the 90s to now, which ended up sounding eerily similar to that of the American drag scene. When asked her age, May Day dodged the question, but according to her Facebook she is 23, yet she references beginning drag as a 21-year-old during the mid-90s. During the 90s there were two major clubs that had drag performances, iT and RoXY. Both have closed now, but from May Day’s perspective they served as Dutch equivalents to Studio 54 in America. During these times it was not only the performers that would dress up, but the crowds would also dress and get involved with the scene. Now club goers are much more passive, waiting for the drag queens to get up and entertain them.

Comparatively, Amsterdam now has a very small drag scene with only Amstel 54 and Taboo being places where queens can “actually make money”. It is increasingly becoming difficult for queens to make a living off performing, and according to May Day many new queens become discouraged and quit after a few months. There are some that do not get discouraged because according to May Day “when you are in drag you get attention” which many of the girls live for, but it is still not lucrative unless you are one of the very best within the scene.

It is this attitude that made me not surprised to be brushed off when asking about her opinion about women who are offended by drag. May Day raised her hand and made a dismissive gesture only saying, “it’s a joke, get over it”. Much of May Day’s philosophy about drag in its relation to the world follows this pathos. In her view people take entertainment too seriously and need to “laugh more because not everything is meant seriously”. This is a common response, quite reminiscent of Sharon Needles’s view.

I specifically asked May Day about Needles as May Day had previously told me that they were friends, saying how the idea that people should just laugh off offensive jokes seems like a privilege only afforded to drag queens. May Day agreed saying that she has made jokes about Anne Frank and other risqué topics, but that everything is based on “how you say it and who says it”. For an example, May Day brought up the controversial Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas and Black Piet, which has been under fire for being racist due to the inclusion of black face. May Day, while she understands how it can be offensive, believes that “you learn history and then learn what is right and wrong”.

While the Black Piet conversation was an aside it is indicative of how May Day views people who are offended by performances. According to May Day there are more important things to be discussed and to be focused on “small things” that are well intended is to be fighting the wrong things. This is only more obvious to her when people are attacking drag queens as misogynistic when their goal is to be entertainers and bring joy to people. There has to be a limit drawn for offense, which for May Day appears to be at the intention of the work. At the end of the day, she feels that drag performers are “here for [the audience], not [the audience] for us” and if audiences expressed a real desire for change within the scene it would be possible.

Drag Audiences

Most drag performances I have attended are mainly populated by white, LGBT men from the people working the events to the audience members. This has not varied within any of the gay clubs I have been to within Europe or America; therefore it is important to know the opinion of these men, as they are still the main target audience. For this perspective I came to my friend, gender academic Benjamin Britworth. Ben is a gay white male in his mid-twenties, representative of the main audiences of drag performance. Ben has been my neighbor for a few months and we have been friends bonding over a mutual love of art and drag performance. On multiple occasions Ben has performed in drag although he identifies those performances as art pieces, instead of drag performance.

Ben has me over for tea at his apartment where we discussed drag and it’s possibility of offending women. He is quick to note that “places where freedom of speech is valued, comedy should be able to make fun of everything”. For Ben, similar to May Day, even if you are offended it is important that people are allowed to express themselves without regulation or threat. The reason that threats came up is because in London he attended a performance that was deemed offensive to black people, even though it was a black British cast. This performance was shut down due to the cast fearing for their lives after they received multiple death threats. In Ben’s view “even if something is offensive, their freedom of speech should never be obstructed”.

An aspect of drag culture that Ben found fascinating was the idea that gay clubs are misogynistic due to door policies that exclude or discourage female patrons. Door policies have been a key part of club cultures for years. As Sarah Thornton writes in her book Club Cultures, they “ensure the semi-private nature of these public spaces by refusing admission to those ‘who do not belong’” (1995: 24). While this might seem harsh, door policy has played a key element in keeping LGBT spaces safe for their homosexual patrons. However, according to Ben, women are used to being accepted in all spaces and therefore feel angered by being denied, perceiving it as misogyny. Ben’s statement leaves the question of what it means when LGBT women are not being allowed into these spaces based on their womanhood. It is a slippery slope between protecting a space and having door policies that exclude a major part of the community, exposing the male focused nature of the gay club. At the same time, clubs replaced ball culture as the space in which LGBT persons are supposed to be able to be themselves. Gay clubs have so far been unable to be inclusive of all LGBT people, while excluding those that would reduce the safety of these spaces.

Ben believes that misinterpretation of the intentions of gay clubs and drag performance has led to the perceived misogyny that some women have perceived in drag. As drag is brought into the mainstream it is being exposed to people who are not a part of the LGBT community and lines are “being blurred too much by the mass consumption”. At this point Ben cites the J-curve theory, saying that when a community is first exposed to something new there is a period of backlash before they begin to understand what it actually is. Ben believes that drag is currently going through its backlash period, but once the mainstream becomes used to seeing drag, acceptance and understanding of the community will continue to increase until it is assimilated completely.

Conclusion: Beyond Performance

While the gay club is defending its ideal as a safe space for LGBT persons, it has become clear that it has failed in many ways. Women, regardless of their identification as an LGBT person, have been rejected from these spaces and are often accused of diluting the safety of these spaces. As stated earlier by Luci, this “reeks of male privilege”. If the concept of a gay club is that it is only for gay (and bisexual) men, then it is not a safe space for LGBT people, but only for LGBT men.

Recalling bell hooks, LGBT spaces are not for men in a general sense; there are also complications for men of color, who often have had to take on a more feminine presence in order to be accepted. This concept hurts gay clubs two-fold holding racial prejudices in addition to misogyny. This level of exclusion leads me to believe that these spaces are not intended for LGBT people, but only for the young, masculine, gay white men that already overpopulate the clubs, establishing a homosexual hierarchy, very similar to that of the heterosexual social hierarchies emphasized by Butler and hooks.

It is within these spaces that drag performances occur. While it is not drag’s responsibility to undo everything wrong with drag clubs, it is reasonable that women, as well as others excluded from the scene, would see drag performance within this context and believe that it holds the same exclusionary values. When these criticisms are raised, many drag performers tell women and others that they should take the joke, without acknowledging their power in the situation, which feels to the disenfranchised as antagonism.

Drag is a form of performance, taking the female form and using it to entertain as well as subvert the standard view of gender as connected to femininity or masculinity. When used responsibly it can be used to not only entertain, but to create greater understanding about the fluidity of gender and pay homage to the strength of women. At the same time, this power can become problematic, when drag unapologetically crosses the line from homage to mockery, reinforcing gender stereotypes. As drag moves onto the global stage, with shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, it is important that the performers understand their position as influencers for a new generation of youth. While drag performers may not intend to offend and have the freedom to perform however they desire, it should be considered how their performance affects those for which womanhood is not a performance.

References

Butler, Judith (1990). “Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire.” Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Clarke, Ashley (2015). The Problem With Feminism in RuPaul’s Drag Race. Huffington Post UK, 14 May 2014.

Dowd, Vincent (2015). Studio 54: ‘The Best Party of Your Life’. BBC News, 26 April 2012.

Hooks, Bell (1992). Is Paris Burning? In: Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston, MA: South End.

Segalov, Michael (2015). Are Drag Queens Doing Enough for Feminism? Dazed. 2 November 2015.

Shiau, Hong-chi & Chi-chien Chen (2009). When Sissy Boys Become Mainstream. International Journal of Social Inquiry (2009): 58.

Thornton, Sarah (1995). Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

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