We’ve all heard about them. Boldly going where few have gone before; glitzy, fabulous, eccentric, experimental and sometimes tacky, these over-the-top stage acts boast strong, notorious personalities. I’m talking, of course, about drag performers.
Consisting of a diverse community of singers, dancers, models and actors, the drag world offers a unique opportunity for people to express themselves creatively as an entirely different gender. Through simultaneous exaggeration and parody of reality, those who perform drag openly mock expectations of gender through purposefully distorting it. For many the drag experience is liberating. The results, while at times problematic, are often fabulous. Where I often find myself shaking my head is in the portrayals themselves.
First off, there is a disproportional amount of men in the business of drag. It’s not even so much the male domination of the field that bothers me, it’s that cisgender men have no idea what being a female-bodied person is like, and the result is often hyper-feminized, over-sexualized, unrealistic and borderline offensive portrayals of femininity. Admittedly, big hair, make-up and heels are a part of many women’s beauty regimen. However, the beauty standard set by drag queens in their definition of “womanhood” is nearly unattainable by most of society – drag queens included. Those who do not conform to the impossible beauty standard set by queens, by choice or otherwise, are often stigmatized and shunned from the community. This hierarchy of queens who pass as “female” and those who don’t also results in some problematic language usage that borders on flat-out transphobia.
It really doesn’t help that the dominant culture of drag appears to be a celebration of gay men successfully ‘passing’ as straight women. Drag queens who successfully measure up as “women” for a living can still take the wigs and dresses off to resume their place of privilege within the patriarchy, and in turn, do not live under constant criticism of whether or not they are “woman enough”. They do not want to live their whole lives within this space, and many just seek to exploit this particular status of oppression for profit. Branding those who don’t measure up in appearances as “she-males” reflects a communal intolerance of trans people, and continuing to use terms like “tranny” or “ladyboy” in spite of the transgender community expressing how offensive these terms are is downright malicious and intentional. Yet while Ru Paul may apologize for using these terms on national television, he is still a cisgender man who has no idea what it’s like to be transgender. Furthermore, defining womanhood solely in terms of sexuality and physical attractiveness only reinforces the power held by the male gaze within society. This is clear to see as queens reconstruct femininity in the lives of everyday women through Ru Paul’s “Drag U” process on national television.
Maybe that’s why it doesn’t take long to see that there are far more drag queens than drag kings in the dance halls, on stages and featured in popular media. While Ru Paul and his collection of reality TV shows have enabled many queens to become household names and role models, the distinct lack of kings that are featured in the drag spotlight seems to be the one topic that remains taboo within drag culture. In fact, on the few occasions where male drag is presented in mainstreamed venues, it is often belittled and critiqued as “inauthentic” or less than other performances by default.
Perhaps I shouldn’t find any of this surprising; after all, we still live in a highly patriarchal culture. Allowing a handful of men to embrace, reconstruct and shape notions of being a “woman” does very little to challenge the power held by masculinity within society. Any shifts in privilege are temporary, and participants in this shift typically do not address it. However, allowing females the opportunity to do the same for being a “man” threatens the gender hierarchy too much. It challenges the definition of who gets to hold power that is traditionally masculine, and that’s why it’s so hard to find. The transgender experience only challenges this hierarchy further by allowing for greater fluidity between genders than drag condones.
In short, I love drag because it is based in illusion.
But perhaps it’s time to admit that the greatest illusion in its performance is the illusion of acceptance.
Written by Sasha Bassett, MOSAIC Diversity Advocate Intern