By Lily Zheng
I was sixteen when I went to my first Pride Parade in San Francisco, and some of the first things that caught my eye were the drag queens. Several floats filled with mostly white men with huge eyelashes, pouty lips and eight-inch heels rolled by. Their image is still one I remember today.
Drag occupies a noticeable part of our daily consciousness, especially here in the Bay Area. Midnight screenings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” drag performance nightclubs in the city and shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” have all contributed to the culture of the Bay Area – just this last Thursday, a well-attended drag performance was hosted on campus by Chi Theta Chi. However, the core concept of drag as it is understood today – as an exaggerated overperformance of masculinity or femininity for comic, dramatic or satirical effect – has gendered implications. More specifically, drag is often used as a means for cisgender, queer men to perform a caricatured, hypersexualized and stereotyped femininity that ultimately hurts women.
In an interview with ThinkProgress.com, Benjamin Putnam of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” Season 6 fame, describes drag as “an art form created by an oppressed community” that is a chance for queer men to “poke a little bit of fun at the people who are in positions of power because of their gender status.” This opinion, that drag is a form of subversion aimed at challenging gender roles through art and performance, is one that I have heard often. However, actions or behaviors are only subversive if they undermine existing power structures. If drag is to be subversive, then it must challenge or undermine systems or institutions that oppress those performing.
Cisgender, white gay men are not oppressed by white women, and most certainly not by black women. In fact, gay men’s communities have been accused of appropriating black women’s culture, and gay men’s misogyny in the media is nothing new. Eliel Cruz’s op-ed in the Advocate directly addresses the sexism rampant in gay men’s culture, with a slew of examples and anecdotes. Drag, when it is unquestioningly performed by queer men, plays into existing attitudes of misogyny (and, at times, racism) in both queer men’s culture and society as a whole. Accordingly, derivatives of this drag culture have the responsibility to question the roots of their drag shows and cross-dressing themed parties, their high heels and pink feather boas. To put it bluntly: Cisgender men in drag mock existing gendered inequalities in society, and take on the trappings of femininity only to strut down a runway, smirk and take it off when convenient.
Cisgender women aren’t the only ones who are hurt by men’s drag culture. Transgender women and other transfeminine individuals are often dragged under the bus by drag culture and its many intellectual offspring, from the song “Sweet Transvestite” from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” to the drag nightclub in San Francisco named “Trannyshack” to the transphobic slurs littered throughout “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” I have personally been told by gay men responding to my appearance that they “could hardly tell,” or “were totally fooled” – as if my identity as a transgender woman did not exist, and that I was more real to them as a “man pretending to be a woman.” Male drag culture teaches society that gender-nonconforming identities do not exist, that lived experiences are nothing more than performances and falsehoods. Male drag cultures, in a larger trend of transphobia within the LGBTQ+ community, are toxic to trans identities.
Drag isn’t all bad, though. Writers like Helen Bode have studied drag in the context of drag kings – individuals tending to be assigned female at birth who perform a type of theatrical, dramatic and exaggerated masculinity – and have drawn conclusions claiming that drag kings use drag in a positive, subversive way. The reason why women (and often genderqueer, gender-variant or otherwise gender-nonnormative identifying people) can claim a positive relationship with drag while cisgender, queer men often fail is a matter of power. Because feminine identities in society are structurally subservient to hegemonic masculinities, the performance of masculinity through drag is a way to empower the self, subvert oppressive structures and challenge masculinity itself.
A further clarification: I do not aim to argue that male-identifying individuals’ performance of drag is problematic or oppressive by default – there are many ways in which men can use drag as a highly effective and performative form of subversion. In the film “Paris is Burning,” for example, poorer queer men are shown as using drag to perform wealthy masculinity and subvert existing class structures. Rather, as drag becomes more and more a mainstay of our culture, it is important for those partaking in it – queer or not – to be mindful of and question the origins and implications of the personas we perform.
Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.