Recently I was at a Mexican restaurant with my husband and son when a friend texted me and asked if we wanted to go to a drag show at a bookstore-bar nearby. They had been running a month-long series of events called “Women Galore” (originally, “Pussy Galore,” but I think there were objections) and this was the grand finale. I was curious, having watched RuPaul’s Drag Race on television a few times.
I had watched as part of my preparation to teach a course on philosophy and gender, because drag comes up in the literature on gender, especially in the context of Judith Butler’s famous talk of “performing” gender. Drag performers don’t just “perform gender” (in quotes) – the really perform gender. After a performer finishes, his voice drops. He talks about his real life and often his real travails as a gay man and drag queen. The classic drag performer is clearly a man playing the part of a woman. But is that the essence of the thing?
We all got to the show and settled in with drinks. The MC, Rolla Derby, introduced herself as “a real girl”, a phrase that would probably be problematic in some circles. She said this was going to be “high concept” drag – different from what goes on in bars that aren’t also bookstores. She performed the first act, singing (or rather, lip synching – the norm for drag) “Pynk”, from Jannelle Monae’s new album Dirty Computer. I happen to be obsessed with this album, so it was a good start. But the question did intrude: in what sense was she doing drag?
“Pynk” is Monae’s slightly oblique (and terrific) paean to girl parts. It’s a daring song, considering the compulsory heterosexuality of the R&B music world. This is the album in which Monae has come out as – well, she prefers not to say exactly what. As not straight. So I think Rolla Derby was trying to evoke a certain kind of boundary-crossing. Plus (can I say this?) her act also involved the boundary-crossing of defying the convention that very large women aren’t supposed to strut around in revealing clothes on a stage.
Next up was a classic drag performer – a man performing as a woman. Or was it actually more complicated? In truth, they seemed like a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. (I love that such a complicated seeming is possible. Others in our group saw it this way as well.) They had fantastic dance skills as well as amazing hair … and danced to “Hair”, by Lady Gaga. “I want you to know, I am my hair.” And more important: “Why can’t I be who I want to be?”
Another performer announced that she was trans and didn’t exactly present herself as female on the outside, male on the inside. Instead her act involved looking gothic, skeletal, and spooky. She danced to “So Afraid”, another song from Dirty Computer. Maybe the boundary crossing this time was between life and death, or between safe and dangerous?
But in traditional drag, there’s only one relevant crossing, the one between being male and being female. The fourth performer was the only one who was clearly a man performing as a woman. But that doesn’t really capture it. He wasn’t just performing, but transgressing against deeply held assumptions: a man isn’t supposed to be even slightly feminine, let alone wear a dress, a wig, and fake boobs.
With fantastic dance skills and a talent for comedy, he was also a moving and energising speaker. He talked about trying to please his military family by joining the army, only to be discharged. Talked about being gay. Got everyone in the audience to declare a sexual orientation. Made everyone laugh and clap and give him lots of dollar bills. All to the tune of “Moment for Life,” by Nikki Minaj. “I wish that I could have this moment for life, for life, for life. This is my moment I just feel so alive, alive, alive.”
Was the last performer the only one really doing drag? RuPaul recently opined that trans women can’t do drag and won’t be accepted on his show: “Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it, because at its core it’s a social statement and a big f-you to male-dominated culture.” On the other side, there’s the view that drag is just parody of gender, and people can parody gender without parodying the opposite gender.
Some feminists take offense at all this parodying of women. Drag performers enact an absurd, exaggerated, perverse conception of what it is to be a woman. They celebrate extreme, over-the-top femininity. How is this not offensive, like blackface would be? The analogy ignores the liberatory point of drag. Blackface made a mockery of being African American. Drag performers don’t mock women, they transgress. And the bigger the distance they travel, from male to female, the more thrilling the transgression and the louder the message: you can be who you want to be.