When men performatively conquer female woes by stomping around in stilettos to “I Will Survive,” is this a kind of gender appropriation?
I’ve never known how to feel about drag shows.
My best friend started getting into them a few years ago, and naturally, wad of singles in hand, I accompanied him to our friendly local log-cabin-turned-gay-bar. We came to know many of the drag queens in time, though it took me a while to relax around them. There was something larger than life about their presence, towering over me in outfits I could only dream of, that made my own femininity seem slight and dull. I coveted their glitter-drenched eyelids. When I traced the synch of their corsets, my own ribs ached in sympathy.
Though set to music, drag performances are much more about visuals than sound. Excluding specialized numbers modeled after a specific artist or character, the look is generally a parody of femininity: sequins, leather, fringe, dramatic collars and sleeves. The face is exaggerated with heavily contoured cheeks and false eyelashes. Performers lip-sync to a medley, and between tightly-rehearsed dance routines, cozy up to audience members for tips. Shows strike me as a strange mix of the thematic excess of child beauty pageants and the wild neon imagination of ’90s Barbie dolls.
Something about drag shows has always seemed worth examining through a feminist lens. It wasn’t until a queen trailed one of her own fingers invitingly down her crotch that I wondered: Are the ornate visuals and provocative gestures of drag a privilege for men only?
Mythical as they are onstage, every queen goes behind the curtain at the end of the night to remove her cutlets and heels. The figure left standing is a hairless man who will eventually pull his dick out of his gaff and stop shaving again. No such relief exists for women. We cannot peel our female bodies off and hang them in our closets, and every time a man yells, “Nice ass, baby!” or ogles our curves on the street is a reminder of that fact.
As drag performance takes place in a kind of alternate reality, the queens’ elaborate costumes drip with excess. Still, outside of this space, women are frequently ridiculed for sporting the very design elements co-opted for drag. Thanks to our long history of being defined relationally, women are assumed to be “dressing for men” (or worse, dressing for other men if the woman is in a relationship) by taking pride in our appearance. If we appear too confident, too meticulous, we are accused of overdressing or trying too hard.
The “queen” artifice is inspired by iconic divas like Dolly Parton, Cher, Madonna, Beyonce, and Lady Gaga—performers known for their powerful vocals, garish ensembles, and straightforward sexuality. Drag queens utilize these elements to craft performances that are empowering to performer and audience alike, though I sometimes feel that this “empowerment” translates into a one-dimensional, one-trick pony of fierce, glittery survival. When men performatively conquer female woes by stomping around in stilettos to “I Will Survive,” is this a kind of gender appropriation?
Enter “faux queens,” or for some like New York’s Crimson Kitty who detest that title for implying a lack of authenticity, “lady queens” or female drag queens. These biologically female artists are an exercise in gender-bending gymnastics—women performing as men performing as women—and rely on many of the same features of traditional drag. “I am challenging our audiences to see drag as ‘genderless,’ and for some that can be a struggle,” Crimson Kitty says. “However I feel that if they see a proactive and positive approach to any art form, then it can and will become the new norm.”
Performing in drag has also helped Crimson Kitty find her place within the LGBTQ community, just as it has helped many gay men better understand their own identities. “I knew I liked women but I didn’t know how to go about it,” she says. “So I would hang out with my gay boys and they would take me to all of these amazing places…[a]nd it was my first foray into knowing what I wanted to do with my life.” As a bisexual femme woman attracted to other femmes, I know a thing or two about this invisibility—particularly in gay clubs where themes and events are overwhelmingly marketed to men.
Some male drag queens, however, view “bioqueens” as an infringement on their brand of performance art. Crimson Kitty’s biologically male drag mother, Ru Paul’s Drag Race contestant Rebecca Glasscock, advised her not to disclose her sex until later in her career. More severely, female queen Courtney Conquers “had drinks poured on her head and [was] told to get ‘the fuck out of the club.’” Establishment writer Alex Verman explains in his response to “Why Faux Queens Deserve a Place in Drag Culture”: “When white women speak of the necessity and novelty of ‘bioqueens’ courageously claiming space in resistance of the male gaze, it’s easy to forget that drag is always and already serving that exact same function for queer and trans folks.” When ciswomen “take the stage…[they do so] at the expense of the femininity others articulate through drag.”
I can’t get on board with the idea that subverting the heteronormative male gaze is a zero-sum game, because its necessity for men and women plays out in very different ways. Drag is a playground for men to explore their femininity (“To know and hold the power of a woman is amazing,” drag queen Courtney Act tells Vice) apart from a society that worships hypermasculinity. Men of all orientations with an interest in the performing arts, culinary arts, or design are all too familiar with the resulting criticism. Drag performance gives men the freedom to, as Alex Verman describes, “empower femininity for those who have traditionally been excluded or attacked for their relationship to it.”
But because drag’s origins are rooted in the exclusion of women from performative spaces—think men dressing as women in Shakespearean plays—I believe women have the right to explore an art form that, let’s face it, is based around our very existence. Living while female is a lesson in double-standards, a constant balancing act. Too much makeup? You’re desperate and attention-seeking. Too little makeup? You’re frumpy. Too kind? You’ll never get anywhere. Too sure of yourself? You’re a bitch. By grabbing this unreasonable set of expectations by the balls—or the ovaries, as it were—faux queens thwart the male gaze and center themselves in their own presentation. Female drag artists remind me of the reclaiming explored in Lupe Fiasco’s “Bitch, Bad,” music video, in which black men and women apply blackface and then wash it away.
I still attend drag shows, not just to support my local LGBTQ community but because I’m fascinated by how gender is performed and how those performances relate to the artist’s gender identity. Men teach us to revere the goddess in all of us. Women teach us that behind the goddess lies a human being containing multitudes. Sometimes, both truths are captured in a single performance. Tonight at the bar, that would be an artist playing Celine Dion, a timeless voice who has made a career of channeling heartache into song.
“Queen Celine,” we say, one hand exultantly in the air.
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.