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On the problems and potentials of identity play / by Chris Lee

As a form of performance, drag is politically fraught -- in part because drag tends to negotiate gender presentation, which is necessarily political, in part because the idea of parodying gender stereotypes bolsters the political theory that gender might itself be performance. Drag, as some queer theorists have suggested, has the potential to expose gender categories as acquired, rather than essential. But first, an admission: drag doesn’t always act against expectation; some drag in fact colludes with social norms, mining discomfort for mainstream derision.

The historied tradition of male actors dressing as women speaks to the capacity of drag practices to codify existing social mores; popular media like Tootsie, Bosom Buddies, and the unfortunately-named Juwanna Mann depict drag as a technique of necessity, performed for the sake of employment or, curiously, in service of a romantic subplot. Any threat that drag might pose to the masculinity mythos is counteracted by the presence of a desirable and biological woman, whose affections are at once complicated by drag, and then clarified through the revelation that the dubious female impersonator is, after all, a respectable man with respectable male urges.

That many depictions of drag concern heterosexual courtship is a common but confusing trope in popular media. Drag can empower men to get closer to women, demonstrating their ‘feminine side’ and thus winning women’s hearts for the sake of a tidy narrative. The humor grounded in this kind of drag preys on the anxieties of the straight mind; laughing at drag is enacted at the cost of queer identities, reinforcing rather than resisting the taboo of even lightly disturbing the gender binary -- that is, for reasons other than career advancement or heterosexual desire.

Drag is rendered acceptable for straight men to the extent that their discomfort with it is registered and acknowledged; arguably this implementation of drag practices, masculinity unceremoniously furnished with a dress or wig, fails to meet the aesthetic sensibilities of gender illusion. This is not to discount the mainstream appropriation of drag techniques, but to acknowledge that the political stakes of drag might be more adequately pinned to the character of the contemporary drag queen.

Drag queens gesture at a different political resonance because their performance of female impersonation -- a composition of cosmetics, clothing, and articulation -- is spectacular in a culturally significant way. Spectacular also in the modernist sense, as the ‘art of drag’ invites and skews voyeuristic viewership. Indeed the most visible and popular modes of drag performance, staged in the showgirl tradition, are spun from the objectified archetype of the chanteuse-starlet. On the symbolic stage of the cabaret, the action stops, the music swells, the lights dim. A woman (?) appears, the very center of attention and desire.

If popular drag builds on the visual model immortalized in the cinematic vein of Marlene Dietrich, the quintessential woman-as-spectacle, it would appear that drag takes part in the subversion of this well-worn script. Feminist film theory intimates the basis of visual pleasure as an objectifying male gaze; in turn, an exaggerated repetition of gender expression redirects the voyeur to the reworked spectacle of the drag queen. This is, at least, one theory of how drag interacts with existing models of gender differentiation. The political reality of popular drag is less clear and more sobering, as political realities tend to be.

Framed by the broader schematic of liberalism, of which ‘LGBT equality’ is part and parcel, drag is thoroughly enmeshed in the mainstreaming of queer culture. In the political arena, drag queens act as corporate spokespersons, event MC’s, gay pride marshals, and generally, as symbolic figureheads for an ‘outrageous’ but still acceptable queerness. Career drag queens are especially prone to register offensiveness in ways that are decidedly inoffensive to the ideologies of oppressive systems. Sexual innuendo, racial stereotypes, and prison jokes may find heavy representation in a typical drag act. Sex work, racial disparities, and the prison industrial complex assuredly do not. Clearly, then, not all drag subverts social norms, even when it postures at political incorrectness.

Drag can be funny. It can be riotously funny. But queers have intimate knowledge of the tenuous distinction between ‘laughing with’ and ‘laughing at’; resigned to campy sidekicks, reduced to both sexless and oversexed caricatures, the queer subject is overtly familiar with humor’s double-edged nature. For the character of the drag queen, moreover, comedic undertones are interwoven with the decidedly darker implications of playing at gender.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the seminal example of drag cinema, Paris is Burning, which documents the meteoric rise of ball culture -- an underground drag scene comprised of various ‘houses’ in 1980s New York. Its cast is black and Latino/a, gay and transgender, seropositive and poor; their testimonial narratives make explicit the desires drawn into the art of impersonation, which addresses the political structures of race, gender, and class.

The queens in Paris is Burning fantasize about the ease of whiteness and financial security of passing, in some respect, as better off than their realities might suggest. Their lives are, indeed, staked on ‘realness,’ as demonstrated tragically in the case of Venus Xtravaganza, who dreams of being ‘a spoiled, rich, white girl living in the suburbs.’ As if by foreshadowing, Venus recounts a story foregrounding the very real dangers posed by transphobia. Surviving in the world means concealing her ‘little secret.’ By the film’s conclusion, her body is discovered under a motel bed.

The comedic emphases drawn into ball culture evoke a camp critique, sharply satirizing a world that is unjust and rich in structural inequities. This is not at all the same humor prompted by the man-in-wig act. Nor is it the commissioned humor of the drag MC, presiding over a black-and-tie affair. Drag is, for some, a laughing matter and a paid gig; for Venus, whose bodily form and identity markers placed her at the margins of society, it may have been both, at times. But it also carried the element of risk.

The stage and screen are inadequate metaphors for the comprehensive arenas of performing gender. Social surveillance doesn't just disappear as the curtain falls. Gender is policed in a totalizing way. At the scene of the drag bar, swishy hips and limp wrists may draw the applause of an adoring audience, but elsewhere, indeed, in far too many elsewheres, broaching the gender binary motivates abusive words, violent acts, and abjection from the comfort of community.

Venus’s story is not merely a cautionary tale; LGBT media are overwrought with these, driving observant queers to be anxious and careful, high-functioning and productive, gay and normal.  What Venus demonstrates, instead, is that the politics of drag might primarily concern gender, but they also concern identity itself. Her fantasies of ‘passing’ triangulate the difficult reality of striated systems of privilege.

Around the time Paris is Burning was being filmed, a Los Angeles based artist by the name of Vaginal Davis was coincidentally developing a very different approach to drag. A key figure in the queercore movement, Davis formed several bands in the late 70s and 80s and wrote a number of zines engaging race and queerness.

Davis is considered the prime proponent of a performance aesthetic known as ‘terrorist drag,’ a drag that unsettles and disrupts assimilationist or normalizing tendencies in LGBT politics. Her name pays homage to revolutionary icon Angela Davis, indicating her situation within a legacy of activism and social justice. Davis isn’t the only example of a radical drag performer, but she is an explicit model from which to draw some nascent conclusions.

What’s political about drag? Most drag is politically charged in the way that everything is politically charged, which is to say that even commercial interests and liberal agendas are driven by a kind of political imagination. But not all drag is drawn from a politics of resistance. Indeed, little of it is.

To the extent that drag mediates the presentation of identity, it’s not a position so much as a practice. What’s political about drag is a kind of fluid potential, a mechanism moving with or against the tides of prevailing cultural systems. But in moments of pointed parody, in flashes of cultural sabotage, drag has a rare capacity to upend expectation, adulterating our conceptions of authenticity and autonomy.

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