Bending Gender in Drag Performance

Bending Gender in Drag Performance: Exploring Dimensions of Femininity

By: Kensie Blodgett, Fourth Year, Nursing; Women, Gender & Sexuality

It is probably no mere historical accident that the word person, in its first meaning, is a[n actor’s] mask. It is rather a recognition of the fact that everyone is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role…It is in these roles that we know each other; it is in these roles that we know ourselves.[i]

Woman. To break it down: Wo-man. A modifier of the more simplistic root ‘man,’ which appears as the underlying unit. There is so much variation carried by the words ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ but both belong under the umbrella category of human. Neither is stationary, unvarying or static, and both encompass wide births. As labels used in American culture, each demarcates certain defining characteristics and set roles. However, identity is fluid, and as such, there is crossover between what it means to be male and female, masculine and feminine; nothing is set in stone. The biological does not necessarily correlate with the cultural derivative.

What does it mean to be a woman? There is no correct, universally applicable answer to this question. Womanhood varies across social geographies, spanning the spheres of the home front to the workplace to the spheres of ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, and lived experiences as well as to the more general spheres of time and place. Due to the subjective nature of womanhood, the following pages will examine dimensions of womanhood though an external vantage point: female drag performance and lifestyle. Gender and requisite femininity will be investigated as a performance in addition to the interplay between the performer and the ostensible gaze of the observer at the moment of budding.

Drag performances consist of individuals who take on and impersonate stereotypical behavior associated with either the male or female gender. Most shows are specific to one gender of performers and are classified as either “queening” or “kinging” events. The former features male-identifying individuals who don traditionally female attire and perform to songs in front of a live audience, while the latter refers to females who dress as and impersonate men.[ii] Besides physical clothing, neither type of performer hides their biological sex as they portray the alternative-gendered character on stage.[iii] Less frequently, venues will have competitions involving bio-queens or faux femmes, individuals who are biologically female, gender-identify as female, and perform heightened levels of femininity.[iv] There is little research on cases of an equivalent ‘bio-king’ performance. Some may argue that this is because much of everyday life is a stage for the performance of heightened masculinity. Portrayals of hyper-femininity or masculinity are expected in the drag community. In order to focus on ideals of femininity in American culture, this paper will concentrate on the culture of drag queens.

A typical performance usually involves lip-syncing to popular music, aesthetic maneuvers around the audience, and the collection of monetary tips, with the end goal being competition for approval from the audience or a panel of judges.[v] Most drag queen shows occur in either clubs or bars, often those with gay men compromising the main clientele, even though straight women are typically a mainstay in any given audience. Other performances take place as “balls” in private venues to a selective, insider audience. As depicted in celebrated films like Paris Is Burning and theatrical pieces like Wig Out!, these are the arenas where drag culture is at its finest. In order to compete to be the “belle of the ball,” queens must belong to a House, or a group of queens (who may or may not actually live together in a building) who are organized into a faux familial structure, led by a “Mother” who reigns as the most senior, prominent and successful queen in the group. She serves as the guide for her “children,” or lesser queens and/or new additions to the so-called family. Within this family, a hierarchy is perpetuated by names, titles, and drag-specific vernacular. As queens are added to the family, they adopt the Mother’s or the House’s name as a rite-of-passage and newfound privilege. The drive for fame within the drag community is the major motivator for the Houses, in addition to performance as an outlet for creativity.[vi]

The use of language is especially important in drag culture as it blurs the gender binary and adds dimension to racial demarcations. In addition to performing based on stereotypical female archetypes instead of impersonating real women, queens also do not use natural speech styles, but rather call upon the stereotypical speech patterns from various groups, such as gay male, white female, African American, textbook masculine, and southern or northern lexicons. By combining all of these forms, the realm of drag effectively fuses the racial and gender lines, as well as those of locational geography.[vii]

In a linguistic analysis where drag performances were recorded, the research paid primary attention to how each queen incorporated speech into her performance. Mann notes that the call-out to the audience contained stylistic features of stereotyped women’s language in that “women constantly ask questions rather than make statements,” and seek reaffirmation and politeness, stemming from a “lack of certainty and self-assurance.”[viii] The majority of drag queens followed this pattern, breaking up their monologues with questions and posits of uncertainty. However, they managed to linguistically straddle the gender lines by introducing stereotypically masculine styles into their speech, in addition to the feminine.

Expletives were used profusely, as frequently as every fourth word. While women are supposed to “use super polite forms and euphemisms,” obscenities were used in direct opposition to women’s speech because they “break norms, shock, and show disrespect for authority.”[ix] This study found that swearwords could be grouped in three main categories: all-purpose, body parts, or address terms, with “shit”, “fuck”, and “bitch” being the three most commonly used words.[x] The latter term displays a unique irony due to the fact that the queens themselves are acting as women, thus degrading their own characters. They act under the title “queen,” which is the polar opposite of a “bitch.” The shock value of this juxtaposition of terms serves to illustrate the spectrum of the role women can play in society, oscillating between ruling, powerful queens often seated next to an exponentially more powerful king, to “bitch” which is on par with a dog, alluding to worthless and conniving traits. Even linguistically, drag showcases the impositions placed upon women to perform femininity across the other roles they are subject to embody.

The internationally acclaimed play Wig Out!, written by Tarell McCraney in association with the Sundance Summer Theater Lab, can be used to examine a typical drag ballroom scene, linguistic patterns, and the requisite familial structure.[xi] The play centers on characters in the House of Light, with Rey-Rey as the Mother and Nina, who’s male identity self is named Wilson, as one of the children, who is flirting around a relationship with Eric, a young man who hitherto is unfamiliar with drag culture and performers. In a closing soliloquy, Rey-Rey sentimentally exclaims:

I brought win after win and the name Legendary to a house with little to know light until there was Rey, there was no way, so even though I may not have the glow of youth, motherfucker, I got the glam of age. I know what it’s like to try to hold up fabulousness while everyone withers and dies around you. I walked amongst the legends who didn’t make it through. I lost most of my house to an AIDS war that the kids didn’t know how to survive.[xii]

In this excerpt, the classic language invoked by queens comes into play as Rey-Rey alludes to her House, her kids, and walking in the ballroom competition scene. The linguistic patterning is interesting as it represents a traditionally feminine conglomerate, with Rey-Rey’s select word choice of self-descriptors like “glam,” “fabulousness,” and “glow,” in juxtaposition with the traditionally masculine aggression of expletives like “motherfucker.” She refers to the wisdom she garnered to survive from years of experience in contrast to the naïveté that comes with youth. To quantify the extent of her survival, Rey-Rey makes a historical reference to the AIDS epidemic, which largely affected the gay male community in the 1980s, and 90s. The highlighted difference of age speaks to the seniority measures within the Houses and acts as both an insulator and exclusionary device within the drag community. In addition to hierarchy, here age is closely linked to beauty, and hence to femininity, by associating it with “glamour” and the privilege that “fabulousness brings.” It is the blending of Rey-Rey’s character that causes the audience to pause and reflect on the ability of one individual to encompass both the male and the female lived experience.

Wig Out! delves into the question of identity in terms of realized gender, sexuality and community. Wigs themselves provide an extended metaphor for the fluxion of gendered identities and personas. Throughout the play, each of the characters begins a monologue with the words “my grandmother wore a wig…” calling upon not only gender-bending, but the strength of familial ties, both inside and outside the world of drag. Wigs signify the crossing of the gender binary. For instance, when Nina wears her wig, she is female, but without it on, he is male and goes by Wilson. Along with the change in appearance, there is a strict difference in assumed identity. The stage directions highlight this barrier when, directly after Nina’s wig monologue, the directions demand “Wilson pulls the wig off.”[xiii] The last scene in the play involves Eric, the previously ignorant young man, who dons a wig uttering the recurring opening lines of that monologue. It underscores his entrance into the drag community as well as his questioning of his own formerly secure gender identity, preferences, and appearances. When Lucian, another member of the House of Light, says, “My grandmother wore a wig. My mother wore a wig. My father wore a wig…,” it suggests that drag or something parallel to it connects those who provide the greatest influence in life: real and/or adopted family.[xiv] More importantly, this statement intones that everyone, be they associated with drag or not, wears some sort of disguise or alteration from their true selves. This is often achieved through the pressures of societal norms for how women and men are idealized as polar opposites by much of postmodern America. Each person uses personas as masks when needed, much like drag queens use hair, makeup, and clothes. Identity is both contrived and situational.

The conventional notion of drag is that the performers are “transgendered provocateurs of dichotomous notions of gender,” while others believe queens to be “aspirants to masculine power… and ultimately misogynists.”[xv] However, it is important to examine what lies beneath the aforementioned superficial views. Drag performance intersects with cultural notions of femininity, gender, sex and identity, as well as the clash between archetypes and lived experiences. The majority of the artists who perform in drag are neither promulgators nor provocateurs of social injustices. Rather, performers of female drag act as litmus papers to test for and display social constructions that constitute the backbone of gender and identity. In the barest of forms, they epitomize and mirror the social pressures impressed upon all women. That is, drag showcases the impositions placed on women to look, feel, and be a certain way and meet certain standards, which collectively has come to describe the term ‘femininity’. It is in this manner that American society seeks to create two – and only two – sexes, and their consequent gender roles.[xvi]

Drag serves as a meeting point and subsequent melting pot for all variations of social organization, from gender to race to sexual orientation to privilege. In the clash of these features, a hierarchy is created at a point of potential social coalescence; however, this is not where these performances differ from the norm. Instead, what makes drag unique is how and what its particular culture does to the social organizational patterns presented. Drag purposefully parodies social norms that separate groups based on superficial features, alliances, or backgrounds. The culture surrounding the performance of drag turns a “spotlight on the social constructions of masculinity, femininity, homosexuality and heterosexuality” because this unique genre defies the normative standards of behavior, and in essence reveals the underlying complexities of layers that constitute and link gender and sexuality.[xvii]

From a feminist stance, drag queens epitomize the “patriarchal dividend,” a term used to signify the explicit and implicit benefits of being biologically male in any faction of American society.[xviii] The power that simply being male provides, whether or not one is acting feminine or masculine, female or male, is immense. It allows facets of mobility to be achieved that are not regularly open to biologically trained women. That is, by being men in real life off the stage, drag queens have a level of freedom and immunity while on stage because their male sex allows them to become only temporarily feminine and then return to their masculine identity once the wig is off. On the other hand, women are allowed to dress in male drag because it is seen as appropriate and reasonable that women would want to be men (often considered the optimal gender) and obtain the power afforded to men. Through this lens, drag can be seen as merely an outlet for women to remain marginalized, oppressed beings in the web of social hierarchy, as the men who portray them do not even use real women as models, but rather the stereotypes that have become diminutive.

Opinions, perceptions, and mental flexibility – of both the audience and the performers – are tested throughout the course of drag queen shows. The audience is made aware that the performers are “performing femininity and being a woman,” but at the same time exist as men, not women, outside the walls of the ballroom.[xix] Essentially, drag performers achieve what they are not by being overtly female and covertly male, or adopt personas they were never meant to assume. In order to reconcile this source of tension, one must delve into social constructions of what it means to be masculine and feminine and to be male and female. Drag ultimately situates those involved in the realm of the metaphysical.

In a piece entitled “The Trouble with ‘Queerness’,” the author quotes Judith Butler, a well-known philosopher on feminist, queer, and gender issues, in saying that, “in imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself- as well as its contingency… indeed the parody is of the very notion of the original.”[xx] The deconstruction of this statement reveals several important features. In her use of the word “imitation” as opposed to ‘representation’, ‘abstraction’, or even ‘doing’ (as West and Zimmerman would have advocated), Butler alludes to a conscious and determined portrayal of images of gender performed elsewhere. That is, drag queen performance seeks to gather stereotypical concepts and localized teachings of womanhood and manhood, femininity and masculinity, White, Black, Asian, and Latina cultures, and other supposed oppositions, to ultimately synthesize a new ‘other.’ These teachings of how to “do gender” and adhere to societal norms is upended by drag queens, even as they ostensibly accept these teachings.[xxi] Drag ultimately blurs these lines by the variations in dress, linguistic patterns, and interactions with members of the audience. These methods use hyperbole to communicate the message of mass-adhesion to social standards of a dichotomous system.

Exaggeration is one of the most significant aspects of a drag performance. On top of showcasing gender norms, it enables the audience to simultaneously associate with and disengage from the performers. In this stage of flux, successful portrayals are contingent upon the gaze of the performers meeting that of the audience, and vice versa. There is a sense of validation that is only achieved through this course of interaction. It is through the world of drag that external, standard gender, sexual, and racial norms are clearly exhibited for the audience to observe. It is this observational period that allows questions to arise – questions of one’s own identity and of social identities on the micro and macro levels. All spheres, from personal interactions at the shopping mall, the grocery store, crowded city streets, rural communities, race-specific communities, and professional offices, provide arenas that challenge or reaffirm one’s personal identity in contrast to one’s social identity. Drag provides the starting-point for this analysis. The key convergence point is also where Butler’s “parody” comes in to play.

The fact that American society has gender standards and bifurcation and that there is such a distinct line that cannot be crossed (e.g. maleness and masculinity is the strict repudiation of anything feminine) is in itself a parody. Thus, in parodying gender through drag performance, we can begin to see how faulty, imitative, and conditional the constructed gendered system is. The gender system in the United States is a binary one that exists by pitting opposites against each other. We have seen this phenomenon of the “battle of the sexes” encouraged time and time again in sports, in the classroom, and in professional offices. At the same time as this “battle” is supposedly being fought, it is an unequal war. That is to say, social projections of men and women are not the same because “if, in doing gender, men are also doing dominance, and women are doing deference, the resulting social order… is a powerful reinforcement of hierarchical arrangements.”[xxii] West and Zimmerman argue against seeing sex as solely biological and gender as an achievement that is fixed and unvarying. They postulate that the gender binary specifically creates and maintains differences, which are not based on biology, between the arbitrary categories of men and women. The authors suggest that “to ‘do’ gender is not always to live up to normative conceptions of femininity or masculinity; it is to engage in behavior at the risk of gender assessment.”[xxiii]

Gender is not innate, but is constructed through various social mechanisms. After investigating the world of drag and its involvement in defining personal identity and displaying, and often parodying, cultural norms in “The Trouble with ‘Queerness’,” Horowitz comes to understand that:

I, as a person with an identity that constantly makes me legible as myself to myself and others over time, only exist as a function of relations. And it is the relative consistency of these relations over time that gives weight to gender. Thus, one might be gay or masculine or genderqueer but inasmuch as one does (agentizes) intra-actions that give meaning to gayness or masculinity or genderqueerness, [that is where identity lies].[xxiv]

One’s femininity or masculinity only exists to the extent that it is performed through “clothing, grooming, posture, movement.”[xxv] Gender identity is not a fixed characteristic, and drag queens “perform in ways that underscore the social construction of gender and sexuality” allowing the audience to see just how flexible that identity is.[xxvi] It allows everyone involved to appreciate the ways that consciously performed gender can influence both the audience and the performers. In doing so, drag is an educational measure that promotes solidarity among queer and straight individuals. It provides the necessary geography to “dismantle rigid and binary gender and sexual categories and subvert heteronormativity.”[xxvii]

The Drag Queen Anthology states, “being is not an either/or proposition and that there are actually multiple ways that gender can be performed and experienced.”[xxviii] Drag performances deliver this option of a gender and identity spectrum and reject the gender binary. It accomplishes this realized gamut by blending the lines of race, background, sex and gender, which are usually kept separate. As Berkowitz and Belgrave suggest, “femininity, masculinity, and queerness are all allowed to circulate freely in drag performance settings.”[xxix] In the physical and abstract geographies that drag performers inhabit, the intersecting realms of previously definable and unvarying norms allow for a certain degree of mobility that would otherwise rarely be possible outside of the limits of the ballroom stage. Why are there greater dimensions of freedom on the stage than in real life? And what gives drag this unique capacity to move outside of prescribed modes of behavior? Theater and any subdivisions thereof where performance, character portrayal, and creativity intersect have historically provided an outlet for marginalized communities, and in this case the queer community, especially gay males and trans individuals. In creating an unambiguous dialogue with certain linguistic intonations that is decidedly separate from standard American English, drag culture reifies itself as occupying a legitimate cultural enclave. With the open social code of mores, dress, interactions, and familial structure, the drag community has created an insular (yet not closed by any means) safe haven for a marginalized community. The establishment of a community of sisterhood serves as not only an outlet for expressed creativity, but provides a protective measure. Protection is necessary once outside the stage doors because “nonconforming gender performances threaten the patriarchal order and challenge long-standing Western philosophical distinctions between appearance and reality.”[xxx]

A drag queen is anyone who consciously makes a performance out of femininity and represents “two souls in one.”[xxxi] Drag is in a unique position because it straddles the lines of gender normativity and simultaneously defies heteronormative behavior and, at least superficially, reifies misogynistic normatives. It portrays a range of acceptable gender behaviors within the world of drag, as well as the heightened portrayals of roles within the fabricated familial structures. Drag reveals notions of what it means to be a woman and a man, followed by conceptualizations of femininity and masculinity, and by exaggerating those archetypes, parodies the entire construction of gender norms and expectations within the confines of American society.

Queer activist and poet Andrea Gibson wrote, “We have to create; it is the only thing louder than destruction.”[xxxii] This simple statement embodies the sentiment of drag performance, in that, by physically creating and embodying personas on stage, the performers reclaim forms of discrimination stemming from sexual and gender identity.


 Works Cited:

[i] Erving Goffman. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, N.Y.,: Doubleday Anchor Books (1959):11-12.

[ii] Dana Berkowitz and Linda Belgrave. “She Works Hard for the Money: Drag Queens And the Management of Their Contradictory Status of Celebrity and Marginality.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 39, no. 2 (2010), 160.

[iii] Stephen L. Mann. “Drag Queens’ Use of Language and the Performance of Blurred Gendered And Racial Identities.” Journal of Homosexuality 58, no. 6 (2011), 793.

[iv] Rachel Devitt. “Girl On Girl: Fat Femmes, Bio-Queens, and Redefining Drag.” Collected Work: Queering the Popular Pitch. (2006), 28.

[v] Berkowitz and Belgrave “She Works Hard,” 160.

[vi] Lisa Underwood and Steven Schacht. “The Absolutely Fabulous but Flawlessly Customary World of Female Impersonators.” The Drag Queen Anthology: The Absolutely Fabulous but Flawlessly Customary World of Female Impersonators. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Publishing. (2003): 2-4; Rachel B. Friedman and Adam Jones “Corsets, Headpieces, and Tape: An Ethnography of Gendered Performance.” Cross-Cultural Communication 7, no. 2 (2011), 82.

[vii] Mann “Drag Queens,” 794

[viii] Ibid,. 799-800.

[ix] Ibid,. 801-802.

[x] Ibid., 807.

[xi] Tarell McCraney 2007

[xii] Ibid., 67.

[xiii] McCraney 83.

[xiv] Ibid., 92.

[xv] Underwood and Schacht. “The Absolutely Fabulous,” 2.

[xvi] Candace West and Don Zimmerman. “Doing Gender.” Gender and Society 1, no. 2 (1987), 133.

[xvii] Berkowitz and Belgrave “She Works Hard,” 2010, 162

[xviii] Ibid., 162.

[xix] Underwood and Schacht 2003, 4

[xx] Katie R. Horowitz. “The Trouble With ‘Queerness’: Drag and the Making of Two Cultures.” Signs: Journal of Women In Culture & Society 38, no. 2 (2013), 304.

[xxi] West and Zimmerman. “Doing Gender,” 137.

[xxii] Ibid.,146.

[xxiii] Ibid.,136.

[xxiv] Horowitz “The Trouble With ‘Queerness,’” 319-20.

[xxv] Berkowitz and Belgrave “She Works Hard,” 162.

[xxvi] Leila J. Rupp, Verta Taylor, and EveIlana Shapiro. “Drag Queens and Drag Kings: The Difference Gender Makes.” Sexualities 13, no. 3 (2010), 287.

[xxvii] Ibid., 290.

[xxviii] Underwood and Schacht “The Absolutely Fabulous,” 4.

[xxix] Berkowitz and Belgrave “She Works Hard,” 162.

[xxx] Ibid.,169.

[xxxi] McCraney 2007, 43

[xxxii] Andrea Gibson The Madness Vase. Long Beach, CA: Write Bloody Publishing, (2011), 87.

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