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Max Gerber

Effect is Queen

Drag Politics: Gender is a Performance

Gender is arguably the most pervasive tribal dichotomy that humanity possesses. Its culturally enshrined twoness is observed the world over 1 and throughout recorded history. Any consideration of the intersecting societal structures which sustain oppression has to therefore consider this universal and inherited aspect of our nature.

For the last few centuries our society has largely viewed gender and sex as interchangeable nouns. Recently this myopic understanding in the public consciousness is being challenged by transgender activists, for whom gender is not synonymous with sex, but is nuanced, complex, and elusive. The recent paradigm shift inevitably brings with it interesting questions. If gender indeed functions outside of our biological roles then what is gender? What are its components? Is gender a collection of signifiers, the clothes you wear, the mannerisms you employ, the way you interact with others? Is it a delicate form of social contract? Is the definition of masculinity or femininity less concrete if the ways we express it can be said to change from era to era?

Arguably pioneers in exploring these often uncomfortable questions are drag artists. In my essay I shall deconstruct some of the meanings inherent in the phenomena of gender impersonation, focusing on drag as a performance art, and the effects it has on its audience. A practice this subjective is difficult to define from an outsider’s perspective, especially as self-definition is such an essential component to the art, but at its core crosses gender lines using techniques of impersonation, and has been practised since antiquity. 2 This suggests that so long as there has been a gender binary, people have sought to blur and transcend it.

Drag is not usually an interim phase of transsexuality. It is not usually done for sexual reasons, although it can be. Crucially, the aim of drag is not always to present yourself to the world as a genuine, ‘passing’ member of the opposite sex. Rather, drag queens use popular culture, a sphere typically saturated by dominant ideologies, to take legitimised tastes and twist them into camp, a “love of the exaggerated, the ‘off’, of things-being-what-they-are-not”. 3 This is certainly the case

1 Susanne Hofmann, 'The Politics of Sexuality in Latin America', Journal of Homosexuality, 31.1 (2012), 111-113 (p. 111)

2 Anne Duncan, Performance and Identity in the Classical World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

3 Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp‟, in Against Interpretation and Other Essays, (London: Vintage Books, 1994), pp. 275-292

Max Gerber

with well-known actors such as Divine, who performed in the John Waters films of the 1970s with an eyebrow so heavily arched that it barely missed the edges of her receding hairline. 4 Camp is moved by excess and ambition, and the aim of this aesthetic is not to be traditionally beautiful.

Divine doesn’t aim to be taken up by the male gaze and consumed without discovery. Instead, the sight of her is jarring, as she distorts our expectations of the monolithic western beauty standard through her gendered presentation. The visual forms and characteristics that make up femininity are used to transform her own image, creating an effect that is powerfully subversive. We recognise her as a woman because of certain signifiers she employs; i.e. her manipulation of body shape, clothing, hair, the hyperbolic application of her makeup. Quite clearly through the illusion, however, we experience her maleness. At this moment of encounter we are forced to confront this unique image of visible layers, charged preconceptions and emotions surrounding gender identity, which are ordinarily veiled in public life, as they reveal themselves to us, and we are forced to contemplate their origins.

Drag queens celebrate the dissonance of their image and hold it up for examination, daring their audience to view them as that most taboo of traits, a fake or imposter. This exposes a fundamental hypocrisy in modern society. Having a public image is by definition artificial. Instead of keeping that artificiality concealed, drag queens make it visible. In a sense, they are no more constructed than the rest of mainstream society. In this way, their performance responds to and shatters the idea that identity is something “integrated and whole”. 5 Or to quote a legendary drag queen, RuPaul: “You’re born naked and the rest is drag”. 6

Drag gains much of its power from this ability to make the concealed visible. I believe, however, that it is limiting to understand drag solely as a satire of its surrounding culture. Once a performer uses techniques of illusion to make us aware of the random and oppressive nature of dominant tastes, they are subsequently able to liberate themselves using these same techniques, aiming not to emulate a female identity, but to create something new. When critiqued and deconstructed into collective mythologies, masculinity and femininity become artistic palettes with which to explore identity.

It is true that drag both revolts and is revolted by establishment ideas towards gender and sexuality. It tells us that cohesive identity is a myth, and that a singular personal narrative is achieved only

4 Female Trouble, dir. by John Waters (New Line Cinema, 1974) 5 Anne Duncan in Performance and Identity in the Classical World 6 Steven P. Schacht, 'Beyond the Boundaries of the Classroom', Journal of Homosexuality, 46 (2004), 225-240 (p. 228)

Max Gerber

when we are able to conceptualise our truths and untruths as compatible. However, it also creates a new space through which we can view the human condition. A person in drag is given a blank canvas to play around with their identity by not only embodying different characters, but disparate sections and slices of them. If successful, then despite all of these paradoxical elements, a unique and direct connection is forged between performer and audience member, who recognises that beyond the dissonant visual layering lies a real person. Neither entirely real nor entirely false, drag queens comprise a complex selfhood that transcends labels and is legitimate and complete in the sheer fact of its existence. One could argue that this is the real ‘meaning’ behind drag. It is nothing less than a revolutionary declaration of their humanity.