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“i rolled right in to the local DKB”

February 27, 2008

I was talking queer theory with some people the other day – discussing an article (Lesbian Feminism and the Gay Rights Movement: Another View of Male Supremacy, Another Separatism by Marilyn Frye). It is an interesting, intelligent and well-written take, though i heartily disagree with most of it – or at least think it is outdated. It’s also the sort of thing you could discuss for days, at least. But one of the things that came up in our discussion was drag. One of the guys said that, while he can enjoy drag, he always has trouble, intellectually or politically, with it because, what is the difference, conceptually between drag and blackface? That question really threw me. I’ll get back to my thoughts on that, but for some background: Frye doesn’t directly mention drag, but she addresses the general gay-male adoption of the feminine,

It is a casual and cynical mockery of women, for whom femininity is the trappings of oppression, but it is also a kind of play, a toying with that which is taboo…What gay male affectation of femininity seems to me to be is a kind of serious sport in which men may exercise their power and control over the feminine…Blatant and flagrant gay male effeminacy ridicules straight men’s anxious and superstitious avoidance of the feminine…It can be a kind of fun which involves mockery not of women or of straight men but of the whole institution of gender.

She only discusses the gender play in one direction (male-to-female), but i think much, if not all, of her analysis applies to drag kings as well. First, i would say to her analysis, “yes.” It is probably all of these thing in combination, or can be, but i think she left off one aspect, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” – that drag is also done out of a respect for or envy of the other sex. To me, the most important by far is “mockery…of the whole institution of gender;” the taboo aspect.

No, i actually think the most important aspect of drag is entertainment. Performers do drag, like all (most?) performance, because it is fun! And the audience is there because it’s entertaining to watch. That aside, though, let’s get back to arguing over the serious parts.

From a personal (audience and female) perspective, i have a lot of trouble understanding how people find drag queens offensive. But that is part of me – i find very few things offensive – and i strongly believe in the importance of intent. That is, i do not care in the least what kind of terrible things you say if i know, or your actions show, that you do not truly believe them (e.g. dead baby jokes).

From a personal (drag king) perspective, it is very much a simple matter of fun – the fun of fucking around with gender. It is also making fun of men, but, to the extent that it is, it is making fun more of machissimo than of men. It is also a bit of an homage. At the same time that we take advantage of the “men are gross assholes” stereotype we embrace the chivalrous stereotype, and it has a facet of actually understanding a male perspective (through all the goofy…i totally understand why guys “rearrange” now). And you could tell at our last show that the straight guys appreciated that (among other things).

For the most part, i would think that all of these things would be equally applicable to kings and queens. Except for the issue of male/masculine privilege, which adds two dimensions. One, it is okay for girls to make fun of guys, but not vice versa. Two, well of course women would want to be men, but why the hell would men want to act/dress like women. The later is complete bullshit, but the former is only partially so. Which brings us to one difference between drag and blackface: that it is okay to make fun of groups equal or superior to your own, but becomes less and less okay as the groups are farther below your own in societal pecking order (i only half agree, but this is pretty well accepted in our society). From that perspective, on the assumption that all of these are solely mockery, it is fine for women to make fun of men (drag kings), and kind of bad for men to make fun of women (queens), but it’s pretty fucking despicable for whites to make fun of blacks when slavery is still legal (the heyday of blackface entertainment), or before the Civil Rights Act (by which time it had pretty much – not completely – ended).

The other defense i would offer is, essentially, self-awareness; that it is not simple mockery. (Rather, it is complex mockery.) Such as what Frye says about drag queens mocking both femininity and straight men’s fear of femininity. Yes, that is making fun of someone, but to mock both sides of the issue is, in essence, to mock the fact that it is an issue – “the whole institution of gender.” Self-awareness, also, in that you are making a fool of yourself by virtue of performing stereotypes you know to be untrue and by simply being inappropriate. It is in this way similar to modern manifestations of blackface (usually in (adult-oriented) cartoon form these days, it seems). It is no longer making fun of blacks, but making fun of blackface itself; of the fact that our culture was once really that blatantly racist.

But, then, part of me thinks he’s a bit right in the comparison. Which is bothersome. I suppose what it comes down to is that i feel that it all rests on subjective things like intent (because i’m a hopeless relativist), which means that he is partly right. He is right whenever the person performing is not sympathetic, in which case i agree with him that it’s inappropriate. I think.

Lady Brett
“Drag King Bar” – Bitch and Animal

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