“Drag is the theoretical and deconstructive social practice that analyzes these structures from within, by putting in question the “naturalness” of gender roles through the discourse of clothing and body parts” (Vested Interests, p.151)
“Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a hugely rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being” (Gender Trouble, p.33)
Drag: A man/woman who impersonates the opposite gender, often exaggerating gender “norms”
Drag Queen: A male who dresses in feminine drag becoming a caricature of a stereotypical woman often for the purposes of entertaining.
Drag King: A female who dresses in masculine drag and personifies male gender stereotypes as part of their persona.
Drag artists highlight the constructedness and performative nature of gender: reinforcing that everything: acts, gestures, looks, styles and behaviours really are a parody. There is no “ideal”. There is no “core” gender for the sexes. Thus, everything becomes an imitation and Butler’s gender performativity theory is-or should-be deemed the real normality.
Butler suggests that gender is constructed through our own repetitive performance of gender. Through the repetition of these stylized bodily acts establishes the appearance of an essential core gender but this is an illusion. For Butler, acts, gestures and enactments are performative in the sense that the identity they express are merely “fabrications” manufactured and sustained through bodily signs and discursive means. Thus, drag presents the ideal example of gender being a construction. Drag queens (and kings) express more aggressively what culture and society deem a ‘normal’ of femininity and masculinity. Their entire persona relies on imitation, impersonation and reappearance, thus accentuating the ideas and representations with all have of what is feminine and masculine. The act of drag relies heavily on the beauty myth, that there is an “ideal” but in doing so highlight the performative nature even of “natural” identities.
In “The Beauty Myth” by Naomi Wolf she writes, “’Beauty’ is not universal or changeless, though the West pretends that all ideals of female beauty stem from one Platonic Ideal Woman”. (The Beauty Myth p.488) For Wolf there is no “ideal” beauty, echoing the suggestions of Butler that there is no “core” gender. Gender expectancies and stereotypes have been cultivated by culture and society and because they are deemed acceptable and repeated over and over we conform.
Wolf also states, “Images of women in the beauty myth are reductive and stereotyped. At any moment there are a limited number of recognizable “beautiful” faces.” (The Beauty Myth p.50) The repetition of stereotypical images of women as well as men creates the idea that there are certain behaviours, styles and looks which are acceptable and deemed “beautiful” for the sexes. For Wolf these stereotypes and constructs are all part of “the beauty myth” these “ideals” are not real. Jean Kilbourne in Killing Us Softly 3 states that, “Women are acceptable only if we are young, thin, white, beautiful, carefully groomed and polished and any deviation from that ideal is met with a lot of contempt and hostility” [14.30]. If there is no “ideal” beauty, the hostility and contempt that drag artists are faced with is utterly unfair and unnecessary. “Normal” men and women alike conform to the images that engulf our lives because this is what we’re told will make us acceptable, powerful and more importantly sexy. In reality, such “norms” cease to exist.
Marjorie Garber in “Vested Interests” proposes that if transvestism offers a critique of binary sex and gender distinctions, “…because it denaturalizes, destabilizes, and defamiliarizes sex and gender signs”(p.147). Drag queens accentuate all stereotypical “normal” and “ideal” femininities whilst drag kings accentuate all stereotypical masculinities but both maintain, although hidden, their biological sex. The deconstructive nature of transvestitism/drag is what makes it interesting. We are faced with something which is aggressively reflecting the “norms” and “ideals” that engulf our lives day to day but drag offers a quest of discovery, “Will his penis slip?” which is an exciting and challenging game. Thus, most drag artists are in the entertainment industry, elevated to objects of enjoyment, because their appearances are deemed exciting and different.
Female impersonators Danny La Rue or Charles Pierce evidence how drag can be an important destabilizing element that, in performance, “questions the limits of representation” states Oscar Montero in “Lipstick Vogue: The Politics of Drag”. Montero goes onto say, “The imperfection of her imitation is what makes her appealing, what makes her eminently readable. Foolproof imitations of women by men, or men by women are curious, but not interesting. There has to be some telltale, not the gross five o’clock shadow or the limp wrist of the amateur, but something readable, a foot that is too big, a subtle gesture or the peculiar grain of the voice”. This could be why drag queens and drag kings are elevated to something peculiar as opposed to “normal”. They are not “foolproof”. “Normal” men and women we assume are foolproof, their sex, gender and sexuality all reflected one another. However, even “normal” men and women conform to certain “ideals”.
If everyone is conforming to the idea of an “ideal” there should be a big issue with the appearance of drag queens, kings or transvestites. We all possess performative genders and styles, we are all conforming and expressing stereotypes, so the act of drag is not unique at all: we are all drag artists. Wigs, false breasts, cosmetics surgeries, socks down men boxers, protein supplements, chicken fillets, fake eye lashes, hair dye, make-up, stockings and so on are used by “normal” males and females, so the presence of them on a drag artist really shouldn’t be a big deal. Our “normal” genders are as constructed as transvestites and even transsexuals. In fact even those mainstream celebrity idols are rampant cross-dressers and drag artists and have been throughout history.
Butler, J (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge.
Garber, M (1991) Vested Interests: Cross-dressing and Cultural Anxiety. London: Routledge. 120-161
Wolf, N (1991) The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women. Vintage. 50
Montero, O (1988) Lipstick Vogue: The Politics of Drag Radical America 22,1:41
Kilbourne, J (2002). Killing Us Softly 3 Advertising’s Image of Women. Northampton, Mass, Media Education Foundation