I seek to question the supposed “normal” gender identities which engulf our lives and propose that they are just as constructed as those deemed “outside the box”. Visual media sells us more than products and representations, it tells us who we are and who we should be. Visual media both informs and creates a perfectly bisected society into which imperfection must be sorted. It sells us a lifestyle, values, an “ideal” image – it sells us the idea of “normalcy”.
My suggestion is that that there is no “ideal” or “normal” gender identity. Gender is instead a construction or shell around us, a performance. We all walk, talk and act in ways which consolidate an impression of being masculine or feminine, beyond the biological factors and drives that make us fundamentally male or female. We mimic what is deemed a “normal” and “ideal” gender identity just like drag performers. I believe that whilst we may conform to a consensually normal gender role, we are, in fact, all drag artists.
Feminist author Judith Butler, through her innovative theory of, “Gender Performativity” suggests that:
“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, 1990 p.33)
For Butler, gender is not an expression of some inner “core”, our identities are free-floating. She contends that gender is “performative” a series of acts; gestures and desires repeated over time to become habit. Gender becomes a parody: an imitation of an imitation that has no essential origin. Not who we are, rather what we do: an effect of our performances. The various acts create the idea and without those acts, there would be no gender at all.
Butler calls for ‘gender trouble’ arguing that we all enact a gender performance, traditional or not. It is not a question of whether to do a gender performance, rather its form. By divergence from the norm we may work to change the binary nature of masculinity and femininity.
For Butler, the cultural practices of drag attest to the performative nature of feminine and masculine identities, as well as the instability between sex and gender. The drag identity is neither masculine nor feminine, but a complex collective of characteristics that challenges societies traditionally polarized view of gender. The performance plays upon the distinction between the anatomy of the performer and the gender that is being performed. The entire drag identity is a caricature of the gender counterpart, revealing how stereotypical and fictitious hegemonic “norms” really are.
“In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative nature of gender itself-as well as its contingency” (Gender Trouble, 1990. P.137)
The drag performer is often stigmatized and marginalized as outside the “norm”, a hypocrisy if we all put on a feminine or masculine image.
Visual media bombards us with “ideals”, exceptions to which make visual media the site upon which a “semiotic war” will take place. Some media icons revel in this conflict, imitating the opposite gender and challenging the gender binary such as Madonna and Lady Gaga. Drag queen RuPaul is notably indifferent about gender-specific language and presents himself in both genders: “You can call me he. You can call me she. You can call me Regis and Kathie Lee; I don’t care! Just as long as you call me, me.”
Drag Parody in Icons
Before Kate Moss there was Twiggy, before Dita Von Teese there was Betty Page. Imitation and appropriating certain looks and behaviours has long been a part of our visual culture. “Normalcy” is reduced to parts, revived and remade with cyclic fashion trends further reinforcing the performative nature of even “normal” gender identities.
Race, class, sexuality and gender: Elvis’s appearance violated them all. Whether through his dyed hair, mascara, or his imitation of black music and style, Elvis was a mimic. The King of Rock would stuff his crotch with padding, a trick similarly employed by drag kings. From the beginning, Elvis was produced as a series of detachable body parts, each having an uncanny life of its own. The curling lip, the hips, the hairstyle, the pseudonymic “pelvis”, all impersonated with fanaticism to this day. Famous drag king Del LaGrace stated: “Elvis was the consummate male performer because his entire act was an imitation.”
With her platinum blonde hair, curvaceous body, glamorous red lipstick and that-much copied beauty spot, Marilyn Monroe was the epitome of femininity. These iconic attributes and the notion that “blondes have more fun” are, however, evident in periods long before the rise of Monroe in the 50’s. During the Renaissance period rubenesque women dominated the ideal female body image. Evidently, the persona of Marilyn manufactured by Norma Jeane was in itself a copy of a copy.
50 years after her death, Monroe is venerated still, forever referenced and imitated by an adoring drag performers and Hollywood starlets. Monroe remains on our screens with the ‘Inside Chanel’ campaign for Chanel N°5 depicted the star using authentic recordings and photographs. Dior have also revived her, as well as fashion icons-Grace Kelly and Marlene Dietrich.
Monroe was the personification of femininity but also of the stereotypical 50’s woman: vulnerable, sexual, submissive and beautiful. At that time, women were depicted as subservient whilst men were portrayed as dominant and sexually aggressive, something which is still prevalent within visual media today (show ads).
Advertising constantly re-presents the world to us, providing versions of ourselves that are healthier, happier and more successful. Influential in constructing gender roles, omnipresent advertising instils and reinforces the collective expectations of gender, beauty and “normalcy”. The result – body image, homophobia and sexism issues still permeate our culture. From our earliest interactions with the marketing machine, we become pigeon-holed into convenient target groups to exploit. A normalised population is good for business. Visual media has a strangle hold of our social reality and perceptions of “normal” gender identities. Thus, whilst drag queens and arguably drag kings are becoming more main stream the “ideals” depicted in adverts which engulf our lives, still deem them as “outside” the “norm”.
RuPaul and Photoshop
RuPaul – writer, actor, model, singer and author is also perhaps the most famous drag queen in the world today. Using his body and undeniable intellect in a quest to liberate people’s notions of “normal” beauty, RuPaul has built a successful career by accentuating all things feminine: dewy skin, big eyes-even bigger breasts, seductive gestures and immaculate make-up. An imitation of an “ideal” deemed elaborate and hyper-feminine and almost identical to the unattainable yet “ideal” depictions of women in advertisements.
Dalnet states, “…the images that are presented in advertising are designed to create an illusion, a fantasy ideal that will keep women continually consuming. The influential power of the diet, fashion, cosmetic and beauty industries and their advertising strategies target this…” (Dalnet IRC, 2002).
From infancy we are conditioned to believe we must employ enormous amounts of resources to achieve these ‘ideals’ or else be deemed a failure. Disappointment is inevitable as these images of “ideal” beauty and gender identity are false, the misleading outcomes of digital airbrushing and Photoshop. Too often these images of “ideal” femininity and masculinity are difficult to differentiate from the unadulterated pictures, and so are deemed “normal” representations. The sheer volume of the facsimile faces and bodies make these “archetypes” seem more and more achievable. In reality, women and men are edited to a staggering degree. As feminist author and filmmaker Jean Kilborne once stated: “They are never seen to have any scars or blemishes-indeed they have no pores!” (Killing Us Softly 3). Digital editing has become so extreme some advertisements have even been banned (show ads)
The heavy use of digital editing has distorted our ideas of “normal” masculinities and femininities. In reality, these visuals are just as constructed and accentuated as the appearances of drag queens, Photoshop becoming digital Drag. “Evolution” launched by Unilever in 2006 was a part of Dove’s campaign for Real Beauty to promote their Self-Esteem fund. The clip takes us on a 60 second journey from real to retouched, reinforcing how easy it is to distort our perceptions of beauty through clever lighting, make-up and digital manipulation.
By possessing performative genders and styles, we may all be conforming and expressing stereotypical gender “norms”, even by direct opposition to them. The act of drag serves to reinforce these conventions in an overstated way that could as easily be seen as over-conforming as being deemed “outside the box”. Gender ideals and “normalities” engulf our day to day visual culture thus impacting our perceptions of drag kings and queens. In reality it is possible that everything is parody and everything we do is simply a variation on what has been done before. As stated in RuPaul’s autobiography, “Lettin’ It All Hang Out”:
“We’re born naked, and the rest is drag.”
However, due to the time allowance and wanting to convey my ideas more concisely this script was amended. Also, after showing my initial presentation I was advised to remove certain parts to save time as well as to make this piece more fluid.