Seeing a friend post a picture to Facebook of himself in drag, with the caption “She’s got legs”. I commented that “He’s got legs” and he responded by letting me know that he is happy to be thought of as a woman while in drag.
It got me thinking.
Men wear drag. Why is it that we pretend this makes them women? Only men dress outlandishly as a caricature of femininity.
Surely we look at these images and see males.
There are men who dress as Barbara Streisand and Bette Middler, paying tribute to remarkable trail-blazing women of show biz. It certainly takes talent to transform a man into a simulacra of a well-known female and for him to study and emulate her every gesture with precision. He belts out their best numbers while cinched in a corset and tucked into lycra pantyhose. Hats off to that bloke, a true performer who’d make it in any musical.
Once upon a time, in 1992
RuPaul is a proud “female impersonator” who became famous for his glam image of womanhood. For being very good at drag without impersonating a particular woman. He wasn’t alone in the glam and sexy look – Madonna had been doing suspenders in public for a decade. In the 1990s he sparked interest and controversy by being very, very, ridiculously good-looking in a high-cut bikini.
In full-swing, he could have been a less-wholesome Whitney Houston. He made no bones about being a man. A pretty man, a fashionable man with legs for days and a glamorous wardrobe. But a man.
Only a man spends 6 hours donning a a costume to be a less-wholesome Whitney Houston. Whitney just slips on her dress and her smile lights up the room.
Bitchy and Scratchy
“Nine out of 10 of the people who audition for our show, they’ll say these words — and it’s funny ’cause we all laugh every time we hear it — they say, ‘Honey, I will cut a b—-!’” he told Vanity Fair.RuPaul about his show RuPaul’s Drag Race, Vanity Fair
For men, shouting “giiiiiirl frieeeeeend” and calling one another bitch seems to be a core aspect of drag. Why? On which planet do women speak in this way?
ABC tells us that the best put downs from from drag queens and politicians, but goes on to quote zero drag queens (though a fair whack of the great Saint Paul Keating).
I believe the cattiness originates from an innate defensiveness. Drag queens started as homosexual men acting out their persona as “not real men”. The logic goes “homosexuals aren’t real men; since I’m not a man then am I a woman? I’ll show you what a woman is”. And then being prickly, bitchy and defensive on all sides because he’s ‘not a man’, and not a woman either. The liminal gatekeeper between worlds, but not in either.
In the iconic Aussie film “The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert“, Hugo Weaving’s character journeys across Australia to confront the material fact that he has a son, he is indeed a man not a stylised barbie doll. He ceases to be liminal and becomes real, material, with relationships that require the bitchy defences to come down. He slips off his wig, humble and vulnerable, and waits for his boy to judge him a poor father. Like Pinocchio perhaps, he is a now real boy. He can’t afford to keep being the bitch.
Participating in patriarchy makes women defensive and bitchy like that because they have to compete for men as a resource. We aren’t all sisters all the time. Our looks are up for scrutiny, our academic credentials, our performance in the sack and our love of manly games like football. Have ever heard a man looking for a wife who talks about his list? “And she likes footy: tick, tick, tick”.
But women aren’t always on the defensive. We have struggles in common and recognise that on many levels, being a bitch won’t get you far.
Drag is a Boy’s Club
Women aren’t permitted to do drag. The 2020 article “Can Women Be Drag Queens“, Vivian Manning-Schaffel asks “some women have been inspired to try it out. But should they?”. The article goes on to talk about how for women, drag is about smashing the patriarchy by becoming a caricature sex doll.
She talks about the aspects of drag that appeal to women – building community through being (no joke) a bio-queen.
Quoting Peppermint, a drag queen and trans identified man, offers some insights into women who do drag. On why women might do it, he notes that most of his clientele are women and “eventually they will emulate the people they admire’.
Additionally he notes
… drag requires a willingness, or even a desire, to challenge gender norms, challenge the patriarchy, look like a fool in a dress and a wig. … There’s only a few who can and I think most of those people are women.Peppermint, https://www.shondaland.com/inspire/a32734264/can-women-be-drag-queens/
So, women who do drag are emulating men, and are good at it because they readily allow themselves to act like fools. Smash that patriarchy ladies.
The wikipedia article on female drag queens calls them “Faux Queens”. Only a woman can be a faux queen.
Only a man can be a queen.
RuPaul has banned females from his show. Why?
“Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it, because at its core it’s a social statement and a big f-you to male-dominated culture. So for men to do it, it’s really punk rock, because it’s a real rejection of masculinity.”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faux_queen
I actually like this reason. When men can confront, play with and subvert masculinity, we’re on the way to them figuring out that it’s all a charade. That there’s not much between pants and a skirt. Masculine dress a consensus of fabric, masculine behaviours might prove just as evanescent. In the 80’s, glam and hair metal bands grasped masculinity by the cojones and said “enough is enough”. They aren’t queens. They are manly men, taking on “feminine” dress as an F U to the idea of what a man should be.
While Dee Snider (right) from Twisted Sister dressed in a garish drag designed to shock, was singing “We’re not gonna take it”, Poison (left) sang
What’s got you so jumpy?
Why can’t you sit still, yeah?
Like gasoline, you wanna pump me
And leave me when you get your fill, yeah
– Unskinny Bop, Poison
Like gasoline, you wanna pump me. Sure I do.
Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it
I don’t think RuPaul’s drag race cuts the mustard with respect to subversion and danger. As a queen of the 90’s, RuPaul made people question. Not “what is a woman” but “is glitter what makes you female?'”. Also “whoa dude, that chick is hot; what it’s not a chick?”
There’s no danger in this lot. Except the danger they might fall to their death from the towering shoes.
I’ll admit to enjoying some drag, and retching at some drag also. I admire the showmanship of some performers, the really good performers. I’m not keen on the casual bitchy high-wigged sex dolls who’s talent is putting stabbing people in the eye with a set of fake bazoongas (or breasts, for the normal people in my readership).
You have to admit some drag names are hilarious – Helena Handbasket, Fibonaci Sequins, Allison Chains, and Patti O’Furniture Dora Jar to name but a few. There’s great creativity to be had in mucking about with costumes and stage personas. I love dressing up (down and sideways) and think more people should have fun with their clothing. Drag is a part of grown up play with clothing.
But does drag challenge the patriarchy? I don’t believe so. It plays to the pornified image of female sexuality. No drag queen gets a period. No drag queen grunts and s*ts himself during labour. A drag queen is a ‘woman’ for a few hours on a Friday night.
Men like RuPaul went a fair way to expose the fact “feminine” is simply costume, but few people got the message.