Doing Drag Readings

severely-mame
Drag Queen Severely Mame. I just like this picture, it doesn’t have much to do with the content of the post.

My PhD thesis is becoming more structured in my head in terms of what I want to explore and the time period I want to consider. There are going to be two main threads of argument that work off of each other. My first line of inquiry explores the Gothic drag, considering how the Gothic intersect with drag and what the Gothic does the drag. Particularly, I want to explore how aspects of monstrosity colludes with drag. There is a wealth of texts that explore transformation in the Gothic, and a wealth of texts that explore Queer Gothic, but I have yet to find something that brings the two together in the context of drag. When drag performers and acts like Sharon Needles, The Boulet Brothers, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the entire cast of Dragula, and pop culture phenomenon Elvira (and to some extent Morticia Addams… the Jennifer Huston one in particular), I really don’t understand why no one (as far as I can find) talks about drag, and that subset of drag that is monstrous gender performances, within the various queer, transformation, Gothic, or fashion theory fields of academia.

As I’m reading more and more (currently, I’m reading Majorie Garber’s “Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety), I’m starting to notice patterns when academic talk about queer gender performances, gendered clothing, and causing ruptures at sites on the gender binary. Mostly, I’m noticing how a lot of these texts were written in the late 80s and 90s, a period that is synonymous for me with opaque and lengthy academic writing. Undoubtedly, this is because of the establishment of theory in the arts and humanities critical toolkits. In my area of interest, no doubt I’ll have to go and read “Gender Trouble” at some point, though I’ll put it off as long as possible, because Butler is the queen of opaque and lengthy academic writing. But one other thing that is synonymous with the 80s and 90s academia, is a kind of underlying misunderstanding of queerness, clothing and gender performance (I’d even argue a casualised homophobia is fairly frequent). I have yet to fully untangle and concretely think about all these misunderstandings, but my ultimate pet peeve is this god awful tendency for these texts to regard “Cross-dressing”, “drag”, “transvestite”, “transsexual”, and “transgender” as interchangeable synonymous term. This is a real pain when the second line of argument in my PhD intends to use drag as a tool for reading and interrogating the Gothic. Garber frequently does this in “Vested Interests” and it really gets on my nerves, because the text is otherwise promising (this will be laid out in a proper review of the text when I’ve finished it.)

Viewing these terms as interchangeable degrades each terms meaning. It’s not just the mild transphobia of equating “cross-dressing” with “transsexual” that’s makes these texts miss points and make mistakes. It’s more the fact that critics following on from the initial 80s/90s gender performance and queer texts keep doing it. Transgender/transsexual has largely been dropped and isn’t seen as interchangeable with the other terms (good), but “Cross-dressing”, “drag”, and “transvestite” are largely perceived as meaning the same thing. I imagine no one thinks it’s important to draw discrepancies between these things, but I imagine anyone who knows a damn thing about drag or transvestism probably knows those discrepancies are present, and important. So, in my limited knowledge, I’ll lay down how I intend to approach and use these terms, for the sake of “doing drag readings”. This is subject to change as I continue to research and develop.

“Cross-dressing” is probably the easiest because it’s the most explicit. I see cross-dressing as simply the act of wearing clothes that cross a boundary. Largely, this is the gender boundary, but I don’t see why it can’t be considered cross-dressing when someone crosses a boundary like class, status, or something else (was Cinderella a cross-dresser?) Cross-dressing does not have to cause a rupture in the boundary, it does not have to have any wider political stance. In my opinion, cross-dressing is the act of dressing in such a way that the individual crosses a boundary.

“Transvestite” as far as I am aware is the fetishisation of cross-dressing. It turn the person cross-dressing on. Again, this largely is known to cross the gender binary. Dressing as a woman turns the man underneath on. Again, I don’t see why transvestite can’t relate to other kinds of boundary crossing. Is a “Puppy” a transvestite because they are aroused by “being” an animal? That’s for someone with more interest in the subject to dissect. The main point still stands. The act of crossing a boundary through dress is fetishised for the transvestite.

“Drag”, for me, is the more complex one, but again, the distinction from the other two terms is fairly simple. To me, drag is the simultaneous celebration of queerness and mockery of heteronormativity through the act of cross-dressing and explicit gender performance. I’m being intentionally vague here because I need this idea to encompass drag queens, drag kings, bio-drag (I’m not a fan of the term “bioqueen” as it takes drag out of the title, so assumes the “bioqueen” in question is not doing drag and therefore not mocking heteronormativity or celebrating queerness), and other drag performance styles. When you get into the specifics of each type of drag style, there will undoubtedly be more nuance to these actions. I also think that that the mockery and celebration elements are distinct from each other, not a “two-side of the same coin” situation, though the drag performers probably do both at the same time anyway. A drag performer does not get aroused by being in drag (though you can be a drag queen and a transvestite). A drag queen mocks heteronormativity by explicitly performing as a “woman”; a pageant queen does this by participating in pageant and becoming a “beautiful woman” (usually with heavily exaggerated female features to hide the man… again, something to untangle); a horror queen does it by becoming a “feminine monster”; bio-drag performers are women performing as “women”… mockery.

Celebration takes the form through the overt and explicit queerness. Drag is rife with coded language (a reclamation/evolution of the coded language lgbt+ people would use back when being lgbt+ was illegal) and reclaimed terms (“queer”, “faggot”, “bitch”, “cunt”, drag reclaims queer and feminine insults and makes them positive and affirmative). Drag performers are explicitly queer and they take center stage at Pride events for that reason. Mocking heteronormativity and celebrating queerness rupture the gender binary, which is reflected back onto the drag performer and encoded in their clothing, character, makeup, and all those other things which encompass drag. The differences between these terms are important because with such discrepancies, we can begin to unpick and perform solid critical and cultural analyses.

Now, with these discrepancies somewhat outlined, go and look at pictures of drag queens and think about the different ways they celebrate queerness and mock heteronormativity.

I want to do more with this, but I’ve exhausted my brain writing this and I think it’ll be two full blog posts so I can properly begin exploring this. I should also probably try and write these upcoming “readings” posts with a little more care than my usual dribblings. I think I’ll do one on Gothic Drag, looking at Elvira as a key example of that, and one on Drag Gothic, considering if the book “The Lie Tree” features drag (I think it does). These two upcoming posts would work nicely off each other as they both focus on women performing doing drag, which is quite handy for me.