Book Review: Gender Trouble

I have been afraid to read this book. My previous encounters with Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble have been unpleasant. For some reason, lecturers seemed to pick the more opaque quotes from Gender Trouble to bring it into their critical analysis of texts. That, or I just remember them because of how much I struggled with them. That, and a constant stream of comments, virtual and in discussion with people comfortably adept at gender studies, always seemed to reel at Judith Butler, framing Gender Trouble in particular as a necessary evil of postmodern gender theory and criticism. Gender Trouble is an important work, but it is horrible to read has been an impression firmly embedded onto my idea of the work. So I have been afraid to read, and when I did… it actually wasn’t that bad. Maybe I made what other people had said about Gender Trouble become exaggerated as I half remember actual discussion, maybe Butler can write… maybe (maybe) I’m actually smarter than I give myself credit for and maybe the text is more accessible than I had made it out to be in my head. I don’t know, but I’ve read it, so let’s review it.

What I liked

Unsurprisingly, Butler is really good at talking about gender. There are extended segments where Butler focuses on gender and what she thinks gender is and how it manifests. Those aren’t the opaque parts of Gender Trouble. These moments provide helpful insight into what the Butler identifies as gender performativity.

There was also some discussion of drag, which was nice for me.

What I loathed

I hate psychoanalysis. The extended discussions of Lacan and Freud and Kristeva were really dull, convoluted and were so hard to read. This was the Butler that I was expecting for the whole of Gender Trouble. It was not for me.

There was also that usual 80/90s critical way of writing that makes needlessly hard to read, mostly with the psychoanalysis stuff.

What I learnt

I learnt more about gender performativity than I have ever before and I think it will inform my critical practice a lot. I’ve learnt that drag is consistently deprived of critical attention even from works that supposedly derive a large source of their inspiration from this. Butler makes reference to the significance of drag to informing Gender Trouble in the second preface, but then there are only 4-5 pages that talk about drag in some critical way. That was kind of disappointing, but also keeps my point that “no one has given drag proper critical attention”, so my PhD idea is still original (that’s important, right?). I learnt why this text is important, so that it was nice to see that the hype was worth it.

I learnt that I think the following point is often overlooked when teaching people about Gender Trouble. Butler spends a large amount of time discussing psychoanalytic methods of gender construction. I think that Butler is doing all that work to show how much psychoanalysis is overdetermined, tautological, and basically a load of shit. I think Butler takes psychoanalytic thought to the conclusion of its internal logic to demonstrate how ridiculous those ideas (in relation to gender) actually are. I might be wrong, or it might be super obvious and I’m actually quite thick. I don’t know, but to me Gender Trouble spends so much time going on about psychoanalysis to effectively diminish its monolithic hold over gender ideas by taking it to its internally logical conclusion to demonstrate the stupidity of those ideas. Maybe I’m wrong and actually Butler is an active proponent of psychanalytic thought, but I think it makes sense given the value Butler puts on parody that Butler would effectively parody psychoanalytical criticism

 

Personally, I don’t think I can add anything truly new or insightful into what criticisms of Gender Trouble are already out there. It’s been around for like 20 years, so I’ll leave it at that.

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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.

Queer sexualities and Gothic Drag – The Boulet Brothers

In my first blog post, I touched on how Queer, more specifically queerness embodied by drag, tends towards horror, the Gothic, and monstrosity. Well, I mentioned the Boulet Brothers and that I’d talk about them anyway, so this is that. The Boulet Brothers are fixtures of California’s underground punk/fetish scene, identifying themselves as ‘fetish queens’ on occasion. It makes sense. They met in a fetish club, their costumes always have latex and other fetishistic fabrics somewhere in them, and their drag nights (Beardo Weirdo, Dragula, and a third one I’ve forgotten right now) very much celebrate countercultural punk attitudes with a queer drag flair.

At the same time, every image of them that I see makes me think Gothic more than fetish. To some degree the two intersect, but I’d like to put forward my case as to why they make me think Gothic. First, their signature look is ‘creepy twins’ all over (‘the house down’ if you want to be draggy about it). Eerie twins abound in the Gothic. I don’t really feel the need to support that with evidence, when it is such a common trope. It becomes extra creepy when we factor in how their uncanny resemblance is achieved through the tools of drag. Skilled with makeup and costume symmetry, the Boulet Brothers become creepy twins. They also look hauntingly stunning (I hate using such stereotypical Gothic essay words like haunting), embellishing this eeriness further. They frequently feature a slit throat motif, either with makeup (below), necklaces (macabre and humorous pearl ones probably), and contacts that either black out their eyes totally or colour their irises unnatural shades.

boulet-brothers

(unclockable, horror women demons from a Guillermo Del Toro Crimson Peak knock off B-movie. I LIVE)

What excites me about the Boulet Brothers particularly is that they excellently support my notion that queerness is monstrous to heteronormativity (and that that is used is a celebratory fashion in drag). Their identification as ‘fetish queens’, intersecting the taboos of fetish sexuality and queerness, manifests through monstrosity. The Boulet Brothers present an interesting amalgamation of sexuality that deviates from established social norms, using Gothic aesthetics. Their carnivalesque drag nights effectively become spaces to celebrate deviant sexuality, and their use of Gothic aesthetics highlights the inherent perception in heteronormative culture of deviant/queer sexualities as monstrous. Obviously, carnival is something of a double-edged sword as the celebratory space can quickly be demarcated outside the norm, blocked off and isolated to the realm of the carnival (or clubs in this case). That said, drag is more overtly becoming part of pop culture, primarily because of the appropriation of queer/black (in America at least the two have had a consistent relationship since at least the emergence of the ball scene in the 70/80s) language by predominantly white pop culture media outlets (a fancy way to say Buzzfeed uses RPDR gifs a lot and the term ‘Shade’ incorrectly). There is currently a competition show on YouTube hosted by the Boulet Brothers called ‘Dragula: The Search for the World’s First Drag Supermonster’. (I honestly can’t tell if the budget was very tight for the show, or if they’re deliberately evoking B-movie horror. Either way, it’s good). The internet is very much the best medium for queer carnival’s embodied by the Boulet Brothers to break the carnival’s isolationist tendencies.

(Watch this damn trailer and don’t for one second tell me that queer sexualities aren’t laced with the Gothic in the Boulet Brothers at the very least.)

Writing academic things like this is hard without scholarly material available to me to back up my thoughts, so forgive me if certain critics would work really well with these thoughts.

I guess what I’m trying to get at with all this is that gothic drag works often as a vehicle for queer and often deviant sexualities. The monstrousness highlights the otherness of queer/deviant sexualities, and drag works to celebrate that otherness. Creepy as all hell it may look, it demonstrates the positivity of drag and how monstrosity forms a very particular part of that positivity. As I mentioned in the first post, Sharon Needles’ songs often imbricate celebratory attitudes to queerness and queer sexuality, and then mix in Gothic horror motifs to challenge the perceptions of monstrousness that queer and so-called deviant sexualities permeate heteronormative culture. The Boulet Brothers demonstrate that well, because their drag intersects queerness with fetish and monstrousness, celebrating their monstrousness, and throwing it almost defiantly at a culture that would otherwise stigmatise queerness and fetishism.

Again, there is a lot to unpack in all of this, and I definitely would do better with some resources, but at least my ideas are stored somewhere other than in my head. What I want to think about with the Boulet Brothers is: What Gothic do they invoke in their drag? How does drag alter the Gothic? How does Gothic alter drag? And what is the result of all this?

boulet-brothers-2-jpg

“Legendary” and Gothic Drag

This is an idea I’ve been playing around with in my head for a while. “Legendary” and “Iconic” are words thrown around in drag seemingly all the time, and they’re both very flexible terms. It can reference certain drag performers, performances, looks, films, and so on. It seems to me, in some part, to be a way of establishing, for want of a better word, a canon of drag and to work to create referential cultural moments with drag/queer/LGBT (sub)cultures. I’m not sure. All I know is that the following are some prime examples of “legendary” drag things in action:

Films:

Obviously, the legendary films relating to drag are Paris is Burning and Pink Flamingos (though this may be because Divine herself is an icon). I don’t really know what makes them iconic beyond the fact that they achieved a mainstream level of success for a sub/counter cultural performance style that is drag, punk and the ballroom scene to varying degrees.

I’ll likely post about film at a later date when I’ve give it a little more though because there’s definitely more to these reference points than just them being queer films (and drag queens draw on traditionally heterosexual/normative film, tv and lit as well, so I’ll need to think about it more anyway).

Queens:

Iconic and Legendary queens abound. James St. James makes a point in one of his ‘transformations’ episode on YouTube about queens being “legendary” in certain regions and for a limited time, so being truly “legendary” is something that is constantly worked on for queens to retain their relevance. That said, there are certainly “legendary” queens now, thanks to things like RuPaul”s Drag Race providing a platform for queens to generate an iconic, legendary status. If I were to cite “Legendary” queens, I would undoubtedly have to include breakout stars of RPDR like Raven and Jujubee, Raja, Latrice Royale, Ongina, Sharon Needles, Alaska Thunderfvck 5000, Jinkx Monsoon, BenDeLaCreme, Bob the Drag Queen, Violet Chachki, and so on. In addition, there are queens from RPDR and more general internet and television fame like Kim Chi and Willam to add to that list. Finally, there are the queens who have made a name for themselves and achieved a legendary kind of status like RuPaul, Lady Bunny, Bianca Del Rio (also a winner of RPDR), Lily Savage, Divine, and Dame Edna Everage. These queens are all so stunningly vibrant and excel in so many varied ways that comparison between them isn’t begged but may be necessary later on for investigative purposes. They are legendary for their impressions on audiences, their skills in certain facets of drag, and for other reasons I haven’t really thought about.

It seems that “Legendary” encompasses a kind of non-fame, or maybe anti-fame?. “Legendary” Queens are famous and revered in their very small circles. “Drag will never be mainstream” is something that I’m paraphrasing, but RuPaul says it often enough. “Legendary” status is memorable, culturally impactful, those regular famous this. But it is also inherently queer and countercultural. To be “legendary” is to be a queer kind of famous, both in the sense of actually being queer but also in the old use of queer as strange (if that makes any kind of sense). It speaks and appeals and becomes famous because of its queerness, and in heteronormative culture that also shuns it. I don’t  really know how to explain it, because “Legendary” things (in my experience) also bring up physical and mental reactions in me. Take the “Legendary” Tandi Iman Dupree performance below. This is a performance I have watched many times and it still makes my brain scream “yasssssss” very loudly. It makes my head move and my mouth drop. If I was partial to it, I would probably snap my fingers viciously and cheer every time it happened (and if I weren’t in public). It invokes a physical and emotional response that celebrates queerness and is queerness embodied in itself. A man in a wonder woman costume fell from the ceiling into a split, broke her heel and continued a performance of spins, kicks, dance moves and choreographed launching, all whilst perfectly lip-synching “Holding out for a Hero”. If that doesn’t make you go “yassssssss” and doesn’t evoke a physical and emotional response, you’re probably a happy heterosexual who’s never experienced a sudden release and celebration of their sexuality. But I think that’s what “Legendary” is, to some degree anyway. And it comes out in so many ways, so let’s get to the bit I want to talk about the most: when monsters are brought into drag…

(YES MISS TANDI)

So, if “Legendary” equates to queer in every sense of the word iconic/famous moment, then it makes perfect sense that monsters and monstrosity quickly become iconic looks. There are a plethora of looks and Queens I can draw on for this, but none really do this specifically as well as Sharon Needles. I could make reference to the Boulet Brother here or British Queens like Meth and Bruise, NYC Queens like Severely Mame, and more I probably don’t know, but Needles really does monstrous drag the best. The Boulet Brothers I’m gonna talk about in a different post when I’ve put more thought into monstrosity’s relationship to fetish in what I’m broadly labelling as Gothic Drag. Now, miss Needles.

Take this for example:

That runway is “Legendary” because of it’s spectacle, because nothing like this had been done before through a televisual medium (Drag Race has always had a difficult relationship with certain drag styles… Sharon kind of changed that).  It’s “Legendary” because it’s a moment that is so famous, and it is queerness in so many senses of the words. It’s a zombie, with blood pouring down its face, but there’s still drag makeup contouring, and heels. A zombie. In heels. It’s audacious and brilliant, beautiful, queer and uncanny. In a word, “Legendary”. Okay, I’ll try and be critical and not just gush over this look. Sharon does this constantly. Her aesthetic, in her words, is “beautiful, spooky, and stupid”. She has Lovecraftian looks, vampire looks, zombie looks. She’s dragged up Freddy Kreuger and Poltergeist.

Monstrosity, for Needles, lends itself well to “Legendary” status. I’m not fully sure why, but I think there are multiple reasons. Monstrous bodies are Other to “(hetero)normal” bodies, so they interpolate well with bodies indicted with queerness, as in drag queens. Does it create something new, smushing monsters with queerness? Yes, but I don’t think it’s as simple as Queer monsters, because LGBTQIA bodies are already queer monsters. I think it brings those anxieties to the surface by fully realising the monstrous and queer sexuality (more on that in fetish and gothic and the Boulet Brothers). And also, using iconic monsters in this way also takes them from their traditional heterosexual context. I’m not suggesting Bram Stoker was queer or anything… what I’m trying to get at is, gothic drag appropriates the queerness of monstrosity, intersects that with the existing monstrousness of non-heterosexuality, and compounds it into a body that celebrates its otherness (I think this is also why many queer music videos create spaces where gayness for want of a better word is on display and celebrated as well… Very few of Needles’ songs/videos don’t bring sex(uality) into it as well). In turn, this affords its “Legendary” status, because its queerness embodied, celebrated, and made famous (kind of). And by celebrating queer monstrosity, reappropriating it via dragged out monsters from heteronormative culture, the practice of Gothic Drag becomes inherently celebratory in a lot of ways. I’m not really sure where it goes beyond that and I definitely need to unpack all of these ideas more and research them more, but I think that’s the basis of my thoughts to do with “Legendary”/“Iconic” moments and the Gothic at the moment. So… yeah.

Also, I’ll do a proper post that provides more kinds of “Legendary” or “Iconic”, but I think you get at least the base idea from this short post.