Late Nite FDL: Drag Show
Oh no, she did NOT say that, did she?
The world situation is grimly, staggeringly depressing as the fruits of failed conservative policies and politics come home to roost everywhere we turn. We need some escapist diversion, if only for a Saturday night.
Thank you, Lady Bunny.
How many of you have ever been to a drag show? My partner and I talk about politics frequently. Just yesterday, in a bout of frustration over war in the Middle East, he said, as he often does, "I tell ya, if I could be put in charge I would just. . .", and then he’s off. I don’t usually engage in that thought experiment, but if I were to do so, I might start by sending everyone in America to a drag show, like some benevolent queer dictator.
I have to confess, when I was single and out in the clubs, I had mixed feelings about drag. At first, in the early days of my coming out and maturity as a gay man, my discomfort was in part with the implicit challenge drag puts to anyone’s notions of gender. More on that in a minute. But rather often, my mixed feelings had more to do with the quality of the drag performance before me, rather than with drag per se.
Clubs that include drag shows operate rather like the amateur comedy circuit: there’s a lot of experimentation, and not everyone has great talent. But great talent and performance art takes refinement, and it’s important for communities to encourage experimentation and the growth of any performance art, be it comedy or gender bending lip synching or what have you.
But what is drag about? For those of you who have not encountered live drag, what purpose does it serve? Some in the gay community see it as a kind of sambo show, playing to the stereotypes of the wider society which believes that gay men really are or want to be women, or that lesbian women really want to be or are somehow men. In my experience, those same people are Log Cabin Republican types uncomfortable with their sexuality, riddled by nagging shame and often subsequently challenged when it comes to establishing bonds of intimacy. Too much baggage below decks.
Actually, drag is about many things. There are many different kinds of drag. There is, for example, the typical illusionist drag that makes of men very pretty, even hot, women, sometimes including transsexuals with their very own breasts, proudly displayed. This kind of drag does something all drag does: it challenges audience members to break free from socially constructed gender norms and their confinements, not to impose any alternate rigidity, but to free audience members to construct their own notions for themselves of what it means to be a man or woman, and therefore, how to relate to others as men and women.
By creating an illusion that is very attractive, these performers get past the thinking brain to that limbic, sexual part of the brain that activates desire, using its power to subvert socially constructed gender presumptions. This is probably why transsexuals are also the most vulnerable to violence: when some men find themselves attracted to transsexuals, the resulting rage and shame at themselves is often directed outward to the objects of their desire.
Your typical drag act includes some performers creating the illusion of a well known star, lip synching to her music. This of course continues the subversion of gender presumptions, but also provides the kind of campy illusionist entertainment by tribute that, when done well, is extremely fun and funny.
Then you have the other kind of drag, sometimes called "skag drag," which consciously seeks to alter the very notion of what people deem attractive, to subvert the pop culture’s narrow, oppressive notions of beauty. The message of this kind of drag is affirming and welcoming to all kinds of body types and looks. Through the artist’s rather aggressive display of what would commonly be considered shockingly unattractive, the performance creates a kind of cathartic, empowering experience for anyone watching. A close cousin to this type of drag involves the same kind of subversive "ugliness" played for laughs.
Aside from the female celebrity impersonators, some drag is not so much about creating the illusion of the opposite gender as it is about subverting gender norms and carving out a new space for a gleeful, individually constructed androgeny. The most famous example of this is Tim Curry’s performance in the film The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Then there are the drag queens or even female impersonators who do outright comedy. The Lady Bunny at the top of this post obviously does this. In fact, her act is a combination of a few strains of drag all wrapped up together. Her bawdy humor is one of the hallmarks of almost all drag performances, a kind of liberating use of language and repartee to amplify the gender subversive art of all drag. Sadly, the best I’ve ever seen, Christopher Peterson, has no video online (shame on you, Christopher!). He does a host of celebrity impersonations flawlessly, singing his own vocals and keeping up the nightclub banter with the precision of a virtuoso comedienne. You may have seen him as a deep voiced Lucille Ball in the 2001 film Rat Race.
Another in this genre is Esther Goldberg, who sticks to one persona, an original creation. In my opinion, this clip does not do her justice, but Esther specializes in a kind of borsht belt comedic timing and bawdy, Jewish grandmother persona to great effect before live audiences. Her one line audience reactions can be razor sharp and uproariously funny. Let’s not forget as well the drag kings of the world, who mine the same cultural material from the other side.
There are many kinds of drag, and your average drag performance is, well, just average. I often found myself in a club waiting impatiently for the drag show to end (it would be a bloodbath backstage if all the girls did not all get equal time, let me tell you). I typically had, shall we say, other objectives for my evening. But I’ve seen some fantastic drag performances, the best of which was performed by a very heavy latina whose stage presence while portraying the mariachi torch song ballad Paloma Negra left all the audience spellbound. I’ve seen Tony Bennett hold an audience in the palm of his hand with barely any physical movement, just his magnetism and warmth of spirit, and she performed in a little latin club with the same level of charisma. Unforgettable.
But good drag is all about playful fun, about loosening people up from their pretensions and their rigid notions of gender, of human identity. By doing so, drag finds the common denominator of what it is to be human, in a warm, inviting, non-judgmental spirit, and good drag does it with wit, passion and style. Good drag is real great fun.
Oh, and while we’re at it, this so-bad-it’s-good Wham clip is perhaps the gayest thing I’ve ever seen, though it isn’t drag. Take that, Atrios.
So, have you ever been to a live drag show before? What was your experience? What do you think of my first imaginary act as a benevolent despot to have every adult American attend a drag show? Would Jeff Goldstein survive, or would he throw his ankles in the air?