Saturday, April 13

Face off

Two years ago I watched episode 5 of Ru Paul’s Drag Race (the only episode I’ve ever watched) and was so appalled I was prompted to write a column that I immediately sent to various msm outlets. Just as well I didn’t expect a response since I didn’t get one. As a writer interested in material reality, and not gender woo, I’m used to being ignored.

But now – progress! I make one comment on a Facebook page about the Free Speech Union (FSU) taking up the fight on behalf of drag performers reading to children in a public library and I am asked to write about the feminist view of drag for this blog (Plain Sight). There you go, doubting past me. Every drop makes an ocean.

Anyway, the peculiar thing about that Ru Paul episode was that a contestant confessed to performing blackface in the past and apologised publicly for this terrible act. Fair call. Mocking exaggerated racial stereotypes is nasty. But really, an apology from someone mocking exaggerated female stereotypes? Now that’s just weird. And hypocritical and … well, that’s enough abuse for now.

You could argue that all gender is performative and none more so than hyper femininity, the kind often modelled by certain social media stars, but not, I have to say, by any women I know. Also, wasn’t performance one of the justifications for blackface or mocking any race that wasn’t mainstream? It’s just performance. Or satire. Or silly cartoonish fun. Whatever. That’s entertainment. 

The problem with womanface is that it’s so damn regressive. The towering confection of hair, the towering heels, the hyperbolic make-up, the shrieking, the bitchiness – a man’s idea of women at their worst. If it’s just fun or performance these drag artists are after why the need to appropriate extreme femininity as entertainment? Why not emulate, say, a 16th or 17th century French or English gentleman? The kind of fancy fellow who capered around town in massive powdered wigs, tights, velvet, lace, ribbons, petticoat breeches and ruffles. 

Yep, I know there are drag kings, that is women who perform as caricatures of hyper-masculine men, but statistically they’re probably as rare as female sexual offenders.

Google tells me drag goes back to Shakespearean theatre when only men were permitted to tread the boards and thus male actors had to take on women’s roles. Great. So drag arose from the suppression of women. Apparently the word drag refers to the dragging of female clothing across the floor. 

Wiki reports that in the US drag was embraced by blackface minstrel shows which eventually expanded their mockery of African-American men to include African-American women. Yikes. It then evolved into vaudeville and music, dance and comedy performances at nightclubs. 

Some people say blackface is more offensive than womanface since blackface is always used to make fun of and ridicule black people. Womanface, on the other hand, pays homage to women, albeit a homage taken to extremes. It’s the difference in intent that matters. 

Hmmm maybe but drag isn’t always a champion of feminism. Too often drag can be shallow and sexist. The same contestant taken to task for blackface drag in their youth was also the contestant who thought it funny to call vaginas ‘beef curtains’ and ‘hairy clams.’ Great that he apologised for performing blackface. Shame he was never required to apologise for insulting women. 

‘Okay’ you say, how do you feel about female impersonators like Brendan O’Carroll in Mrs Brown’s Boys? Never a fan. Probably because the humour comes from the fact that we all know this woman is really a man. Kind of a sniggering Benny Hill-esque version of drag. But I am fond of the ascerbic yet much more feminised Dame Edna Everage who, it seems to me, is a distinctive character, not a caricature. Just like the Topp Twins’ Ken and Ken characters for example.

Another reason I’m not really fond of drag is because I, and many women I know, have spent a lifetime attempting to liberate ourselves from the strictures of the kind of feminine performance drag embraces. All that frou-frou carry-on about make-up and hair etc irritates women like us, no matter who is wanging on about it. Could it be that drag is acting out a male nostalgia for a type of hyper feminine woman who is fading from view?

A friend asked me to consider the possibility that drag is not exploitative of women but, instead, plays with and disrupts gender norms. That might be true if drag artists messed with male and female stereotypes to confuse gender expectations but mostly all you get is exaggerated femininity. An endless parade of bitchin’ babes and bimbos. 

Admittedly, eons ago, when just about everything not heteronormative and beige was regarded as transgressive, I did go to the occasional drag show in seedy nightclubs and thought them great sport, simply because they weren’t heteronormative and beige.

But everything changes. Even drag. One day we may find it unacceptable to portray women in this way. It’s also possible that the beginning of the end for drag is that we’re no longer shocked by these outlandish performances. We’re all so onboard with womanface that we’ve welcomed these shows into the nation’s living rooms and now children’s hour in public libraries in the guise of family entertainment. Acceptance. Surely the biggest drag of all.