Performing Gender: Drag Queens and other Cultural Icons

Our normalized perception of drag queens would see them simply as performers putting on a show, offering their audience a constructed version of femininity for the sake of entertainment. However, there is more to drag than this.

« Men in dresses » has been a trope used in mainstream comedy for a while now. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some like it Hot (1959), Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Tyler Perry as Madea, Adam Sandler in Jack and Jill (2011), and countless others. Apparently, putting a man in a dress is a sure fire way to make people laugh and capitalize off of the experiences and identities of a marginalized community.

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Tony Curtis & Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot (1959)

One of the reasons visual culture has relied extensively on drag queens is the incongruity theory, taken by Schopenhauer and Kant and first proposed in the 18th Century. What it means is that when confronted with something incongruous, something that goes against our expectations of what people should be doing within societal norms, laughter arises.

Drag is not simply a comedy trope, it has serious implications in the LGBT+ community. It is not only a way to earn a living for some, but a mean to express gender identity and political activism for others. An obvious example of the political dimension associated with drag is Marsha P. Johnson, an African American drag queen, trans woman, sex worker and one of the cornerstones of the contemporary LGBT+ liberation movement.

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Marsha P. Johnson

Her existence alone gives insight into why the act of performing in drag should be taken seriously.

Many times drag performance calls for skilled impersonations of a famous individual, like Diana Ross or Judy Garland, but the essence of drag performance is not impersonation of the opposite sex. It is the cultural presentation of an oppressed gender expression.

-Leslie Feinberg, Transgender Warriors (Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman), 1996

Essentially, drag queens co-opt a certain number of visual codes (dress, makeup, hair, etc…) that serve to construct a performance and a message of non-conformity to gender expectations within society. Drag as performance is about drawing attention to subverting the binary and the idea that gender itself is a performance.

Grace Jones, Jamaican singer, songwriter, model, actress, cultural icon and all around God-given gift, has always been playing with ambiguity in the way she presents herself. While it seems evident that she plays with the same notions drag queens rely on, calling what she does « drag » is not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Grace Jones.

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Grace Jones

I go feminine, I go masculine. I am both, actually. I think the male side is a bit stronger in me, and I have to tone it down sometimes. I’m not like a normal woman, that’s for sure.

– Grace Jones

But whether or not Grace Jones has « drag queen » written on her resume, her career establishes her as a gender non confirming icon, whose legacy is helpful in the deconstruction and manipulation of gender and identity.

There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; (…) identity is performatively constituted by the very « expressions » that are said to be its results.

-Judith Butler, Gender Trouble 

Gender should then be seen as something that fluctuates and shifts depending on context. When Young Thug wears a dress on the cover of his 2016 album Jeffrey, is he a drag queen in the « traditional » meaning of the term? Maybe not, but he does deconstruct mainstream perceptions of gender norms and societal roles attributed to cisgender men and women.

To finish off this short and absolutely not exclusive analysis of drag, let’s take a loot at celebrities such as Marylin Monroe, or the more contemporary Kim Kardashian. Do they not co-opt a certain number of visual codes too, do they not perform gender? In that sense, aren’t they drag queens too, inviting us to embrace, reject, or simply question and criticize the idealized version of femininity they create.

By Valentin Ducros (M1)

Cet article est la synthèse d’un exposé réalisé par Rhett Morgan et Valentin Ducros pour le cours « Découverte de la Culture Contemporaine » dispensé par Martine Beugnet.

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