Tonic Talk #4: Drag Culture and Performance

In which J and I respond to Miz Cracker’s recent piece, and offer our thoughts on drag culture as modern performance art.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Lola in "Kinky Boots."

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Lola in “Kinky Boots.”

E: So you and I have been talking recently about this piece, and I think we agree it’s worth discussing. What’s interesting to me right off the bat is that though drag culture is clearly worthy of discussion, it’s a topic I feel nervous talking about (more nervous than male birth control by far). And for a while I thought that meant we shouldn’t have a discussion about drag culture at all, but then I decided that the nerves were probably the reason it was most important to discuss this.

J: I agree. I think I was also a bit intimidated by the subject because, while I have been to a fair number of drag shows and drag bingos and fully appreciate Chiwetel Ejiofor’s (yes, the actor from 12 Years A Slave) performance in the severely under-appreciated “Kinky Boots,” I don’t think that in any way qualifies me to discuss drag queen culture from a position of authority. And, to be honest, I have never even thought to be offended by the representation of femininity that is presented at drag shows until I read that piece. Had you?

E: No, not at all. I think the main reason for me is that I always saw drag as something deeply personal to the person doing it, and not at all as a commentary on me in any way. While I think there’s validity there, I wonder if the media has biased us to think that every drag queen is performing from this deep place or emotion or personal experience when perhaps for some it is not personal at all–more of a commentary on others, or just a job. So maybe there is a bias coming to light here on my part?

J: I think I am right there with you. I think neither of us wants to be in a position where we are critiquing the authenticity or attempting to understand the root of someone else’s art, but I think we can both agree that not every drag queen is, as you said, performing out of a deep emotional experience. At least, not all of the time. I know I certainly am not always writing from that place. In Miz Cracker’s piece she says:

At certain shows, women in the audience are given a particularly bad time. Backstage I have heard complaints that there’s too much “tuna” in the crowd. Making a living by playing with society’s notion of womanhood can even lead to a troubling sort of competitiveness: Watching a female artist perform, I sometimes secretly wonder if a man in a dress could do her job better. Sure, women can be—to recall Mary Cheney’s words—bitchy, catty, dumb, and slutty; but that doesn’t mean they do it well enough to impress me.

And that was interesting to me, because I have never sensed any antagonism from drag queens at shows that I have attended, but maybe that’s just me thinking that most women and gay men (though not all drag queens are gay so we have to be careful) are allies and it’s just all about the free love and mutual support, which devalues the choices and experiences of every individual involved.

E: Exactly. In my (albeit limited) experience with this, there’s always been this inherent bond I sense between myself and drag queens, i.e. we’re understanding the same female issues, fighting the same fight, etc. But I would probably do well to remember that drag is a mask and a costume first and foremost, and the reality is that the drag queens I interact with could be entirely different people than they are in performance. And completely agree that this type of mindset devalues everyone involved. Well said.

J: Something that struck me about the end of her piece, when she talks about how drag queens can consider women’s responses and perform from a more thoughtful place, was that this could potentially be harmful to the art form? I don’t know, maybe I am overthinking this or being too general, but when we start to consider others too much, do we limit ourselves and our art? While I think that there can be some cases where directly addressing a particular issue can raise the art form, I think sometimes it can narrow your focus too much.

E: I think what you’re getting at is what is the role of drag? Who does it serve? The actor or audience? And as with any art, I think that’s a personal question for the artists themselves to answer.

J: I agree, but the performative nature of drag and of theatre, music, performance art, etc. must mean that art’s success is necessarily dependent upon the performer’s ability to communicate with the audience in that moment?

E: Which Tilda Swinton did so articulately in her box in 2013. The performative example to which we should all aspire.

In all seriousness, yes, though, I completely agree with you. And I think that if you’re engaging in performance art as you describe you need to accept that you’re taking on a greater social responsibility, or at least prepare to be treated as such.

J: I think that’s true and fair. Another thing I kind of wanted to discuss was the history of male drag in performance. It’s not a new concept, but I think there are definitely distinctions that can be drawn between contemporary drag queen culture and the drag of Elizabethan actors who would dress as women not really as a choice, but because women weren’t allowed to act on the stage. (Until Gwyneth Paltrow broke the glass Globe ceiling):

side note: E 's third grade Halloween costume  was inspired by Gwyneth's Oscar dress after this film.

side note: E’s third-grade Halloween costume was inspired by the Oscar dress Gwyneth wore following this film.

And then there is the culture of the pantomime, where fairytales are recast with the main character, whether it is a male or female character, being traditionally played by a young woman and a new character is invented that is played by a man in drag.

We see you, Allison.

We see you, Allison.

This last character seems to me, with my very limited knowledge, to be part of the foundation of contemporary performance drag culture, because that pantomime character’s chief role is to engage with the audience and to send up traditionally feminine roles and costumes in a comic light. And I think that it is interesting that there isn’t a strong culture of women dressing up as men.

E: I think we need to distinguish very finely here between American and British history. In America, we have historically repressed drag from McCarthyism through the Stonewall Rebellion in the late 60s, and it truly is only quite recently that drag culture has been able to exist more openly.

J: That’s very true. I was trying to draw a connection between contemporary drag culture in America and its roots in English theatre.

E: Oh, totally! Yes! I just want to make the point that there are clear differences in how they’ve been responded to.

J: Oh for sure. And it’s not like the UK has a great history of drag culture acceptance either. But obviously there’s always a greater acceptance of counterculture in the theatre and the arts in general than there is in day-to-day life.

E: So something Anne Bogart has discussed in her genius book is the role of eroticism in art, particularly theater. She devotes her entire third chapter to the subject and I think it offers an interesting way to approach the concepts we’re talking about. There’s a quote I want to pull from her for us to consider:

An authentic work of art embodies intense energy. It demands response. You can either avoid it, shut it out, or meet it and tussle. It contains attractive and complicated energy fields and a logic all its own. It does not create desire or movement in the receiver, rather it engenders what James Joyce labelled ‘aesthetic arrest’. You are stopped in our tracks. You cannot easily walk by it and go on with your life. You find yourself in relation to something that you cannot readily dismiss.

In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce differentiates between static and kinetic art. He values status art and disparages kinetic art. I find his conception of static and kinetic challenging and helpful in thinking about what we put on the stage. Kinetic art moves you. Static art stops you. Pornography, for example, is kinetic—it can arouse you sexually. Advertising is kinetic art—it can induce you to buy. Political art is kinetic—it can move you to political action. Static art, on the other hand, stops you. It causes arrest. Much like the painting by Anselm Keefer, it won’t let you easily walk by it. Static art offers a self-contained universe unified only in its complex contradictory fields. It does not remind you of anything else. It does not create desire in you and it does not move you in an easy manner. You are stopped in your tracks by its unique power. When confronted with Cézanne’s great paintings of apples, for examples, you do not desire to eat the apples. You are, rather, confronted by the appleness of the apples! The apples stop you in your tracks.

What I want to take from this passage is how I think drag is a completely static art in this regard. The public reaction to the Miz Cracker piece reminds me of the reaction Bogart describes here–people are just stopped in their tracks, arrested by what’s happening. Which to me speaks to the value of drag as an art form.

J: That is a fascinating passage. I’m going to go buy that book now.

So I think we both agree that drag is certainly an art form that has both an historical context and a profound point of view that we need to respect. And I think that means that we have to also be critical of it. We have to be able to distinguish between successful drag art and that which is not. We can’t treat it like a fun little activity that some people like to engage in, it’s not just comical or just pure entertainment, and I think that’s how I have sometimes treated it and how a lot of people initially react to it and I think that comes from a place of prejudice. A place of, “why should I take someone seriously who is dressed like that and who is acting that way?”

E: Completely agree. So perhaps this moment in time is an indicator that drag as an art is growing, shifting, and reconciling itself with modern culture? And becoming more of an institutionalized art form that we do indeed take seriously.

Also, if the judgment is coming from a place of prejudice, it’s likely also coming from a place of fear; if you accept that this exists and that you might even enjoy it, be moved by it, or learn from it, what else might you have to accept? Which to my mind is exactly the point.

What does everyone else think? We took on a lot with this conversation and would love to hear your thoughts.

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