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You Are Here: Home > Essay Topics > Psychology Essays and Research Papers > Sexuality Research Paper Topics  > Essay on Drag Queens

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Essay on Drag Queens

Drag queens is a slang term that is used to describe one variation of male-to-female cross-dressing; drag queens are men who dress as women. They are typified by exaggeration and excess, often resulting in a clownish or cartoonlike presentation. Wigs, makeup, and fashion often are overdone or out of proportion, creating an exaggerated femininity that is instantly recognizable as false or appropriated. That recognition is central to the drag queen aesthetic; drag queens attempt to make the constructed nature of their gender obvious, intentionally borrowing both masculine and feminine qualities simultaneously to create a gender position outside of either. The term is believed to have developed in the homosexual community of Great Britain in the nineteenth century and derives from the slang words drag (clothing) and queen (an effeminate man).

The term often is used interchangeably with related but significantly different forms of cross-dressing: transvestitism and female impersonation. Transvestitism can be a fetishistic practice in which erotic pleasure is derived from an individual wearing clothes typically associated with the opposite sex. It more commonly applies to people who wear clothes inappropriate to their recognized sex, regardless of motive. It need not, and often is not, tied to sexuality in any way. While drag queens are a form of transvestitism in this general sense, they are almost always identified by their sexuality (gay men) and often have an intentionally transgressive function. Therefore, while related, the two terms are not synonymous.

In female impersonation the goal is to pass as a woman: to persuade observers that the impersonator is biologically a woman. This differs from the central goal of drag, which is to violate normative gender categories by refusing to occupy fully either masculine or feminine styles. Also related but not identical are various types of female-to-male cross-dressing. Drag kings are linked most closely to drag queens, but they have a different set of goals and expectations and should not be considered as a female version of drag queens.

The term drag queen has evolved over time, and this makes it difficult to discuss drag queens in a historical sense. At the beginning of the twentieth century, for example, a drag queen almost exclusively meant a male sex worker who dressed as a woman. In the later twentieth century, however, the term became more closely associated with theatrical performance, usually in a cabaret or nightclub. Drag queens were particularly visible participants in the Stonewall riots of 1969. This brought both the gay rights movement and drag queens into the public eye, and the popular understanding of drag queens (excessive in appearance and behavior, obviously nonnormative) generally has remained constant since that time.

Drag shows in gay clubs are a mainstay of gay culture. Some clubs specialize in drag, and many others have shows on regular nights. Those clubs generally have a drag queen hostess who is a local drag favorite and who introduces the drag artists and functions as a mother figure to the drag community. Outside the club setting drag queens are regular fixtures and favorites in gay pride parades and other events staged for the larger community. They can be a target of criticism within and without the gay community because they are the most visible manifestation of homosexuality. Many straight people find drag queens offensive and frightening and base their entire understanding of homosexuals on that relatively small group. By contrast, the leather community is equally visible in gay pride events, but its members are less reviled, possibly because they are seen as hypermasculine or closer to a normative understanding of gender.

Marjorie Garber (1992) differentiates the passing drag queen (who emphasizes femininity if not the actual ability to pass as a woman) from the radical drag queen, ''who wants the discontinuity of hairy chest or moustache to clash with a revealingly cut dress'' (p. 49). A passing drag queen appropriates and deploys feminine traits and appearance and may be considered to defy normative expectations of gender and reinforce them simultaneously. Drag of this type does not question femininity but does question the body on which femininity may be superimposed. A radical drag queen, in contrast, mocks gender categories in a broader way by combining the masculine and the feminine in a jarring fashion.

Some drag queens specialize in impersonation, although only in a narrow sense. A drag queen will not attempt to impersonate femaleness in a general way but will attempt to impersonate a specific woman, usually a celebrity. The impersonation is intentionally inexact, however. As with other forms of drag, it tends to overemphasize specific characteristics, generally the celebrity's mannerisms and fashion. The impersonation also may be dislocated in time if the drag queen chooses to wear a costume associated with a specific moment in the celebrity's past. In either case there is little chance that the drag queen will be mistaken for the celebrity; instead the queen will be recognized as gesturing toward her in a stylized fashion.

Drag queens generally are thought of as part of a camp gay aesthetic. Drag usually falls into the category of low camp, which Christopher Isherwood explains as ''a swishy little boy with peroxided hair, dressed in a picture hat and a feather boa, pretending to be Marlene Dietrich'' (1956, p. 106). This would fit Garber's formulation of passing drag because it emphasizes the feminine, although it clearly denotes a drag queen who does not intend to pass successfully either as a woman or as Marlene Dietrich. This impersonation often is thought of as a kind of homage to women who are gay icons, women who would be recognized and admired by a gay audience. Celebrities who are emulated frequently by drag queens include Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, Cher, Bette Midler, and Tina Turner. It is notable that all these women are singers, for musical performance is often part of drag shows.

Drag queens are often most visible in a kind of mock performance in which they lip-synch to prerecorded songs before an audience. In this way their performance is doubly removed from any sense of an original: The performer is a man dressed as a woman, and the performance depends on a preexisting performance by another person. These performances usually are characterized by exaggeration as well. Songs often are selected because of the opportunities they give the drag queen to engage in stylized theatrics such as complicated hand gestures, contortions of the body, and overemphasized vibrato on sustained notes. In drag shows of this sort it is common for audience members to show their appreciation for a good performance by giving the drag queen money; this aligns drag queens with strippers, who also play upon gender expectations and receive cash tips.

All formulations of drag are complicated by the general perception that drag queens are humorous. For many people this removes them automatically from the realm of the political, as humor generally is not seen as a serious mode of political or critical discussion. This reading of drag would reduce it to entertainment or comic fun, a position that most theorists of drag find unacceptable. The humor inherent in drag does not deny its seriousness for them. Instead, it is thought of as part of its method of critique; it is a part of the drag aesthetic just as it is a part of satire.

One of the primary theorists of drag, Judith Butler (1990), has examined drag as a performance of gender. Her idea of performance differs from the theatrical performance mode in which drag queens often operate: Butler is more interested in the general state of being of the drag queen than in the drag queen's specific activity at a moment in time. She has written that ''in imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself--as well as its contingency'' (p. 175). She imagines drag as a parody of gender: not of a specific gender category but of the idea of normative gender.

Drag queens almost always create names for their characters and while in character expect to be addressed in the feminine as she. Those names are most often stylized and cartoonish, much like drag itself. They are often jokes or plays on words and fall into several general categories. Some drag queens play with the sound of language and choose names that are homonyms for other things or concepts that often are completely unrelated to drag (Hedda Lettuce, Flotilla DeBarge, Miss Understood). Some drag queens refer to celebrities by adopting part of a celebrity name or through some permutation of multiple names (Harlow, named after Jean Harlow, and Varla Jean Merman, who combines Marilyn Monroe's birth name, Norma Jean, with Ethel Merman). Still others choose names that are intentionally overfeminized, seem to call attention to the artificiality of the feminine, and are often overtly sexual (The Lady Chablis, Lady Bunny, Clover Honey). Others appropriate the names of products, usually products associated with illicit activity or high fashion (Coco Peru, Virginia Slim, Shirley Q Liquor). Another category of drag name is the single moniker, which signals a kind of celebrity status in drag as it does in the rest of popular culture. Many of the single-named drag queens are the most famous and have a degree of celebrity even in mainstream popular culture (Divine, RuPaul).

Although cross-dressing has been a popular part of mainstream culture for millennia, drag queens are a more recent development. The rise of music hall variety shows and vaudeville in the nineteenth century gave a certain amount of visibility to work in drag, although no real celebrities emerged in that period. Conversely, some female performers did become celebrities for their work in men's attire and appearance in British music halls. Vesta Tilley, for example, was one of the biggest music hall stars in England and the United States from the 1880s until her retirement in 1920. She appeared on stage dressed as a rich young fop and sang songs that criticized the leisurely life of the upper classes. The tradition of male celebrities who appeared in drag without actually being drag queens continued with the development of television. Two of the most famous actors who regularly appeared in drag were Milton Berle and Flip Wilson, although their drag sketches were only a small part of their overall repertory.

The first true celebrity drag queens emerged in the 1970s. Divine, who appeared in films from the late 1960s into the 1980s, was one of the first whose life and career seemed inseparable. She maintained her drag persona consistently for decades and is remembered almost entirely as Divine rather than for her life as a male out of drag. She appeared in a number of films by the director John Waters, as did her fellow drag queen Holly Woodlawn. Although these performers were known to the general public as celebrities, their films remained popular mostly with fringe communities.

Dame Edna Everage, by contrast, is a mainstream drag queen whose performances have been seen by a wide variety of audiences. In the 1980s she rose to fame in Australia and then later in the United Kingdom and the United States. Her celebrity was increased because she maintained a single character rather than (as Divine did) performing multiple characters in different films or appearances. Also, the man who appears as Dame Everage is married and ostensibly heterosexual. Some claim that this adds to Dame Edna's appeal with mainstream audiences, as her appearances can be seen as pure camp fun because her underlying heterosexuality implies a reaffirmation of gender positions rather than a critique of them.

The early 1980s saw a small explosion of drag queens on stage. Harvery Fierstein won two Tony Awards in 1983 for Torch Song Trilogy, in which he played a drag queen at a New York cabaret. The next year he helped write the musical La Cage Aux Folles, which is set in a French drag club. Charles Busch, a playwright and performer, began to appear on the New York stage in his own plays, beginning with Vampire Lesbians of Sodom (1984), in which he played a female role. Since that time he has performed in many plays and films as a woman. Other drag-based shows, such as the San Francisco Beach Blanket Babylon (which opened in 1974), have brought drag queens to the public eye, but few have produced celebrity performers.

In the late 1990s the first true drag queen superstar rose to fame. RuPaul is a toweringly tall hyperfeminized drag queen who bills herself as Supermodel of the World. Her recording career, although quite brief, resulted in two songs that were played in gay dance clubs and then broke into general play. Although drag queens had been performing openly for decades, the public treated RuPaul as a complete novelty and embraced her warmly. She eventually hosted a talk show on cable television, appeared in small roles in several films, and maintained a high profile on the dance club circuit. Although the substance of her career was similar to that of other previous drag queens, RuPaul managed to captivate the imagination of a large, general audience, breaking out of the confines of an exclusively gay following.

 

References:

Bergman, David, ed. 1993. Camp Grounds: Style and Homosexuality. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Dollimore, Jonathan. 1991. Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Edelman, Lee. 1994. Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory. New York: Routledge.

Garber, Marjorie. 1992. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing & Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge.

Isherwood, Christopher. 1956. The World in the Evening. New York: Avon Books.

Rupp, Leila J., and Verta Taylor. 2003. Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schacht, Steven P., and Lisa Underwood, eds. 2004. The Drag Queen Anthology: The Absolutely Fabulous but Flawless Customary World of Female Impersonators. New York: Harrington Park Press.

Suarez, Juan A. 1996. Bike Boys, Drag Queens, & Superstars: Avant-Garde, Mass Culture, and Gay Identities in the 1960s Underground Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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