The Politics of Drag
During lockdown and periods of quarantine, we’ve all picked up new hobbies and gained new interests. On my end, I started indoor fitness, blog writing, and discovered a newfound curiosity for the world of drag queens. Being introduced to this art through productions such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, Pose or Victor/Victoria, I learnt so much on the history of Drag, the LGBTQ+ community and their perpetual struggles against fallacious fabrications of their livelihoods and their social exclusion.
The link between drag and politics may not be evident to everyone at first. Queens, such as Bob the Drag Queen, Symone, Feliccia Fox and Gia Gunn, have spoken about using drag and Drag Race as a platform to politically stand against systematic discrimination against Black, Indigenous and trans lives. Drag queens have played a pivotal role in social movements and the awareness of the limited rights of marginalised communities across the globe. In this Juncture review, I would like to explore the story of the drag community and how their art and identities impacted political movements and challenged heteronormative standards and gender binaries.
Drag can be understood as a gender-bending art form, in which a person will dress and apply makeup to exaggerate a specific identity of the opposite, or the same sex, hence the presence of drag queens and kings. Drag is an entertainment commodity in which queens sing, dance, act, lip-sync and model in their fashion, but is also a politically engaged art and entertainment form (Harris, 2018). The concept of drag is political in itself and considered to be an act of rebellion against gender and hetero-norms. Drag, and the use of bodies, identities and art is a manner to undermine these norms is an extremely powerful form of protest and resistance.
Queer theory challenges what we understand to be freedom, power, truth and knowledge. Judith Butler (as cited in Sullivan, 2003) argues that heterosexuality is entrenched in historical and societal truths and discourse that have become normalised in our culture. This means heterosexuality is a truth system of power and knowledge created by heteronormative culture that dominates our perceptions of gender, identity, desire, procreation and relationships (ibid & Warner 1993). More specifically, queer theory seeks to deconstruct and critique heteronormativity by defying traditional assumptions of heterosexuality and cisgenderism by challenging identity binaries, fighting power hierarchies and social and historic inequalities (Warner, 1993).
Gender may often be interpreted as performative, in which societal norms that appear natural and traditional, are in fact coerced into our society from social and historical conventions. This comes from an entrenched gendered script from a history of heteronormality, and acts that did not conform to this script were considered abnormal and a threat to greater society (Butler, 1990). Drag queens and kings make gender performative, as they are disturbing conventional gender identities and what femininity and masculinity traditionally entail (Niedda, 2020). The art of drag fits into this framework by being an example of a subversion of gender identity, a concept by Judith Butler (1990), which describes a mechanism which can undermine hegemonic standards of gender and identity. Drag queens can be interpreted as such, as their presentation and identity blurs and disturbs oppressive norms of gender identity and binary models (ibid).
Drag queens have been central fighters for the freedom of the LGBT rights movement and against heterosexual norms in society. During the 20th century, during the creation of lesbian feminism, gay rights and queer culture movements, homosexuality was criminalised and seen as a medical condition. The Stonewall Riots in 1969 in New York exemplify the fight for freedom as continuous police raids targeting gay, lesbian and transgender clubs and individuals produced larger gay rights movements in a multitude of countries in the world (Pruitt, 2019). Marsha P. Johnson, a prominent drag queen, became the symbol and leader of this fight for the rights of the marginalised (Harris, 2018). In a time where homosexual acts and masquerading as a member of the other sex was deemed as a crime, the drag community persisted and endured years of societal and police violence, exclusion and imprisonment, solely for expressing their identity and art (Pruitt, 2019).
In the 1980’s, the HIV/AIDS crisis impacted the dynamics of the gay community in Western countries. The little medical and societal attention that was given to this epidemic created an “othering” discourse which presented the LGBTQ+ as a threat and danger to society (Ridge, 2021). People living with HIV were vilified, judged as immoral and outcasted as pariahs of society as the media and the medical professionals created a culture of fear around the illness, labelling it as the “gay plague” (ibid). The crisis had terrible impacts on the LGBTQ+ community and the world of drag, killing and causing long-term suffering to hundreds of thousands of men. The drag community raised millions for HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ+-related causes in the US, and protested on the streets to increase the support, understanding and awareness of this illness and against pharmaceutical companies who refused HIV medication (Godfrey, 2015). The series Pose aims to educate viewers on the topic of the HIV/AIDS crisis, how it plagued the LGBTQ+ community and how they fought against it alone by specifically focusing on the queer African-American and Latinx communities in New York. Even through modern TV and media shows, the HIV/AIDS crisis is exhibited as a pertinent issue that must be remembered, and drag is portrayed as a form of political activism.
Despite the fallacious media narratives and homophobic discourse that characterised the epidemic, the media coverage gave exposure to a community that was marginalised and rejected from society. To some extent, this exposure contributed to later acceptance and understanding of homosexuality, HIV and the drag world (Ridge, 2021).
The world of drag has become more mainstream and accepted as an art form representing LGBTQ+ culture. RuPaul’s Drag Race reaches millions of weekly viewers, and has provided the biggest platform for drag queens to express their art and show themselves, but also to reach an audience that may not have been able to access these performances previously (Harris, 2018). . Furthermore, drag culture has been popularised with personalities including Lady Bunny, RuPaul and Conchita Wurst from their presence on international TV and in the fashion world (Godfrey, 2015). The world of makeup and fashion is often inspired by drag, from long eyelashes and nails, to dramatic eye looks and sequins, fashion has been inspired by the bold, confident and creative looks from drag.
Despite the greater acceptance of the LGBT in certain countries, for decades, they were not included or integrated into society without the rejection, criminilisation or fetishisation of their art form and community. Whilst some countries and mentalities may be more open, it is important to acknowledge that the popularisation of drag is not a global phenomenon. Although it has grown in the US, UK, the Netherlands, Thailand and more, it does not mean that these countries or individuals do not uphold homophobic beliefs. Moreover, in other areas of the world, such as in Russia and India, homosexuality and the art of drag is deemed as illegal, and conversion therapy, torture and murder are common practices for those that participate in non-conforming ideals. Discrimination against members of the LGBTQ+ and HIV stigma persists in all areas of the world and in the media (Ridge, 2021).
Drag as an art form is humorous and entertaining, but through this humour and creativity, it continually challenges the oppressions of societal norms relating to gender, identity and sexuality. In our society, it is important to understand that gender is a spectrum that is personal to the individual in question, and not a fixed binary with only male and female options manifested through anatomy and biology. Even if you do not share this belief, it should not engender hatred or be a reason to exclude an already marginalised group. The LGBTQ+ community and world of drag have suffered greatly from years of social oppression, imposed identity norms, misrepresentation and exclusion. Despite these struggles, the political nature of drag, and those involved in it will continue to resist and change these standards with their art.
Butler, J. (1999), Gender trouble. New York: Routledge, pp.79-142. Available at: https://www.google.fr/books/edition/Gender_Trouble/gTbbCgAAQBAJ?hl=fr&gbpv=0 (Accessed 28 May 2021).
Godfrey, C. (2015), When Drag Is Activism. [online] Advocate.com. Available at: https://www.advocate.com/current-issue/2015/11/04/when-drag-activism (Accessed 29 May 2021).
Harris, T. (2018), Politics are a Drag - Brown Political Review. [online] Brown Political Review. Available at: https://brownpoliticalreview.org/2018/06/politics-are-a-drag/ (Accessed 29 May 2021).
Niedda, M. (2020), Feminist and queer studies: Judith Butler’s conceptualisation of gender. Cle.ens-lyon.fr. Available at: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/domaine-americain/feminist-and-queer-studies-judith-butlers-conceptualisation-of-gender (Accessed 29 May 2021).
Pruitt, S. (2019), What Happened at the Stonewall Riots? A Timeline of the 1969 Uprising. HISTORY. Available at: https://www.history.com/news/stonewall-riots-timeline (Accessed 29 May 2021).
Ridge, D. (2021), It’s a Sin: how the media fuelled the homophobic response to the HIV crisis. The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/its-a-sin-how-the-media-fuelled-the-homophobic-response-to-the-hiv-crisis-154504 (Accessed 29 May 2021).
Sullivan, N. (2003), A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory. Edinburgh University Press, pp.37-57. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctvxcrwj6 (Accessed 29 May 2021).
Warner, M. (2011), Fear of a queer planet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Available at: https://www.google.fr/books/edition/Fear_of_a_Queer_Planet/S58X00tIM6oC?hl=fr&gbpv=0(Accessed 28 May 2021).