An Analysis of Cross-Dressing, Drag Queens, Queer Theory, & Ironic Comedy
Gender, in accordance with modern queer theory, can be understood as a type of social construct modeled and upheld by individual behaviors. Judith Butler, one of the most influential gender theorists of the 20th century, argues in Gender Trouble that gender is a performative construct, which is naturalized for individuals through repetitive actions. Dressing to one’s assigned gender, and performing traditional gender roles are examples of the societal reinforcements of feminine or masculine attributes to respective individuals of the female and male sex. Cross-dressing, and particularly drag performance, is a means of disrupting this performative of gender and thus is able to subvert the norms of such constructs. Films such as Some like It Hot, as well as television shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and other examples of mainstream drag, serve as primary examples to further understand and develop Butler’s arguments. The ability of cross-dressing to destabilize binary representations of gender is, therefore, vastly important because of its critique of normative gender, sex, and sexuality. Likewise, cross-dressing and more specifically drag become even more impactful when discussing their relevance in the world of comedy. Their connection to this genre of entertainment—both mainstream and marginalized—further highlights cross-dressing’s performative relationship to gender, sex, and sexuality, thus ultimately an useful means of altering our perception of these concepts.
Judith Butler’s Bodies that Matter elaborates on the idea that cross-dressing as a means of disguise and drag as means of deconstructing heteronormative gender performativity are vastly different and, in fact, conflicting. In this text, Butler examines the deconstruction of heteronormative gender representation as a strong societal reaction of anxiety, seen clearly in such films as Some Like It Hot or Victor, Victoria in which characters who cross-dress as disguise, nearly slip into ‘sexual deviancies’ such as homosexuality (Carver). To fully understand this kind of reaction from the more normative stream of society, one must first further examine the theories proposed by Butler regarding normative gender and sexuality in relation to the performative of cross-dressing. These films in particular, aimed to please a heteronormative audience within popular culture, use drag performance to the opposite effect; rather than destabilizing gender norms, they reaffirm the kind of gender performativity that Butler theorizes in Gender Trouble. Butler writes:
Thus, there are forms of drag that heterosexual culture produces for itself—we might think of Julie Andrews in Victor, Victoria or Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie or Jack Lemmon [and Tony Curtis] in Some Like It Hot where the anxiety over a possible homosexual consequence is both produced and deflected within the narrative trajectory of the films. These are films which produce and contain the homosexual excess of any given drag performance, the fear that an apparently heterosexual contact might be made before the discovery of a nonapparent homosexuality. This is drag as high het [i.e. heterosexual] entertainment, and though these films are surely important to read as cultural texts in which homophobia and homosexual panic are negotiated, I would be reticent to call them subversive (Bodies that Matter).
Therefore, these films maintain heteronormative means of representing gender through the anxiety that is produced in the fear of what Butler describes as “possible homosexual consequence” (Bodies that Matter, 116). Some Like It Hot, in her interpretation, can thus be reduced to moments of homophobic tension when the characters—men disguised as women—fall into possible homosexual encounters with other characters in the film, unaware of their cross-dressing performance (Carver, 129). Similar instances occur in Victor, Victoria and Tootsie, supplementing Butler’s argument of cross-dressing’s ability to evoke social anxiety in such mainstream films and, thus, inadvertently reaffirming normative gender conceptualizations and performances.
While Butler argues that these films present cross-dressing as a means of heteronormative reaffirmation, she writes that drag, unlike cross-dressing to disguise one’s identity as done in such films as Some like It Hot, has a very different effect from a performative perspective and, thus, accomplishes a much different vision. She writes:
In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself—as well as its contingency. Indeed, part of the pleasure, the giddiness of the performance is in the recognition of a radical contingency in the relation between sex and gender…In the place of the law of heterosexual coherence, we see sex and gender denaturalized…(Undoing Gender, 216-218).
Drag performance, in contrast to the ‘disguise’ found in such movies as Some Like It Hot, serves as a way to purposefully denaturalize heteronormative concepts of gender and redefine what it means to be masculine, feminine, and queer. In contrast to say female impersonators or men ‘disguised’ as women, drag queens often break the illusion of femininity to highlight the nature of their performative means to display gender and sex (Taylor & Rupp, 115). The power of this denaturalization, and its massive influence over the LGTBQ community since the 1969 Stonewall Riots, which catalyzed the gay liberation movement, is almost immeasurable. Likewise, the visibility that the drag and cross-dressing communities received post-Stonewall has presented the mainstream with a more direct view into the performances which aim to denaturalize and alter a normative perception of sex and gender. The conceptualization of gender as something other than the normative binary understanding of simply male and female—or masculine and feminine—has blazed the trail for trans activism, a further acceptance of drag performances into the mainstream of gay culture, as well as decriminalization of cross-dressing in most parts of the United States.
Drag, however, still exists within a realm of mainstream marginalization and maintains means of power within a specific gender identity concept. This concept is further discussed in an article in Sexuality & Culture—an academic journal dedicated to the furthered understanding of gender studies and queer theory—written by linguist Nathaniel Simmons, specifically examining speech codes utilized by drag queens. This article tackles the question what does it mean to be a drag queen? Simmons’s work, in particular, examines the ways in which drag queens communicate and the power these codes of communication have in representing the identity of their subculture. Simmons extends Butler’s notions of performativity to include language and other cultural exchanges. He writes, “In other words, cultural groups construct, reinforce, and perpetuate cultural values about speaking . . . how members co-construct a group identity via cultural norms for speaking” (631). In the case of drag language, shared sets of codes and conducts within the drag community perpetuate specific ideals regarding gender, sex, and sexuality, which in turn create a performative of the drag queen and provide excellent insight into what it means to be a drag queen. The shared reality created by these codes of language, therefore, allow for drag queens to communicate their community’s identity, which not only blurs the lines of gender but also distorts and denaturalizes the normative binary of gender and sex (Simmons, 631). Such shows as RuPaul’s Drag Race, as Simmons suggests, allows the mainstream to examine drag language and culture on national television, granting access to a subculture otherwise inaccessible to most audiences outside of the culture itself. Simmons writes:
RuPaul’s Drag Race (RPDR) features individuals who, although competing, are working towards a common goal and maintain a sense of shared identity as illustrated throughout the show by comments such as “we are sisters” or “this is like a drag sorority” (633).
RuPaul’s Drag Race allows cultural insight into the drag community, which not only has a shared code of language and conduct but also shares a system of beliefs regarding gender, sex, and sexuality. The shared goals understood by Simmons within the show itself, the concept of solidarity among drag ‘sisters,’ and the denaturalization of normative gender representation, furthers the idea that drag and cross-dressing are successfully able to deconstruct binary gender and make significant strides in civil rights activism for not only the LGBTQ community, but gender equality and feminist activists as well. Simmons’s argument divides drag performance and cross-dressing as a means of disguise in that the latter lacks such a code of shared language, thus revealing that there are no non-normative values upheld by that mode of performance. Rather, cross-dressing performances only serve to reiterate and reaffirm the established heteronormative representations of gender by evoking societal anxieties in their audiences.
Similarly, the differences between drag and cross-dressing-as-disguise can be recognized through a deepened understanding of comedic theory. The relation that drag and cross-dressing has in terms of comedy can be further explained in Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, a book in which the author examines the classical genres of theatre. In his analysis of the comic, Frye opens by stating that, “The theme of the comic is the integration of society, which usually takes from the form of incorporating a central character into it” (40). Cross-dressing of disguise exemplified by performances in films such as Some Like It Hot is certainly an example of Frye’s “comic,” yet drag is unable to be categorized as such. Understanding the comic as a means of incorporation, drag exists externally from the classical “comic” as described by Frye, however, it is still fully capable of exuding humor in just as many ways as the traditional comic performance. There is, therefore, a clear distinction between drag performance and cross-dressing as a means of disguise that mirrors the distinction between the comic and comedy. Continuing this argument, Frye furthers his understanding of comedy more specifically by introducing “ironic comedy”—which conflicts with normative societal expectations and can seem somewhat savage or disturbing at face value, while presenting its audience with a satirical criticism of societal norms, in this case gender (42). Thus, drag is to be understood as a categorization of Frye’s ironic comedy, while cross-dressing as a means of disguise is the more traditional comic performance. This specifically expands the influence and power of drag and its ability to evoke impactful change on societal norms via comedic performances.
Drag not only bends the binary understanding of normative gender, it also takes the establishing factors of these performative aspects in gender and sex and critiques them. The ability of drag and cross-dressing to challenge the prevailing ideologies of a culture—in this case the heteronormative mainstream in the United States—is apparent in the work of such drag queens as Lady Bunny and Jinkx Monsoon. Both performers bend gender, culture, sex, and language in order to make a sort of statement (Mann, 764). To understand this further, however, one must take an in-depth look into each of the aforementioned queens. Lady Bunny, considered one of the most well known drag queens in New York City, has been performing in clubs and theaters throughout the city since the mid-1980s (Wigstock). In response to a humorous jab made at Lady Bunny from long-time friend RuPaul via Twitter, claiming that Bunny was like school on the weekends and “had no class,” she wrote:
Can you believe they actually allowed this slanderous statement to be said on the air about me? . . . This is wholly insensitive to the fact that I may indeed lack class because of my humble upbringings at the foot of the Appalachians in Chattanooga, Tennessee. So it wasn’t a cosmopolitan hot spot that forms the backdrops of fashion shoots. Not everyone can be a supermodel, RuPaul. It just so happens that lower income families from backwards regions develop poor eating habits — so I may grunt and burp a little while I overeat. But if you must know, my weight issues stem from traumatic childhood experiences. From the age of 11, I was repeatedly humiliated in sexual situations: My father, my brother, my sister and even the family dog — NONE OF THEM WOULD DO IT WITH ME! Thankfully it was before cellphones, but the whole neighborhood got to see me with dog food smeared all over my @ss as even starving strays ran away from me whimpering in disgust. So I still attempt to eat my pain away. This is classist and fat-shaming and making light of mental health issues by a overly thin, wealthy model-type queen who can afford pricey therapists. (Out Magazine Online; April 18, 2014).
With her sexually dirty humor, Lady Bunny exemplifies the more traditionally rude and shocking form of a comedy queen, which can be categorized under Frye’s ironic comedy with careful examination. Through her use of extremely crude and sexually explicit humor, she is able to bend the definition of what it means to be a ‘lady’ and the manners of such a character from a performative aspect. As with many other drag queens who primarily deal with comedy, Lady Bunny utilizes humor and ironic comedy to bend the performative binary of heteronormative gender, thus challenging the mainstream conception of femininity and female acceptability.
Jinkx Monsoon, winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race: Season 5, furthers this non-traditional gender performativity through both character and personal identities. Monsoon, self-defined as a ‘campy’ and theatrical queen, explains that her character is a hard-working, single mother of three who is soft-spoken yet cynical, always with a drink in hand. At the same time, however, she is Seattle’s self-proclaimed “premiere Jewish, narcoleptic drag queen” and exudes the kind of Broadway camp that many audiences seek to find in comedy queens (Daems, 40). While a more nuanced, perhaps subtler comedic vision, Jinkx still exemplifies the type of ironic comedy that separates drag from the more traditional comic traditions of incorporation. Her goal, as a character, is to challenge what it means to be a strong woman and investigate the struggles of parenthood, alcoholism, and loneliness with a twist of camp, queerness, and Broadway. Furthermore, on RuPaul’s Drag Race: Season 5—after a teary confession from one of her fellow contestants on being a trans woman—Jinkx Monsoon stated on the show that, “This is the last place for closed-mindedness when it comes to gender expression” (Daems, 43). Between her personal beliefs, those which are shared by the drag community, and her campy yet quite realistic character, Jinkx Monsoon reveals the ability of drag to alter an audience’s perceptions on gender, sexuality, femininity, and traditional roles of the mother; likewise, Jinkx further elaborates the meaning of drag’s relation to ironic comedy and its role as a satirical method of critique, in opposition to the traditional normative comic which Frye defines.
Cross-dressing, and drag in particular, challenges the mainstream perception of gender and deconstructs the performative aspects of heteronormativity that are vital to the critique of the traditional hetero narrative of gender, sex, and sexuality. Drag, more than any other LGTBQ-related performative, serves as a catalyst of change and denaturalization of the gender binary, allowing for a more inclusive and broader spectrum of gender and sex. The performances of cross-dressing disguise in such films as Some like It Hot serve—in opposition of drag—to reaffirm the normative gender representations in the mainstream, thus taking away from the diverse nature of drag’s idealism. The performative nature of drag, however, functions in the opposite way, offering critiques of culture, nuanced conceptions of femininity, and distinct codes of language and conduct, as is evident in RuPaul’s Drag Race. The division between our understandings of the comic versus ironic comedy also furthers the divide between cross-dressing as a means of disguise and drag performance. Furthermore, performers such as Lady Bunny and Jinx Monsoon highlight the diverse nature of drag as a subculture and the overall ability of drag to bend normative conceptions of not only gender, but of sexuality, race, culture, and traditional idealizations of what it means to be a man or woman through the implementation of ironic comedy. The world of drag is intricate and extremely diverse, and its power to influence change in modern conceptions of gender, beauty, and sexuality. Likewise, its relationship with ironic comedy as a means of social critique and satire are inseparable, and reveal drag’s influential role in the world of comedy.
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