Case Study: Drag Queens and Gender Performance

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.

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.

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.

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: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990)

Young Thug

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.

Marylin Monroe in The Seven Year Itch (1954) and Kim Kardashian on the cover of Paper Magazine (2014)

To finish off this short and absolutely not exclusive analysis of
drag, let’s take a look at celebrities such as Marilyn 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?

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