19 July 2012, 02:15 GMT
“When men dress in drag and supposedly imitate women, it is most often very sexist in a remarkably similar way to the whites imitating racial minorities…All the things I have shunned as part of the ancient ‘cult of womanhood,’ all the superficial, commercialized, and fake aspects of ‘femininity’ that I have fought to be freed from, these men were embracing as their ‘womanhood!’ Tons of make up, huge dyed bouffant hair-dos, binding lingerie, heels, nylons, shaving…and these men in drag who were supposedly acting like women, also acted giddy, stupid, shallow…it is odd to me that this could be seen as anything but blatant sexism.”Kirsten Anderberg
With the announcement of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, there has been some chatter about the recent winner of Drag Race Season 4 Sharon Needles. Drag Race is an American reality show contest shown on digital cable Logo channel (a channel geared toward the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transgendered community owned by Viacom).
The show features many varied drag queens who perform to be the next Drag Superstar. And Drag Race has brought RuPaul back into the spotlight along with creating new drag sensations, such as Sharon Needles. Ms Needles is a self-proclaimed underdog, though she did win four challenges. She was a standout the whole season with her cutting edge fashion, spooky yet accessible sensibility and self mocking humour. She also has been exciting fans throughout her Absolute Vodka tour.
But with fame all things come to the surface and her act pre-Drag Race has been criticized for being racially provocative and insensitive to Jewish people.
As a result of the criticism, Ms Needles has begun to back track on the frequency of some of her more controversial drag personas, yet there is another type of harmful drag persona that has reared its ugly head: The Black-Face Drag.
To a sizeable majority of people, Black-face wouldn’t be considered drag and there would be many drag queens who would find this type of costuming hateful and offensive. There are also some feminists who feel that Western traditional drag performed by men is as degrading to women as Black-face is to the African-American community.
First what is Drag?
Drag is defined by Merriam Webster as “clothing typical of one sex worn by a person of the opposite sex”.
This definition should not be modified to include racist, negatively racialised or stereotypical ideas of dress and physical adornment
. For the uninitiated, what then is Black face? The following video shows how white culture in the early to mid-twentieth century perceived black culture. This video is for educational purposes and to further the conversation. This video does not reflect my own views and it could be that as a white writer, I’m treading on dangerous ground here. But as you will see from the caricatures (some familiar, some new) it remains a devastatingly disturbing footnote in media history.
These were the images that were shown in the homes of white America throughout most of the 20th century. This is more than unfortunate, yet how does a drag queen resemble the offensive Black-face?
The writer, Kirsten Anderberg, who was quoted above, feels that drag is antagonistic toward women. To her, drag takes away power from women and subverts it for showman purposes. She’s also stated in her article that it is offensive because the male paradigm is the dominant one.
Most drag is performed by gay men. Gays and lesbians in most societies, inclusive of the US, hold a less dominant status – albeit there are mitigating factors such as race and class. But as Anderberg equates drag with Black-face I can’t help but disagree. It can be construed as racist on her part to make the parallel.
Most drag queens are trying–some superbly, others less so–to honor and emulate the women in their lives that have supported them, raised them up, and fought for them.
Drag is a performance art. Most drag queens are gay men who have found power in alternative personas. And because they find power in powerful women, drag is a tribute to women, whereas Black-face was a mockery of a group of people as a way to devalue them. Most performers channel other qualities that they do not have in their daily lives to entertain – daring, sex appeal, confidence, defiance. Additionally, there are many different types of drag (pageant, club kid, theatre, camp, faux etc.) More and more, drag transcends both genders and creates new avenues to empower both sexes.
Unfortunately there are exceptions to the case and one is the very controversial (and horrible) Shirley Q Liquor.
Shirley Q. Liquor a ficticious black southern woman on welfare with 19 kids, is performed by a white gay man named Chuck Knipp.
The name says it all.
This type of drag is not empowering and should be questioned. Shirley however has been defended by household name RuPaul.
With RuPaul, we come full circle to Sharon Needles. As a fan of Ms Needles, I was disheartened to find out that she had in the past used these types of imagery and words found with Shirley’s act. After watching a whole season of Ms Needles, there was never any indication of racial prejudices. She was friendly, charming, and disarming. The one time she did “throw another contestant under the bus” she quickly apologized. As far as her acts outside of Drag Race, I have not seen them… but to use such hateful imagery and words even with alleged non hateful intentions is desperate and incorrect.
The question for the future may be -
How do you make a man in a dress and full make-up lip-synching to current pop songs seem more than just a sad tired act?
Maybe you grind up dollar bills and then drink them, as Ms Needles has admitted doing. I think all of her incendiary actions in her pre-fame days were to make a name for herself. Her creator Aaron Coady has begun to have serious conversations about the hurt his past performances have caused.
Whereas the creator of Shirley Q. Liquor has been more ambivalent in his regrets.
The closest to an apology came in 2007 where he stated:
“Wealthy white people are starting to hire me for private parties, where I play the raisin in a bowl of oatmeal…From the way they interact with me, I can see that my being there as Shirley makes them feel it’s acceptable to openly mock black people in a way they otherwise would not, and that does cause me to have second thoughts. If what I’m doing is truly hurtful, then I need to stop.”
But s/he didn’t.
I don’t know about you RuPaul, but its time we dare drag to serve as a creative, innovative art-form and not pander to the vile and lowest denominator in society. There is nothing new, creative or innovative about racism. Shirley has been hired by Sela Ward and country music star Dunn from Brooks and Dunn.
Utilising racist white priviledge in drag performance, especially in the face of global homophobia is pathetic.