Friday, September 05, 2008

Racism, sexism and drag (by Suzie)

          You may have read about Charles Knipp, a white drag comedian who portrays a black woman. Critics have accused him of furthering stereotypes, and Jasmyne Cannick started a petition to ban blackface performances that mock African Americans.
          I don’t favor banning such performances; I don’t even know how that could be done under the First Amendment. But I fail to see how he's fighting racism or being subversive, as he claims. For more information, see what Sheelzebub posted.
         Those defending Knipp include RuPaul, Margaret Cho and Robert Simmons, who says:
The premise being tested is one that says a person
of a certain culture cannot make fun of another culture -- one can only
make fun of a culture if one happens to be OF that culture. That is:
Larry David can make fun of Jews because he IS a Jew, but if Dave
Chappelle makes fun of Jews, then he is ‘racist’. Or, if a hetero
makes fun of gays then he is a homophobe, but if Rosie O’Donnell does 
it, it is ok. Ditto for Margaret Cho re: Koreans, etc.
          I’m so tired of humor that reinforces stereotypes, no matter who's doing it. But more power to anyone who can use humor to subvert stereotypes. For example, Robert Downey Jr. portrays a black man in the new movie "Tropic Thunder." I haven't seen it, but it has gotten a different reception than Knipp because the movie is supposed to be mocking white actors who portray blacks. (Consider this post from Racialicious.)
           In addition to Knipp, Cannick has criticized black men who portray black women in offensive ways, such as Eddie Murphy in the movie “Norbit” and Martin Lawrence in “Big Momma’s House.” Another example is Gina McCauley's criticism of BET shows that demean women.
Moya Bailey, a graduate fellow in women's studies at Emory University, shares Cannick's concern about the extent to which much of the negative media about black women is produced by black artists and executives. 
         I would extend this criticism to all men who promote negative images of women. But let's return to the more specific topic of men dressing as women to get a laugh. Much as I loved “Monty Python,” for example, I was uncomfortable with men making fun of women, especially ones deemed uneducated, older and unattractive. Isn’t this similar to what Knipp is doing?
           Among progressives, it's unacceptable for a white to show up at a costume party in blackface. But think of all the costume parties in which a man, especially a big, hairy one, has clomped around in high heels, with bouffant hair and enormous breasts.
          This brings me back to drag shows. First, let me say that I understand that some people who grow up as men believe they are women and want to dress as women. I understand that some men choose to subvert gender roles by wearing clothing associated with women. I understand that some men get a sexual charge from wearing women’s clothing. But I want to address gay men who dress as women for the entertainment of others.
        Some argue that drag shows are a form of cultural expression for an oppressed group. But so was minstrelsy for a lot of Jewish men.
         Some argue that many drag queens celebrate women, not put them down. But some blackface performers admired aspects of African Americans. In a previous comment on “the American history of blackface minstrelsy,” Martha Bridegam said: “It's old news that racism coexists intimately with feelings of love and jealousy for the Other."
           Even when people have good intentions, their acts can reinforce stereotypes. In minstrelsy, whites took the stories, the voices, even the chances on stage, of black people. Men have done the same to women for centuries.
            Some people think drag subverts gender by bringing its performativity into the open. But parody works only if people get it. A straight man at a drag show does not necessarily think: “If that man can look and act like a woman, then that means my girlfriend and I are just performing gender.” Or: “It’s ridiculous that women have to wear makeup, heels and these ridiculous clothes to perform their gender.” More likely, he thinks the drag queen is not a real woman, but his girlfriend is, and there’s nothing wrong or funny when she dresses up. In other words, he sees only the drag queen as performing. 
           That's one reason why some people accuse a woman who they don't consider attractive or feminine enough to be in drag. For example, Camille Paglia called Hillary Clinton a drag queen. Ditto for Kathleen Harris.
           This reminds me of the New Yorker cover of the Obamas. It’s satire to people who understand that Barack and Michelle are not terrorists. For others, however, the image reinforces stereotypes.
          Esther Godfrey writes that drag and minstrelsy can both reinforce and subvert stereotypes. But she theorizes that people find minstrelsy more offensive because white men (and it’s almost always men) who put on blackface don’t want to be black. After their performance, they return to their former state of privilege. They see black men as oppressed, but they generally don’t put on blackface to fight that oppression. In contrast, she says, many gay men who perform drag long to be women, and some make the transition. They see women as holding power. When not performing, they don’t get to return to privilege. They face discrimination for being gay.
         But her reasoning focuses on the performers and their attitudes, not the effect of their performance on others. As Kelly Kleiman says:
In discussing drag, we talk about challenging the audience’s conception of gender, or recovering the male performer’s sense of the feminine. But what about those of us being impersonated?
          (Here's a more scholarly version of the same article.)