Sunday, August 29, 2010

Chains Beneath The Frivolity and Flounces [Anthony McCarthy]

hatever I might think about drag and its relationship with the wider view of gay men, I’m certain that the drag queen role isn’t a good one for women to follow. The paper today informs us that RuPaul has a new program which is based on professional drag queens instructing women on how to be women.

Granted, some drag queens are extremely talented performers and that their act, to be done well, requires both that and a lot of work. Creating and talking yourself into being the embodiment of the post-war feminine mystique is hard work. That’s not news to women. Playing that role and having a real self with a real life was impossible. You can go back into the first wave feminist activism and read that the requirements of elaborate dress, hair and the rest of the mandated accessories of being a respectable woman were an intrinsic part of women's subjugation. And, on top of that, if someone tried to follow those dictates they were then despised for being frivolous, self-centered, idle and artificial. That part of the drag act, the ridicule of the role assigned to women and with it those assumed to have adopted that role voluntarily, reinforces that oppression. I’m unaware of any drag queen who unmockingly imitates smart, competent, women who are engaged in serious, unselfish activities.

I’d guess that RuPaul and his people are looking for a popular TV show, that’s their business. He’s got his incredibly over done drag queen act to work with and, though he does it well, it’s not much to build on. What else can you do with it?

The article in today’s paper makes some oddly myopic assertions about women in show business adopting parts of the drag queen act. It’s not anything new. Mae West’s act was a two-way exchange between her character and drag queens. In the wonderful movie in which she spoofs her own act, Go West, Young Man, she shows that she wasn’t under any illusion about the nature of her character. At least not at that time, later on she seemed to be trapped in it*. In the rarest turn of all, when she went under disguise as a religious revivalist in Klondike Annie, she showed that she was able to step out of it, at least in the movies.

But that was in the movies and on stage. It’s not real life. Real people live in real life.

The story is that when the Stonewall Inn was raided it was the drag queens who were the first to resist. I wasn’t there and have never spoken to anyone who was. Since that is widely reported by people who were there, it’s a laudable act on the part of those who resisted anti-gay oppression. But that doesn’t erase the negative implications of drag and its promotion of oppressive stereotypes for women, and, indisputably, gay men. Living a phony stereotype is oppressive, especially one assigned for the purpose of entrapping victims into oppression. The powerful elite, comprised of straight men, wasn’t going to allow those assigned roles to be empowering. I don’t for one second see adoption of those roles as being empowering, that is a delusion useful to the established order. With this show, with the actual instruction of women by professional drag queens in how to live their act, that promotional aspect isn’t deniable.

Note: I can’t comment on Lady Gaga because my 14-year-old niece has forbidden me to listen to her. I do understand that she has recently made some laudable political statements. For which I am grateful.

* Billy Wilder has said that it was a big mistake to ask her to play Norma Desmond when she was in her 60s because she believed she actually was the role she had perfected in her act.