WOULD you believe it – someone has said something stupid on Twitter. The culprit was the former athlete Sharron Davies, who said this: “Am I the only person fed up of drag shows? A parody of what a real woman is, like black face. Women are juggling kids, rushing out a wholesome dinner, doing the laundry and cleaning, holding down a job all with period pains and leaky boobs if breast feeding. Enough of the stereotypes.”
Yup, she really said “enough of the stereotypes” at the end of a sentence full of stereotypes about women. “Juggling kids” – what about women who don’t have kids? “Rushing out a wholesome dinner” – what about women who don’t cook? “Holding down a job” – what about women who don’t work? As for “doing the laundry and cleaning” – yikes.
Davies’s comparison between drag performances and black face is also problematic. Some of the greatest drag performers are black, and drag has often been a way for them to escape prejudice. But comparing drag and blackface also misunderstands what drag is. Blackface is about white people putting on make-up to mock a minority. Drag is about a minority (usually gay men) putting on make-up to express and explore their identity. They are not copying women, they are revealing an aspect of themselves.
The best people to explain what I mean are the drag queens themselves. Most of them say the feminist critique is nothing new – feminists have been accusing drag of being oppressive since the 1970s. More recently, trans women and activists have also taken offence, and even some gay men worry that drag perpetuates a certain camp and prissy stereotype of gay life. Drag queens, it seems, are apparently capable of offending almost everybody (which is the way they like it, to be honest).
RuPaul, the most famous of all drag queens, puts it this way: the fact that someone might be offended by drag is not enough to restrict the right of performers to do it. But more important is why the performer does it in the first place. The Irish drag queen Rory O’Neill, aka Panti Bliss, once told me that when he puts on his heels and his hair, he isn’t impersonating a woman, he’s using tools traditionally seen as feminine to express himself. His point is that we are still hung up on stereotypes about what women wear, and – by the looks of Sharron Davies’s tweet – lots of other stereotypes about women too.
Drag is, among other things, about refusing to accept those stereotypes on clothes and the way men and women are apparently supposed to look. In the words of Panti Bliss: our culture insists men should be grey and dull-looking and that frocks and make-up should be restricted to women and it’s all bulls***. “If I want to cover myself in glitter or have big hair and make myself bigger,” says Panti, “then why shouldn’t I?” We say: do it – glitter, hair, whatever you like.
For gay men, there are other, more obviously political elements to drag. In the 1960s, drag artists were at the heart of the Stonewall Riots, the event that’s considered to be the start of the modern struggle for gay rights. Drag queens can also help bring about a society in which a gay man can express his flamboyant side without facing prejudice and homophobia.
Take this story from Rory O’Neill for example. Rory is from Ballinrobe in County Mayo and in 2015 the town confounded the image of Ireland as a conservative, intolerant place when Rory took his show there. Not only that, he walked through the streets in drag with his mother and father by his side; his father also held an umbrella to prevent his son’s big blonde wig getting wet, which is the least any drag-father can do. What would feminists be achieving, I wonder, if they managed to put a stop to that?
I’m not saying drag is perfect and I accept that just because gay people have experienced prejudice does not mean they can never inflict it on others. There are also some drag queens who do make misogynistic jokes and I’m uncomfortable with some of the vocabulary some of them use, particularly words like bitch and slut.
But, in the end, drag itself is a solution, not a problem, and is about challenging the kind of prejudice that Sharron Davies is accusing it of. I’ve watched drag queens put on their make-up. I’ve watched them layer foundation on their face and use highlighter to soften their jaw. They’re not putting on blackface when they do it, or anything like it. They’re not mocking women. They are putting on the wigs and the make-up not to hide themselves but to reveal it.