What Does It Mean To Be A Drag Queen?

28 10 2011

What social purpose does drag serve? Do drag queens reinforce gender stereotypes, or challenge them? I would wager the latter.

I once took a women’s studies course in university called “Introduction to Gender Theory”, or something like that. Oh my god, I was in heaven. For me, it was like going to church and singing, “Hallelujah! I have reached the Promised Land, and it is full of all sorts of delicious fucking freaks.” The course was basically an introduction to, well, gender theory, but from a poststructuralist perspective. That basically means when you look at identities and what makes people who they are in a critical, sceptical light. Anyway, at one point in the course handbook the professor discussed drag and explained how some people see drag as reinforcing gender stereotypes by embodying what they think women should be, which is traditionally feminine. The flip-side of this argument, however, is that drag queens are actually challenging gender stereotypes by mocking traditional feminine expectations placed on women.

The latter argument makes more sense to me, and here’s why. Drag is an incredibly complex form of art. It sends out so many messages at once that it is easy for the untrained eye to miss the ultimate point. It is so sophisticated, so full of so many layers of meaning, and so wrought with irony that it is almost too difficult to distil its essence in words. You can’t simply say, “Oh, it’s a man with fake boobs and high-heels, so he must be saying, ‘This is what women are like'”. That kind of answer is just too pat, and it’s an intellectual cop-out. Drag deserves a more nuanced explanation. When men do drag, they do so with a subversive goal in mind: to satirise the crass feminisation of women.

OK, so there are many different types of drag, and each has a unique purpose, but I believe the one I described above is probably the commonest or most salient of them all. And while most drag queens might not be able to articulate what I have just stated, I think they’d probably agree. For them, it is a highly instinctive and subconscious act. It usually is with artists.

To illustrate my point, let’s take a look at drag queen Tammie Brown (who I believe was a contestant in the reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race). Do you really think she is saying, “This is what women should be like”? She looks like a cross between Tammy Faye Messner and Faye Dunaway’s version of Joan Crawford, for goodness’ sake. Tammie Brown’s art is so absurd that you cannot seriously think she is saying that women should have 1940s hairstyles, Joan Crawford lips, skin the consistency of puddy, and eyebrows in the middle of their foreheads. It’s satire. Drag queens are not stupid; they are socially savvy, culturally perceptive, and very streetsmart. I haven’t met an autistic drag queen yet (although that would be fucking awesome). What drag queens like Tammie Brown are doing is creating an over-the-top caricature of feminine standards of beauty placed on women. By embodying a cartoonish femininity, they are saying at least two things: “The feminine expectations placed on women are so aburd as to merit the sharpest satire” and “As a man, I will relieve women of this ridiculous ‘duty’ by placing it on my own shoulders”. Drag queens—at least the highly abstract and conceptual ones like Tammie Brown and Raja—are all about confusing people with regard to what men and women should be and do, and they achieve this by transferring traditional responsibilities from one sex to the other.

Sometimes, the drag community’s mockery of sexism is accompanied by a mockery of racism, too. This is a delicate subject, and it deserves the utmost sensitivity, but I do think some forms of racial drag actually satirise racism. Consider Shirley Q. Liquor, a.k.a. Charles Knipp, a white man from the American south who dons blackface in drag. Now, she’s controversial. She’s been on CNN, and leaders in the black community have vilified her as racist, but other black people have defended her in praise of her mockery of racism. One of these is RuPaul, who included Shirley on her album RuPaul RED HOT. In RuPaul’s own words, “[c]ritics who think that Shirley Q. Liquor is offensive are idiots.  Listen, I’ve been discriminated against by everybody in the world: gay people, black people, whatever.  I know discrimination, I know racism, I know it very intimately. She’s not racist, and if she were, she wouldn’t be on my new CD”. Now, just as one woman cannot speak for all women, one black person cannot speak for all black people, but it helps to know that some black people see a certain satire in Shirley Q. Liquor’s art. And I think RuPaul sees the sweet irony in Shirley Q. Liquor’s absurdist blackface. From my perspective (and please correct me if I am misguided), Knipps mocks racism by donning blackface and showing how absurd racial stereotypes are. And when it isn’t clear that he is mocking racial stereotypes, I sort of think he is expressing a deeply human affection for the quirks he recognises in the black women he knew growing up. That said, I highly recommend against doing blackface unless you are absolutely certain of the purpose and context of your art and you have support by a sizeable contingent of the black community, and if you fail to heed this warning and proceed to do blackface in a messy, thoughtless way, you are probably an ignorant fool.

Just in case some of you still think Charles Knipps is racist, let me share with you a horribly beautiful video of him impersonating Barb, the stereotypical “narthern” Great Lakes housewife with an obnoxiously twangy, vowel-fronted North-Central American English accent:

I know. Now he’s doing drag in whiteface. So that’s just in case you think his racial drag is mere racism, and not an ironic mockery of racism. Now, we might be able to say, “Oh, look. He’s racist toward white people, too.” But I don’t think we have to say that he’s racist toward anyone. In every face he does, he is mocking some stereotype or another by exposing its absurdity as plainly as possible. It’s hard to take patent bullshit seriously.

Drag queens are inscrutable creatures; they create a disturbingly comical image of beauty, challenging our assumptions about what is pretty, who should be pretty, and why. The simple-minded philistines among us, with their intolerance for irony, will view drag queens as horribly sexist, racist monsters, but those of us with a capacity to think critically and apprehend the intent behind the art will think the exact opposite—they will view drag queens as highly perceptive cultural critics of sexual and racial stereotypes, as people who have been to hell and back and have something to say in defense of the underdog. The purpose of drag is to mock feminine expectations placed on women, it is to toy with our cherished notions about who can be feminine—women, or men?—and it is to defuse racist stereotypes through crass caricature. At the same time, though, drag queens seem to exult in a certain bizarre, twisted, exaggerated beauty in the very femininity they satirise, perhaps because they value it for its own sake regardless of which gender is performing it. You can have crazy eyebrows or an overdrawn lipline whether you’re male or female. It’s all supposed to be messy, but it’s beautiful nonetheless. At any rate, drag challenges our deepest assumptions about who we are, who we should be, and who we can be, and this is an invaluable tool for deepening and enriching our understanding of what it means to be human.

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Tomorrow’s World

9 10 2011

I have been waiting for this day for four years, yet somehow it feels like just another release date. I guess I’m showing my age. Erasure have released Tomorrow’s World, named after the British 1980s science documentary series. And I have to say, with the help of Frankmusik, the album is awash in smooth, modern dance sensibility. Well, two-thirds of it, at least. The other third is a little bit more anchored in the soul-gospel balladry which places focus on lead singer Andy Bell’s distinctly bold voice. But, then, his voice soars in the dance tunes, too. The strength of the album is in how Andy’s voice–which sounds particularly strong and stable–glides atop the chic dance grooves.

Consider the track “I Lose Myself”, with its hard, deliberate rhythm and rich, unabashed vocals:

If you ask me, it sounds like a well-polished, modern twist on early New Order. But it hasn’t really been done before; it’s a new kind of fierce dance-pop. (By the way, New Order’s lead singer, Bernard Sumner, is releasing an electronic album soon.)

Now consider the more vulnerable sound of “Be With You”, characterized by an irresistibly loping beat and Andy’s longing, soaring voice:

This is the way ballads should sound: originally conceived to be slow, but re-interpreted as a dance track to inject a throbbing energy which only elevates the soulful vocals.

Then there is “A Whole Lotta Love Run Riot”, the ultimate cynical commentary on the vapidity of British club culture in the 2010s:

This song is like “I Lose Myself” in its intense, driving rhythm, but it is a little bit ironic how it criticizes the banality of modern British dance music while co-opting that same style and creating a much more lush, melodic, tightly-structured, tuneful sound–which is the way dance music should sound anyway.

Finally, we arrive at my favourite track, “Fill Us With Fire”. I like this track in particular because of my spiritual bent. (I believe in something greater than myself, but ultimately what matters is how we treat one another. Indeed, for me, that is the purpose of spirituality.) It is a rumination on the woes of humankind and a plea for rationality and self-reflection. At the same time, it doesn’t sound too didactic. It is truly a treat for the ears and the mind:

Something about this song evokes climbing a ladder. As I listen to the verse, then the bridge, and then, finally, the chorus, it feels as if I am ascending into a higher place. It is one of Erasure’s most divinely contemplative compositions, in my opinion. It is just sublime.

So that is the sound of Erasure circa 2011. The production was done by Frankmusik , a highly talented and emerging electronic dance artist. And we know the name-brand sound ofVince Clarke, a skilled and timeless “tone-smith” who creates the instrumental soundscape of Erasure, not to mention his bandmate Andy Bell, a prominent songwriter and vocalist. I cannot describe to you the amazing talent produced by Mute, which includes artists like Moby and Goldfrapp. Their skils combined, these individuals should make you shit tears of joy. Honestly.





Are Women Funnier than Men?

4 10 2011

I’m usually very sceptical about sex differences, but I must admit that as of late I have been tempted to draw the tentative conclusion that women might be funnier than men. Now, I’m not saying that women are intrinsically funnier than men, nor that they should be, but I suspect that their different life experiences have resulted in a different sense of humour. A sense of humour far, far wickeder than anything the male mind has ever conjured up, something rich with subtle streaks of irony.

(To avoid over-generalisation, whenever I say “women” below, it should be taken for granted that I technically mean “many women”.)

Such dry cynicism might also be shared by racial and sexual minorities. Often, I find gay people and black people to be funnier than straight people and white people. Again, it is not that the former two are intrinsically funnier than the latter two, but their worldview, and hence their humour, may have been shaped by different life experiences. I think it might be a coping mechanism. Life is a little bit harder in some ways for people who are gay, black, or mixed-race, so it can be empowering for them to treat their oppression with levity. Such an attitude suggests that the oppressor has failed in their attempt to break down the morale of the oppressed, and as a consequence the oppressed  demonstrate a sense of triumph and resilience.

This notion that women and minorities are funnier than white, straight men is especially apparent when we look at women who are also minorities. Consider, for example, the comedians Wanda Sykes and Margaret Cho. The former is black, female, and gay, while the latter is Korean-American, female, and bisexual. Not only can they make light of living life as a woman, but they can make light of living life as a racial and sexual minority. For these women, the vast reservoir of story-telling material is almost inexhaustible, and the droll, bizarre, sexually explicit anecdotes they tell are almost cathartic in their gutwrenching hilarity. They have embraced their human frailty, thereby shunting the sense of self-pity used against them by more privileged groups. Think about it. We’re all familiar with the straight, white male screaming, “stop pitying yourself and take responsibility!” Well, he has no reason to hurl such invectives when the object of his vilification laughs bittersweetly at her own lot in life. And the beauty is that that same self-mockery actually turns out to be self-sustaining.

Sometimes I detect this same cynicism when I listen to women talk about going on dates with men. I’m sure a lot of you have heard women complain about forcing themselves to laugh at their date’s stupid jokes. Why are those jokes so stupid? It’s because they’re artless, contrived, naïve, bourgeois. Men don’t have to put as much effort into their humour, because they’re men, so they can expect the listener to lavish them with heaps of unearned laughter. You don’t have to try as hard to be funny when you automatically command respect, but you do when you have more invested in it. Men don’t have as much to lose. So, it must be absolutely tormenting for a woman with a more nuanced understanding of life’s cruelty to feign some fake Miss Universe grin at her spoiled date’s inane, bathetic, self-satisfying jokes. Or I could just be reading too much into it. But this is what I imagine to be the case, because I think I see a shadow of the same thing in straight, white males as many women do.

This, I think, is possible because of the special camaraderie between women and gay people, who share, it would seem, a comic genius of particular sharpness and panache. For me, women and gay people harbour a secret cynicism about sex and romance. If we think about it, women are funnier than men because they have to try harder, and gay people are funnier than straight people because they have to try harder, too. Both straight women and gay men are in a position to comment on relationships with men from a perspective which lies outside that of the heterosexual male—a person with more privilege than either women or gay men. On top of that, both straight women and gay men like penises, so they already have a lot to talk about regarding their sex lives. Lesbian and gay male humour also overlap in that both lesbians and gay men view life from the perspective of sexual minorities. Thus, we can see how the comic taste of many women is corroborated by that of sexual minorities.

What all of this leads to is a distinction between two types of comedy—standard and vernacular. Standard comedy might be defined as the comic sensibility of the privileged classes (white, male, heterosexual, rich, etc.), while vernacular comedy might be defined as the comic sensibility of the underprivileged classes (non-white, female, non-heterosexual, transsexual, poor, etc.). As in language (e.g. AAVE, or African-American Vernacular English), vernacular humour is dangerous because it presents the worldview of the underprivileged classes, who tend to be seen as subversive. It lurks somewhere on the outskirts of the comedic metropolis, just beyond the purview of the cocky college jock grinning stupidly at his deltoids in his smartphone mirror shots, brandishing a middle finger for no real reason. According to standard humour, a funny woman isn’t feminine, because belly-rolling laughter is a messy, rowdy, indelicate affair, and while that kind of woman may not exactly be threatening, she isn’t considered as desirable as a male of the same calibre, hence she gets screwed over despite her talent. And that is why I love pioneering women comedians like Lucille Ball, and emerging talents like Melissa McCarthy. They’re utterly, unabashedly unruly—they’d be sitting on the toilet and eating Rice Krispies in their smartphone mirror shots.

Believe me, there are so many men out there who make me chuckle till my guts roll out of my mouth. Where do I start? Well, there’s Robin Williams, Steve Martin, and Conan O’Brien for starters. But these men are self-deprecating. For some reason, they are able to mock themselves when it would behove them not to do so. Men are “supposed” to save face and look cool while telling jokes (because they can get away with it), but these men don’t care, and they relish every minute of it. They don’t rely on prestige to get a laugh; they shamelessly eviscerate themselves in front of a live audience. They make themselves look like fools because they don’t want to be taken too seriously. And in doing so they join the ranks of Lucille Ball, Joan Rivers, Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley, Wanda Sykes, Jocelyn Jee Esien, Margaret Cho, Kristen Wiig, Jessica Hynes, Julia Davis, and all of the other grande dames of comedy. Funny men, I salute you! You have clearly surmounted the nature of your sex. (Kidding.)

By the way, we should all salute our newest star Jocelyn Jee Esien for being so brave. She is a challenger of comfort zones, which is absolutely paramount in comedy.

I guess the point is that women are funnier than men because they have had different life experiences. These life experiences are determined by environmental stimuli, and are not intrinsic, but they affect us nonetheless—for the better, I would say. Meanwhile, female and minority humour often overlap, and together these upstarts turn puritanical, middle-class, mainstream American humour on its head (when America notices, that is). In addition, women and gay men in particular seem to share a similarly tawdry humour, especially about sex and romance, while this type of humour can be said to be vernacular, since it challenges middle-class norms. Should women be funnier than men? No, of course not, so what we should be doing is teaching men to relax for once, take themselves less seriously, and  start mimicking Conan O’Brien. Don’t worry—you’ll probably still have the upper-hand in most areas (until we take care of that). It’s just that you’ll be a little bit more lovable in the meantime.