Jackie Hell and “Horror” Drag

10 09 2013

Jackie Hell XXXIX

The other day I watched a Youtube video by Seattle drag queen Jackie Hell, and I was reminded of what Pittsburgh queen Sharon Needles has said about her own art: that she wants to shine a light on the dark and ugly side of humanity. I don’t think Jackie would make the cut for Rupaul’s Drag Race any time soon—she is just too specialised—but I think she and Sharon have a lot in common, and they both have a lot of uncomfortable things to say.

To shine a light on Jackie’s horrible character, I decided to include that Youtube video below. Some people say camp drag queens mock women, but they fail to realise that camp queens are consciously flaying stereotypes about traditional womanhood. It is actually the critics of camp drag queens who mock women, because they actually believe in the stereotypes that those queens are parodying. I think Jackie is like that–she is creating a pastiche of anecdotal female caricatures and channelling her impressions through performance art:

I know, the child abuse part. It’s a touchy subject. But hopefully we can all agree that Jackie is satirising the ugliest sample of humanity and making it something we can all recognize, if indirectly. I actually think watching videos like hers is a way for us to confront our greatest fears. Who else would say it? Your schoolteacher? No. It takes the boldest performance artist to speak truth.

Anyway, what do you think about Jackie Hell’s style of drag? Is it offensive, does it challenge your way of thinking about gender performance, or are you simply amused by her style of drag?

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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.





Dina Martina Time!

23 12 2010

There is a God.

For the first time ever, I attended the Dina Martina Christmas Show, held each December in the divey Rebar, a mixed bar in downtown Seattle. I was not disappointed. What the hell was I waiting for?! Words cannot adequately describe the surreal and carnivalesque experience of peering into the colourfully twisted imagination of what may be the most deliciously bizarre drag comedian of our age. In fact, I would even suggest that Ms. Martina might be Seattle’s most boast-worthy import to the rest of the world.

While drag comedians such as Shirley Q. Liquor often exploit racist stereotypes to engage and shock their audience, Ms. Martina is able to achieve the same effect without resorting to cheap shots–instead, what we observe is an innocent, almost childlike naiveté characterized by a whirlwind of perfectly-placed malapropisms, random, out-of-the-blue references, horrifyingly unflattering fashion-pieces, and dyslexic lyrical errors. (Yes, she does poke fun at Irish culture, the elderly, and rural, southern Americans, but it’s all done so sweetly and harmlessly, and it’s so silly and over-the-top, that it can’t possibly be taken seriously.) The result is a charmingly old-fashioned self-mockery which is so outrageously pathetic as to make one rupture an intestine from crying with laughter. Imagine Dame Edna on a cocaine bender after inhaling helium from a balloon.

Unfortunately, this is over the head of most Americans, who are so accustomed to humour of the artlessly normal, safe, and straightforward variety. But maybe that’s why she does so well in Seattle–which produced the likes of Almost Live!–a corner of the U.S. which seems to have developed a wackier, more ironic comic tradition than the rest of the country, a tradition that is reminiscent to some extent of British or Australian sensibilities, and which just may be as irreligious as these (Seattle is supposed to be the “least-churched” city in America). This might also be said of the gay subculture, which, I personally believe, is more humorously subsersive, whether this is because they have been motivated to be subversive as a reaction to the mainstream, or because they are deemed subversive for being outside the mainstream in the first place. At any rate, Ms. Martina might be said to embody this much-beloved, off-the-wall buffoonery.

Despite the fact that my cheeks were so sore from laughter that I thought my face would explode, I was able to retain a few tidbits from the show I attended. In the first half of the show, which was a matinee, Dame Martina graced the drunken audience with her rendition of “Angels We Have Heard on High”, which is memorable not only for the fortuitous substitution of “angles” for “angels”, but also for its totally out-of-leftfield allusion to the early ’80s disco classic by Laura Branigan, “Gloria”. This was followed by the teary ballad about Christ’s birth, called “Christmas”, in which she reverently describes Mary’s water breaking, her violent contractions, and a Christmas dinner inside the barn followed by a campfire replete with roasted marshmallows and campfire songs. Then there was an original version of “Edelweiss”, which merged seamlessly into “I’m Every Mountain”, a soulful homage to the Chaka Khan hit “I’m Every Woman”. Then there was the gift-giving–I mean “jift-jivving”–ceremony, in which Ms. Martina bestowed on a random audience member the jifts that keep on jivving–a stick of Cheetos-flavoured lip-balm, an inflated plastic turkey, and, perhaps most generous of all, the world’s largest pair of underpants, which she thoughtfully pressed against her face, leaving an imprint of her caked-on make-up on the crotch, before jivving it away to the lucky fan.

Perhaps the highlight of the show, however, was a story of hope in the midst of tragedy which Ms. Martina related whilst sitting next to a plastic Santa Claus statue. In it, she told about the goiter which cursed the neck of her 11 year-old adopted daughter, and how, one night, while her daughter slept, she tied one end of a string to the goiter, and the other end of the string to the door, and then slammed the door shut, removing the goiter quite effectively. She then told how she dried the goiter and filled it with candy to give to the poor Mexicans who lived on the other side of the railway tracks in the apple maggot quarantine area she calls home. You see, this Mexican family was celebrating a birthday and had no money for a real piñata. It took them several hours to finally break the makeshift piñata open, after which all the candy…and stuff…spilled out onto the gleeful children. The end.

One London reviewer was less than impressed with Ms. Martina’s graceful and elegant performance–the “ironic homophobia” was not to his liking, and, for him, the spoken interludes between songs dragged. This I cannot understand. I couldn’t take my eyes, nor my ears, away from the otherworldly spectacle gracing the stage throughout the entire show, and I couldn’t wait to get back after intermission to see what else the gal might pull out of her plastic shopping-bag of delights, or what other disco tune she would integrate into her deferential commemoration of Christ’s birthday. Could you?

If you get this humour, and you’re in Seattle, you can buy tickets to the Dina Martina Christmas Show at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/46945. In addition, you can celebrate the holidays with particularly horrifying pathos by purchasing the Dina Martina Holiday Album at either Amazon.com or iTunes. She is also on Facebook, for your enjoyment. I can’t wait to go back next year! Or maybe sometime in the crevasse that begs to be filled between Christmas and New Year’s. Or maybe on St. Patrick’s Day. Or possibly Easter. Perhaps Lammas, the harvest day.

<<News Update: I’m going to another Dina concert tonight (12/27/2010)! With my SIBLINGS. I know. I hope they get the tongue-in-cheek, burlesque humour.>>