Ahead of a two week run of Fitting at Alphabetti Theatre we welcome a guest blog by Freya Bryson, exploring the power in the face of controversy of female drag queens, and it’s bloody excellent.
“Make up, clothing, posturing could be fun and poke fun at the absurdity of gender and culturally hegemonic identities. . . we are all performing -even if only a little.”
“I was playing out the fabrication of my gender through inscribing the surface of my body. By playing with gender it reveals itself to be no more than a social construct of repeated acts.”
OK, enough with the quotes! Take it away, Freya . . .
Bending the looking glass
– an exploration into the world of female drag queens
By Freya Bryson
I did not wake up on the 8th of July expecting to be presented as the co-winner of best hair category at Curious Festival’s Vogue Ball. I did not envision being judged by drag star the Divine David with host Mutha Tucka, I had not known that my friend was a dab hand at Lucille ball lips and if you had asked me to walk a runway in platforms in front of an audience I would have politely told you to shut the front door. However, sometimes life grabs you by the metaphorical balls and tucks you in.
I have always been interested in gender, theatricality and the theatricality of gender. As a child I remember applying my mother’s lipstick with much gusto, the result of which made me resemble a garish tribal warrior rather than a Barbie queen; I was the black leotard at ballet class surrounded by flamingo spandex. I remember realising that there was an ideal – a bright, blonde, long haired, gazelle-limbed idolised ideal – endowed with privileges and instantaneous charm. I would look in the mirror with those images circling my head and examine myself coming up short. In truth I felt sub-feminine. One day I’d grow up into the bras and the lipstick, filling it out and becoming the definitive article, I assured myself.
This didn’t exactly occur as I had envisioned either. What happened is that I realised that ‘playing’ a woman became more elaborate and more subtle with heavier pay offs. Normative femininity was expected, hierarchal and valued; a sheath that moves so subtly against your skin that only you could detect any chaffing. When did it stop being child’s play?
I was drawn to drag quite simply because it looked fun. Make up, clothing, posturing could be fun and poke fun at the absurdity of gender and culturally hegemonic identities. Watching films like Priscilla Queen of the Desert opened my eyes and mind to images of towering satire and aching beauty and to the sneaking suspicion that, to an extent, we are all performing – even if only a little. Most films I watched as child had male protagonists so it wasn’t a stretch to feel through them and place myself in their shoes. In fact recent studies show that similarly male viewers have no issue identifying with female protagonists, but that’s an article for another time.
The point is that drag on screen seemed as accessible as any other activity or pursuit a leading character could partake in, but as I got older it became clear that drag queens were just for men: Flamboyant, feminine men, but for men none the less. Looking back I surprise myself at how easily I accepted this and it is only until relatively recently that I did a double take. Why can’t women be drag queens?
It turns out that there is female drag art and, although it tends to fly under the radar, it has still caused ripples of controversy. The increasing popularity of ‘faux’ drag is seen by some of the LGBTQ community as an unwanted invasion of cis women into queer male culture and space, an unwelcome fetishization encouraged by the increasing televised exposure of drag in the mainstream media. Some feminists view drag as ultimately degrading cultural appropriation, a misogynistic act the equivalent to black face – to partake in it is an act of betrayal.
This argument seems to miss the point that drag, particularly female drag, laughs at femininity not at women themselves, but at the societal box of tricks women have been encouraged to employ in ordered to pass as women. It strikes me that these rather defensive reactions to what can be argued as the final frontier of performance ultimately police female behaviour in terms of what is acceptable and this, as always, should be challenged.
Female drag artists are often known as faux or bio queens, although some performers reject these terms as ‘othering’ and delegitimising their contributions based on their genitalia. Female drag queens have experienced some of the worst examples of misogyny in gay clubs by members of the gay community who perceive these performers as co-opting their art form. Although this backlash may seem shocking this reaction should not be surprising considering its historical precedence. In Classical Greece and in Shakespearean times women were prevented from performing, however, after the English restoration of 1660 thanks to Charles II women could walk the stage. Many female drag queens feel that by performing their gender to such hyperbolic extremes they reclaim and empower their identity, allowing them to take up space.
I certainly felt liberated on that hallowed night at the ball. By exaggerating femininity to grotesque levels I felt emboldened by owning my look and by pushing beauty into monstrous territory. It can be argued that our capitalist society feeds on women feeling insecure about their bodies in order to fund a billion dollar beauty industry. By turning up the volume to spinal tap amp setting 11 I ultimately exposed these feminine hallmarks as tools of power and artifice and by taking up space, by exaggerating the line of my silhouette I didn’t feel as much beautiful as I did powerful. Fearsome. Fierce. The ridiculousness I was exhibiting paradoxically made me feel like I had the last laugh. Judith Butler’s notions never felt more close to the bone: I was playing out the fabrication of my gender through inscribing the surface of my body. By playing with gender it reveals itself to be no more than a social construct of repeated acts, the qualities of which are dictated by the time in which it’s conceived.
My intention had been to go with a friend and spectate at the ball held at breeze collective in Newcastle as part of Curious Festival, to take notes and to soak up the vibes. The taxi ride had been strained. I had felt the need to explain my appearance to the visibly freaked out driver, which had resulted in as little as a nod and an awkward cough. Deciding to save my sashaying for later, I arrived at my friend’s door via the lift. ‘Oh’ she said ‘So we’re doing this tonight? Okay can do. Your hair is amazing, by the way’. With deft motion she flipped up the seats on her couch to reveal an extensive wig and make up section that I had hitherto been completely oblivious to. Before you could say big pink furry box she had glued down her eyebrows and drawn two bright blue beautifully arched lines and dark-lined lips that can only be described as Lucille Ball takes an acid tab. Turns out that my friend was old hat to drag and went by the name of Ivy Profen for many years.
Due to my prior research I was wary about the reactions my friend and I may raise. Fortunately my anxiety was unfounded. Whilst drying our hands in the gender neutral toilets adjusting my orange afro wig’s sunflowers a statuesque vision popped out of the cubicle complete with glitter, head fronds and beard. This vision was Mutha Tucka, the host for the ball. ‘You have to enter the hair category. If you don’t I will literally drag you off your seat.’ After realising they were entirely serious I decided that regardless of any qualms I had I could not take the risk or pass up the opportunity. I quickly settled upon the name Sappho Monroe, although in hindsight I wish I had gone with Madame Ovary.
My stomach was knotted as the categories and vogue dancers rolled by – each performer blurring into a mesmerising parade Fellini would have been proud of. Lumberjack kings with homemade axes chopped at the scenery, vogue dancers contorted and snapped shapes with grace and agility and familiar faces were transmuted into angular screen goddesses of yesteryear. Finally it was our turn.
The room was hot with flashes of camera phones as I strutted as best as I could ripping off the petals of a sunflower I had brought with me in a comic display of he loves me he loves me not. I was initially hoping it was enough before the adrenaline and sheer elation set in. Did I just do that?
Whatever it was it was enough for me. Turns out blowing student maintenance money on an impulsive wig purchase back in the day was actually a sound investment as I co-won the hair category with drag artist Crystal Meth who shone in a look that screamed Blade Runner/Fifth Element future noir. The Vogue Ball was utopian in its diversity, its innovativeness and in its inclusivity.
There are many things I have discovered on this investigative drag journey: orange foundation covers eyebrows best, glitter is affectionately called circus herpes due to its staying power and I have been reminded the very simple truth that art and expression should be for everyone. Since time immemorial people have been subverting gender. No one community or sex can lay claim to it and its high time women get under that feverish spot light. After all, in the words of RuPaul ‘You were born naked and the rest is drag’.
Fitting os at Alphabetti Theatre from Feb 25th – March 7th (excluding Sun and Mon March 1 and 2)