Drag Queens: Feminine Appreciation Or Female ‘Minstrel Shows’?

Written by K. Walker on November 1, 2018

Why the selective outrage? How is one thing acceptable (and even celebrated) while the other is not?

Let me preface this with the statement that I tilt a little more libertarian, and believe that informed adults should be able to dress and perform however they like. It should also be said that just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean that you should do it. In wearing whatever costume you want to and creating a character that you like, there should be some consideration for civility and tact, which sadly, seem to be lacking in our current culture. For instance, at no time, (other than for historical education or entertainment purposes,) is it ever acceptable to don the garb of the Third Reich. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about men lampooning the traits of women for fun and profit.

It should also be said that just because one person has no trouble with it, it doesn’t mean that someone else can’t find it offensive, nor should they be forced to keep their opinions to themselves. You do you, boo, and I’ll do me — and the ‘me’ of which I speak is highly opinionated.

I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘cultural appropriation’ in the wake of the firing of Megyn Kelly from NBC’s daytime talk show, Megyn Kelly Today, for her alleged ‘racist’ attitude in not condemning perceived blackface. (FYI: That’s not what she said, and it’s just an excuse to get rid of her due to poor ratings.) Despite her emotional apology, the beatdown she received from her guests, and her acquiescence to the position of the offense mongers, she was still axed.

Kelly didn’t understand what the problem was in dressing up as someone of a different race for Halloween and referenced a costume worn by reality TV star Luann De Lesseps. On the season opener of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of New York City earlier this year, De Lesseps donned an oversized afro and allegedly darkened her skin for a 2017 Halloween costume paying homage to Diana Ross. De Lesseps denies that she attempted to darken her skin, claiming that she was using the bronzer that she normally wears, and she apologized to anyone who was offended by her costume.

First, it’s been a freaking year since she wore the costume, and 6 months since she apologized to those that were offended by it. It shouldn’t spark controversy again.

Second, it’s ridiculous to say that wearing a costume out of respect for an individual is limited to the same ethnic group. Does that mean that non-white children are not permitted to dress as a white superhero or princess? Or that non-black children are forbidden from dressing up as Black Panther, or non-Pacific Islanders aren’t allowed to be Moana? That’s ridiculous! This is obviously quite different from what Elizabeth Warren has been guilty of for decades. 

Third, I don’t see the alleged skin darkening as any more offensive than the massive ‘fro that De Lesseps wore, which frankly, looks more like she’s giving deference to Drag Queens than to Diana Ross.

Which brings me to my point.

If blackface and minstrel shows are offensive (which they no doubt are) and condemnation is being extended to perceived incidents of blackface, then why is drag suddenly becoming mainstream? Isn’t it equally offensive?

As a woman, I think it is.

Blackface was used by white actors who put on black greasepaint to exaggerate and mock of physical features of blacks. Stereotypes were used in incredibly unflattering and blatantly racist ways.

How is this different from drag?

The Problem With Drag

Drag queens are (primarily gay) men who put on ostentatious makeup and wigs and don dresses to caricature femininity. They create characters that are stereotypes of women: bitchy, slutty, catty, dumb, etc. It is, (for lack of a better phrase) the appropriation of the female gender. Gay men are literally putting on stereotypes of women as a costume for profit, and that’s apparently just fine.

(Yes, there are some female drag performers that are ‘drag kings’ but their male performances aren’t as mainstream and they don’t enjoy the same success as their opposite gender counterparts.)

Just check out the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race which has been on television for 10 seasons. In researching this topic, I watched a couple of episodes of the show, which was incredibly eye-opening. The lingo used is decidedly feminine and hypersexualized — ‘Girlfriend’, ‘Bitches’, ‘Girls’, are all used to refer to the male drag performers. Beefy male assistants called the ‘Pit Crew’ walk around in just their briefs. The challenges themselves often have vulgar references to women, such as the parody of the Match Game where contestants do their best comedic impersonation, often of a woman, and attempt to stay in character.

There are several different styles of drag, one of which is called ‘Fish’ which attempts to look as much like an actual woman as possible. However, the vast majority of drag involves the flamboyant caricature of traits associated with women. From high cheekbones achieved through makeup contouring to the ‘sashaying’ of exaggerated hips when walking to ‘Diva’ attitudes and hypersexualization — all are lampooned by drag queens.

Some have said that drag performers cannot be appropriating anything from women because of the feminist theory of ‘intersectionality.’ The power rests with straight women and not with that the gay men performing in drag. It’s a hierarchy of oppression, and the women are ahead of the men this time. Since there is no power imbalance, that means it’s all just fine and dandy and not offensive in the slightest.

Elizabeth Levengood wrote a piece on Medium that dismisses the premise that drag is harmful to women or the equivalent of blackface because, as Judith Butler argues, ‘traditional gender roles are exhaustingly heteronormative‘ so we should just all accept that femininity and masculinity are social constructs and we are all ‘performing’ our sexuality just as drag queens are. Besides, the media likes to push the idea that women are bitchy, sassy, slutty, catty, dumb, hypersexualized, etc. so it’s not really a problem when drag queens impersonate that because it’s actually society’s fault.

Levengood cites the origin of drag as the late 19th century when it evolved from the practice of cross-dressing male actors in theatre to an exploration of sexual identity due to the repression of gay identity, but that’s only partially true.

The Historical Connection To Blackface

Drag also has a very dark side; it was used in actual minstrel plays in Vaudeville and on Broadway. That’s where we got the stereotypical ‘black’ characters like the overweight, ‘Mammie’ who doesn’t take any backtalk and is filled with earthy wisdom, despite her inability to articulate her sentences properly.

If you look at the exaggerated makeup used in drag, it seems to borrow rather heavily from blackface.

The structure of the drag performances themselves pays tribute to the racist shows of the late nineteenth century. The historical minstrel shows incorporated song and dance, and some clever banter, and a slapstick skit. As drag became popular in the early 20th century, the ‘drag balls’ in New York included a drag fashion show with a runway walk, but shows now include lip syncing, dancing, humor, and ‘Voguing’, a seemingly integral part of drag culture that was made mainstream by Madonna in the 1990s. (Incidentally, some critics say that Madonna appropriated Voguing from the marginalized drag subculture to add it to her own branding in order to profit from it. In other words, Madonna is guilty of ‘appropriation’ from the drag world that is inspired by female appearance and behavior.)

Occasionally, the two worlds of blackface and drag collide as they did in 2013 when a white Drag Queen named Daytona B*tch was fired from Toronto Pride after dressing up as the late-90s telephone psychic, Miss Cleo, who happened to be black. It was ‘blackface’ and a ‘minstrel show’ to the organizers, but B*tch says that it was supposed to be a comedic character to fit with the theme of the Drag competition which was, ‘Caribbean Heat.’

So, if these men dressing as women and caricaturing them isn’t a problem, because it’s just creating a character for fun, why is it suddenly a problem when one dresses as a woman of a different race?

Isn’t that just another character?

Drag And ‘Cultural Appropriation’

There are many criticisms online that drag has a real problem with ‘cultural appropriation.’ The nature of the ‘performance’ requires that both the clothing and the makeup match the look. A woman of any race could wear an Indian saree, a Japanese kimono, or a Native American headdress and be called out by the offense-mongers as guilty of ‘cultural appropriation’ even if it is worn in a respectful way giving deference to the culture. But drag queens must appear to be part of that culture which requires the cringeworthy alteration of skin color by use of makeup and slanted eyes to mimic Asian appearance. At least, that’s what happened on RuPaul’s Drag Race when several contestants wore kimonos during a runway competition.

Don’t think that the drag community is fine with cultural appropriation, though. Only some forms of appropriation seem to be acceptable — racial and gender are totes kewl. However, that second one has some caveats.

There has been a new trend of women choosing to dress in drag as women, which is being termed ‘Extreme Femininity.’ The drag community calls this a form of ‘cultural appropriation.’

So women can’t dress up as caricatures of women, only men can do that.

The Normalization of Drag

RuPaul Charles, arguably the most mainstream Drag Queen of all time, has said that drag is only for male performers and that women will be barred from his television competition show, RuPaul’s Drag Race. He also said the same about transgender women but has since walked it back after significant online backlash.

You’d think that some feminists out there would be outraged by a man marginalizing women like that.

Due to RuPaul’s success, the sloughing off of gender norms, and the prevalence of Queer Theory on university campuses which is seeping into mainstream culture, drag doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. It’s becoming more and more mainstream. Increasingly, our slang is being pulled from drag culture.

Normalizing drag is the new push.

ClashDaily has reported on ‘Drag Queen Storytime’ at libraries to introduce kids to the concept of Drag Queens.

The push to normalize the gender-bending with children is ramping up in the ‘new’ elementary school health curricula that include gender identity and gender expression.

And it’s working.

‘Kinder’ Drag

There is now a phenomenon called ‘Kinder Drag’ where young children dress up and perform as child drag queens. (RuPaul doesn’t seem to take issue with this, incidentally, and called one drag kid the ‘future of America.’ Well, I guess he might have a problem with it if the child was female.)

And the appropriation, both ethnic and gender-based, continues.

The lampooning is so embedded in drag culture that Nemis Melancon, a boy who decided to start dressing in drag when he was 7 years old, created the character “Lactatai’, a self-proclaimed ‘Diva’ who seems to have appropriated black culture in speech patterns and mannerisms.

Incidentally, it’s unclear why Nemis chose the name Lactatia, but its etymology is interesting. It is a derivative of the Latin word, ‘lactis’ meaning ‘milk’, and ‘tatia’ a variant of the Russian name, ‘Tatiana’, which means ‘fairy queen’. So, essentially his character is a white, fairy queen. He also calls his fans ‘Lactators’ which is an obvious reference to breastfeeding women.

Those are quite cerebral connections for a 9-year-old boy to make all on his own.

Watch ‘Lactatia’ at RuPaul’s DragCon ask people if they are ‘Lactators’:

Nemis has done some lip syncing as part of his performance, taken ‘Voguing’ classes, and has even won a drag competition.

Another member of this ‘kinder-fabulous’ club is Desmond Is Amazing who has over 98,000 followers on Instagram. Desmond isn’t just a drag kid, but an 11-year old LGBTQ+ activist who claims that he came out of the closet when he was 3 years old.

How a preschooler can understand the concept of sexual orientation and then clearly identify where he fits in before hitting puberty is beyond my comprehension.

Who could have seen that coming after reading his bio (written by his mother) on his website stating that he was born during NYC Pride Week in 2007?

It’s just such a coincidence that his parents were proud LGBTQ+ activists!

Both kids speak as if from a script. They both say that RuPaul’s Drag Race was integral in their decision to become drag performers and that they see drag as ‘art’ and are appreciative that their parents allow them to ‘be who they are.’

Interestingly, both sets of parents were allowing their very young children to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race which is filled with foul language and gay sex innuendo. RuPaul tells contestants, ‘Good luck and don’t f*ck it up‘ which has been deemed appropriate language for a 3-year old according to these model parents. They also seem fine with the overt sexualization of their pre-pubescent children, and the instant fame (and the associated cash flow) that they have garnered from progressives and the LGBTQ+ community — so there’s that.

Are these children learning behavior that will later be deemed to be ‘problematic’ by leftists?

Well, we’ll have to see if leftists care more about actual, overt bigotry or defending the absolute fringiest of the fringe of the LGBTQ+ community.

You might say, ‘Come on! It’s all just clowning around and having fun!

Advocates tell us that calling people in drag ‘clowns’ is denying a part of their identity and an ‘important part of their sexual identity. It’s also not the same as transgenderism. There’s an uneasy tension in the LGBTQ+ community between drag performers and transgender individuals.

‘Dragsplaining’ Femininity

RuPaul, hot on the heels of the success of Drag Race, has begun a new show called RuPaul’s Drag U where drag queens teach women who are tomboys about femininity.

Because who can teach a woman about being a woman better than a gay man exaggerating what a woman actually is, right? But, hey, it’s all fine because they’re ‘fierce’ and teaching these women to find their inner diva. It’s not like they’re ‘mansplaining’ what a woman is or anything.

Being a woman is apparently all about attitude.

I would have never known that being born female.

I’m so glad that these gay men are able to teach us what femininity really is — clownish makeup with a ‘fierce’ pout, one-dimensional characters, and the blatant commercialism exhibited by the adoration of fabulous designer clothes that are to be worn with expensive stiletto heels.

Here I was aspiring to the definition of a virtuous woman as described in Proverbs 31.

Wow, I’m so relieved that I don’t have to live up to that example anymore now that gay men have ‘dragsplained’ what a woman should be.

Or maybe, just maybe — they’re actually mocking women, even if it is unintentional.

ClashDaily's Associate Editor since August 2016. Self-described political junkie, anti-Third Wave Feminist, and a nightmare to the 'intersectional' crowd. Mrs. Walker has taken a stand against 'white privilege' education in public schools. She's also an amateur Playwright, former Drama teacher, and staunch defender of the Oxford comma. Follow her humble musings on Twitter: @TheMrsKnowItAll and on Gettr @KarenWalker