Monday, August 9, 2010

Drag University and the Figure of the Drag Queen

Judith Butler in her landmark book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity utilizes the concept of drag to illustrate, what she proposes, gender performativity. In her analysis she argues that "in imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself - as well as its contingency" (175). Drag, she argues, reveals how there is not an "original" gender, but that that the parody of drag is "the parody of the very notion of the original" (175). Drag in its excessive, parodic performance illuminates the complexity of gender, anatomical sex and gender performance whereby the gender does not align with the sex but with a particular performance creating an allusion or illusion of something that is idealized, but unattainable by any one.

Butler's use of drag was quickly taken up, but in problematic ways as Butler herself discusses in her later book Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. Here Butler re-articulates or clarifies her arguments, bringing to light that she is not arguing that gender is voluntaristic - that we wake up in the morning and simply don whatever gender it is we would like. Rather, gender is complicated by the discourses available and the possibilities within such discursive structures. Drag, simply put, is only a helpful illustration. It illuminates the ways in which gender is performed and relies on particular performances structured within particular symbolic systems but gender is not the same as "drag," in that drag queens and kings can don persona in ways different from the everyday. Drag is a performance, but gender performativity rests on the reiteration of norms, of performances that upon constant reiteration and repetition become seen as the norms.

Of course Butler's engagement with drag and gender are far more nuanced and complicated than I have written...but I begin by thinking about Butler because of the re-emergence it seems of the figure of the drag queen within popular culture - notably the return of RuPaul in Logo's 1st and 2nd seasons of RuPaul's Drag Race and the 1st season of Drag U. Both of these shows are fascinating for a variety of reasons and arguably bring drag to a broader audience in intelligent and thoughtful ways (as in, drag is re-presented as an art, a performance art, with a history AND not simply a spectacle...but of course it is not drag without the spectacle for sure).

My interest in this however, is the strange dynamics with gender that emerge in the new Drag U where biological woman come on the show and are taught how to be fierce like a queen by the former contestants of RuPaul's Drag Race Seasons 1 and 2. The women and their drag queen professor(s) help them overcome certain barriers and upon doing so draguate with one of the women winning top honors.

Yet, who are the women that come on the show? The women that come on the show thus far seem to fail at being women - they are tom boys, they are single, they are blue collar. They are not the idealized woman that is beautiful, fashionable, and taken (or at least having sex). They are failed women. But, as advertised, they are everyday women making it seem that perhaps the everyday woman is a failed woman. And, she needs help from the drag queen who in her parody of gender simultaneously seems to illuminate the failure of gender while reinscribing what it means to be a "real" or "successful" woman. I should note that call the "everyday woman" a failure is not meant to be an insult to the everyday woman...I know in the current time no one like to be a failure, but I think the notion of the fail perhaps provides critical space to think about gender. I also utilize the notion of failure because this is a university and the women are graded in order to see who draguates with the highest DPA.

The everyday women come to the University presided over by RuPaul to learn how to be powerful women and they are taught how to do so by as Ru refers to them as "Lady-Boys". Queens and the everyday women join together to learn about themselves and the power of the feminine. Yet, both the professor and the student are at the outset, failures. The women are "everyday," they are not exceptional like a queen must be. But the queens are parodic and failure to meet the ideals by which they base their performance off. They will never be "biological women" even as they perform the "woman" better than any "biological woman" on the show. Yet, in this, the individuals illuminate the power of the feminine and at times the "everyday women" seem to take back ownership of their lives. Of course interestingly, we never see the queens break down and discuss their own traumatic pasts that have propelled them to drag and to teaching...but that is of course, not the premise of the show.

What I found interesting watching the show at this point in the season, very early indeed, is the looks on the women's faces when they received a "poor grade" and lose the competition to have "top honors". What happens when one begins a failed woman in need of a drag-make-over, only to fail at that very endeavor? Or is it not failure, but a jump up in one's grade of being "female"? What happens when one "passes" perhaps, but not at the top of one's class? Does this produce a hierarchy of "womanhood" whereby a woman's performance of her gender is graded...and the everyday woman is simply a failure?

The dynamics of the show further complicate this issue as there are drag queens, RuPaul in her male form, and guest judges who are biological males and females. The grading then of the performance of these women is done then by a diverse group of bodies. Experts in drag (e.g. Lady Bunny and RuPaul) and experts in other realms of performance come together to grade the performances of these ladies who are not creating a new "gender" for themselves, but performing something new "one night only." One must ask then if this one time performance is capable of changing the women, of transforming them, or if come the day after, the women fall back into the repetition of their own gender pre-university training? Does RuPaul's Drag U actually illuminate the misreadings of drag a la Butler's theory of gender performativity whereby it becomes an issue where the "performance" of drag is believed to represent the possibility of disrupting gender norms...when it is actually a voluntary performance that fails at addressing the ways gender is discursively created? Does this show "drag u" back into beliefs that we can simply change our genders over night OR does it "drag u" into an uncharted path that allows these women to be "new" and "improved" as opposed to the failed women they were before the show?

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