Drag has come a long way since television presenter Robert Robinson, speaking on the BBC arts series The Look At The Week in 1967, implied it was a shady phenomenon creeping through respectable society. Robinson, more wary than wry, referred to this burgeoning trend as something previously confined to the illicit world of homosexuality, which was legalised that year.
Homosexuality had spread to vicars and scout masters according to the press — now drag was muscling in on dockers and stevedores in cockney hinterlands. The programme featured the drag act Phil Starr at the City Tavern, Millwall. Starr, a wallpaper salesman by day, and someone akin to a brickie in a wig at night, explained how his best audience were women. They were even more appreciative than the male prisoners at his Wormwood Scrubs performances.
In Britain, drag was finding its way out of gay clubs and into east end pubs, as well as onto the stage of the Royal Variety Performance, where Danny La Rue was a regular sight into the 1970s. But Robert Robinson’s concerns were premature. It’s in the 21st century that drag has become “a new and concerning phenomenon”, as well as a familiar fixture as light entertainment. Beyond RuPaul’s Drag Race, it’s in ads, art galleries and on the catwalk.
More recently, and more worrying for some, it has found a footing elsewhere. From this month (in which the world celebrates International Drag Day) through to September, Drag Queen Story Hour UK will be touring British schools and libraries, holding classes for 3-11 year olds. Established in 2015 in the US, it claims to “inspire a love of reading, while teaching deeper lessons on diversity, self-love and an appreciation of others”. Sceptics are unsettled by this justification, believing that it contradicts safeguarding principles and government guidelines. Others level charges of misogyny.
Camp can only truly thrive in an affluent society
In this high season of identity politics — with Stonewall exhausting every avenue in an effort to remain relevant and boost its revenue — you wonder if it’s a question of time before drag queens establish themselves as an imperilled and marginalised minority. Their politicisation has been in the offing for a while, as is evident with events like Drag Con, which began as a meet and greet for drag aficionados. Will there soon be a place on the Progress flag? Further hate crime legislation in the offing? Beyond the diminishing right wing evangelicals, always the folk devils in these fights, coming out fighting in the opposite corner are women who have an issue with female impersonation in whatever form it takes, whether drag or transgenderism.
Writing for The Critic in 2021, Dr Em had this to say: “Drag performers frequently reduce women to hyper sexualised, big breasted, big haired bimbos. Celebrated men in drag have names that objectify, sexualise or make light of women’s issues.” Women are split over the concept of drag — but perhaps they always were.
Those that found it misogynistic were overshadowed by the feminists and queer theorists in academia who perceived it to be an art form that subverted gender norms. In the 1990s, Camille Paglia referred to herself as the forerunner of “Drag Queen Feminism”, citing the transvestism of Warhol superstars like Candy Darling as her introduction to the form.
Before that there was Susan Sontag and her infamous essay which gave Camp the academic seal of approval, listing drag and androgyny — two very different things, actually — as central to the canon. In “Notes On Camp” (1964) she describes Camp as a sensibility, a private code among small urban cliques. Homosexuals were synonymous with this in her view, but capitalism and consumerism also played a part. Camp can only truly thrive in an affluent society.
Drag and camp are interchangeable because each derives from themes central to Sontag’s thesis: a love of the unnatural by way of artifice and exaggeration, particularly regarding sexual characteristics and personality traits. Things being what they are not. Camp is the triumph of the epicene style, according to Sontag, and style that is artifice is ultimately epicene. “Not a woman, but a ‘woman’,” she writes.
What has changed since the publication of Sontag’s essay is that the quotation marks have disappeared. Disturbingly, the very notion of what constitutes a woman is up for grabs. Meanwhile, the concerns and grievances of minority groups have found a voice in the mainstream, where the solidarity presumed to exist among them in the margins has imploded. At a time when the charge of cultural appropriation is a serious one, and the crime of “blackface” rallies the lynch mob, gay men become parodies of women and straight men graft themselves onto the trend for a cheap thrill or a cheap joke.
Following Ant & Dec appearing in drag on Saturday Night Takeaway, Julie Burchill expanded on the crudeness of the current take on “womanface”: “The drag queens of today do not seek to embody the elegance of women — as did Danny La Rue, the first drag queen to find fame on primetime TV — but a crude misogynistic stereotype, reflected in their names: Cheryl Hole, A’Whora and worse.”
Women’s bodies and genitalia are the punchline
Drag is no longer a harmless homage to the Hollywood of old, an act fuelled by blue jokes and bawdy innuendo. It’s taken on a sinister aspect, in which women’s bodies and genitalia are the punchline. The recent McCain ad featured drag queen Baga Chipz talking about “my big knockers”. The middle class graduates at the fore of alternative comedy attacked this approach when it was the schtick of working class comedians in the 1980s. Now their contemporary equivalents are its audience.
The prominence of drag in mainstream culture is part of a trend that embraces Sontag’s take on camp. But it also breaks with it. According to Sontag it was never political; it made the serious frivolous. Contemporary camp also makes the frivolous serious. It has lost its outsider status despite fervently clinging to it; it is no longer a subversive subculture. In 2013, filmmaker Bruce LaBruce wrote an essay in which he revised and updated Sontag’s original. He took her to task for arguing that Camp was apolitical, claiming that’s exactly what it was — until now, an age in which he sees “bad straight camp” and “conservative camp”.
Several years on, bad camp sums up what radical politics and political activism have become. The serious has become frivolous. The exaggeration, theatre and artifice of camp and drag colour the antics of Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion and the supporting cast of agitators that take to the streets, whether it’s women dressing as extras from The Handmaid’s Tale or Black Lives Matter foot soldiers reprising Black Panther costumes. In the aftermath of his death, George Floyd was inducted into the contemporary canon of bad camp. Even before his canonisation his open golden casket was displayed for the curious crowds — there was keening; there was mourning — as though he were Mandela or Evita.
Over here, British culture has been consumed by bad camp, particularly in the realm of politics and activism. This plummeted to new depths last month during Pride, when Progress flags were suspended across Regent Street (when there were Union Jacks during jubilee celebrations, “progressives” compared the country to Nazi Germany). On those same streets for the big finale, pantomime dame Keir Starmer with glitter on his cheeks and “Pride” on his t-shirt led the big parade accompanied by Angela Rayner dad-dancing to the outmoded, but obligatory, gay anthem as the London Mayor whipped up the crowd.
Where there was once pride there is now embarrassment. In the absence of a clear and valid cause there is bad camp and Drag Queen Story Hour. But as long as the dancing continues and the music plays, no one will hear the praiseworthy feminists, gay activists and civil rights campaigners of the past spinning in their graves. Many of the changes they agitated for have been achieved; many battles they fought have been won. What’s left in their wake is the bad camp, bad drag and cosplay of those that have yet to accept that society has moved on, and the parade has passed them by.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe