Photo by Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images for MTV

It’s a drag

How sacralization ruins low culture

Artillery Row

I’ve seen a hell of a lot of drag in my time. The life of a homosexual man in modern Western countries has many enviable advantages over those lived by the brethren of previous ages, but I’m not entirely sure this is one of them. Now drag is everywhere. It has become mainstream, to be enjoyed by everybody, not only mums and dads but, increasingly, all the family. You lucky people. 

We rarely, if ever, see drag going in the reverse

In my inadvertent study of this branch of entertainment I have subdivided drag. First out of the blocks there is female impersonation, which has faded somewhat but which older readers will remember from the likes of Danny la Rue or Hinge & Bracket. The point of this is to disguise the male sex of the performer, so much that an ignorant observer might, just possibly, think they’re watching a genuinely female performer. The novelty of this is of what we might call the “ooh, you genuinely wouldn’t know if you didn’t know” variety. 

Moving on to drag proper, where what you are watching is very obviously a man dressed as a woman, I think it can be divided, like diabetes, into two types. Type 1 is the kind that’s all about a playful demolition of gender roles, reversing the conventions of society in a carnivalesque way. Onlookers are never expected to consider such performers as anything but men dressed up and having a laugh. The vibe is visceral, often low-culture. This is where we find badly applied lipstick on the teeth, stubble and glued-on eyelashes. It’s the world of panto, Dick Emery and The Two Ronnies. 

Stretching a point, you could extend type 1 to the gender-bending pop stars of the 70s and 80s. (It would do us well here to remember that in those supposedly stifling and oppressive days of yore, the band Japan — five heterosexual young men from dog-rough Catford — could pomade and titivate themselves up to the nines without anybody turning much of a hair.) 

Type 2 is exemplified by Ru Paul’s Drag Race (at least the American version). Again, we’re not being asked to marvel at a convincing disguise, but a hell of a lot more effort is put in, and it follows a much narrower path — to “throw shade” and to “slay”. It is based on a very limited kind of comedic persona, of the sharp-tongued, high status diva. It glorifies a very old model of female glamour, last seen widely in the Hollywood of around 1942. (Such an odd idea of “femininity” — are there any women, or indeed men, like this? Were there ever?) It has nothing much to say about gender roles — if anything, it reinforces them. There is something very obviously misogynistic about it. Not for nothing is Ru Paul looking for “Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve & Talent” in his “queens”, or acts called things like “Panti Bliss”. 

It’s telling that we rarely, if ever, see drag going in the reverse direction. Maybe this is down to the simple fact that women tend to look good in men’s clothes. But I remember being with a group of female friends when French and Saunders first unveiled their turn as the two gay male stylists, and I will never forget the eruption of laughter in the room as the boot was finally, finally on the other foot. 

This mainstreaming of drag, and Type 2 in particular, is very odd. Personally, I am all for vulgarity and tasteless jokes. What other people find funny, even if I don’t, doesn’t really bother me. 

But. Wasn’t drag meant to be rubbish — enjoyable nonsense? The idea that this dated daftness is of deep social value is bizarre, as if straight men suddenly declared that On The Buses, fun as it undoubtedly was, should be elevated as the ultimate expression of their “identity”. 

A subculture only functions if there’s a mainstream

The Type 1 drag acts I saw over the years were gloriously trashy and inconsequential. In a very low-key, low-culture way, they seemed to be teasing at the rigid demarcation of men and women by social codes. I was never asked to believe, or to assert, that these performers were expressing something wholesome and positive about differences between the sexes — and certainly not that their acts were genuine expressions of a gendered soul, or were somehow, in that dreadful word of our times, empowering. In 2022 performer Amrou Al-Kadhi can tell the Guardian, “in my drag stage persona, I feel invincible” and “I have started wearing a leather thong to meetings, and find it oddly helpful”.

A subculture, however, only functions if there’s a mainstream. If it moves into dominance, you’re left with a shell. We regularly have to pretend that formerly countercultural things are still shocking and challenging, when in fact they are hollowed-out simulacra in a cultural cul-de-sac. 

I have tried to argue to friends that Type 1 drag at least was, and is, okay. Recently I’ve felt these words turning to ashes as they leave my mouth. I’m not in favour of banning or censoring any art for adult audiences. But it’s not great, is it?

Now we have drag acts going into schools and libraries to open children’s minds on gender. Really? It’s the equivalent of dispatching the Black And White Minstrels to advocate for racial harmony. 

Social justice activists bleat endlessly about “power structures”, just as feminists point the finger at patriarchy. I think there is some truth in those ideas, but it’s usually more complex. Drag Queen Story Hour, however, actually is “all about power” — the entire point of it is to goad. It is saying to parents and anyone else who disagrees, you can’t do anything about this. Just try it and we’ll have you

Which is a very unpleasant, I might say very male, kind of behaviour. 

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