Dressing In Drag, But For Whose Benefit?

In RuPaul's spin-off series, RuPaul's Drag U, contestants participate in the same sort of challenges as on RuPaul's Drag Race with one key difference: their gender. But what does it mean when a woman dresses in drag?

This is the question posed by Wesley Morris at the Boston Globe in an article that stirs up all the old feelings of confusion I thought I put to rest after completing Gender Studies 101. The premise of the show, and the central point of Morris's argument, is this: Through dressing in drag, and performing the exaggerated version of femininity, complete with a new identity and a new name, women are able to tap into some essential strength, some form of power that is linked to double-x chromosomes but not innately of it. By acting like a man acting like a woman, these ladies awaken something inside themselves; it's not just about costume and play-acting. It's a form of psychotherapy, designed to bring forth their "inner divas."

However, according to Morris, this isn't really new. The woman-in-drag thing has been happening for a while now, mostly in the world of pop music, where alter-egos are becoming increasingly common. He writes:

But the women on "Drag U" may just be picking up on something in the culture. Female celebrities - think of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj - have all cheekily incorporated elements of drag into their personas. In their dramatic hair, dramatic costumes, dramatic makeup, dramatic drama, they're biological women borrowing the drag-queen version of women. Two years ago, Beyoncé unveiled a draggy alter ego named Sasha Fierce - an amusing career move that becomes hilarious if you happen to think "Beyoncé" already sounded fabulously draggy. Mariah Carey's nom de drag is Mimi, her dark, almost more appealing inner vamp. As for Lady Gaga, who was born Stephanie Germanotta - what really separates her from the drag veteran and "Drag U" judge Lady Bunny, besides a couple decades, a few crucial inches, and a chromosome?

But here's the thing Morris never says: all gender is draggy, in a way. Lipstick, heels, skirts—these things are all elements of a costume, as are vests and suits and dress shoes. Gender is costumed; the costume can communicate gender. To talk about women dressing in drag is somewhat misleading because the traditionally feminine woman was always dressing in drag. What is lost in Morris's analysis—and possibly in RuPaul's new show and maybe even in Lady Gaga's entire existence—is the element of subversion. There is no element of mimesis here, no motion toward a more inclusive version of femininity. Though the players look a little different, the rules remain the same.

You could very well argue that this is because we've already revealed the performative nature of femininity. The veil has been drawn back and Woman has been shown for what it is: a mixed up brew of fantasy, projection, play-acting and theater. But I'm not sure that this is really true. RuPaul's contestants are borrowing from gay culture in order to become more womanly, which is just another way of throwing themselves into the line of sight of the male gaze. A woman in drag could bust apart the system of rules and regulations that govern femininity, but instead, these women are playing the part in order to better inhabit the part. This is not to suggest that there is something wrong with trying to feel more feminine, but there is something disingenuous about Morris's fear for the future of the drag queen. And there is something disturbing about the ever-stricter adherence to a post-Sex and the City version of womanhood. RuPaul's Drag U may be gender-bending, but it also reveals the truth in the phrase: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Ladies, Gaga [Boston Globe]