From Drags to Bitches: The implications of mainstreamed drag culture on women
S7:E1 of RuPaul’s Drag Race may not have been the best one with which to begin a Netflix binge
Table of Contents
- Introduction: Down a rabbit hole, I am Alice in Wonderland
- Religious Rites to Boogie Nights: A too-short history of drag
- Gay and Drag: Deleting the ‘mask’ in masculine
- RuPaul’s Drag Race: Brilliant and groundbreaking and “a big F you”
- The Naked Episode: Making ‘TMI’ out of ‘not enough’
- To Kill a Mocked Bird: Clumpy mascara and overdrawn lipliner as ‘Girlface’
- He Drag/She Drag: There’s a glass ceiling for everything
- The Yeshiva Cross Dressing Paradox: A personal observation
- Conclusion: We’re real, and we’re spectacular
Introduction: Down a rabbit hole, I am Alice in Wonderland
This investigation began because I watched an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race and it was like being immersed in a warm rainbow.
And then something happened, and it didn’t feel good anymore.
The eyelashes, the glitter, the body language, the movement — I couldn’t take my eyes off any of it. It is genuinely fun and enjoyable to take in. To wonder what it would be like gluing massive eyelashes to your lids, to having incredible cheek-bone drawing skills. To be able to sashay.
And yet. Something felt wrong.
I started asking myself — is it possible (and necessary) to separate appreciation for the performance art of drag from the mainstreamed reality show competition drag spectacle created by RuPaul’s Drag Race? And how did we get to this fantastical land of RuPaul? And what would it mean if it had never come to be?
A bit of background: RuPaul’s Drag Race is streaming all ten seasons on Netflix (as of December 2018) and was only transitioned to the more mainstream VH1 from LOGOtv in 2017 (both are Viacom properties). Plenty of articles and commentaries have been written — especially in the last year — as the show has become a cultural phenomenon over the last decade. The show is a mix of reality TV and competitive pageantry.
The premise is intriguing: What is drag’s place in the context of a competitive reality show? I’m not sure RuPaul saw it coming when he started, but the premise now may as well be: What is the mainstreaming of drag doing for the drag community, and beyond? What is this show teaching viewers — LGBT and straight — outside of that community?
After watching a handful of episodes, a few things became clear:
- Drag is a fascinating performance art.
- There is something visually pleasing in watching this.
- There is also a bit of a ‘can’t take eyes off a train wreck’ quality.
- There is something, which at first I could not put my finger on, that felt insulting.
As a television viewer, it is entertaining. As a Netflix binge-watcher, it is fulfilling. As a woman — it was something else entirely. A mockery? An illusion strengthening stereotypes? At what point does drag go too far? Can it? How can it not?
Why, historically, have men found a fascination in dressing as women — or caricatures of women — for personal fulfillment, entertainment? Was it out of need, or was there truly an internal yearning to mask oneself in the yang to their yin? Do all humans have a dual male-female nature, and is this a manifestation of it?
This all seems more than plausible — it seems true.
But here’s where it starts to get messy: when the historically dominant sex, men, are empowered and emboldened to strut, ‘sashay’ and develop their female alter egos to a point that seems to cross a line into an extreme, hyperactive caricaturization of overblown female stereotypes. When is drag queen imagery insulting and belittling? If there is truly a movement to make traditionally feminine beauty genderless, what comes first? The mainstreaming or the extreme?
The way I see it, as a woman, the characterization of a reality TV drag queen series is not ‘gay men are this at the extreme’ or even ‘men can be this at the extreme’ but ‘this is a cartoonish portrayal of overblown women stereotypes now being owned and developed by men for entertainment/a personal fulfillment.’
Maybe I feel this way because I haven’t been all that exposed to real-life drag queens or drag shows. Maybe it’s the time I’m living in. Maybe I’m right, and there is something here to poke at — a misunderstood wound.
This is all, of course, conjecture on my part.
I began to investigate.
Religious Rites to Boogie Nights: A too-short history of drag
For the sake of this paper, the following is a very short history to put the drag culture into context.
First, some interesting — and ancient — artifacts of drag history, which is rooted in drama, and actually directly connected to, of all things, religious rites (Sashay Through the History of Drag Queen Culture — PopSugar, August 16, 2018):
- Earliest forms of cross-dressing — simply the act of wearing clothes that are designated as belonging to the opposite sex — are actually rooted in religious rites — like ancient ceremonies of Native American, indigenous South American, and Ancient Egyptian societies, as well as Japanese theater.
- In England, “formal drama came, literally, from the church. In an effort to help the illiterate and, well, less intelligent members of the congregation better understand church worship, parts of the mass were dramatized in very simple ways.”
- Women were omitted from the craft entirely, as it was originally a function of the church and they played no active part in services, offices, or — in this case — acting within the church. This was all done by men.
Drama became a secular sport. Stories evolved from their religious roots, ownership left the church and entered local guilds, and motivations for storytelling changed.
The idea that ‘drag’ was the word to describe wearing clothing normalized by the opposite sex appeared in print as early as 1870 (Wikipedia: Drag clothing). Drag queens are mainly thought of as men who dress in women’s clothing, and “often act with exaggerated femininity and in feminine gender roles with a primarily entertaining purpose. They often exaggerate make-up such as eyelashes for dramatic, comedic or satirical effect.” (Wikipedia: Drag Queen).
Why is this… a thing?
“The activity… has many motivations, from individual self-expression to mainstream performance. Drag queen activities among stage and street performers may include lip-syncing, live singing, dancing, participating in events such as gay pride parades, drag pageants, or at venues such as cabarets and discotheques.” (Wikipedia)
Perhaps what is less well known or assumed by younger generations watching reality TV, is that:
“…this sort of public awe — sometimes, it borders on worship — of drag queens has really only cropped up in the past decade or two. Before that, drag was submerged deep in underground clubs and back-alley bars. And before that, it was an exaggerated and integral part of the theater culture. The fact is, drag has been a part of our culture for centuries. And every era and every new iteration of the art form has been crucial to the shape and success of drag today.” (PopSugar)
Like so much related or associated with LGBTQ culture and society, this being out, exposed to the mainstream, is all fairly new.
“Drag was a powerful movement in NYC during the late 1980s and 1990s, due in large part to the explosively experimental East Village performance scene.” (PopSugar)
It’s that effect of seeing a reflection of yourself on screen and stage — not as a caricature, but as a character in the story. Or a fantasy version of yourself un-mocked or fetishized — but rather, celebrated. Respected. Parts of the 1990s included breakthroughs on otherwise generally homophobic TV; Gen Xers and elder millennials will surely remember.
“As true drag queens came out of the shadows, mainstream media continued to paint more portraits of female interpretation. But there was a notable shift. The drag queen wasn’t quite as much of a punchline, or a garish creature to shine a spotlight on. New films, like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1995), depicted drag queens in more flattering light.” (PopSugar)
It is no wonder the millennial generations drive so much change by just existing after the childhoods they experienced during that period.
Then there is the very concept of being a ‘straight ally’.
“A straight ally or heterosexual ally is a heterosexual person who supports equal civil rights, gender equality, LGBT social movements, and challenges homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.” (Wikipedia: Straight Ally)
Acceptance and support — in the mainstream, with vocabulary to describe it. Drag certainly finds its place among these newer generations exposed to concepts and vocabularies built for wider acceptance.
Then again, in a 2018 interview with Joe E. Jeffreys, a drag historian and teacher at the Tisch School of Arts at NYU, Jeffreys claims it’s actually always been mainstream — and is actually a lot simpler a concept than laid out previously:
“…drag is a theatrical form. Drag is anytime that someone is putting on clothing that is considered to be not appropriate to them, and then wearing it with some type of ironic distance. In its purest form, drag is when a person goes into a dressing room, they put this thing on, they go out on stage and they perform, and [after the show] they take it off.” (RuPaul’s Drag Race and What People Get Wrong About the History of Drag — TIME, March 9th, 2018)
And on the topic of correlation with gay culture? Jeffreys says:
“Drag, I say, is the indigenous queer performance form, meaning it is of the people, by the people and for the people. I also maintain that drag has always been mainstream — it is just that with the different platforms that drag is now able to work through, perhaps there is a wider, quicker audience that has access to it.”
Explaining further, Jeffreys maintains that you must go back to the point where homosexuality and drag became an assumption. In the 1930s, the study of sexual practices among people in cultures, was actually working to create concrete ideas of labels, categories of people, and motivations. Maybe a predecessor of the ‘identity culture’ we are familiar with today. It was the beginning of mistaking or assuming cross-dressing was a direct causation or association with what we call homosexuality today.
Gay and Drag: Deleting the ‘mask’ in masculine
As anyone born and raised in the last handful of decades knows, drag is “closely associated with gay men and gay culture.” (Wikipedia).
Here’s Jeffreys again — answering the question of where drag is in its purest form. His answer: gay bars.
“This is where the drag queen serves this kind of shaman role, this kind of court-fool role [in which] they are allowed to say and do things that the culture perhaps needs to look at. Even one of the performers on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Bianca Del Rio, will say, “I’m a clown.” She recognizes this comedic role, like we see in Shakespeare with the fools. Drag performers will say that once they are in this costume, they’re allowed to do and say things that they could never do in their everyday persona.”
But that’s not to say there are no sophisticated relationships -
Drag mother (n.): Also drag daughter, drag family. An experienced drag performer who acts as a mentor and guide to someone who wants to learn the art of drag. Often, the new drag queen, who is referred to as the drag mother’s drag daughter, takes the last name of her drag mother to pay homage to her. A drag family is made up of a drag mother and all of her drag daughters. (Glossary of Drag Terms — Enterthequeendom)
It’s no surprise that this particular scene can serve as the safe space many young gay men thrive in, especially after trauma. On season 10, episode 6 of Drag Race, contestant Blair St. Clair went deep into personal trauma — sexual assault and rape — and it was a moment of all the episodes that I cherished, in all the realness served (RuPaul’s Drag Race star Blair St Clair opens up about surviving rape- Pink News, May 31st, 2018).
Not that I watched every single episode of every season, but this struck me as a brave moment as any rape trauma telling, and here on TV, in a vulnerable position, within a vulnerable community building beauty out of that. Judging by the reactions of the episode’s judges, and RuPaul himself, this was clearly a one-of-a-kind incident on the shot.
It was certainly a cry-it-out moment, and the show responded with the F word:
Meanwhile, in Dancing Queen, an original show produced by Netflix (2018 release), Justin Dwayne Lee Johnson — a dance teacher for kids who is also known as Alyssa Edwards when performing — says, very simply, “the power of drag is giving someone the courage.” (Season 1, Episode 1, Dancing Queen).
How is that any different than the formerly shy, stuttering kid who finds solace in acting? Or the writer who can’t function as well in the ‘real world’ as they can on the page? Where aren’t people using masks and makeup — literal or figurative — to uncover and make public their true selves in this world?
As RuPaul says — many times:
“You’re born naked, and the rest is drag.”
RuPaul’s Drag Race: Brilliant and groundbreaking and “a big F you”
“We are in the Ru era of drag, and those 100+ performers who have been contestants on the competition reality show can now do quite well for themselves… Television and other media platforms are powerful things that the stage of your local gay bar can hardly offer.”
That’s a quote by drag historian Jeffreys again. How many non-gay community-member drag queens were exposed to drag culture on a regular basis before RuPaul’s show? A drag queen was a local, and that was that. The queen of Houston. A leader in New York City.
A decade later…
- Season 9 winner Sasha Velour has over 800,000 followers on Instagram.
- All-Stars Season 2 winner Alaska Thunderf*ck has a whopping 1.2 million.
- RuPaul’s empire includes a multi-million-dollar, decades-long show with surrounding spin offs, brands and stars.
RuPaul didn’t just create a popular TV series — he created a political movement. He created a window into an underworld, and then dragged that underworld up onto the mainstream surface.
“RuPaul has said that the drag subculture is a “a big f-you” to male-dominated culture and that his reality series Drag Race has a political agenda. The TV star, whose hit programme sees him and a panel of judges try to find “America’s next drag superstar” through a series of challenges, said he would not allow a biological woman to take part as a contestant [saying,] “Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it, because at its core it’s a social statement and a big f-you to male-dominated culture.” (RuPaul: Drag is political and combats male-dominated culture — Independent.ie, December 10th, 2018)
As noted in PopSugar, RuPaul’s Drag Race went way further than giving fans of all stripes “a better opportunity to witness drag.” Consider the younger, up-and-coming generation of drag queens-to-be — of men who, without internet — let alone a mainstream popular TV show — would have had to navigate their way through the underground crawl spaces of their city or town to uncover the culture.
“There’s an educational aspect of the show that’s almost impossible to miss. Those who aspire to do drag learn about so many facets of drag culture. Each of these 100 unique queens is helping to establish a broad range of drag styles, aesthetics, and characters.” (PopSugar)
To hear it from the queens themselves:
“I think it’s just brought a bigger life, a broader demographic, to cover… People are coming into their own when it comes to the art of female impersonation and are really being true to themselves… representing whoever or whatever they want to be once they get up in drag.” Kennedy Davenport
“We’ve really come a long way. But it’s about, what do you say now? We’ve got so much power. We realize we have so much power, and it’s kind of phenomenal how we harness that, because drag has become mainstream.” Thorgy Thor
“I mean, absolutely it was Drag Race. I mean, our current drag resurgence is clearly all due to Drag Race, which is incredible.” BenDeLaCreme
Has the age of modern media done anything more than allow marginalized people to discover each other, and in the process, re-discover themselves? In most cases, for the better, people with minority-orientations have found fertile ground for personal and communal growth.
But it’s hard not to notice that in this way, to combat male-dominated culture and the mainstream idea of masculinity, the pendulum swings opposite — feminine femininity, swept delicately or exaggeratedly, over a male canvas, in the form of clothing and persona.
As labeling goes, it seems a little counter-intuitive. As an idea about throwing away labels -what is wrong with that? Is clothing not a human-made concept? And is genderized fashion not the ultimate example of human assumption? Man-made innovation?
Then what’s the big deal about a ‘man’ wearing clothing traditionally associated with ‘women’ for the purpose of self-fulfillment?
The Naked Episode: Making ‘TMI’ out of ‘not enough’
But let’s look past the garments for a moment. Literally.
The catalyst for this exploration was Season 7 Episode 1: Born Naked. The season opener has the twelve contestants compete in two contests: the first is a “Fashion Week Extravaganza” where each must model two of their looks from their Spring and Fall collections. It’s the kind of challenge you come to expect watching the show regularly: putting together an outfit that reflects an idea or theme and debuting it on the catwalk.
The second challenge was “Resort Tearaway” — in other words, walk the catwalk and leave it all behind for the judges.
In other other words, twelve drag queens modeling their nude ‘female’ bodies.
I spent the minutes after RuPaul’s dramatic announcement wondering what that could possibly mean. How can you fake a female body with fabrics? Turns out, with a lot of stockings, mesh, padding and fake nipples, you can.
I watched, dumbfounded.
Producers had even blurred out the fake nudity.
Eventually, this is what I came to realize: Drag is an art form; a performance art; an alter ego; it’s beautiful and proud and artsy and comedic and thousands of other things.
But it is based on something very clear: it is dressing up.
While spending considerable time moving past the idea that drag is not quite mocking females themselves, but rather reflecting a man-made concept of what is feminine, this — the performing as a nude female in itself — and the way it was carried out — had a mocking quality to it. And even worse — an added layer of sexualizing biological women, in the case of this episode, mainly by gay men.
“Drag certainly has the ability to assault and insult: it can easily become sexist, transphobic, and racist. As a drag burlesque performer my shows typically end in some sort of full-frontal nudity, and my critic, perhaps entirely rightly, understood this to be lauding the objectification and sexualisation of women; after all, it is perhaps telling that as an anatomical male I choose to perform an overtly sexual routine. Do my performative choices suggest that “femininity” is founded on sexualisation?” (is drag anti-feminist? — i-D, September 8th, 2015)
That quote by Jacob Mallinson Bird (Instagram), a “model, drag star, and Cambridge graduate,” (jacob mallinson bird takes Ibiza, i-D, July 21st, 2015) says it all. It feels like a violation to watch anatomical men ‘appropriate’ and exaggerate female tropes and stereotypes, which are more often than not damaging.
Perhaps if it helped advance women somehow — normalized things, equalized things — that would be at least some sort of productive benefit.
To Kill a Mocked Bird: Clumpy mascara and overdrawn lipliner as ‘Girlface’
Let’s put the clothes back on the queens for a moment.
It looks so good. Why does it feel so bad?
In Drag, Baker says cross-dressing remained a pervasive part of theater culture until the late 19th century, when it began to take a new form. Female impersonators developed their own vaudeville acts, wherein they created caricatures of women. Jeffreys corroborated this fact, writing that drag “was a popular act in the numerous vaudeville theatres across America from the turn of the 19th Century until the late 1930s.” This moment in time birthed such mocking personas as the “wench” and the “primadonna.” (PopSugar)
Those pesky stereotypes again. Over time, the ‘art form’ evolved into new offshoots of personas, in the 1950–60s:
Meanwhile, in the public eye, female impersonation was given a comedic edge; cross-dressing was portrayed in film and TV as a punchline, or an object of strangeness. One classic example is Some Like It Hot (1959), which follows a farcical, almost Shakespearean story of two men posing as women. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Norman Bates is a deranged man who dresses as his mother before killing people. (PopSugar)
The mocking personas were not an I Love Lucy style comedic ownership; men donning the likeness to make a mocking, dramatic point feels different than a woman doing it. Sounds a little like… a different form of performance art, based on racist portrayal of a subjugated and terrorized minority.
“…I was struck by how accepted drag is by liberals and progressives — people who will, without a second thought, call out things like blackface and yellowface, which are understood by most to be racist.” (Why has drag escaped critique from feminists and the LGBTQ community? — Feminist Current, April 25th, 2014)
When I set out to research the topic, I was struck that, in the past, organically, I haven’t come across more articles in mainstream media about feminist reactions to drag culture. Whether or not I identify with what I perceive to be those views, wouldn’t they have come up more often over the decade we have been exposed to RuPaul’s Drag Race?
I am not alone in wondering where everyone is; this author in the Feminist Current has the same takeaway:
To be clear, I don’t think that drag queens are all intentionally working to subordinate women (but who knows, I’ve never asked any), nor do I think your enjoyment of drag performances (if you do indeed enjoy them) make you a necessarily Bad and Wrong, misogynist person. But I do think that the unwillingness of the LGTBQ community and mainstream feminism to talk about drag as something that is no more acceptable than any other kind of cultural appropriation or than white people’s efforts to turn ethnicity and race into a stereotype and a joke, is significant. (Feminist Current)
Or maybe we are both missing something; according to a comment on the above-cited article, “…we’re fighting for the same cause, both feminists and drags, we’re both sending our middle fingers to existing gender roles, some of us with marches and protests and some of us with humour.”
Here’s a (rare?) 2006 take — pre-RuPaul’s drag race — by an activist and comedian:
“When men dress in drag and supposedly imitate women, it is most often very sexist in a remarkably similar way to the whites imitating racial minorities… All the things I have shunned as part of the ancient ‘cult of womanhood,’ all the superficial, commercialized, and fake aspects of ‘femininity’ that I have fought to be freed from, these men were embracing as their ‘womanhood!’ Tons of make up, huge dyed bouffant hair-dos, binding lingerie, heels, nylons, shaving…and these men in drag who were supposedly acting like women, also acted giddy, stupid, shallow…it is odd to me that this could be seen as anything but blatant sexism.” (Imitating Others As Control: Is Drag Sexist/Racist? 2006 by Kirsten Anderberg, activist and comedian)
Let’s leave the (other) ‘F’ word to the side for a second. As a woman, a fairly mainstream woman, may I appeal to the value of societal experience for a moment?
Why shouldn’t it feel insulting to see men sling around terms like ‘bitch’ and ‘ho’ at each other, in mock jest, no matter what their background, persona or orientation? It certainly does at times when women do it — it’s not automatically valued that way either. Why should a man’s personal background or relationship to society matter more than women’s as a whole, if we are taking a moment to understand how an actual woman is interpreting it? And consider the exposure of others — men and women — to that language, normalized and popularized, further cemented, into alternative corners of society — via mainstreamed reality TV.
Not to mention, socio-economic and class implications; this is just an example, but if we’re going to talk about intersectionality in other contexts. Divine was a drag queen or female impersonator who was famous for being outrageous, and ‘trashy’, in his words:
“He played, according to his manager, female characters who were ‘trash’, ‘filth’ and ‘obscenity in bucket loads.’ But Divine was born into a conservative, middle-class family and played on nasty stereotypes of trailer trash women to get a laugh. In his films, Divine called his female co-stars ‘sluts.’” (I am Divine reminds me why I’ve always hated drag — The Spectator, 2014)
So a privileged male is permitted to mock women and use sexist, derogatory language because, what? “Performance art?” “Humor?” If this weren’t a gender issue, but a racial issue — would this look different?
He Drag/She Drag: There’s a glass ceiling for everything
The glass ceiling is alive and well, even in drag. For a performance art that is based on the idea of breaking gender norms and ‘what or who does femininity really represent’, it is remarkable that in the 21st century we see women left out of it. But, RuPaul says, that is the point, as he addresses why he would not assume (specifically, trans) women should be involved.
In an interview with the Guardian… RuPaul stirred controversy by saying that he would probably not let trans women compete on the show, saying, “Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it.” He has since apologized for these comments, but the sentiment has cultivated a larger conversation about who gets to do drag, and why. (Time)
The extra poke in the eye is the fact that biological women in drag are second-class citizens of the culture (more like third-class, after trans women). But there is a female drag scene, where women embrace the ‘glamour and camp’ of the drag performance and make it their own.
While women have been drag kings for decades — women performing as men — female queens are a new-ish addition to the scene, who are peeling away layers of gender identity. It’s a deliciously complicated web to untangle: these are women, performing as what would have been (historically, at least) a man performing as a woman. (Workin’ it! How Female Drag Queens are Causing a Scene — The Guardian, July 2017)
Another way to see it, is after feminism did what it did for women, some women felt stripped of the glamour of being a ‘woman’ — and this is way to reclaim that.
Holestar is a female, British, queer drag queen who calls herself “the tranny with a fanny” (she notes she chose this language before ‘tranny’ became a negative slur).
In her words:
“Feminism did wonderful things for women, obviously, but it killed a lot of glamour, and it killed a lot of over-the-top, ridiculous campness. And these drag queens — Shirley Bassey, Dolly Parton — kind of kept it alive. At the time, there were no ‘extra’ women.” (The Guardian).
Perhaps ‘female drag queen’ is a hyper-modern way of saying — campy female performer.
The Yeshiva Cross Dressing Paradox: A personal observation
This is completely anecdotal, so I am not compelled to submit it as evidence. But somewhere out there I imagine there is or will be a study that confirms this hunch.
I went through my elementary, middle and high schooling in a religious day school setting. In my case, that was modern Orthodox Jewish — and co-ed. Girls and boys learned secular studies together in one classroom and were split up by gender for ‘religious’ studies. Daily prayers, holiday celebrations, and even the very topics studied meant separating according to religious traditional roles.
One thing that was a constant theme, though, was whenever given the chance, there were boys who were more than happy to cross-dress. In a Jewish day school situation, this was mainly around theater productions and Purim. The latter is a Jewish holiday that celebrates the upside-downness and mystery of God’s way in the world. Jews celebrate the holiday with many rituals, and one includes a tradition of dressing in costume, or ‘becoming unrecognizable’ in celebration of the mystery of the miracle that occurred in 4th century Persia.
As many (wrongly) describe it — it’s like a ‘Jewish Halloween’.
Without fail, there was a ‘type’ of boy student who would relish the opportunity to dress as a woman — a character from the Bible or pop culture or a teacher or — well, just a woman. No name, no persona, just a woman. Wig, skirt, sock breasts and all. I’d argue the ‘just a woman’ was the most common I saw. No excuses, no real-persona cover up.
Back then, as a semi-sheltered member of this Modern Orthodox tribe, this and whatever mainstream TV and movies I watched (plenty in the ’80s and ’90s) were, together, my exposure to the fascination of a certain kind of man in dressing up as a woman. Let’s not forget the prevalence of streaks of homophobic and transphobic pop culture occupying those two decades (watch a random episode of Friends). I know it’s not just a Jewish man thing, but this is where I spotted it first and continued to spot it throughout my adulthood.
It all seemed in good fun. A small sliver happened to ‘come out of the closet’ later; I’m sure that ratio is in line with the general public and the broader, non-crossdressing Jewish gay population. But many were/are stereotypically straight men, and many religiously observant to this day. Looking further down the line from teen years — many adult men in similar communities look forward to their annual Purim opportunity to dress in the likeness of a woman — whether a character, an imitation of their wives, or just some woman-version of themselves — an alternate persona.
What is the correlation between yeshivah boys and crossdressing for fun? Is there something repressed? Is it connected to the strict nature of gender roles in religious orthodoxy? Is it a way of connecting on another level with the concept of ‘women’?
Is it about pushing boundaries in a religious context, where they — and societal norms — tend to be fairly tight?
Actually, in Jewish law — directly from the Written Law, the Torah — it is forbidden to ‘cross-dress.’
“A man’s attire shall not be on a woman, nor may a man wear a woman’s garment, because whoever does these is an abomination to God, your God.” (Deuteronomy 22:5)
Two reasons for this include:
- Cross-dressing might lead to promiscuous behavior in either direction; as the cross-dresser can more easily mingle with the opposite sex. The braissa writes:
“A man should not wear a garment of women.” What does this teach us? If it’s teaching us that a man should not wear a women’s garment, that does not fit with the context of the verse, which calls the practice described an “abomination” — such crossdressing should not be called an abomination! Rather, it must be teaching us that a man should not wear women’s garments and go sit amongst women, and that women should not wear men’s garments and sit amongst men. (Gemara Nazir 59a)
2. Some ancient Pagan rituals involved cross-dressing and Jews must steer clear of this behavior as the core philosophy of Paganism is completely against Jewish tenets. (Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed)
So what happened in modern Orthodoxy?
Maybe it’s as simple as Shulchan Aruch: Orach Chaim 696:
The minhag of wearing masks on Purim, and specifically for men to wear dresses of women and women those of men, does not violate any prohibition, since the intentions of all the people involved are just to enhance the celebration. And so too, it is permitted to wear shatnez d’rabbanan on Purim.
It is worth noting that Islam has its own laws and precedents for forbidding crossdress in both directions; they are not unlike Judaism’s reasonings above. In both cases, these are clearly edicts influenced by their time.
Back to modern day: Maybe the ratio of religious boys who enjoy this activity is the same as secular boys; maybe the rate of religious Jewish boys is the same as religious Catholic boys. Maybe it really isn’t related to religion directly but is a product of a natural curiosity of the opposite gender, at a time when exposure is less. I haven’t been to enough secular Halloween parties in my lifetime to say for sure — but I would put money on more than a few college age men and women crossdressing for comedic effect, societal role flipping and perhaps internal satisfaction at the traditional ‘Pimp & Ho’ frat mixers (link NSFW).
In conclusion, I don’t have hard and fast proof it’s fully correlated to growing up in a modern Orthodox Jewish context. That’s a whole other paper. But my gut tells me there is a correlation, based on natural curiosity, societal boundaries, and personality.
Conclusion: We’re real, and we’re spectacular
The good that RuPaul’s Drag Race has done for the drag community is obvious. It created a safe space for a specific group of people — GBT men in drag — and a window for the rest of us to see this community in a constructive light, as the people and personalities behind the performers and personas.
What RuPaul’s show format has done is take the reality TV model and give us the real man behind the drag, an eye-opening perspective; I assume previously many people had a difficult time seeing deeper than a campy, cartoonish clown. With an understanding of the history and complex dynamics of drag and drag community, it’s possible for the mainstream to appreciate what it symbolizes and the opportunity it creates for traditionally marginalized individuals.
Perhaps it was just unfortunate that the first episode I watched featured drag performers dressing as nude women. Perhaps the ice-cold insult I absorbed would not have stung so hard. Perhaps in a different order, my whole relationship to this culture would be different.
I still can’t help pointing out the two aspects of RuPaul’s Drag Race that have bugged me — and after watching the entire season 10 and episodes throughout other seasons, they are still present:
- The ‘appropriation’ of the female body — not femininity — but female. Not to be confused with a pre-op trans woman using materials to create her transitional female body.
- The ‘bitch’ language which seems to thrive in the gay male queen culture.
If the drag queens had dressed and glammed up to the max, it would have been enough. But dressing down to nude women, still with an air of mockery and with seemingly very little meaningful purpose in doing so… well, to paraphrase Voltaire, (as Evelyn Beatrice Hall famously did,) “I disapprove of what you (don’t) wear, but I will defend to the death your right to (not) wear it.” After all, I think what myself and many of the drag queens have in common is the notion that the concepts of femininity and masculinity are social constructs based on an ancient binary understanding of gender… right?
I won’t attempt to sugar coat or cover up those points of discomfort above, but in the interest of finding a sound conclusion, let us turn to RuPaul’s statement from an Oprah Winfrey interview (The RuPaul Effect: How He Brought Drag to Mainstream Culture — Biography.com, October 12th, 2018):
Drag… applies to us all, regardless of gender, race or social background. It’s how we choose to show ourselves to the world, what personas we adopt as we move through life.
“Why not make it work for you,” RuPaul said to Winfrey, “If you have the power to control how people see and interpret you, why not use it?”
That’s a message that any members of the mainstream could get behind.
About the Author
Liz Cohen is a curious person who can’t let things go. This research piece was written between December 2018 and June 2019.