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Valar Qringaomis

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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Drag = Blackface

Drag = Blackface

"The consensus that blackface performance is intolerably racist is of relatively recent vintage. Before that, analyses of blackface minstrelsy-even those that conceded its racism -concentrated on the meaning of the performance to the performers and the audience, ignoring or discounting its meaning to, and impact on, the people being portrayed.

That is the current state of scholarship about performance in drag. Why hasn't our understanding that blackface is insulting extended itself to drag? In this Essay, I hope to begin that extension, suggesting that the same arguments that forged the cultural consensus against blackface should forge a consensus against drag. We retain a salutary sense of shock when the BBC replaces James Earl Jones as Othello with a white actor in blackface. What will it take to develop that sense of shock when a man plays Lady Bracknell?

In this Essay, "drag" means men dressing as women in public, especially in performance. I argue that a whole range of activities, from vaudeville "illusionists" to the pantomime dame, from Mrs. Doubtfire to La Cage aux Folles, from cross-dresser balls in Harlem to Hasty Pudding theatricals at Harvard, represent institutionalized male hostility to women on a spectrum running from prescription of desired behavior to simple ridicule. These performances may be glamorous or comic, and presented by gay men or straight men. Nonetheless, all of them represent a continuing insult to women, as is apparent from the parallels between these performances and those of white performers of blackface minstrelsy.

My definition of drag excludes private transvestism precisely on the grounds of its privacy, though I invoke the arguments made for public acceptance of transvestism as examples of bad reasoning in support of drag. The definition also excludes women dressing up as men, for reasons that will become clear.

Drag and blackface in American culture are similar in a number of respects. First, each is a masquerade in which powerful or privileged people dress up as less powerful or less privileged people...

Drag and blackface originated when the impersonated people were excluded from the stage; however, each outlasted that original excuse for its practice. That is, audiences were curious to see Africans and African-Americans on the stage long before they were permitted to appear, and plots required the inclusion of women long before women were permitted on the English-speaking stage. But even after African-Americans gained access to the minstrel stage, white performers continued to impersonate them. Similarly, long after women were permitted on the stage-to this day, in fact-men continue to appear as women.

These practices led to expectations of what the impersonated person ought to look like. For instance, the convention of white performers impersonating African-Americans was so powerful that black performers were required to wear blackface. It seems ludicrous now that black performers had to "black up" to play themselves-that is, black people. But this is no different from women having their breasts enlarged so they will be sufficiently feminine...

Drag and blackface show the person(s) being impersonated in a restricted range of behaviors, characterized by exaggeration that is at least interpretable as insult. African- Americans were shown singing, dancing, being foolish, or longing for the old plantation; women are shown primping, nagging, or longing for male protection...

Blackface presents its exaggerations through two standard "types," Zip Coon (an urban dandy out of his depth) and Sambo (a shuffling rural fool). The first makes fun of black people for being free while the second ridicules them for being slaves. Drag has a pair of "types" of its own, the glamour girl and the pantomime dame (an elderly harridan). The first makes fun of women because of their sexuality and the second for their lack of it. This commonality-in which the aspirations of African-Americans and the sexuality of women are either exaggerated or ignored -suggests the parallel nature of the practices.

Both pairs of tropes are deeply reactionary, and both assert that the people imitated need controlling. Zip Coon is out of control, a menace loose in the city; Sambo is simply incapable of caring for himself. The glamour girl is either predatory or helpless; the pantomime dame is either an idiot or a harpy. One and all, they are people who cannot-or cannot be permitted to-care for themselves. And people who do not care for themselves do not get to represent themselves. If people are incompetent to represent themselves, in the political as well as artistic sense, they have to be represented -which is to say governed-by others...

Even those who defend drag as a valuable or privileged public expression are easily able to articulate the central objection to it. Journalist Holly Brubach, author of a sympathetic portrait of drag queens (men both gay and straight "who dress as women in public, on social occasions"), prefaces her book by saying, "What impressed me about drag.., was that it articulates men's idea of women ....[T ]he men I found who dress in drag most often became babes if not outright bimbos, bearing little resemblance to the ideal most women have set for themselves"...

More insidiously, to the extent that there was a resemblance between Sambo-who resists work, tells lies, and fails to take seriously matters of great concern to the master-and any actual African-Americans in a condition of captivity or dependence, that resemblance was attributable not to black people but to slavery...

Likewise, to the extent that there is a resemblance between male "pantomime dames" or "glamour girls" and actual women, that resemblance is an indictment of the conditions in which real women struggle rather than a justification of the practice of performance. In this light, the current popularity of drag seems ominous. It means that men become more insistent on displaying the traditional roles of women as many women challenge them: "No, no, you don't get it, being a woman looks like this."

Fourth, the forms of drag and blackface perform the same function: to ease the minds of an audience threatened by change (whether this pertains to the coming of abolition or the advent of sexual equality) by presenting the agents of that change as ridiculous rather than frightening. Precisely because the performances are about change, what they "mean" is not a fixed thing but changes over time. T. D. "Daddy" Rice, the man whose minstrel turn as "Jim Crow" lends its name to every aspect of American racism, intended and imagined himself as a respectful interpreter of the exotic culture of African-Americans. Even that original intention could not and should not have saved blackface from its critics. At a certain point white audiences had to acknowledge that it was unfair for black people to bear the burden of being misrepresented for the purpose, mostly, of other people's comfort. It is about time to acknowledge the same thing about women.

Clearly, the forms are not identical, and the parallels between oppression based on race and oppression based on gender are inexact. Because gender cross-dressing is also associated with anxiety about sexuality (as blackface is not, at least in any obvious way), drag carries multiple meanings in a way that blackface does not. These multiple meanings contribute to the most striking way in which blackface and drag are not alike: the continued, unapologetic practice of drag...

When Ted Danson blacked up for a public performance in 1993, he and his long-time lover Whoopi Goldberg imagined that his nonracist credentials ("lover of a black woman") would protect him from objections." They were wrong. If the insult is simply to believe that the culture and experience of black people is trivial enough to be put on like a costume, the intentions of the performer are not relevant. The content of the performance may be respectful, but the very fact of the performance is disrespectful.

Most people understand this point well enough to be appalled on re-reading Norman Mailer's essay The White Negro, in which he posits African-Americans as the repository of authenticity from whom white people must learn. "Only by cultivating his 'dark, romantic, and yet undeniably dynamic view of existence' can the white man reconnect with the primitive, vital 'Negro' within himself, and thereby recapture his own vaunted 'individuality.""

This is an embarrassment to read today-get in touch with your inner Negro?-but how is it any different from announcements by male cross-dressers of every stripe (from straight transvestites to gay drag queens to Dustin Hoffman in the movie Tootsie) that wearing women's clothing enables them to get in touch with their authentic inner woman, their feminine side? Taking this claim at face value, one sees the whole problem: drag enables men to decide, and then to claim, what is "feminine"; and it permits men to ascribe certain characteristics to women and certain others to men, and then regard the remaining characteristics as problematic if they happen to show up in a member of the wrong gender.

The culture and experience of women is not a costume. Everything I do is feminine, by definition, because I am female, while any decree about what is feminine restricts my range of options. When RuPaul says, "we're born naked and the rest is drag," he is wrong. He is in drag because he is a man, and he can stop being a woman whenever it becomes inconvenient. When being a woman is inconvenient for me, I need to remove the inconvenience. Male ideas of "femininity" are a major inconvenience to those of us who are actually women and have to live our lives in that state.

Is drag the most important aspect of male discrimination against women? No, probably not; nor was the eradication of the big-lipped Gold Dust Twins the most important victory of the civil rights struggle. But images do matter; we learn to see and understand people according to what we have been told about them. The more white people portray black people, the less room there is for black people to speak for themselves. The more men portray women, the harder it is for women to be understood for themselves.

The parallels between drag and blackface are so obvious that it seems bizarre that the intellectual consensus against blackface has not formed against drag. Instead, defenses of the practice continue to appear. All four of the principal defenses are, in my opinion, false. Drag is not a liberating challenge to gender stereotypes, nor is it a timeless statement of gay pride, nor is it legitimated by female crossdressing, a practice separate and unequal. Nor is it funny.

A number of scholars argue that drag contributes to women's liberation by subverting gender stereotypes, revealing the constructed nature of most gender-linked behavior. At its most extreme, this argument disputes the reality of gender itself...

The argument that all gender is performative begins soundly enough with the observation that lots of things women "can't" do are actually merely things that women are not permitted to do, and that therefore it is wise to be skeptical of many essentialist claims. But it is quite a leap from there to saying that there is no such thing as a "woman," and therefore one may claim "womanhood" on any basis, including the possession of an evening gown. This latter argument means that cross-dressing eradicates women entirely. If anyone who puts on women's clothing is a woman, and many of those people do not have a problem with unequal pay or a lack of reproductive rights, then there must not be a problem...

We need to challenge the most public ways in which men specify women's conduct so we can overcome even their more subtle dictates. The acceptance of drag is one of those "most public ways," such an obvious imposition of male preference on female decision that it is practically invisible. Just as African-Americans were taught by blacked-up white minstrels that they ought to shuffle-and, more important, white people were taught to expect African-Americans to shuffle-women are taught by dolled-up male glamour girls and pantomime dames to be hyper-sexual, and shown that failure to do so renders them repulsive and superfluous. Again more important, men are taught the same lesson.

Erika Munk dismissed the claims for drag's subversive status in a few pungent paragraphs in the Village Voice:

At the moment, most men in drag are no more subversive than whites in blackface were when minstrel shows were America's most popular form of entertainment.... The more women fight for autonomy, the less helpful become restatements of stereotype which have lost their critical edge and turned into means of putting women down and aside. Drag may be liberating when it's part of a wave of iconoclastic revolt, but when the culture is rigid and conformist, taking on feminine personae while edging women from the stage is rigid and conformist too. It doesn't have to be so-the radical possibilities remain -but it is.

... Straight men who cross-dress generally describe doing so as a compulsion. If it is, then its victims should receive sympathy, not public approbation. Some people who have Tourette's syndrome feel compelled to curse; that is not an argument for generalized public acceptance of profanity.

In The Man in the Red Velvet Dress, J. J. Allen, a private crossdresser, makes an argument that he shares with those who affect or defend performance drag. He argues that women have a privilegeto wear satin evening gowns-from which men are unfairly barred...

This is total sophistry. First, the women's movement "had its roots" in a demand for justice; the "artifacts ... of masculinity" were secondary. Second, men are not "equal" with women, they are privileged over them. Men who want to wear women's clothing simply cannot do it in the street without being stared at. This seems like a very small price to pay, hardly comparable to being unable to join the professions...

Allen borrows from academic theorists of gender-bending to argue that recognizing some clothes as "women's" and other clothes as "men's" reinforces the oppressiveness of traditional categories. In fact, though, those categories are precisely the point to a crossdresser. If these were not specifically women's garments, he would not be interested in them...

"Professional drag queens are... professional homosexuals; they represent the stigma of the gay world," announces Esther Newton in her seminal study of drag, Mother Camp. "Not all gay people want to wear drag, but drag symbolizes gayness. The drag queen symbolizes an open declaration, even celebration, of homosexuality." She continues: "[D]rag questions the 'naturalness' of the sexrole system in toto; if sex-role behavior can be achieved by the 'wrong' sex, it logically follows that it is in reality also achieved, not 'inherited,' by the 'right' sex."

This is received wisdom, to the extent anything can be in the contentious world of gender studies; but it is, at best, a half-truth. The only way to argue that drag is gay is to exclude from its definition a whole range of activities in which men dress as women, including not only private cross-dressing but the lion's share of comic drag performance...

There seems little doubt that most comic drag performers (like most people) are straight. To argue that drag is a "queer practice[]" whose "radical specificity" protects it from objection, as Butler does," is both ahistorical and unprincipled, resembling the argument that clitoridectomy is acceptable because it is practiced by Africans oppressed by colonialism-or that blackface was acceptable because it was practiced on stage largely by Jews...

Vaudeville female impersonation owed its popularity to the notion that the differences between men and women were so enormous that a man who could pass for a woman was essentially a magician. Thus, it was about putting people-specifically women-in their deeply conventional places...

Once dressing in drag was "recognized" as gay (and then banned), it is not surprising that the gay community would claim appearing in drag as one of the privileges of being liberated, especially when drag queens featured so prominently as fighters in the pivotal Stonewall riot. Like use of the word "nigger" in the African-American community, dressing in drag can be seen as an effort to transform a stigma into a badge of pride. But clearly being gay and being effeminate are not the same, and neither of them requires dressing in drag. The connection between drag and gay men is at best vestigial, like the appendix, and thus can be removed. Moreover, once we acknowledge the fluidity of drag's meaning-that it suggests different things to different audiences at different timeswe must also acknowledge the claim of women to decide what it means today. No prior claim of meaning can possibly take priority over that of the subject/object of the practice...

Drag is misogynistic, no matter who performs it. The relevant fact about gay men dressing as women is that they are men dressing as women...

Drag is not about sexuality at all, but about gender, its images and stereotypes-and those always mean things that privilege men and injure women...

This is the conventional defense of drag: that it enables us to transcend restrictions imposed by gender, which is, after all, just a social invention. But I do not have a "genderless human psyche"-I have a woman's psyche, formed by my experience of being morphologically, biologically, sexually, and socially a woman. As Pat Schroeder said when asked if she were running for President "as a woman,". "'Do I have an option?"' To impersonate gender is not to eradicate it but to reinforce it, to reify it and, more important, the power relations attached to it.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but do not tell that to anyone whose work has been plagiarized. Drag performers-gay or straight-plagiarize the appearance and behavior of women, just as minstrels plagiarized the appearance and behavior (or some facsimile) of African-Americans...

Some scholars suggest that dressing across gender lines is an equal-opportunity sport because there is a tradition of women dressing as men (as there is not of black people masquerading as white people). Unless you ignore the power differential between men and women in society, this is nonsense...

Women who dress as men are dressing up, seeking power, privilege, or even just protective camouflage from male violence; while men dressing as women are dressing down...

[Janice] Raymond adds,

Gender bending is gender identity condensed to the point of little or no feminist or lesbian politics.... The new gender outlaw is the old gender conformist, only this time we have men conforming to femininity and women conforming to masculinity.... What good is a gender outlaw who is still abiding by the law of gender?

But of course it is not the arguments of feminist or gay scholars that make drag acceptable to the wider public. Scholars in general, and feminist and gay scholars in particular, are held in low regard in American society. To the extent that their arguments have currency, it is because they serve the interests of those who are more powerful. The people keeping drag alive are the people who benefit somehow from the argument that being a woman is something you can just put on and take off. Their claim is very simple: drag is funny...

There was ridicule of black people. No one rationalized blackface by suggesting that the very contrast between the (white) performer and the (black) performed was funny or interesting in and of itself. No, what was funny or interesting was the glimpse blackface purported to offer into the world of African-Americans...

Men who dress up as women and adopt stereotyped feminine behaviors are comical because of their stereotyped behavior, and the inference they encourage the audience to draw is not that stereotypes are comical but that women are; not that social restrictions are foolish but that the people restricted are. It would be hard to imagine as clear an example of blaming the victim-if blackface had not already provided us with one...

The point of glamour drag is not to tell jokes but to perform the feminine. The only reason to hire a man for this purpose-when there are plenty of women available, by definition more experienced and better qualified-is to give men the continued right and privilege to determine the content of the feminine. Just as white people in blackface announced and established the limits of African-Americans' behavior, men in dresses announce, establish, and enforce the limits of what will be expected of, and tolerated from, women.

Minstrel performances of cake-walking took the dance out of its compulsory context to present African-Americans as feckless and jolly in servitude. Similarly, glamour drag takes glamour out of its context, which is the need women have to use sexual attractiveness to secure male protection in a society that punishes women who are without it. And if even those sober-faced performances are funny, it must be because women themselves are a joke. "Look at how vain and foolish they are!" "Look how self-absorbed!" "Look how trivial!" "Aren't women funny when they want sex?" "And aren't they hilarious when they don't?"

Thus, drag's humor depends entirely on the audience's willingness to believe that women are rightfully the butt of every joke...

The drag queen is a symbol of everything women reject in men's thinking about gender, and the relish of drag performance by performer and audience alike -is every woman's gall"


Naturally, we have the "power" argument which results in sexism (treating people of different sexes doing the same thing being evaluated differently).

Drag survives and is socially acceptable because it is associated with homosexuality, you can't criticse it without being "homophobic".

This writer is probably also "transphobic" since she doesn't believe that gender is purely determined by individual belief.
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