Friday, March 20, 2015

Blame the messenger

I was listening to an old DoubleX podcast earlier, and learned that I'm many news cycles late to an interesting conversation about drag and minstrelsy. Is drag akin to blackface? This is, admittedly, something I'd wondered about before, not enough to be offended by drag, but enough so to Google the comparison, and find that this is an ongoing debate. But this latest discussion began when Mary Cheney, daughter of the charming Dick, made the comparison on Facebook.

The Internet responded with a great big how dare you, as if Cheney had made a gaffe betraying ignorance of gay culture (gay male culture, that is), and not... raised a reasonable question. In eras when taking offense at entertainment wasn't as common as it is today, things were more anything-goes in that department. Today, performers are taken to task for even relatively subtle forms of cultural appropriation. So yes, it is worth exploring why a genre that involves men dressing up like women for a laugh is celebrated. Even if that exploration leads to an assessment that no, drag isn't quite like blackface (which is - spoiler alert - where I end up), it's a question that ought to be asked. It's a shame that the person who asked it is this symbol of the Republican party, which gay people - men included, have good reason to be annoyed at.

Anyway, on this podcast, the guest brought in to explain the topic, drag performer Miz Cracker, had written a piece arguing - contrary to what further Googling tells me was the prevailing view at the time - that the question itself wasn't totally off-the-mark. But it wasn't clear, exactly, why. What does it matter that drag queens are caricatures of women, and not shooting for realism? Is/was blackface any different? And having a drag queen on is in a sense a guest expert, but also a way of answering a question upon asking it - obviously they wouldn't have had a blackface performer on to discuss why it is black people and their allies might find blackface offensive.

A few thoughts, whose profundity might have been greater had I not just spent three hours getting from NY to NJ:

-Drag and female impersonation pose similar but distinct concerns. With the latter, I think - perhaps because June Thomas mentioned Britain - of Monty Python. Straight (or, in one case, gay-but-not-out-to-audiences) men dressing as women, to comic effect. I remember hearing somewhere along the line that I was supposed to be offended, as a woman, by these performances. But I have trouble identifying with Terry Jones in a dress, and can easily put this into the same category as other comedy that I can recognize, in the abstract, is at my expense. I don't think women should feel obliged to be offended by female impersonation, but I also think telling women who are to get a sense of humor about it is very much akin to telling black people who aren't keen on blackface to do the same.

-The fundamental difference with drag - the reason it's a different conversation - is that the man is (always? usually? unless-otherwise-specified?) gay. And yet, a man all the same, and not a gender-non-conforming man, just a man - cisgender is, I believe, the term we're looking for. (Someone like Justin Vivian Bond - who's great, by the way - would be a different story, since Bond doesn't identify as male offstage, either.) Either drag is the gender equivalent of cultural appropriation, or it's a marginalized group poking fun at one with relatively a lot of power. And it's not that it couldn't be the latter. A drag queen risks hate-violence in a way that a white performer of blackface presumably wouldn't have, because there's some relationship between the femininity of the performance and the non-straightness (seems wrong, as a straight person, to write "queerness") of the performer.

-So the question comes down to whether gay men are more marginalized than straight, conventionally-feminine woman. I feel like Jamie Kirchick might have the answer, but I, for one, have no idea. It's possible for a gay man to be misogynistic, and a straight woman homophobic. This isn't something like "reverse racism" where one can just point to obvious power structures and say that discrimination's only possible in one direction.

-It could be, then, that drag is a way for gay men to punch up, as it were, at people who are able to live openly feminine, openly attracted-to-men lives in every society. Straight women have the advantage of being born into bodies/identities that allow them to be attracted to men without being ostracized, without having to come out. Consider that the classic act of straight female homophobia is the proverbial bachelorette party at a gay bar in a state without same-sex marriage. That, or the Sex and the City-inflected "my gay" phenomenon, where a gay man lives his romantic life vicariously through a female friend. It could be all of this, and a performance/the phenomenon could still feel like punching down by women in the audience.

No comments: