Blackface, Part 2: Drag

I have to admit that my blog entry from last week about extending the blackface concept to other power relations wasn't entirely my own idea. It builds, at least in part, on this article by Renee at Womanist Musings, whose extreme positions on another part of the marginalised-group-imitation matrix intrigues me:
"What is up with the black male fascination of playing black women? We are told that this is done in homage to our great strength. In actuality these women are ridiculous caricatures of black women."
Her argument is persuasive. Yet me and just about everyone I know readily accept drag, the way we wouldn't accept a blackface or yellowface performer. Perhaps, as was suggested to me on twitter, the difference is history, or perhaps it's intent: surely there's a difference between the varied depictions of women in a video like this Eurovision parody?

Sure, there's some extremely positive and loving diva portrayals. But the parody of Kikki Danielsson as overweight and barely able to move is vicious, and hits deeply into some rather nasty intersectional issues, where gay men (like Alexander Bard in this swedish-language video) project body-image hate on women with certain body types, in a patriarchal reversal of oppression.

In general, though, if the intent is positive, Renee's position can appear extreme. For most feminists, drag is not necessarily a bad thing, a performative play with the dichotomy of gender roles. By adapting stereotypically "feminine" characteristics, the drag queen is undermining the idea of a definite, essentialist masculinity. And that's before we get to drag kings!

But there's another group whose perspective on drag artists tends to be much more negative, and that's transpeople. In one way, I guess, it's possible to view drag not as making fun of women, but of male-to-female transsexuals. What's a huge life-changing position for them is reduced to a bit of fun, where cisgendered privilidged males get to play around the imagery of a real sexual reassignment. Transsexuals regularly condemn drag shows and have a strong antipathy towards drag queens...

I guess part of the problem is that transsexual activists and other feminists have conflicting interests when it comes to understanding gender identity. For many transsexual activists, the idea is essential (ha ha) that there are distinct and different "male" and "female" brains and that you can be born into a biologically "wrong" body for your mind. The more fluid sexual identities and socially constructed genders of feminism in general and queer feminism in particular have to be rejected, lest conflicting gender identities be reduced to "just a choice". Drag can be provocative because it introduces precisely the type of fluidity which undermines the essentialism.

What the idea of a "gender blackface" exposes in this case is that there can never be a unified perspective, one ideology that will cover all radical viewpoints in one. I guess that's where the need for diversity comes in. Even in radicalism we've got the archipelagos.

1 comment:

Monica Roberts said...

No Birdseed,
I don't have an antipathy towards drag queens.

Just RuPaul and his nouveau minstrel show pimping buddy.