Oooo Girl, You've Got Hate Mail

Disclaimer: I am a white cisgender woman. My experience with consuming drag culture is mostly performed by white, cisgender men.

So I've been thinking about this potentially bonkers and definitely complicated idea of drag performance being male appropriation of traditional femininity for artistic and performance gains. This leads me to wonder: is drag constructed by cis men inherently (trans)misogynistic? I have written various versions of this article months ago but never posted it because I couldn't quite flush out my feelings of discomfort with critiquing such a GAY INSTITUTION that is drag performance. But now, as RuPaul's Drag Race has stated they will no longer use a pun on the transmisogynistic term "she-male," I'm revisiting this and feel more than ever that perhaps, drag is really fucked for women of all experiences.
RuPaul is notorious for fighting for his privilege to use the word "tr*nny" and even has segments on his show where contestants, out of drag and dressed as men, are shown pictures of women and have to guess who is a "biological woman" and who is a "psychological woman" in order to win prizes. While some women have competed on RuPaul's Drag Race and used the publicity as a foundation to shine positive light on their coming-out-as-transgender process (I'm bowing down to you, Carmen Carrera and Our Lady J), the vast majority of the competitors on the show are cisgender men. RuPaul is a cisgender man. Why is it that they are allowed to utilized such female-specific language? Why is the punchline always about women, trans or cis?
On RuPaul's Drag Race, each episode would feature the men getting ready for the day only to be interrupted by a message from RuPaul preceded by a catchy, musical introduction of "You've Got She-Mail!" A play on the historically demeaning "she-male," referring to trans women, contestants would shriek and gather around a monitor that would show RuPaul dressed in drag, giving them cryptic messages about their day's challenge. Finally, after petitions against this cheap joke, LOGO and RuPaul's Drag Race have finally decided to be slightly less transphobic. Not without the expected backlash, of course. Pandora Boxx's response to this RPDR change in lexicon? "Is there a Women's Coalition who will get the word 'fishy' banned from RPDR now? Yes, it means what you think it does." I have a hard time with cis men of any sexuality taking ownership around a word that is used derogatorily about vaginas. I remember back in middle school, the sleazy popular dude whom I simultaneously hated but also wanted to notice me would go around telling girls to close their legs because he "smelled fish." So, Michael Steck, no. Don't use the word "fishy."
Stolen from "Portlandia"Stolen from "Portlandia"But I don't want to focus too much on poor Ru, as he isn't the only one participating in this construct (albeit he is, arguably, the most visible). There is a hierarchy to drag, starting with low brow performances by straight cis men who perform the idea that "a man in a dress is HILARIOUS!" They put themselves in an ill-fitting dress/cheap wig/minimal makeup/showing their facial or chest hair. The goal of this performance is obvious-- it's for laughs. It's a joke. We all know why this is supposed to be funny-- it is a cis man debasing himself into wearing a dress, into absurdly impersonating someone with less social currency than he. It is poorly demonstrating the tactics that many women (trans and cis) utilize to express their femininity in a patriarchal system. It is making fun of the tactics themselves and the women who use them. It is saying they are ridiculous and that women, themselves, are ridiculous. The assumption is that the (re: cis) women who, presumably, are supposed to utilize these tactics are ridiculous because something that should come naturally to them can look so absurd in another, more sensible (re: masculine) context. The other assumption is that (re: trans) women for whom femininity is "unnatural" are "faking it," that we all know what they are "trying" to do, and they're not "fooling" anyone. We all know who they "really" are-- and it's a punchline for the rest of us.
The other end of the drag hierarchy is the high brow performance of a gay cis man who perform the idea that "a man in a dress is ARTISTIC!" They present in expertly-applied makeup, a lace-front wig, hip/rear padding, a realistic-looking chest plate, and tucked. This performance is, at its core, an example of miraculous metamorphosis. Even though we do not see what the performer looks like before, we can assume that the transformation is, indeed, awesome. The star of the show, in this case, is the cis man's ability to present in a way where his femininity seems genuine, artistic, beautiful, or, again, ridiculous. The painstaking steps that cis men take in order to appear like they do-- feminine, believable, over-the-top, shocking, an alter-ego-- is, in fact, a performance role.
It should go without saying that cis men in drag are different than trans women. So why am I comparing the two? While cis men impersonating women is a performance, it still mocks the existence of trans women. It mocks the idea that, deep down, under all that make up, they're all the same: men. Trans women are not performing. Their existence is not worthy of a joke.
My experience as a cisgender woman, as a woman who also does not perform her gender identity (albeit in different ways), is also not worthy of a joke. Women of all experiences get too many "jokes" about our bodies when we walk down the street and are subject to cat calls, sexual harassment, uninvited physical contact, getting attacked and having our lives taken. Ha, ha? LOL?
These cis men in drag are in control of their identities, of how they are perceived by their public and of how their drag presentations are being consumed by others. Trans women are robbed by this potential to control how their identities are perceived. Any danger that exists in presenting as a cis man in drag is experienced by choice, by election, and can be eliminated at any time. This is not true for trans women-- the danger that exists in being a trans woman is not chosen, is not elected, and cannot be eliminated based on the her discomfort. She is unable to present differently because, for her, it is not a costume but an identity.

So, at the core of any drag, is the performer's ability (or lack thereof) to convince the audience of their ability to look "real." If they fail, intentionally or not, it is a joke and we all have a good laugh. If they succeed, it is an artistic miracle. Ultimately, they are cis men in women's clothes, able to take off their attire before leaving the safety of the bar or studio set and return into their male gear before anyone can choose to laugh or stare at them for reasons beyond their intentions. I quote Dorian Corey from Paris Is Burning: "When they're undetectable, when they can walk out of that ballroom, into the sunlight and onto the subway, and get home and still have all their clothes and no blood running off their bodies. Those are the Femme Realness Queens." This distinction between drag performance and transgender identity is made in the 1970s, why has it been lost in 2014?
Tricia Smith

Tricia Smith, MSW, is a social worker in Los Angeles, CA. She works in public policy and direct service advocacy for disenfranchised trans* people, specifically HIV-positive women of color engaging in survival sex work.

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