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writing for godot

“DRAG” IS CULTURAL MISAPPROPRIATION

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Written by Dianne Post   
Tuesday, 06 July 2021 12:12

Dr. Neal Lester, highly respected for his work on racism and sexism, recently published an article in the Arizona Informant (June 30, 2021) about cultural appropriation that he defined as: “cultural appropriation is profiting off something that is not materially or culturally your own.  Like plagiarizing an idea or paper, admitting it’s not yours, but getting credit anyhow.”

He further defined it as abusing or misusing elements of the culture to perpetuate stereotypes and using it as a “costume” or “performance” for amusement, edginess, coolness, trendiness or some other purpose lacking in understanding and authenticity. He rightly noted that cultural appropriation is about power and dominant versus subordinate cultures rooted in white, supremacist practices that manifest and perpetuate systemic racism.

Drag” is also rooted in white, male supremacist practices that manifest and perpetuate systemic sexism and a flashier performance like Ru Paul does not make it any more acceptable.  I have never liked drag shows and never understood why women went to them.  I asked but got a blank stare or “it’s fun.”  It may be “fun” to joke about myself with other women; but it’s not fun when men ridicule me – ever.

As a lesbian, I spent years working on LGBT issues but stopped in 2000 when it became abundantly clear that the gay men would never support women as women had supported them e.g. through the AIDS crisis.  They continued to donate money to anti-choice Republicans so long as they promised to be nice to gay men.  It became obvious that the LGBT movement ran off the rails and is no longer a civil rights movement but a men’s rights movement.

Men dressed up as women have been around since Roman and Greek times when women were not allowed to perform on stage. But in the 19th century, “drag” was associated with minstrel shows where women and African Americans were mocked as “wenches.”  Bean, Annemarie (2001), Female Impersonation in Nineteenth-Century American Blackface Minstrelsy, New York University, ProQuest 304709304.

Men in drag adorn themselves with exaggerated make-up, wigs, and garments.  They dress in stereotypical clothing that was meant to and does constrain and harm women – large breasts, corsets, stockings, high heels. Women fought against such restraining clothing. Corsets prevented women from breathing that lead to fainting.  High heels seriously damage women’s feet, legs, and back. “Glamorizing” such clothing perpetuatespatriarchal and offensive stereotypes of women.

As Kirsten Anderberg points out in a 2006 paper, “Imitating Others as Control: Is Drag Sexist/Racist?” not only do the men dress in stereotypical costumes, but they act in stereotypical ways i.e. giddy, stupid, shallow, bitchy, catty, dumb, slutty. They also refer to women in the most insulting and disparaging manner i.e. bitch, ho, fish. The “fish” slur is highlighted in a Huff Post article by Ashley Clark on March 3, 2014.  I’ve heard it myself from gay men before I left the movement.

If gay men mocking the hand gestures and voice inflection of Black women is racist, how is gay men mocking a stereotype of women not sexist?  African Americans don’t tolerate ridicule, why should women? A 2014 article by Meghan Murphy in Feminist Current reported that in the 2013 Toronto Pride event, a drag queen named “Daytona Bitch” was fired for appearing as a white person in blackface.  Of course it’s wrong for a white person to appear in blackface; but it is just as wrong for a man to appear as a caricature of a woman.

We rightly criticized the former president when he mocked a disabled reporter.  Why do we applaud men when they mock women?  Generally, progressives understand that members of the dominant/oppressor class should not mock the marginalized group.  (Is Drag Misogynistic, M.K. Fain, 7 October 2019) Progressives support the movement to change the names and symbols of sports teams that belittle Native Americans, e.g. “Red Skins” and “Tomahawk Chop.” Where is the support to stop drag queens from mocking women?

Some will argue that gay men are not the oppressors; they are wrong.  Males, gay or not, have privilege whether they want it or not just as whites have privilege whether they want it or not. Usually one cannot identify that a male is gay just by looking at him so his male privilege stays with him.  He can pretend to be a female in drag, but he can abandon that costume and return to his male privilege at any time just as whites who pretend to be Black can abandon that action and return to their white privilege anytime, but Blacks cannot.  Whites in blackface is not just offensive because one group is imitating a stereotype of another, it’s offensive because of centuries of oppression by whites against Blacks. Likewise, men imitating a stereotype of women is offensive because one must consider the context -  men have been oppressing women for centuries. Using another’s oppression for entertainment is the height of privilege.

The “drag” presentation of femininity is not real any more than gender is real. Both are constructed by society as a set of behaviors, attitudes, and looks that were created to confine women in a subservient position as defined by males.  Both change over time and from one culture to another.  Glorifying stereotypes is glorifying oppression. “Drag culture” is harmful and needs to be opposed for its real statement and impact.

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