Monday, 20 July 2015

Theatre Thoughts: It's A Drag

I came across this article today.

If you can't be bothered reading it, in a nutshell, Glasgow Free Pride have decided on a blanket ban for Drag Performers at their inaugural event.


In all honesty, having read a bit more about it I kind of get what they're getting at, so to speak. I understand the point but not the point. I know, it doesn't make any sense, but bear with me. I'm going to speechify...


“The decision was taken by transgender individuals who were uncomfortable with having drag performances at the event. It was felt that it would make some of those who were transgender or questioning their gender uncomfortable. It was felt by the group within the Trans/Non Binary Caucus that some drag performance, particularly cis drag, hinges on the social view of gender and making it into a joke, however transgender individuals do not feel as though their gender identity is a joke."

Right, okay, fair enough. I understand that. However, I do have a few major issues with it: Yes, drag performance hinges on social views of gender, and present these stereotypes as a joke. But that surely means the joke is on everybody, yes? A drag queen, a drag king. Both of these set up a gender stereotype and subvert that for comedy or to make a point.


I also understand that a cis drag performer may be considered offensive to those who may be confused about their own identity. However surely that performer is celebrating sexual ambiguity, not mocking it?


Image Source: Vogue
Andreja Pejic

The friend who shared the article posted it with the following statement:

"I feel (this) widens the discussions we all seem to have been involved in a lot recently. Lots of people have been involved in the cultural appropriation argument, many of whom are on either side of this conversation. I wonder whether we should be distinguishing between cultural appropriation and gender appropriation as different issues. Or indeed if we need to find a way to free up all of the limitations and prejudices. Many people would be horrified if I blacked up, but few seemed pissed off when I pop a frock on. Where do we draw these lines. I am truly intrigued by this.Similarly I am worried that we will, through our own attempts at liberalism and political/social correctness, destroy our ability to express or more importantly, satirise anything. Surely satire and comedy as commentary/reaction is one of the strongest tools we have as human beings. It's always been considered, along side teaching and learning, a key tool in the explanation of the changing world around us and a necessity to cope with life."

Going through this step-by-step:

- if we make something taboo, something unacceptable, even in the context of theatre, it becomes something unknown, and surely that is worse for marginalised or discriminated-against communities? From what I've seen, drag performers are deeply embedded in the cultures they are, in the opinion of the original article, mocking. So if they mock, it is with a deep and true knowledge and appreciation and love of the community that has fostered this performance.

- there have been a lot of conversations on my Facebook feed throughout the years, increasing in frequency, on the subject of cultural assimilation/appropriation/misappropriation. I remember a module on this in a theatre course I took and it intrigued me...

Can 'gender' either way identify in some way as a culture, and can a gender identity therefore be misappropriated? In what situation would this be the case? Drag, I suppose. Adopting the cultural (sexual) elements of a marginalised community (culture) could be seen as misappropriation. Where does this end? With straight, cis women not being allowed to wear trousers any more as these are traditionally 'male' elements of clothing? Reductio ad absurdum, I know, but still.


So if that's where it ends, where does it begin?


Men have been dressing as women for thousands of years for the purposes of theatre and entertainment. In England especially, women were forbidden to perform on stage so young men would dress up and play women. Commedia dell arte, yes they had women in the casts of travelling actors, but often young men took the roles. Later in Pantomime the character of the Dame became one of the main comedy points of a production, or the Ugly Sisters. Both parts are men dressing as women and parodying femininity grotesquely.

What is 'wrong' and what is 'right' in this context? Would a ban on drag performers, if it became common for fear of causing offence to the trans community, extend to pantomime, or television characters like Lily Savage or Dame Edna?


Image Source: londonist.com
Paul O'Grady as Lily Savage as a Panto Dame...


One of the comments on the post included this:

"Why is David Suchet playing the part of Lady Bracknell when there are plenty of fine female actors who could do it? For the same reason Maxine Peake can smash it as Hamlet; there are many parts in theatre that, more than others, slide the scale of animus and anima. I think we can be sure that David will not be camping it up in mock femininity, just as Maxine didn't soliloquies about death with her hand thrust down the front of her kecks, grabbing an imagined nut-sack.On this specific issue I have little to say other than surely the wider course of action would be that if individuals don't want to see Drag, that they don't attend drag shows... blanket banning can only ever lead to feelings of discrimination."


Yes, yes, and yes. I love this statement.

However, while, yes, there are many fine roles that have been taken in recent years by women (I loved Helen Mirren's Prospero, despite so many people hating on Queen Helen!) However is there a difference between a woman playing a traditionally male theatre role and a drag queen in a cabaret show? I think there is, and the difference is intention.


The intention of drag is to shock, to make us question our own identity and our view of the world; what is acceptable to do and say as a man or as a woman, and how we choose to present ourselves to the world.


I personally find drag fascinating; these performers, male or female or straight or gay or anything inbetween, how they create the character they wish the world to see and how they present this fearless, flawless fascia to the world. If it is offensive to people, maybe that's a good thing.


Image Source: Huffinton Post
This image was accompanied by the tagline "Why drag queens are better role models than Disney Princesses..."


The intention of any form of theatre is to make us react; if there was no reaction, whether for or against, then theatre is not doing its job. We need to take offence to make us ask questions. We need to ask questions to find answers, find out information or points of view we have never considered before, and once we start seeing things from other points of view, then maybe everything will actually be okay.

Or maybe not. Theatre would be boring without a bit of scandal every now and then...


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