By Caroline Abide
Wednesday evening of the Isom Student Gender Conference, a drag show featuring Alicia Stone-Valentino, Syrn Marage and Kiera Mason took place at Lamar Lounge. Outside of the unassuming restaurant and bar, the line for entrance trailed to the street. Clearly, in Oxford the demand for drag is one that has gone unfulfilled for too long. Squashed against the side of the stage, I stood in the periphery of the performers for the entire show. I had never experience anything quite like that performance and found the entire event fascinating. Each drag queen was dressed to the nines and made up elaborately; they moved with astonishing fluidity and grace. From my experience, I can say that everyone should experience a drag show at least once in his or her life. Even though the idea of dressing in drag probably seems bizarre to some, I found the show inexplicably mesmerizing, possibly because the characters that the men were portraying seemed better at being feminine than I am. I questioned, however, what I was to take away from the performance. On the one hand I knew I had enjoyed the exhibition, but as I considered the display further, I wondered if I should find the whole thing offensive—did the practice of dressing in drag imply that femininity was nothing more than a costume, and a garish one at that? Was it fair that these men were able to experience the fun and glamor of being a woman without any of the real life disadvantages?
On the surface, drag may indeed appear to be a twisted form of misogyny. Looking deeper, though, I now realize that drag is anything but misogynistic. When these men dress as women they are empowered, rather than degraded. Initially, I was unsure how to react to the expression of gender as a performance, but in actuality, all expressions of gender are performances, though perhaps in a more subtle fashion. In a drag show, male performers take female stage names and dress in a way that society has deemed female. In a world where a man in a dress is always a reliable punch line, drag queens, typically scantily clad, embrace femininity. Still, even though drag queens embrace typically feminine traits, they reject the power dynamics that are supposed to come along with increased femininity. They reject the idea of being timid, overly emotional, and submissive. In this way, they demonstrate that gender is never all or nothing. To be female, one need not subscribe to every typically female trait. To be male, one need not give up the fun of wearing a dress. As Judith Butler wrote, “Gender reality is performative which means, quite simply, that it is real only to the extent that it is performed.” In no way is the drag queen’s usage of femininity as a costume offensive, because in essence, all gender is a costume. We all perform within the boundaries of the gender binary on a daily basis, in the way we dress, the way we speak, and the way we gesticulate while peaking. We wear dresses and cross our legs when we sit because this is what we have been taught humans with a certain type of genitalia are supposed to do. Thus, drag queens demonstrate a crucial lesson: that even someone fully cisgendered is as much of a performer as they are.
Conforming to the standards of heteronormativity is sometimes difficult and thankless work. Still, the majority of us are enslaved to the arbitrary regulations of our assigned genders. Drag queens represent a sort of liberation that evades much of the general population. They are men who have made the shift and broken through the boundaries, simply because they can. Although the bondage of the Gender Matrix may seem constricting, drag queens demonstrate that liberation is as simple as the conscious decision to express a different gender. As in the case of drag queens, the shift need not necessarily be permanent. If, as Butler writes, gender is only as real as its immediate expression, we could theoretically choose a new gender for each day of the week.
When I chose to attend the drag show at Lamar Lounge last week, I did so because I believe the performance would be an interesting and fun experience. However, coming out of this, I realize how thought-provoking drag is. Drag queens are known for being outrageous and blatantly rebellious, but this experience forced me to question what exactly they were rebelling against. All things considered, because of this event, the unreality of gender has finally clicked for me. If all the world’s a stage, and all men merely players, what we are performing is gender. For most of society, from the way we groom ourselves, to our most imperceptible mannerisms, we are consistently reinforcing a rigid social construct that restricts the way we are allowed to dress, feel, and even think. Perhaps drag queens, caricature-ish as they may seem, know better than us. Even though we are all capable of gender fluidity, drag queens are some of the few who actually make use of this ability.
Caroline Abide is a freshman English major at The University of Mississippi. She is a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College and a member of Delta Delta Delta. She is also a staff reporter for the Daily Mississippian.