Imitating Others As Control: Is Drag Sexist/Racist?
Next time you see someone performing either gender or race drag, THINK ABOUT IT! Don't support racist or sexist stereotyping via imitation (or gender/race drag), as entertainment. It is not benign humor; no more so than "black face" was. It is very rare that I see any gender or race drag acts that are not sexist and/or racist. Only when the dominant paradigm is the butt of the joke, not the oppressed group, does drag work for me as entertainment.
Imitating Others As Control: Is Drag Sexist/Racist?
By Kirsten Anderberg (www.kirstenanderberg.com)
Written October 11, 2006
When white people imitate any racial minority, basically it comes out racist. When white Hollywood has portrayed American Indian, Asian, Middle Eastern, Romani, black, etc., cultures, they have usually produced very racist products. Racist stereotypes ran rampant in 1960 TV sit-coms such as "I Love Lucy," "Gilligan's Island," "I Dream of Jeannie," "My 3 Sons," "The Beverly Hillbillies," etc. Yet later race drag reversals, such as Eddie Murphy imitating white folks on "Saturday Night Live," or the Wayan Brothers imitating white folks on "In Living Color," were viewed as very political and radical.
When men dress in drag and supposedly imitate women, it is most often very sexist in a remarkably similar way to the whites imitating racial minorities thing. As a woman comedian performing in comedy clubs, very often I found my act sandwiched between many, as in 5 a night, drag acts of men imitating women. And to be honest, I found these acts to be offensive and sexist as hell. All the things I have shunned as part of the ancient "cult of womanhood," all the superficial, commercialized, and fake aspects of "femininity" that I have fought to be freed from, these men were embracing as their "womanhood!" Tons of make up, huge dyed bouffant hair-dos, binding lingerie, heels, nylons, shaving...and these men in drag who were supposedly acting like women, also acted giddy, stupid, shallow...it is odd to me that this could be seen as anything *but* blatant sexism.
Sensing a similarity between whites imitating racial minorities in a white dominant paradigm, and men imitating women in a patriarchy, I began to look closer. The common thread is who is in the dominant paradigm. Since whites have had political control, as well as control of the media in the U.S., through institutionalized and legislated racism, whites were *allowed* to imitate racial minorities however they wanted, but the opposite freedoms were not really welcomed or even allowed. Similarly, men have had political control, as well as control of the media, and thus men are *allowed* by society to imitate women, but not vice versa with the same freedoms. There is a reason we have rampant archives of U.S TV sit coms with men imitating women and whites imitating other cultures, but so little in those same archives of women imitating men or people of color satirizing or stereotyping whites.
Webster's Collegiate dictionary defines "paradigm" as an archetype, and "a philosophical and theoretical framework of a scientific school or discipline within which theories, laws and generalizations and the experiments performed in support of them are formulated." The term "dominant paradigm" has been used to describe the concept where one group has an institutionalized hold, or oppression, over another group, and that "dominant" group, gets its own culture and thinking into the very fabric of society, in a disproportionate way, which is where the "paradigm" part comes in. In a patriarchy, men are the dominant paradigm, thus anything that serves male privilege will not make waves. And anything that threatens male privilege and patriarchy *will* make waves. The same is true in racial contexts. In U.S. history and culture, white males created a situation where "democratic" votes were outlawed at the get-go to anyone but white males, and through economic prejudice and even legislated racial discrimination, a "paradigm" where whites were disproportionately represented in media, politics, etc. became an accepted norm. Thus, anything that makes fun of, or even imitates, white people, is off limits in U.S. media, but white people imitating people of color was and still is accepted more often than the reverse.
There are still reruns airing all over America of "I Love Lucy." where Ethel and Lucy barricade their apartment door because of "Indians" trying to "scalp them" when some actors for "Indian" parts come to Ricky and Lucy's apartment for a show Ricky is doing with an "Indian" theme. In an episode of "The Beverly Hillbillies" shown on TVLand not long ago, Granny arms herself, and Ellie Mae and Jethro too, because she thinks "Indians" are "invading," as well. An old "Andy Griffith Show" episode shows a Romani family camping out in their wagon with a fire on land outside town, portrayed as thieves and swindlers that Andy must run out of town. "Gilligan's Island" had all kinds of weird racial stereotypes, from downed Asian WWII pilots who had pencil thin mustaches and talked with strange broken English, to Island Natives portrayed as idiotic headhunters that even Gilligan could foil. And sexism is rampant on these shows too. Lucy is *physically chased* by Ricky when he gets mad very often on "I Love Lucy." Rarely, if ever, does Lucy physically threaten and chase Ricky. Ginger, and even Mary Ann, have sexual roles on "Gilligan's Island" often, yet Gilligan and the Skipper are very rarely sexualized thusly. Also, many episodes of "Gilligan's Island" have men in drag as women, with men wearing coconut shell bikini tops and grass skirts, etc. The episodes where the women dress as men are not nearly as numerous. And the amount of white people playing people of color on "Gilligan's Island" is a good study in North American racism, for sure.
It is not coincidence that racist and sexist stereotyping is overlooked and tolerated on U.S. TV daily, as part of our cultural heritage. On stages, in movie theaters, on TVs and at home on DVD's, our entertainment is still dominated by men imitating and putting down women and whites imitating and stereotyping people of color. This is the dominant paradigm imitating and trying to define the oppressed. There is *visible power* in the *freedom to imitate.* Seriously. Look at it closely. Notice who is imitating who. And notice patterns and reasons for those patterns. I am sure oppressed people everywhere make fun of their oppressors in private, whether those oppressors be their bosses, spouses, government, etc...while their oppressors make fun of the oppressed in the public media! Husbands make fun of their wives, whites make racial stereotyping jokes, even the government does spin media to make itself look a victim when people complain about hunger and homelessness.
Women like Rosanne upset society because she did imitate men on her show "Roseanne." It is so rare that a woman writes the characters and also feminist dialogue *for* men, and it is rare for women to imitate men in drag, too. Whoopie Goldberg is another woman who imitates men in her work, but there is at least a 10:1 ratio of males in drag as "women," to women in male drag. And I believe this is mostly due to gender and power politics, more than anything else.
Next time you see someone performing either gender or race drag, THINK ABOUT IT! More often than not, I have felt a political motivation beneath imitation as entertainment. Don't encourage, participate in, or support racist or sexist stereotyping via imitation (or gender/race drag), as entertainment. It is not benign humor; no more so than "black face" was. It is very rare that I see any gender or race drag acts that are not sexist and/or racist. Only when the dominant paradigm is the butt of the joke, not the oppressed group, does drag work for me as entertainment. There is a reasoning behind who gets to imitate who and where and when. Patterns are revealing. Connect the dots between your politics and your entertainment!
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