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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!

homepage: homepage: http://www.kirstenanderberg.com


Drag Queen 11.Oct.2006 08:40

Gloria Steinem

Women were the first drag queens. Who are they oppressing?

Really... 11.Oct.2006 08:57

uh...

Despite the fact that I, a radical feminist womyn, disagree with a lot of your reasoning, the one thing I would most like to know is, where do you get this 10:1 ratio of drag queens to drag kings. Have you ever checked out DK PDX? LOTS OF DRAG KINGS. I have lots of friends who do drag, and I never feel oppressed by them. I also have lots of friends who are transgendered, and you had better realize that you are stepping on tranny toes as well when you spout off stuff like this. That's like saying that someone who is born in a male body yet who identifies as fully female, who adopts what are typically seen as "feminine" clothes, high heels, and some make-up is guilty of further oppressing the "real" womyn in this society. I understand the intent behind your article, but you may want to rexamine it. Drag is not done, at least never as I've seen it, to trod upon womyn, it's done because there is a genuine enjoyment in expressing the boldly feminine, however you may choose to do that. Drag performers (more specifically drag QUEENS) are no more oppressive to me than teenybopers at the mall or Paris Hilton.

Gross Generalization 11.Oct.2006 12:28

Verdant

Hold on. Why are you even comparing mainstream media to the idea of a drag show? Mass entertainment is fucked up, and patriarchal, but the idea of a drag is liberation, not imitation. Females aren't the only ones getting screwed by this old-school patriarchy. I do acknowledge that women and minorities are by far in a much worse situation, but at the same time, you're dealing with different types of gender roles here. For males, clothing and masculinity represent major gender roles that are broken by the act of drag. This isn't like some sort of minstrel show, which actually aims at stereotyping blacks and black culture. Men, at least with the ones I see, don't dress up in drag to make fun of women. It's an act that allows them to break away from the fact that wearing a skirt anywhere as a male will get you looked at, yelled at, and possibly beaten. It's an act that allows them to stop acting like they're supposed to be Charles Atlas 24/7.

I'm in a Rocky show in my town, and one of the reasons I'm doing it is because it's fun as hell just to make fun of all of those gender stereotypes. The other is because I *want* to be able to get up in fishnets and garters, without worrying about getting my ass handed to me, and see what it's like. A drag show is in this sense a metaphoric equal for a women's center.

Take a look at the Slug Queens and Drag Queens. You're not going to see too much of a difference. People who want to have fun, liberate themselves from their gender, and so on.

Yeah, there's undoubtedly people who exploit the idea of drag to make fun of women. But that statement is a gross generalization, with connections to institutions that I doubt many drag queens support.

Grow a set of ovaries! 11.Oct.2006 12:55

Phreaque

Ah, some lighthearted humor amidst all that is going on right now:

"...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. "

Whoa, I didn't know they were speaking for all women when they put on their campy outfits and act like total bitches and idiots. You can't deny that there are stupid, giddy, shallow people, regardless of the race/gender. This type of drag show usually appears at local gay bars where patronage usually consists of homosexual males who couldn't give a rat's ass about female ideology anyway.
But one point that you completely leave out is that many drag queens also exude strength and intelligence, be it by very bitchy actions and/or commentary.



"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."


What the hell are you talking about? If it is good enough for the goose, it is good enough for the gander. Sure a majority of people would not approve of it, but if you are in the position to present that, then what do you care about "them" anyway? You seem to be playing victim here, and you are thinking with a mentality that was prevalent in the 50's, otherwise you would make some attempt to offset the "Majority" by organizing Drag King rallies, etc.


"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!"

That is how oppression works, if you do not voice or ACT out in public, then you voice is unheard, your actions are unseen, people are unaffected, and you are completely washed over by the flood.


"And I believe this is mostly due to gender and power politics, more than anything else. "

No, I think it is mostly due to women (which you group as a minority) with the urge to act out, not acting out in fear of being ridiculed, or worse, shunned by the society of their oppressors.

the voice of transgendered women is not exactly part of the dominant pardigm 11.Oct.2006 14:15

catherine

I am going to go out on a limb and say that transgendered women (that is male to female) may be considered the most disposal group of people in America, second would be female prostitutes. They are victims of sexism, misogony and male voilence on an unspeakable level.

There is a huge population of transgendered and queer activists in Portland. You need to get out there and meet them. If you are hetrosexual, you may want to think about the fact that you may have some limitations in seeing things through a hetero-lens.

Please don't start attacking trans people and queers? You most likely walk the world in a more privledged skin than most trans woman.

one word 11.Oct.2006 21:10

Mr. Gayface

We talk about blackface and the stuff protraying indians and all of that.
What about gayface? Yes I am reffering to will and grace. Discuss

Men in Ewes Clothing 11.Oct.2006 21:54

Fire Witch

A great discussion was had at the Feral Scholar recently about this issue. The article posted engendered a subsequent discussion that ran 120 posts deep.

I found it very educational and it caused me to lens male privilege in a whole new way. The title of the article is "Men in Ewes' Clothing: The Stealth Politics of the Transgender Movement"

Here is the link:

 http://stangoff.com/?p=306

Thanks, Kirsten, for bringing up this important issue.


actually... 11.Oct.2006 21:59

Matte

While I have never really gotten off on any of Kirsten's writing, and have usually found it to be a lot of screeching, I actually agree with her on this. I have always found drag queens to be offensive. You cannot buy womanhood at the cosmetic counter, and the gauche, clumsy attempts to ape womanhood are nothing short of blackface in my opinion. I know, it's almost anathma to suggest this, since queers are so very oppressed and so I have been silent about this for a long time. But being queer and being a drag queen are not the same. I have no issue with a man who wears a dress, but I do take issue with drag shows, and with the flouncy, made up, "girlfriend" kind of drag. It is offensive. The more you think about it, the more offensive it gets.

still about privilege 12.Oct.2006 08:41

kirsten anderberg

I still stand firm in my belief that imitation/drag as entertainment has political roots...and there is a privilege system of who gets to imitate who, whether you admit it or not. The 10:1 ratio I came up with from 27 years as a comedian working in clubs and with entertainers...there is ALWAYS at LEAST 10:1 males imitating women to women imitating men whether we are talking comedy clubs, gay comedy clubs, TV, stage or movies. If you think that is not true, what are *you* basing your guestimate from? Yes, at a FEW places there are women acting like men in drag but in ANY city in the US, you will find AT LEAST 10 to 1 drag shows of MEN ACTING LIKE WHAT THEY LIKE TO PRETEND IS WOMANHOOD, not women imitating male. I am not afraid of controversy, I am not afraid of speaking honestly. No matter how much you try to pretend this is not about sexism and racism privileges, it obviously IS about just that.

Response to "Imitating others as control" 12.Oct.2006 11:17

sallydarity

Kirsten Anderberg's "Imitating Others as Control: Is Drag Sexist/Racist?" is a dangerous contribution to radical commentary. Although I have promoted her work and donated to her, I feel I cannot let this go unopposed.

Kirsten argues that racial drag and gender drag as aspects of entertainment, with the privileged imitating the oppressed, acts to control the oppressed. I can follow her points on racism and sexism in the entertainment industry up to a point. However, I think this is an example of where the parallels between racism and sexism fall short. Kirsten seems to base her entire argument on the examples of racism, but doesn't give examples of how gender drag actually negatively affects the female gender. I certainly can't see how it negatively affects me.

The article seems to demonize drag queens. She says, "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!'" Many women embrace those things as their womanhood as well, but this is not addressed.

She does not mention how many hate crimes exist against men who dress as women, or against people with male bodies who identify as women and dress as such. While it is quite safe for a woman to dress butch (although it is quite different in terms of attempting to pass as a different gender than that which one was born), it is not nearly as safe for a man to dress femme (oh, except at drag shows). While people who do drag and people who are transgender are not the same (and Kirsten does not criticize trans people), and there's a difference between entertainment and reality, there is a relationship here, which must not be ignored. The fact is, that no matter how often male to female drag occurs in the entertainment industry, it is not acceptable in this society as anything but humor and entertainment. It is worth mentioning that for many drag queens, it is a lifestyle tied up with their sexuality and gender identity- not simply an entertainment role.

People born male who act/dress feminine are, according to our society, lesser humans because they are not performing their masculinity. This says a lot about how gender relations work in this society. Men who act properly like men are on top in the hierarchy. Others are below. So how would it follow that a man performing drag acts to control the female gender?

It is important to ask why a man in a skirt is such a threat. He can get laughs or cheers on TV or on stage, but in other contexts he could be killed. I would argue that he is a threat because he undermines the order and control that the gender dichotomy provides. We're taught that men should be one way and women should be another. This serves the power structure and the elite in a number of ways. An example is the sexism (and sometimes violence against women) perpetuated by men who seek to defend their manhood in the presence of class and/or racial oppression, thereby disempowering women within their race and class and dividing their efforts at self-determination. Women contribute to holding up capitalism by performing their gendered duty of buying the things that without, they would be lesser women (i.e. mascara, various shoes, visits to hair stylists, the latest fashions, etc.).

That supports the argument that this caricature of femininity performed by drag queens can be seen as sexist, and perhaps it is in some ways. But looked at another way, it is clear that drag queens are men peforming as women, and since they're often better at performing this caricature of womanhood, it exposes stereotypes as stereotypes, and erodes the concept of real womanhood. What is a real woman? Obviously since a drag queen can be a better woman than me (in terms of performing extreme femininity), real womanhood (and manhood) no longer really means much. Some feminists (essentialists) are very threatened by the idea that there is no real womanhood. But I would argue that to push for the unravelling of concepts of "real man" and "real woman" and breaking down the gender dichotomy is a better effort at ending sexism than reinforcing the divide (that's actually an illusory divide). Kate Bornstein wrote, "The continued oppression of women proves only that in any binary there's going to be one up and one down. The struggle for equal rights must include the struggle to dismantle the binary".

I wrote a lengthy essay called, "Gender is a Weapon: Coercion, domination and self-determination" in which i describe my theories more in depth. I was never able to come up with specific strategies, however. I don't think that men should be drag queens in order to fight against patriarchy. I am not purporting that they are revolutionaries. But I do think it's dangerous to blame drag queens for the racial and gender terms that are set by the entertainment industry. Although Kirsten's focus is primarily on the entertainment industry, she's basically calling drag queens sexists and putting them in the position to be further attacked. Making drag queens the enemy of feminism does nothing for feminism.

 http://geocities.com/sallydarity/gender.html

Dress is political. 13.Oct.2006 09:39

x

"...racial drag and gender drag as aspects of entertainment, with the privileged imitating the oppressed, acts to control the oppressed."

J. Edgar Hoover, for one.

Button-up shirts and ties. Long hair. Turbans or veils. High-heels. All dress is political. Are drag queens having fun twirling around in their mommies' chiffon? Or are they flashing their anger along with their garters? Can I do the same in Hassidic curls? How about a US marine uniform? Or a Nazi uniform? Remember the out cry when Prince Harry wore one to a party?

What are you wearing today? Why?

evidence of the point drag (can be) sexist 03.Feb.2007 02:22

maria

well this article got me thinking and then I came upon the nellie olesons and this video

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kpBxYSgyovA

and though there may be truth in the whole stupid SUV driving middle class woman stereotype, this drag show is parody of a gender more than it is drag for personal satisfaction I would say.