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Representations of Drag Culture  

Niall Brennan

Drag may be understood as performing a gender other than one’s self-identified gender. Drag is therefore underpinned by the concept of gender performativity, or acts that naturalize constructs of gender, yet drag complicates gender performativity by imitating and parodying such “natural” performances of gender. Drag is also underpinned by camp, a sensibility combining incongruity, theatricality, and humor emanating from the 1960s gay liberation movement and more recently appropriated by heteronormative culture industries, bringing forth the need to differentiate queer (political) from gay (mainstream) camp deployment. In American popular culture, the focus of this entry, drag most closely approximates cross-dressing as a mainly humorous narrative trope involving a duplicitous cross-dresser (and knowing viewer) and a duped (and often amorous) “victim.” Cross-dressing therefore should be discerned from transvestism, which involves greater subjective investment in performing a gendered other, and from the antiquated terminology of transsexualism, which implies the desire to become a gendered other. In these differences, drag can invoke gender, race, and ethnicity with different levels of performative consequence, such that women and Black men performing drag assume historical and institutional significance differently from (white) men role-playing as women. Lastly, RuPaul’s Drag Race, the American reality/competition television series, has brought drag into global, commercial mainstream culture by establishing drag as a paradigmatic, professionalized set of performances. While Drag Race has moved queer politics into public discourse with greater visibility for LGBTQ+ peoples and communities, the reality series has circumscribed “winning” and “losing” versions of drag and, by consequence, versions of gender performativity, most notably by circumscribing the boundaries of drag between gender performativity and transgender identities.