Let's All Go to Drag U.

"Drag U" skips right past the question of whether gender is a social construct, and tackles the question of whether gender is something you can overinflate and climb inside, like an extra-fabulous Macy’s balloon.
Publish date:
October 14, 2011
television, wigs, drag, pantomime horse, things that happen when you have too much wine

My husband is out of town, so I spent yesterday evening drinking wine and watching "RuPaul’s Drag U." If you’re not familiar with the show, here’s the elevator pitch: Women who need to get in touch with their va-va-voom side learn the secrets of femininity from men who perform in drag. It’s fun to watch (they build costumes and learn to lip-synch!), unfailingly heartwarming (they find themselves again!), and in terms of gender it's probably the most subversive show on TV.

I know the concept of drag queens is not without issues for trans folks, so I hope someone will call me out if I say something boneheaded. As I understand it, the trouble is that there are people who lump transgender women and drag queens into the same category. This is like thinking that people in pantomime horse outfits are horses. Transgender women are women; drag queens are men who perform as women.

But that’s part of why I like "Drag U" -- I think it sidesteps that mistake by focusing on teaching women to put on girl drag. The people who go on the show are mostly cisgender women, i.e. their gender identities match the bodies they were born with (although I did see one self-proclaimed “gender terrorist” who was so hot, oh my god, SO HOT). Many of them are already fairly feminine. But even when they go through the motions of femininity, they don’t play with it. They wear the uniform but not the costume.

That affliction, losing track of the fun of performing your identity, can strike anyone regardless of chromosomes and regardless of gender. Being a woman doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with being born XX -- but being a queen doesn’t need to have anything to do with either.

"Drag U" skips right past the question of whether gender is a social construct (though I think I can guess what its position would be), and tackles the question of whether gender is something you can overinflate and climb inside, like an extra-fabulous Macy’s balloon. “There’s chromosomes,” the show is basically saying, “and then there’s gender, and then there’s SPECTACLE.”

Unlike a "What Not To Wear"-style makeover show, the students at Drag U aren’t learning how to fall in line with style rules and gender roles. Nobody scolds them about what they’ve been doing “wrong,” and they don’t pick up any fashion tips they can take home, or at least that’s not the goal. The goal is to put on the costume of Ladyness like it was a giant wig, and to have that wig be so big that it explodes all the boundaries you’ve set on yourself, and to learn how to dance in that wig and have it be a part of you. Is this metaphor weird? I’m kind of drunk on panda mystery (not wine anymore, that wore off). I just really like this show.

Anyway, back while the wine was still in effect, I was thinking it had been a long time since I had seriously busted out on girl stuff. I used to feel like I was in some kind of drag all the time; the things I wore, the way I presented myself, even the way I walked was chosen day to day depending on the image I wanted to project. It wasn’t always girl drag, and it wasn’t always boy drag either -- sometimes it was just goth drag, or respectable citizen drag (the hardest of all!). But I didn’t go out without a costume.

I still feel that way sometimes, but lately I’ve been feeling like Zoidberg without his shell, just kind of naked and neutered and vaguely offputting. I work at home, so most days I’m wearing too-big jeans, a T-shirt, my hoodie from my college fencing team, and 12 ounces of dog hair. I guess you could argue that’s “freelancer drag,” but not convincingly. It’s mostly just stuff that keeps me from being nude when I walk the dog.

So, inspired by all the "Drag U" ladies, I dug up a fancy dress and some makeup (I’ve gotten rid of most of my old clubbing stuff, but I still have some hardcore makeup for belly dance shows -- which are currently my only opportunity to dress in girl drag). I couldn’t find my false eyelashes, but I did find a ratty wig from a past Halloween.

This last was hot, uncomfortable and kept sticking to my lip gloss, but the second I put it on I looked less like a dressed-up woman and more like a queen. I was prettier without a mass of nylon on my head, but pretty isn’t really the point here; the point is inhabiting and celebrating an exaggerated version of femininity, and that means a fancy head-suit. (And it certainly doesn’t mean frizzy unwashed hair like I had underneath. Like I said: husband gone, work from home.)

What did I do? Took some grainy pictures (WHY IS MY CAMERA SO BAD), danced around a bit (mainly Robyn), then ate some pink ice cream with a tiny spoon. It seemed like the thing to do. But mostly I got to remind myself what it’s like when femininity isn’t a command performance, but a star turn. It was a little like my old ways of being in costume, but less like armor, and more like play.

Gender can be a real slog, especially for people who live outside it or whose gender doesn’t match up with what society sees, but also for cisgender women who are trying to be pretty and stylish and slender and luminous and clear-skinned and shiny-haired and beautifully bedecked while keeping enough brain power left over for anything else. It’s nice to be able to treat it like a game of dress-up, something you put on not because you have to but because it’s part of the character you play. I think everyone should have that option if they want it, whether they’re boys or girls or otherwise.