Monday, 6 June 2016

Drag and the potential to fuck with the binary

I'm an *unofficial* drag king. Unofficial because I've never performed on stage before, only dressed up in front of my bathroom mirror. I'm also a queer woman - more specifically, a butch, non-binary woman swaying towards androgyny and confused as fuck about gender. It's easy for me to understand why I like to do drag: I challenge the notions of gender, drag challenges the notions of gender. It makes sense to me to paint on a fake beard and try to pose in a "more masculine way" whilst taking selfies of a face that isn't mine anymore. I like to be in character. It's fun and challenging. It pushes society's binaries, and it pushes my own binaries.

Drag has been around for centuries: this idea of dressing up as another gender, performing the worst stereotypes of that gender with satire and wit. It's nothing new, but in the past few years it's been having a resurgence in the UK, particularly in London, and particularly when we talk about drag kings. With nights like Man Up and Bar Wotever and Boi Box attracting drag kings, and Kings - the UK's first drag king bar - opening in Manchester, drag kings are becoming "mainstream" in queer culture in a way I haven't witnessed before. I am very young, so this just takes into account my experiences, but I do sense a general growth and acceptance of drag culture. And I really do think drag king culture is on the rise.

So what's so great about drag? For me, it's great because it challenges traditional notions of gender by taking the piss out of traditional gender roles/expectations. Drag has a distinctly comical element to it - its purpose is to poke fun at what we expect when we think of gender, and challenge traditional ideas with humour, exaggeration and wit. It's really freeing for someone like me because it allows me to explore and experiment with my own gender identity. I've always loved painting my face and putting on a costume, and drag let's me do that - and more. It helps me play with my own gender identity and expression through performance, and that helps me understand better how I feel about my own gender when I'm not performing too.

Aside from the personal reasons, I really do believe that one of the most important things about drag is its queerness. Drag is a staple of queer culture, a celebration of queer culture, and a queer bonding exercise. When I go to drag king nights now, the audience is predominantly made up of queer women, and non-binary people. And a night like Bar Wotever - for example - gives people of all different genders a space to laugh, dance and socialise, whether they are performing drag or watching it.

However, even though I've just said all this positive stuff, I think it would be wrong for me to write a post about drag without talking about the problems too. I think historically drag has been quite problematic - especially the notion of drag queens. For male-identifying people to dress up as, and ridicule women, in the context of a patriarchal society, has never sat comfortably with me. When considering the structural oppression of women, is it really okay for guys to act out all the worst stereotypes about women as a bonding exercise? Is it really okay for men to put on the costume of "woman" without evoking any male privilege, only to shed it at the end of the night? I'm not suggesting that drag kings shouldn't exist - I'm just saying that maybe we need to have discussions within the drag community about how we can mess with ideas of gender without reinforcing sexist stereotypes about women.

And then there's the problem of reinforcing the gender binary - drag has always traditionally been men acting as women or women acting as men... but where does this leave non-binary folk? Are we reinforcing the gender binary by suggesting there are only two "takes" on gender? I think we are. And I think this is something that needs to change. How can we celebrate queerness through drag - the very aim of which is to "queer" ideas of gender - if we're still doing drag in such a binary way?

Luckily, there are signs of drag reshaping itself and becoming a more inclusive, more reflective force. In recent years, with the resurgence, comes the beginnings of a drag model for the future. The rise of the king is a part of this, so is the rise of women as drag queens. We're looking at moving towards a new kind of drag: one that accepts any gender to dress up as any gender, with the purpose of ridiculing notions of masculinity and femininity. This is the future of drag. This is the drag I want to see, and I think so many people want to see. And more importantly - it's a drag which is necessary. After all, how can we challenge the gender binary if we actively reinforce it?

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