Blackface is evil — why isn’t drag?

‘Why is it unacceptable for white people to dress up as black, but harmless fun when men dress up as women?’

Magazine Spare Rib
Rupaul's Drag Race UK (©BBC/ World Of Wonder. Photographer: Guy Levy)

Not just feet of clay, but a faceful. Justin Trudeau went into Canada’s election on October 21st amid a row about his past penchant for applying black and brown make-up in the name, supposedly, of a laugh. The contrast between past blackface and current carefully cultivated wokeface was sharp. But the prime minister’s right-wing adversary, Maxime Bernier of the Canadian People’s Party, raised a question that has troubled feminists for a while. Why is it blatantly unacceptable for white people to dress up as black or brown, but harmless fun when men dress up as women? Aren’t drag queens effectively doing womanface? In a month when the BBC splurged publicity on RuPaul’s Drag Race UK (pictured, right) the question deserves attention here too.

In a 2014 article in Feminist Current, Meghan Murphy argues that just as white people in blackface appropriate exaggerated cultural stereotypes of ethnicity in order to mock black people, drag queens mock women by appropriating exaggerated cultural stereotypes of womanhood. These include hairstyles, make-up, nails, dresses and supposedly feminised traits like “cattiness”. Worse, just as white people who don blackface typically have whiteness-related privileges that black people lack, drag queens typically have male-related privileges that women lack.

So do drag queens mock women? Individual intent is less relevant than it might seem. In his defence, Trudeau rightly avoided talking about whether he had intended to mock anyone, referring instead to racism he didn’t see at the time. The real question, raised by Murphy, is if drag has a mocking cultural meaning beyond its practitioners’ intentions. In fact, drag often isn’t directed towards humour at all. In his book The Changing Room, historian Laurence Senelick describes the antecedents of modern drag: shamanism, aimed at ends like divination and the expulsion of spirits, and various stylized forms of theatre, such as Japanese Kabuki and English Elizabethan. Even so, he does little to dislodge the suspicion that drag is very often misogynistic. “[T]he contaminating reality of woman was to be sublimated by means of abstract, masked impersonation”; “The perfect universe of poetic illusion is best configured by a youth in women’s garb, rather than a girl in men’s clothes”; and “women in local theatre troupes . . . faded into the background because they were being women, rather than playing women” are just a few sentences from the book.

The central question is whether drag’s modern, Western, humorous incarnation has a misogynistic, mocking cultural meaning. I think it does. As with blackface, a fundamental source of humour operates independently of any wittiness, observation, or timing. Namely: a white person as a black person, or a man as a woman, is found by audiences to be hilariously incongruent, given the presumed superior social status of the performers relative to the “inferior” groups they respectively impersonate. The temporary, assumed degradation of a performer’s status is in itself funny. This explains why drag kings—women performing as men—or black people playing white people, are not usually found funny at first sight, though witty or well-observed material may make them so. It also explains the outcome of the following thought experiment: for any given drag performance, an identical performance, though this time given by what the audience knew to be a woman underneath equally heavy make-up and sequins, would not be as funny.

Some in the gender studies field argue that drag queens positively “queer” gender: that is, they subvert otherwise rigid cultural binaries that would put men and masculinity on one side, and women and femininity on the other, and assign heterosexuality to both of them. The philosopher Judith Butler argues (jargon alert): “Parodic proliferation deprives hegemonic culture and its critics of the claim to naturalised or essentialist gender identities.” Yet drag has been around for millennia, and the binaries still look pretty stable to me. Far from drag queens making it more acceptable for men to exhibit femininity, in the UK at least it seems rather to have become more acceptable for young women to look like drag queens. I am not sure if that is much of an advance.

A further problem with Butler’s thesis is that contemporary drag queens tend to aim for humour, and humour is often highly conservative. Many jokes depend on shared norms between the performer’s persona and the audience, in order to subvert those norms for comic effect. But usually the subversion is only temporary, and purely instrumental—to produce the belly laugh, leaving the norms untouched, and arguably even reinforced by the enjoyably cathartic experience. The laugh reveals, at least to others, if not to its owner, the structure of prejudices but does not challenge them. Much laughter towards drag queens depends on, and simultaneously nurtures, the attitude that a man can be made to look preposterous by dressing up as a woman, but not vice versa.

Performers can and do use creativity and intelligence to try to work subversively against drag’s inbuilt reactionary grain. To that end, they may call upon its long, rich history for inspiration, to quote or satirise. (As Ru Paul has said: “I don’t dress like a woman, I dress like a drag queen”.) The fact remains, though, that in uncreative hands, drag collapses all too quickly into “look at the silly man in the dress”; with an accompanying persistent undertone of “aren’t women silly?”

If there can be non-misogynist drag, then the door is left open, in some distant but possible world, for a performance in blackface to challenge and genuinely subvert the racism in which actual cases of blackface, in our actual world, are thoroughly grounded. Those who reject this suggestion as outrageous need to explain why creative recuperation is eternally impossible for blackface, but not for drag. And the answer can’t simply be “because misogyny’s fine, but racism isn’t”.