“In a male dominated society, dressing as a woman can seem like treason.”
– RuPaul Charles
My favourite reality-contest-show-thing, RuPaul’s Drag Race – in all its glorious camp and absurdity – presents a perfect case to prove the feminine mystique. Drag performed with such professionalism and aptitude in the show, that it lays bare just how stereotypical stereotypes of women really are. These impersonations are often funny, melodramatic, and almost certainly bitchy, but somehow always seem directed with the highest affection and respect towards their female muses. The emphasis, it seems, is always to celebrate, not defame or criticise. Many drag artists say that the transformation from man to woman is empowering, and for some gay men who have suffered abuse from being themselves, becoming a different person entirely allows them a welcome escape from reality. In the same way that a lot of actors who say they are shy or lack self confidence often say that being able to play a character and inhabit someone else’s body gives them a sense of freedom.
As a biological woman it is really interesting to see how the opposite gender interprets my own. These interpretations are very often based on the most readily available templates: celebrities. Celebrities, as I’m sure I don’t really need to explain, are famous either for having some kind of talent or – more often today – for reasons no one is quite sure of. They are people who the media and their audience nominate as our spokespeople by pushing their fame higher. Either we find these people interesting because they are completely different from us or we see something of ourselves in them. Because of this, we both identify with and judge them at the same time. All of our insecurities and qualities that we see in ourselves can be pushed onto them. Using this idea we categorise them in terms of what stereotypes they embody to us: slutty, demure, quirky, beautiful, ugly, funny, skinny, fat, witty, sardonic, cruel, etc. They often come in opposites because we still believe we live in a binary world, or rather choose to believe we do, forgetting or ignoring the multiple shades of grey that come in between the black and white.
Subcultures like the Drag Queen world embody these grey shades. How do we define a man dressed as a woman? They call each other ‘she,’ they wear fake body parts or ‘padding,’ they ‘tuck’ their male genitalia out of sight, they adopt female names and alter egos, they walk differently, act differently and sometimes modulate their voices to sound more feminine. What it really boils down to is biology, which exemplifies the feminist ideal that everything else we define as feminine is artificial; imposed character traits that can be applied and disposed of as quickly as costumes. Make-up becomes a mask to hide or highlight while clothing and hair create shapes around and against the body to sculpt and define. Feminine behaviour and appearance we mistake as natural traits are proven to be copied from actresses, celebrities, and fictional caricatures who inhabit our pop cultural landscape who in turn have been shaped by classical art and literature. The cultural becomes political and the political becomes cultural.
“Gender is a failure. Everyone fails at it. If we didn’t, we would be done, we would be dead, we would be over.”
– Judith Butler
This all feeds into our gender divided view of society and we self-condition ourselves to conform for fear of judgement or lack of any other way to define ourselves. Categorisation is a coping strategy to help us navigate through our complex social structure. Of course it is a valid and understandable strategy, but in a postmodern – and eventually posthuman – world it needs to either be developed from binary to multiple; or eradicated entirely. I hope it is the latter because, as we are all aware, in order to categorise you must exclude; exclusion leads to subjugation; subjugation leads to oppression.
But don’t be fooled into thinking I am ‘anti-feminine.’ I don’t want to go around telling women to stop acting like women because, well, I like acting like a woman myself. Pretty dresses, make-up, heels, I love the whole shebang. Not all the time though – some days I love wearing an oversized boys t-shirt and a pair of trainers. The next day I might dress as a Japanese sailor. That’s what I’m saying about multiplicity: why self-define yourself as only one thing when you can reinvent yourself every day? I don’t want women to stop acting like women because they think its ‘traitorous’ to feminism; I want women to be aware and consider the fact that most of the ways they act and present themselves is culturally, socially, and politically defined, rather than naturally. This realisation may seem profoundly negative but it is in fact liberating. Think about it. If the rules of ‘being a woman’ don’t really exist, then that leaves space for every individual woman – or individual man dressing up as a woman – to make up their own rules for themself.
Take a queue from a Drag Queen. Think about who you are or who you want to be and become it. Own it. Don’t wear a skirt because you’re a woman; wear it because you’re a person who likes wearing a skirt. Flaunt your favourite bits of yourself because they’re your favourite bits, not anyone else’s. Gender is something to play and have fun with, not constrain and flagellate ourselves with. Watch one episode of Drag Race and you’ll see what I mean.
“One is not born a woman, but becomes one.”
– Simone de Beauvoir