Drag queens and divas: performing confidence

Men have been dressing as women for the purposes on entertainment for hundreds of years. The female roles of Shakespeare’s plays were performed by boys with unbroken voices, the traditional pantomime calls for a male performer to play the female dame character and one of Robin Williams’ most iconic roles was a drag performance – namely, Mrs Doubtfire (Chris Columbus, 1993). Even my favourite film of all time – Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) – follows a storyline in which the two main male characters adopt female personas. However, as well as being a long-time form of entertainment, drag performance represents the fluidity of gender and the freedom to express who you truly are – or who you wish the world to see you as.

1958 - Tony Curtis & Jack Lemmon - "Some Like It Hot", directed by Billy Wilder & also starring Marilyn Monroe & George Raft.:

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as Josephine and Daphne in Some Like It Hot (1959)

Drag as a style of performance is typically associated in modern culture with the key element of cross-dressing, in which a person of one gender masquerades as the other through clothing, hair, make-up and the stereotypical mannerisms of the opposite gender. This defines the most common notion of drag, but gender theorists such as Judith Butler have defined drag in a wider and more common sense, wherein the way in which we present ourselves both through our appearance and our behavior hold particularly gendered semiotics that create a particular identity due to socially accepted signs that correspond with each sex.

These opposing definitions of drag on contemporary culture allow for a wider exploration of drag in relation to the performative and performativity, an exploration that leads away from its pop culture associations and investigates the claim that “It’s all drag”.

To examine drag, one must first explore it in the form in which it is most culturally relevant, by means of entertainment through performance – the form instantly recognisable to anyone who’s watched Ru Paul’s Drag Race. In its most popular and obvious sense, a drag performance is made up of a performer dressed in a costume that represents the opposing gender of that of the performer, with hair and make up to match this chosen gender. All elements of this costume are typically exaggerated to emphasise the masculine or feminine traits intended by the costume, which is then furthered through the behaviour exhibited through the performer. Here, novelty is created through the juxtaposition of signs and semiotics; the audience is aware that the performer is a male, yet this gendering is confused by the female-gendered signs of the costume, make up, hair and behaviour.  It is this novelty that allows for drag in this sense to be a form of entertainment, by means of the human fascination with anything that is different from the socially accepted norm. Drag performance in this sense “can only be understood through reference to what is barred from the signifier within the domain of corporeal legibility”[1], meaning that its very denotation is created through the clash of signifiers, signs that have been so deeply ingrained in us through modern society that they become novel when questioned in such a way as drag performance. In doing this, a drag performer creates a new reality, an extra-semiotic reality in which the performer’s gender is chosen by them rather than them being ‘boxed in’ by the sex assigned to them by society.

What other people think about me is none of my business.:

The queen of modern drag culture, RuPaul

Here performativity can be related directly to drag performance in the concept that it is a facade put on by someone – in this case, the performer – in order to evoke meaning from others. The difference is that a performance comes from the self awareness that a ‘show’ is being put on of repeated signifiers in order to create meaning of some kind, whereas performativity is an element of behaviours that appears to be a part of human nature and “the construction of social reality including gender and race”[2].  Self awareness here meaning that the drag artist is fully aware of their own actions; they are aware that they are dressed in clothes and are behaving in manner socially opposed to their biological gender. These behaviours that generate this self aware performance are created through a conscious selection and juxtaposition of masculine and feminine performatives that make up society’s gendered norms. When examined in this sense, the conclusion can be drawn that drag performance creates performance through performativity, thus clashing the two definitions in such a way that mirrors the clash of genders that makes the very art of drag. Because that’s exactly what drag is – drag is art.

This idea of drag constructing another reality in which gender is fluid but sex is rigid can be supported by Judith Butler’s work on gender performativity. Rudimentarily, there are simply two genders – male and female – which offer a binary sexing of society -“When a child is born, a quick glance between the legs determines the gender label that the child will carry for life.”[3] – but this label only refers to the sex of the child, and this is entirely biological – of course, transgender people are born as the wrong sex and therefore this definition does not apply to them. What is interchangeable however – and is proven by the very art of drag – is a person’s gender. Gender is created through the signs and semiotics linked to the person’s clothes, behaviour and general presentation, as determined by what meaning these elements hold in their society.

Whereas some people conform to their socially expected gender constructs, others feel freedom in their ability to have a ‘one’ self that “goes to the wardrobe of gender, decides with deliberation which gender it will be today”. The “deliberation’ here referred to by Judith Butler in her work on gender performativity offers a clear link to the self awareness of a drag performer’s choices, supporting its definition as performance. This idea of a ‘wardrobe of gender’ also offers a possible new reason behind a drag artist’s choice to choose their gender as a juxtaposition to their biological sex; they may be rebelling through their choice of clothes, simply breaking the social construct of gender norms through their performativity of gendered semeiotics of costume in order to express freedom and a message that one does not have to conform to the sex or gender one was born with.  The choice before them by way of a range of clothing with a range of meaning simply gives a performer a wider selection of options as to what message they wish to communicate with their appearance.

In constructing their own extra-semiotic reality, a drag performer constructs a new identity through performatives. These performatives – in the example of a male performer dressing in female clothing and acting with what is accepted as female behaviour – are then accepted by the spectator as being true to an element the performer’s own self, due to the constituent of repetition supported by the social meaning held by the performative elements.

The iconic film Paris Is Burning (Jenny Livingstone, 1990) chronicles the New York drag scene of the late twentieth century, centering on a number of homosexual and transgender performers who find release in the art of drag, specifically drag balls in which each performer is judged on the ‘realness’ of their drag. This ‘realness’ is rewarded by the performer being given a ‘legendary’ status amongst the drag community, therefore highlighting the importance of creating a believable drag act. This meaning believable in the sense that the performatives here displayed by the artist’s behaviour, routine and costume all construct the intended gender. This need and want to appear as feminine as possible is made clear through Livingston’s interviews with the key figures of the drag ball world; “I don’t feel like there’s anything mannish about me, except maybe what I might have between me down there, which is my little personal thing” – Venus Xtravangaza.

The fact that Venus – one of the transgender performers of the late 20th century New York drag scene – here refers to her penis as her own “personal thing” shows a clear disconnection from her sex, instead relying on her gender to feel freedom to be her true self. Venus Xtravaganza is shown in the film to be saving money for gender reassignment surgery in order to match her gender identity to her biological self, therefore being able to “feel complete” as a female. In the meantime, Venus instead uses the female signifiers of feminine clothing, makeup and behaviour in order to create an identity of how she wants to be seen – as a woman – even if this is not the biological case. Sadly, Venus was never able to experience this freedom to be her true biological self, as she was murdered in 1988 by an unknown killer.

Paris is Burning - Film Review - Running in Heels:

Venus Xtravaganza photographed in 1987

Her story however highlights the release that drag as an art form holds for gender queer people, and how the fluidity of gender performativity allows for an extra-semiotic reality to be created in which a person may select their own performatives in order to construct an alternate ‘self’ that they feel comfortable in being. Paris Is Burning “induces a kind of semiotic daze”[6] that displays each performer’s want to appear ‘real’ in their alternate drag persona. The film supports RuPaul’s statement that drag is “to fit a preconceived notion of how you wanna be seen”[7]– the personalities focused on in Paris Is Burning all want to be seen as people who can survive and be accepted in a “white rich world”[8]. With the knowledge that they won’t be accepted as their true selves – a truth made horrifically clear with Venus’ murder during filming – drag artists “go to the wardrobe of gender and decides with deliberation”[9] which performatives they wish to display in order to construct the image they want the world to see them as, so they can “erase all the mistakes, all the flaws….to make [the] illusion perfect.”[10]

Paris Is Burning offers an insight into drag performance as a way in which performers can create an alternate identity through their own chosen signs and signifiers in order to ‘become’ a new person, an ideal version of them self. Here the statement “Everything you put on is to fit a preconceived notion of how you wanna be seen” by Ru Paul becomes particularly relevant, and can also offer an alternative way of viewing the basic concept of drag. If taken as a form of performativity rather than performance – in the case that it is a series of repeated signs that have socially accepted meanings – drag can be investigated as an alternative means of looking at star persona.

In Dickie Beau’s 2010 show Blackouts, Beau parodied iconic film stars Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland in order to reveal their other ‘real’ self; the side that they did not wish to be seen by the public. This exploration by Beau through the drag element of cross dressing also reveals the other possible side of drag. If the very basis of drag is using signs and semiotics that are culturally accepted and hold a particular meaning to masquerade as something other than the ‘truth’, why can’t this be applicable to a more real life situation than the stages of LGBT bar rooms in the late twentieth century? Using the Hollywood personas of Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe as foundations, an argument could be formed that, just like the drag queens of Paris Is Burning, these icons also disguised their ‘true selves’ with “an outfit to project an image” of how they wanted to be seen, rather than what they actually are. Essentially, Monroe and Garland used drag just as much as RuPaul.

Many drag artists have spoken of a certain distinction between the personality of performers as their everyday ‘real’ self and their personality once in drag and about to perform. Beau has claimed that, in his experience starting out in the drag scene, he almost didn’t recognise some of his fellow performers once out of costume and out of character, due to their unassuming selves offstage contrasting so greatly from their exaggerated drag selves. This element of drag performers can be read in relation to Richard Dyer’s star theory, even though it is intended for the analysis of cinema stars. Dyer’s theory explores the idea that the viewers’ perception is heavily influenced by the reading of its stars, this perception being built on appearance, behaviour and a number of other elements that are constructed in such a manner that “A star is an image, not a real person that is constructed out of a range of materials”.


Dickie Beau performing in Blackouts, 2010

This idea of a film star simply being the result of a number of constructed images being placed together in order to achieve a particular effect of how the star wants to be envisaged draws a number of parallels with the construct of performatives by a drag artist to create their own persona, separate to their everyday life. The application of performatives to convey a particular image whilst in their alternate persona is something which is found in drag as well as in cinema stars, drawing the conclusion that it could be said that film stars – with juxtaposing on screen and off screen personas – are in drag too.

Just like the drag queens of Paris Is Burning, classic film stars had particular expectations they felt they had to live up to in order to be a part of society. In the case of Marilyn Monroe, she was transformed upon her start in Hollywood from the brunette Norma Jeane Mortenson to the blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe in order to fit the ‘dumb blonde’ character the studios boxed her into. This was an image that was constructed through use of performatives in order to appeal to what the audience of 20th Century American society wished to see, even if it was a false guise. “She comes out of the dressing room Norma Jeane. When she stepped in front of the camera, she was Marilyn”[15] – Marilyn Monroe’s apparent transformation from one personality to the other once on or off stage is highly similar to that of a drag queen – just like a drag performer, Marilyn Monroe ‘became’ her character once there was an audience to perceive this extra-semiotic reality.

Here RuPaul’s claim of ”Any performer who puts on an outfit to project an image is in drag.”[16] becomes relevant, and can be explored in comparison to Marilyn Monroe’s iconic image of blonde hair, red lips and a white dress. These signifiers created Monroe’s image of an erotic innocence, the white connoting innocence and the red implying sexuality. This image was carefully constructed in order to project the image of the ‘bombshell’ in order to attract audiences. In this sense, the fact that Monroe ‘put on’ a particular kind of behaviour and appearance in order to project this particular image infers that she too was in a form of drag.

In the construct of an alternate persona through chosen performatives, a certain confidence can be achieved, in the mask that you can become anyone else simply with the appropriate performatives. Again, this raises the question of performance and performativity, and in the case of star persona in relation to drag, this can be explored using Dickie Beau’s use of the term ‘fabulation’. Originally intended for use in relation to novels, Beau has take the term ‘fabulation’ to mean “the function proper to art, which projects in to the world images so intense that they take on a life of their own.” In this case, the images projected by Marilyn Monroe’s star persona were so powerful that they did indeed take on a life of their own, so much so that it is now highly difficult to separate the Marilyn Monroe of the screen from the Norma Jeane Mortenson behind the image, despite the fact that the Marilyn known to the world is so far removed from her true self.

Drag is not merely confined to the performance of men dressing as women, as is widely thought of in popular culture. The very essence of performatives, particularly gender performatives, being fluid and able to be selected gives scope to a number of other definitions of drag, some of which merely being everyday life choices, choices such as clothing. Drag is merely a self awareness behind the performatives a particular person chooses, with awareness as to what message they will give to the spectator. Although drag in the sense of RuPaul “…is just more glamorous”, this does not mean that drag cannot be found in a variety of forms in everyday life, and in a variety of mediums, such as in the star personas of cinematic icons.

Everyone has an inner drag queen, and whether you express this in the fabulous gender bending fashions as seen on RuPaul or simply in choosing the elements that allow you to present a more confident self, the most important message of drag culture is be yourself, no matter who you are.

[1] Butler, J. (2011). Critically Queer. In: Butler, J Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. Oxon: Routledge Classics. p179.

[2] Schechner, R (2013). Performance Studies: An Introduction. 3rd ed. Oxton: Routledge. p123.

[3] Brill, S. (2014). Understanding Gender. Available: https://www.genderspectrum.org/understanding-gender. Last accessed 8th May 2014.

[4] Paris Is Burning. (1990). Film. Directed by Jennie Livingston. United States: Miramax Films.

[5] Venus Xtravaganza quoted in Paris Is Burning. (1990). Film. Directed by Jennie Livingston. United States: Miramax Films.


[6] Rafferty, T. (2007). The Film File: Paris Is Burning. Available: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/reviews/film/paris_is_burning_livingston. Last accessed 12th May 2014.

[7] RuPaul as quoted in Baker, R (1994). Drag: A History of Female Impersonation in the Performing Arts. New York: New York University Press.

[8] [8] Paris Is Burning. (1990). Film. Directed by Jennie Livingston. United States: Miramax Films

[9] Butler, J. (2011). Critically Queer. In: Butler, J Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. Oxon: Routledge Classics. p179.

[10] Paris Is Burning. (1990). Film. Directed by Jennie Livingston. United States: Miramax Films.


[11] RuPaul as quoted in Baker, R (1994). Drag: A History of Female Impersonation in the Performing Arts. New York: New York University Press.

[12] http://www.dickiebeau.com/Dickie_Beau/Blackouts.html

[13] Beau, D. (2014) ‘Week 10: Guest Speaker – Dickie Beau’ DRAM10002 Theatre and Performance: Concepts.

[14] Dyer, R (1979). Stars. 2nd ed. Basingstoke: British Film Institute.

[15] Schiller, L. (2012). A Splash of Marilyn. Available: http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2012/06/marilyn-monroe-nude-photos-exclusive. Last accessed 12th May 2014.

[16] RuPaul as quoted in Baker, R (1994). Drag: A History of Female Impersonation in the Performing Arts. New York: New York University Press.

[18]RuPaul as quoted in Baker, R (1994). Drag: A History of Female Impersonation in the Performing Arts. New York: New York University Press.


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