Is drag sexist?

January 10, 2011

Entering the Greenhouse Theater last night, I was struck by the very obvious lack of pickets outside. Why, you ask, should there be pickets? Because inside there’s a man dressed in women’s clothing and pretending to be a woman—specifically, Lady Bracknell in "The Importance of Being Earnest."

If you think it would be ludicrous to protest such a thing, recall that when the Wooster Group brought "The Emperor Jones" to the Goodman several years ago, picketers showed up outside the theater because a white person was performing in blackface. That person was also a woman portraying a man, but no one cared about that: it was the blackface to which they took offense.

I happened to disagree, regarding that particular use of blackface as a case of deconstructing and attacking a cliche. But in general, my heart is on the picket line, and probably so is yours: performance in blackface is almost universally condemned. The most uncomfortable moment in the 2009 season of "Mad Men" involved a white character’s blacked-up minstrel imitation. Un-ironic blackface has been unacceptable on the American stage at least since the mid-1960s, when Ralph Ellison published an essay calling attention to the inherently insulting nature of the practice.

Which leads me to wonder: Why do we despise performance in blackface and celebrate performance in drag? Is blackface considered an insult and drag a joke because of some inherent difference between them, or because African-Americans won’t tolerate ridicule while the women’s movement is still trying to prove we have a sense of humor?

I’ve been pounding this drum for some years to no particular avail, but I’ll try again. Its defenders argue that drag is part of our heritage, an argument that proves too much if ever there was one. (Shall we return to slavery, too, or to the ban of women onstage?)

Then they argue that it’s funny. People used to think blackface was a riot, too: there’s a blackface scene in the original version of the Marx Brothers’ “Day at the Races” and another in “Holiday Inn.” Those scenes have been cut in light of contemporary sensibilities, and no one mourns their loss.

What’s so funny about drag, anyway? Maybe it’s the simple incongruity: you can always knock ‘em dead with chest hair pouring out of an evening gown’s cleavage. But this seems like a pretty thin joke on which to hang decades of amusement. Unless you think men are from Mars and women from Venus—that is, that differences in gender behavior are huge and immutable—the contrast doesn’t hold much interest. Certainly, the contrast between white performers and black characters was not enough in and of itself to make blackface funny. There had to be something else—and there was.

There was ridicule of African-Americans. “Look how silly they are! But look how they laugh, and doesn’t that prove they’re happy in the confinement in which we’ve placed them?” Likewise, men who dress up as women and adopt stereotyped feminine behaviors are comical because of their stereotyped behavior, and the inference the audience is encouraged to draw is not that stereotypes are comical but that women are.

Just as in blackface African-Americans were shown singing, or dancing, or being foolish, or longing for the old plantation, in drag women are shown nagging, or domineering, or primping, or longing for male protection. Each form even has two insulting “types.” Blackface offers Zip Coon (an urban dandy out of his depth) and Sambo (a shuffling rural fool), the first making fun of black people for being free and the second for being slaves. Drag presents the Glamor Girl and the Pantomime Dame, the first making fun of women for our sexuality and the second for our lack of it.

Even men who intend their performance as a tribute to women are claiming, accidentally-on-purpose, the continued right to show women how we’re expected to act. The original exponents of blackface intended their work as an homage to the unique folk culture of African-Americans, but that intention couldn’t protect the practice from the reasonable objection that one can’t honor people by stealing from them, and that imitation is the sincerest form of mockery.

Some defenders of drag claim it as a badge of gay pride. But most drag isn’t gay, at least not ostensibly. It’s mainstream (straight) comedy, from Lady Bracknell through Mrs. Doubtfire and Tootsie. Nor is there any reason why gay drag should be immune from criticism. Presumably it represents an effort to take the stigma of effeminacy and invert it; but it nonetheless demeans and insults women. No one argued we should preserve blackface because it was practiced on-screen largely by Jews, another marginalized group. We understood in that context that the issue was not the sensibilities of the people performing, but those of the people being performed. Why is the same point so hard to grasp in the context of drag?

Drag is, of course, scarcely the most important aspect of male discrimination against women. Nor was the elimination of Mr. Bones the most important victory of the civil rights struggle. But images do matter. The more white people “cover” black people, the less room there is for black people to speak for themselves. The more men present women, the harder it is for women to be understood for ourselves.

And if the complaint seems humorless, reflect on a poster from the days of second-wave feminism. Entitled “The women’s movement has no sense of humor,” the text consisted of a long list of items including “rape,” “unequal pay,” “clitoridectomy” and “domestic violence,” among others. Across the bottom was the question, “Just what is supposed to be so f***ing funny?”

Exactly. So what do you say—to the barricades?