Gender and Sexuality:
critical identity studies
U.S. popular entertainment
online and digital media
What a Drag! Redefining Gender-Bending as Discourse and Practice (under contract with Indiana University Press). What a Drag! reveals the gap between complex, nuanced gender-bending acts and our common discourses about them. Language that describes gender-bending is almost always grounded in bi-sex essentialism. For example, we often say a drag queen reveals gender as construction by performing femininity when he is, in actuality, a man. This illuminates gender as flexible but fails to acknowledge how binary sex is also a category that bodies are socially assigned to. What a Drag! explores four cases of US gender-bending: male impersonation in variety and vaudeville (1868–1920), sexless mythical characters by El Teatro Campesino’s teatristas (1968–1980), the butch realness of queer Black nightclub performers (1920–1969), and contemporary drag kinging in California (2008–2012). These cases ultimately demonstrate how gender-bending acts can be more complicated than our current language accounts for, and often more transgressive than our words reveal. What A Drag! offers two solutions: first, a method of addressing social sex without foregrounding it as embodied truth. Second, an discursive analytic that focuses on naming and analyzing various ways identity may be theatrically bent.
This project is an investigation into what I call “drag discourses” in entertainment media. I scrutinize how words and ideas associated with certain traditional or specific forms of drag are levied more broadly, often to explain public forms of gender variance. My first inquiry is into the use of “drag queen” and other theatrical drag terms to describe highly feminine celebrities Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, or identified women who work as male models. This initial work has been published in Feminist Media Studies. My second inquiry is into how the historically situated drag ball term “realness” has been co-opted by popular media, most notably RuPaul’s Drag Race. In the urban drag ball scene, “realness” is the physical representation of a cisgender and heterosexual character. In Drag Race realness means fierce confidence and a gag-worthy drag look. In short, realness no longer means real. Marlon Bailey’s work on the Detroit ball scene describes how poor queers of Color develop realness to unmark their bodies in dangerous public spaces. The commercial commodification of realness erases these important racial and socioeconomic distinctions. I’m presenting this work at the upcoming Popular Culture Association/American Cultural Association national conference.
RuPaul: “She was doing this realness thing.” […]
Michelle: “I don’t want real; I want a drag queen.”
RuPaul’s Drag Race, Season 6, Episode 7