Drag, Societal Identity, and Gender Equality
by Leah Koontz
BiProduct is a project I embarked on which considers drag queens, art, female expectations, and the media. This series features four of my works which address gender roles, equality, and social construction. BiProduct features sculpture and performance, created from nylon, spandex, foam, digital media, and plastic. Drag Queens possess many progressive qualities. However, I feel that certain aspects of Drag should require more careful consideration. Over the past two decades, drag has transformed tremendously. What exactly is drag in 2013?
A drag queen is a man, usually homosexual, creating a female illusion through clothing and performance. This illusion ends when the costume comes off. There are many genres and subgenres of drag. Not every drag queen agrees or identifies with all of the categories and genres that have been named. Some queens do not approve of various terms that are currently used in certain gay communities. Sometimes these categories can divide the drag community, which some feel is unproductive. Certain genres of drag queens aim to be “fishy,” meaning as close to a biological woman’s aesthetics as possible. Other genres are more “androgynous.” This genre relies on gender bending, the act of confusing preconceived notions. There are many types of drag. Check out Misty’s definitions of drag genres:
In the eighties, the gay rights movement took off, and drag queens began to hold drag balls in Harlem, NY. These balls were a place for drag queens to come and express themselves. This was a positive alternative to drugs, prostitution, and becoming an HIV statistic. Due to the prejudice that the gay community experienced for existing outside of what mainstream society thinks of as normal, many gay individuals lived in poverty and were forced into living undesirable lifestyles. This set up a standard where it was nearly impossible for those who identified as gay to be treated as equals.
The work that drag queens do can be a productive rebellion and commentary against patriarchal society. When a man dresses as a woman, he is making a brave choice to exist outside of what is considered normal. He is, therefore, broadening the definition of normality. Drag queens perform as females and an androgynous queen potentially be identifying with both sexes during their performances. This is accomplishing new realms of possibilities for the roles of gender in society. Female illusion empowers women and allows femininity to be positive and celebrated instead of oppressed.
Some forms of drag exhibit qualities which I think should be seen as fine art. Contemporary art is valued for its aesthetics as well as its ability to educate and push the audience to think critically. Androgynous drag helps us progress and serves as an art medium manifesting itself to make important statements. This is not just art for art’s sake; drag accomplishes the unique goal of being true to itself and making social commentary at the same time. The alluring visuals of a queen’s costume and makeup reinforce whatever concept that they are addressing. These queens are able to achieve their goal through simply being their character, which serves as the art medium. Drag that is androgynous blurs the idea of what is feminine and what is masculine. In doing this, we reach the conclusion that we cannot separate the two and privilege specific ideas within these categories.
Performance drag should be viewed as fine art as well. Many queens in this genre implement criticality and magnificent aesthetics in their performances. Drag queen Sharon Needles, who is from Pittsburg and was popularized on Season Four of RuPaul’s Drag Race, is known for his controversial and critical performances, as well as his spooky androgynous drag looks. Needles’s performances greatly consider context; he carefully thinks about the space and audience before the performance. Pre-Ru Paul, Needles had been known to dress up like a blond female Nazi and lip-sync to Walt Disney songs during his performances. This caused great deal of controversy but as a Jew I do not find myself offended. In this performance, Needles is outing Disney for being anti-Semitic, while making a mockery of Adolf Hitler. Needles shows his careful consideration (he is not just being controversial for the sake of it) by using his identity as a drag queen performing in controversial costumes to point out the absurdity of Hitler’s frightening ideas. Needles is relying on his open minded audience (they are there to see a drag queen after all) to understand this message. Some of these scary ideas are the Aryan race, the final solution, and the idea that any human being could be less than another. I think Needles is also making a comment on the lack of civil rights and equality in America today, especially for to women and the gay community. He stated that he is not “just wearing these things for no reason.” Oftentimes during performances, Needles speaks about uplifting those who are not accepted in society:
Drag should be considered fine art for its alluring visuals. Needles has previously based his illusions or looks off of women who have had excessive amounts of plastic surgery. Some of these have included bandaging and even a syringe, which is held up to his lips and used to mimic collagen being injected. I feel that this is intense commentary that shows the pressure that the media places on body image. This pushes an unrealistic idea of beauty onto ] society. People should be able to choose what they want to do with their own body, and not feel forced into anything. This artwork reminds us of the controversial performances of Orlan, a woman who has committed herself to a life of repetitive plastic surgeries in the name of art. Orlan’s project and its place in the art world are often debated within the art community, while the work of Sharon Needles is not even on the radar of most people in the fine art community. Needles makes advanced and sophisticated artistic critiques, which are being overlooked by the art world.
In my art, I explore questions surrounding female expectation and equality. I think critically about drag queens and their role in this conversation. This can be understood through the works’ formal qualities. BiProduct Photos from Performance documents a one-hour performance, which is done in solitude. BiProduct: Containment was created first; it showcases a clear glass jar containing excess foam, which was made from the process of sculpting foam pieces from other works in the series.
BiProduct Performative Objects was created during the one-hour performance. This piece consists of the nylon and foam wearable products that were used during the performance. These are now installed as an empty skin on the wall. Separately from these works, BiProduct: Pile was made, and these sculptures are responsive to the other works in the series. BiProduct: Pile is wrapped with a range of neutrally colored spandex, which wrinkles and restricts around the foam.
BiProduct aims to examine some of the sub genres of drag and break down the commentary that particular categories may make about women in relation to society. In “BiProduct: 40 Images from Performance,” I apply a sculpted idealized padding, created from foam, to my body. Padding is a practice done by some drag queens in which foam inserts are applied to the body in order to obtain an idealized female form.
My padding is applied directly after binding my torso in a duct tape corset and casing the rest of my body in restrictive nylon and spandex. This is also a practice observed by some queens to achieve a feminine body. Next, I spread bright drag-inspired makeup onto my face. I then dress in loud revealing clothing to finally create my version of the overly idealized female through the lens of a drag queen.
This is not an acceptable way of viewing women. Placing importance on the physical body over intellect is offensive. It is important not to flatten women into one dimensional beings. BiProduct explains to the audience the dangers that come along with stereotyping of women, members of the gay community, and, in particular, drag queens.
The negative view of these groups is socially constricted and perpetuated by the media’s reinforcement of negative stereotypes, and old-fashioned ideas. It is not only unnecessary, but also harmful for anyone to participate in the advancement of negative ideas, particularly from one marginalized group to another.
BiProduct uses materiality that is raw, neutral, and tactile to reinforce its ideas of body image, social construction, and expectation. These materials are both visually exuberant, as well as stale and muted in color.
This allows the project to discuss both the positive and negative sides of this conversation. In doing this, the conversation between drag queens and women is promoted as important. This is essential in order for both parties to grow and make progress toward equality. The constructive process directly references the notion of a constructed norm. Its raw immediacy and materiality recalls something which is void of preconceived notions or attachments. This forces the viewer to consider societal expectations and social acceptance.
The idea of hypocrisy is closely considered in BiProduct, especially relating to drag queens and women. The project highlights genres of drag that depict women in a stereotypical light which might present a limited understanding of femininity. BiProduct also considers genres of drag which are portraying a more progressive illusion. The objects in BiProduct are representative of female body parts which, in turn, objectifies women. This points out how objectification is manifesting itself in many places within western society, including the drag community. For the majority of our community, men control the way women are viewed. The notion of an ideal body constructed through the male criteria reinforces the idea that a woman should be valued through male criteria. This removes women’s power and forces unrealistic, negative expectations of women in society.
Drag that reinforces negative views of women shows one-dimensional characters and values the physical over the intellectual. In this case, the individuals depicting this view are promoting one minority and demoting another. This is not as successful as a drag queen that can promote minorities and deconstruct socially constructed norms. Often times, we can participate in contributing to these stereotypes if we are not self-aware.
While critiquing the narrow definition of femininity, BiProduct also challenges drag which perpetuates outdated ideas. It also begins a conversation about the topic at large situated in the context of related issues. It is important that all groups of people be viewed as equal and that society participates in taking action to make this a reality.
Leah Koontz grew up in Louisville, Colorado near the foot of the Rocky Mountains. In the early 2000s she moved to Philadelphia, where she lives now. With the support of her amazing family, she was able to connect with her love for art. Currently she attends Moore College of Art and Design where she is majoring in Fine Art and minoring in Curatorial Studies. She expects to receive her BFA in 2014. Leah spends her time creating art, reading books, protesting patriarchy, and of course attending local drag shows.