What’s The Difference?

before and after picture of a drag queen

I’m about to write something that’s probably going to get me in a lot of trouble, but there’s no difference between blackface and drag. (That noise you just heard wasn’t thunder – it was all my gay friends running from the room in a rush to disown me.)

And just so we’re all clear up front, that means I think both of them are wrong and are “art” forms that need to be retired.

Blackface has been much in the news this week. Virginia governor Ralph Northam was discovered to have a picture of two guys, one in blackface and one in a Klan robe, on one of the two pages dedicated to him in his medical school yearbook. His first statement was infelicitously worded – apology, good; implication that one of those two racist white dudes might be him, no so good. After doing some digging, he came to the conclusion that neither dude IS him, BUT he had appeared in a dance contest around the same time as Michael Jackson in blackface (which is probably why he wasn’t comfortable immediately saying, “Neither of those guys is me, and I’m not even sure why the yearbook editor chose to put that photo there.”) Immediately on the heels of that revelation, Virginia AG Mark Herring (who had already called for Northam to resign) revealed that he, too, had donned a blackface costume, as rap legend Kurtis Blow, around the same time.

And it got me thinking about the connection between blackface and drag, which is something that’s been bugging me for a while.

For some history, Mary Cheney (Dick’s daughter) raised this same question in 2015, although her point was, unlike mine, blackface ought to be just fine, too. No, Mary, it shouldn’t. RuPaul posted a response video that, to me, really comes down to, “I like to do it and think it’s fun and fine, end of story.” That’s not an answer.

In today’s Washington Post, fashion writer Robin Givhan nods at this issue, but quickly dismisses it as even a possibility:

“Blackface, though, is more than drag. It’s a lot more than a thoughtless costume selection or fashion gone wrong. It’s painful, shared history, of course. But it’s also the horrible present. And it’s likely part of a crummy future. Blackface is denial and ignorance. It’s narcissism, willfulness and disdain.”

I’ve been to drag shows, although not for many years, and admired the beautiful costumes, elaborate makeup, and skilled singing and dancing. Then again, a hundred years ago, people would have said the same about minstrel shows.

I eagerly watched every episode of Pose. Elektra is gorgeous, driven, and charismatic. On the other hand (up until the very end of season one, when she redeems herself), she’s also an utterly selfish, demanding gold-digger.

Seems pretty disdainful to me.

I’ve watched RuPaul’s drag race, and laughed along with the antics of the contestants – bitchy cat fights, emotional outbursts, “mean girl” bullying, all leading up to the catharsis of “you go girl!” rallying around the winner.

Painful, shared history? Check.

“Well, they’re just getting to express the more ‘feminine’ parts of their inner selves that societal gender roles prevent them from expressing outside drag.”

Hm. Then why are the “feminine” parts of themselves that they’re expressing nearly all negative stereotypes of women? Bitchy. Catty. Shallow. Appearance-obsessed. Empty-headed. Consumed by trivia. Gold-digger. Easily distracted by shiny things, like birds or small children.

Quoting Givhan again: “It reduces identity to a pot of grease paint, to a joke.” Only she’s talking about blackface.

The thing is, I don’t care about the makeup – wear all the makeup and sequins you want (or not), male or female, any time and any where you want.

But drag shows and drag queens, at root, dredge up the worst stereotypes of what it means to be a woman.

Here are some positive stereotypes that drag could promote, if this wasn’t about mocking women and promoting the most demeaning takes on what it means to be a woman: Communal. Nurturing. Accommodating. Willing to compromise.

(Now I will say, Pose did some good work there, with the drag houses – or at least Blanca’s House of Evangelista – truly fulfilling the role of families for their members, who were mostly outcast from their families of origin.)

There’s a reason becoming aware of injustice and starting to fight it is called “woke” (much as that term has become an over-used cliche). It’s a process of waking up to inequities that everyone has assumed are just fine, but that, on further examination and after talking to the people negatively impacted, those who are getting “woke” realize are NOT just fine and are, in fact, harmful, no matter how innocuous or fun it seems to them, whether that’s donning blackface to dress as your favorite rapper for Halloween or promoting an exaggerated caricature of “femininity” for fame and fortune.

I don’t know why, in 2019, it’s still considered cute and funny and fun and harmless to mock and stereotype women, but there you have it.

Image found here.

Like what you read? Follow me on Twitter @MrsWhatsit1.


Editor’s Note:  Let’s keep this discussion respectful and focused on the issues.  As always, I reserve the right to delete comments that fall outside these guidelines and to block commenters who find them too difficult to follow.  Thanks!  Hecate Demeter

10 responses to “What’s The Difference?

  1. Sabina Magliocco

    THIS. I’ve seen my share of drag shows as part of being enculturated into LGBTQ+ culture after I came out, but they always bothered me, and I could never quite articulate why. Thank you for articulating what I and perhaps many other spectators couldn’t put into words. This is very astute.

  2. Thank you, Hecate Demeter, for having the courage to address this. For a long time I’ve felt ambivalent about drag, but thought it might be “anti-gay” to say so and maybe even to think so. It seemed to me that dressing in drag allowed people to enjoy some of the fun and fluffy things about being female, without having to live with the very real social and economic disadvantages. Like you, I felt that shows like “Drag Race”, but also non-drag shows like the (apparently) endless iterations of “Real Housewives” re-inforce all the worst negative stereotypes of being female. And nobody seems to want to confront that- until now. Have the producers of these shows received any negative feedback from women I wonder?


  4. Reblogged this on aunt polly's rants and commented:

    HITS THE NAIL ON THE HEAD. (You know which one I’m talking about)

  5. You know, drag has always bothered me— not because it’s men dressing as women, but because of the caricature of “women” it portrays. First we are subjected to societal pressure to paint our faces and have “perfect” bodies, and then we are cartoonishly imitated by men. Thanks for elucidating this point.

  6. I’ve been to a professional drag show just once, back in the 90’s and loved the glitz and glam, but felt uncomfortable with the performances, which were a combination of self-mockery/hatred, and rage, from the performers that was always just underneath the surface.

  7. No difference. Period. I thought about this rather a lot this week and glad you had the courage to post it. Thank you.

  8. There is NO difference between drag and blackface, and the degree people debate it is the degree they trivialize the oppression of women of ALL races. After coming out as a lesbian, my first trip to a gay bar was utterly ruined by a “midnight drag show” featuring “artists” that minstrelized females. They sang made-up lyrics to bad Top 40 songs. Lyrics were about female-hating topics such as “the disgusting smell of ‘vagina'”(imagine penii was universally referred to as ‘balls”!) . One “performer” invited the “ladies and gay boys” in the audience to compete in a “fags versus hags” simulated fellatio competition onstage, and invited “one of the three lesbians here” to volunteer for “queer eye for the not straight boi -with-an-i” makeover. When myself and a few other brave lesbians hissed, we were predictably chided as “humorless feminazis–and I’m Jewish so I can say that!” and then told that lesbians, ” like all the straight boys here with their soon-to-be ex-girlfriends, all secretly want dick but don’t have enough balls to admit it! ”

    Hardy har har. Over a decade ago it was “can’t we criticize rap that’s misogynistic”? and being told “no, get rap*d you racist c*nt” Years ago it was “burlesque is the same old woman as sexual object horseshit” and being told “you’re just jealous of how much I show my sexualiteeee by giving men bonerz”, now it’s tiptoeing over whether we can criticize drag without hurting all the black men and gay men and black gay men fweeeelings, and how gay culture (since lgbt culture equals misogynist gay male culture, dontchaknow) will collapse in a heap if “LaTuna Canyon LeQueefe” isn’t allowed to charm the world , gays/straights/males/females alike–with the oldest punchline in the book, “wimminz are stoopid and gross and annoying and bitchy” . But gay men just luurrrrves women dontcha know! Divas! Kiss-kiss!

    And meanwhile, the situation for girls and women is the worst I’ve seen it in my forty years.

  9. Interesting point. I’ve seen drag shows in the 80s-90s (NYC) and more recently in 2018 (NYC & Provincetown.) The recent drag shows were actually quite positive and feminist in ways I had not seen before, celebrating women through music, fashion and lip-synching feminist viewpoints in popular culture. It’s entirely possible that some drag performers today may be less interested in stereotyping strong (I guess some may call it bitchy) women than in the past.
    Blackface is straight up racist with no redemption whatsoever and as for “reality” shows, they’re scripted to create as much faux drama with negative stereotypes as possible.

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