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.
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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