Has drag moved from the performance of gender to the constant, never-ending, technoculture-defining performance of information?
It’s the so-called Olympics of drag, America’s Next Top Model for made-up men, a clutch of drag queens strutting on walkways weekly and getting eliminated until someone wins. When my first Canadian winter drove me inside and into the arms of RuPaul’s Drag Race, I knocked back two or three seasons in a week, so bite-size is the show. Each episode starts with a mini challenge, silly low-risk activities generally involving glitter. These mood-setters slowly give way to the interpersonal drama of the week, contestants shouting or smoldering in their hot pink workroom. The normal reality-show beats occur. Fan favorites fail the main challenge, some underdog surprises us, someone is marked as a clear loser in the climactic themed walkway, and the surviving girls dance together as the end credits roll. The show is a little less acerbic than other shows, the overall bitchiness slid down a few notches from what you’d expect. Many of these queens have scratched around for one-dollar tips for years, so the stronger competitors’ attitudes are surprisingly blue-collar, wizened at thirty years old. Good Drag Race competitors know how to play reality TV like it’s any long-form audition. They hedge their bets and don’t ever breathe easy. They are there to work hard and make an impression.
It’s a fun show, I’ll give it that. It has the requisite bright colors and bright characters and music that makes you want to get up and dance. There are, of course, problems with the usual reality-show flatness: we don’t get a sense of who gets to be a drag queen. Obviously, anyone can—“We’re all born naked. Everything else is drag,” goes the mantra, respectably enough. But who are these new superstars, sometimes barely out of high school, these young people with so much money to spend on makeup, believable wig stylings, full rubber catsuits? Is the magic in the materials or the attitude? We’re never given a price point, a consistent sense of how poor one can be and still have a chance of winning, of how rich a queen can be without accusations of irrelevance. Are these contestants supplied some of the very tightly customized and episode-specific clothing? When contestant Alyssa Edwards brags about her $400 wig, should that be seen as normal or irritating? Are these people vetted before casting, required to walk a producer through their main and secondary closets via Skype?
Pulling off a successful Drag Race run, by the way, goes beyond affording the textiles needed to function queerly. Being pretty while lip-syncing on TV, something most of us can simulate with an iPod and a bathroom mirror, isn’t necessarily the final chapter for the inevitable season champion or the many runner-ups. What continues is the resulting social-media fame, the retweets and the page views, the implied audience of endless eyes somewhere out in cyberspace, the rapid-fire club bookings and music videos and dance singles, and the cash flow that accompanies them all. The most egregiously glamorous case study focuses on American Apparel, which hired three of RuPaul’s guys in dresses to be “ad girls” and released a delightful electronica song in which they sang a chorus about buying t-shirts.
On the other end of the spectrum, the sixth season’s eliminated avant-dragger Milk hosts a YouTube cooking-show sort of series featuring a bunch of soft, non-glam drag looks. With cheap wigs, cheaper outfits, and heaping spoonfuls of irony, these looks can be assembled for something like $50, and joyfully so. But these aren’t the sorts of things we’re seeing on RuPaul’s runway. To be fair, drag has always been material, thus requiring some coin, and, despite this, RuPaul is assuredly conversant about body positivity, gender experimentation, and self-exploration no matter how cheaply rendered.But now, if Drag Race is any indication, drag is beginning to resemble a continuous, narrow, culturally compulsory act of performance, the sort of repression it used to mock—the latest, greatest queens end up becoming a Twitter feed with new posts daily, a small business with a lace-run mascot, a persona with a fanbase one can’t really leave behind, clown makeup become permanent. If mere self-exploration or linguistic confusion is what this is all about, a pen and piece of paper are awfully cheaper. The same can be said for masturbation. So what is drag?
The point here isn’t to beat that tired gray horse named commodification. Others can do that better than I can, and there are trends that push against Drag Race’s pull. Austin Young’s Tranimal workshops come to mind, which bring the spirit of improvisation to makeup application parties, producing staggering models with all species of makeup, hair, feathers, and pantyhose dangling off heads, shoulders, chests, and arms . None of these anti-fashionistas read as either male or female; they’re so unique and filthy as to be unsaleable, queering the queers. No, my point is to suss out what makes a conventional drag family intersect with social media, virtual networks, digital cultures—whatever these things are—in a way that tranimism doesn’t.
The Reddit community devoted to Drag Race has an affinity for rooting out the digital histories of contestants, calling themselves, appropriately enough, Nancy Drews. Sharon Needles, season-four zombie-glam champion, is a famous target, initially seen as deliciously outré, a representative of outcasts, a campaigner for the weird gay kids rather than the stiffly glamorous ones. Her reputation took a nosedive after she cashed her winnings and various Nancy Drews performed archeology on her Twitter account, her Facebook posts, and any Vines featuring her presence, paying close attention to parts of her social media profile that were active before her fame. In the first of a notorious set of Vines, Needles postures, one muscular arm on a hip, Marilyn-Monroe blonde locks bouncing. A silent, pixie-haired anodyne stands in front of her. They’re in a stock room somewhere, at a party or other loud event, two other young, young people looking on. “I hate bad drag!” Needles says, and slaps the pixie, hard. All right, Vine and slapstick, things can get worse, not a big deal. But they do get worse. Needles aims another slap, then a sort of hesitant punch, this one levied at the head more than the face. Then a real punch, and the pixie’s head bounces against a floor-to-ceiling stack of cardboard boxes behind her. What’s going on? Nobody in the frame seems to know for sure. Strange things happen at raves. Nobody comes to the victim’s aid. A thin young person is getting punched in the face. At this point, the Vine resets itself, clearing the stage of actors and starting anew, with just enough breathing room for you to hope against all knowledge that it plays out differently this time. But it doesn’t.
The other two Vines in the set involve Needles, afflicted with a blurting mania and heavy sniffs, pummeling the pixie in the chest and extinguishing a cigarette on the kid’s arm, a hand heavy with rings securing the younger’s wrist when she tries to break away. Internet commenters, every one reasonably aghast about the aesthetics of the situation, rightly pointed out that there might have been some sado-masochistic contract arranged between the two parties, that Vines offer but a tiny window into the context and subtext of any single action or word, that one can be disgusted with actions but should be conservative with the moral judgments, etc. Others contested such resignation, claimed that when the top is a celebrity and the bottom a shy teenager, the power differential is engraved in stone no matter how one tries to spin it.
The Vines reveal ritualistic, self-satisfied, all-too-real abuse within the drag community, itself a reflection of “real” celebrity culture—these are watered-down versions of Hollywood’s supposed and vaguely Satanic underground, documentation of a promising figurehead’s inevitable corruption within a corrupting atmosphere. And the Vines keep repeating themselves, not unlike the way a ransom-demanding video echoes with its threats, or how a 24-hour news network keeps broadcasting the same blurry details during a public shooting, or—let’s just be foolishly direct, here—how hostage-takers wrangle their prizes in anonymous deserts and clips showing as much sprout up on any number of video-sharing platforms. Is the severity of harm different? Absolutely. But the guiding principles—not of drag, and not of terrorism, but of digital media—are the same. Not much information conveyed, though this is supposedly the medium of pure information. Not so much effective political coercion as it is someone far away from you being hurt, and that pain transferred to those who can do the least about it.
Maybe the question isn’t what is drag, nor what is gender, but how performances of these things get accidentally published, and therefore become accidentally real. Hours spent in front of a mirror doing makeup is undone, or enhanced, maybe, by a digitally formatted Freudian slip, and that slip can crash a media empire or network. (As far as I can tell, Sharon’s Reddit fanbase is still decimated, though a few careful tweets in reaction to this year’s season of Drag Race has revived a reputation for sweetness when sober.) Drag is still about gender, but it’s increasingly—like so many other things—an issue of discrete and non-local events, of images transmitted across borders, of immediacy and governance. In the process, drag becomes something other than an abstracted and subjective rebellion against ideologies and norms. Drag has become something thought about in relation to distance, and branding, and viewership. Or citizenship. John Oliver has trained his adorable investigative eye on the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest, summing it up as battleground simulation where participating nations bring out their pop stars and “sublimate thousands of years of ethnic and religious tensions into a series of bizarre three-minute song-tastrophes.” (Or, basically, run-of-the-mill pop music performances, with all the weird swagger and confidence of pop present and accounted for.) Oliver is right to be alarmed about displaced spear-rattling, with Ukraine and Russia’s performances read as testy messages to the other sovereignty. Impersonalized governance become digestible and the threat of unbalanced engagements become bubblegum-poppy—scary stuff. But Oliver’s critique softens as soon as he sees that the winner of the 2014 Contest was Conchita Wurst, Austria’s delightfully bearded drag icon.
Oliver reads the crowning—okay, she got a trophy, not a crown—as a sincere crossing of boundaries and liquidation of old priorities, but this is nationalist exercise disguised, strange tension legitimized, the body of Lysistrata’s Reconciliation decked out in a wig and beard. Drag is now office and to be queer is to be a citizen. There’s a young writer’s first novel in here somewhere—post-Palahniuk absurdism—a crack team of drag queens enlisted to bring down a popular but secretly tyrannical drag politician. Or, better yet, crack panels of drag queens as behind-the-scenes consultants on every major media event keeping the public on their couches. And, if Pussy Riot’s playful but deadly serious ethic of resistance is any indication, there’s a careful political equilibrium that seems to seep into everything. The bearded lady of the State faces off against pink-balaclavaed renegades. Pussy Riot, those randomly organized creatures of unclear gender, sock-hop and lip-sync their way to holding public spaces inoffensively hostage—terrorist drag, if anything at all.
In 2013, after reading Judith Butler twenty years too late, Swedish electronica brother-sister act The Knife released Shaking the Habitual. The record replaced their previous synth-pop chill with fluorescent corporate flatness, tucked away their trademark basement earthiness in favor of flashy jumpsuits, fingernail polish, and geometric instruments paired with dance routines for the live show. Old songs were remixed mercilessly, often ending up stripped of their hooks, rhythms, melodies, anything that once made them make sense. The new songs were political and anti-form and revolutionary, as they claimed their music had been all along; concertgoers scratched their heads, guessing at the gender of the backup dancers and whether or not if any instruments were actually being played. Though the promo-photo wigs seemed a sharp left turn, it became clear that this was just another chapter in The Knife’s screwball social theory. This was a sort of alien anthropology, a reading of gender, tracksuits, fashionable hair, and disadvantaged classes just as emergent as their previous Frazer-in-a-kaleidoscope readings of rituals, forests, and the affordances of shitty VHS technology, a critical perspective that makes a lot of sense to anyone who isn’t human. Robert Christgau gave it a good rating, a lot of fans stopped being fans, and the world moved on.
Then, in 2014, The Knife pulled out their real critical-theory trick and broke up forever. None of the usual excuses were mentioned, whether they be creative differences, boredom, drug problems, or simply we’re-so-fucking-tired. Their main website remains gleefully silent except for notices of an appearance or two at political festivals. The Knife doesn’t exist as a band anymore, if it exists at all, and all we got in its departing was a flash of drag exiting stage left, performative utterance performed through silence. It seems that the revelatory power of drag is shifting, perhaps, that it’s not about what occurs on stage, but what occurs off it, that it’s about the avoidance of smartphones and laptops and infinitely hashtaggable song contests, those extensions of the stage and its consolidation of power. Nowadays, the most radical act of drag is not to leave an impression, but to take the impression away. The message is no longer we’re here/we’re queer, though the emancipatory spirit seems to still preside. Pussy Riot is the new model: take off the balaclava and you’re conceivably de-dragged, suitably civilian.
As the rest of the world has moved to fluid networks for daily work and play, drag has found its claim on fluidity encroached upon, and it must find ways to jam the newly flexible gears of broader culture. In an interview with Advocate.com, Mathu Andersen used his authority as RuPaul’s personal makeup artist to say approximately the same thing about daily fluidities, though he doesn’t seem to think there’s much dissonance to be found in the collision of drag and digital media:
Though we may slightly grimace at Andersen’s surface-level appraisal of the whole digital situation, and think his contentment a product of idealism, we can at least be satisfied that he’s given us something we can supply a corollary to: The hall-of-mirrors ethic of drag has moved beyond flashy celebrations of femininity. Its crosshairs, it seems, have shifted from the performance of gender to the performance, the constant, never-ending, technoculture-defining performance of information.
The artist Jillian Mayer has in her portfolio a remarkably eager video titled MakeUp Tutorial HOW TO HIDE FROM CAMERAS. The title doesn’t lie: it is indeed a makeup tutorial, a genre commonly posted online. “It’s nothing like smoky eyes or blush basics today,” she says in introduction. She sits, addressing a webcam. Her face looks out from the center of the frame. “Right now we’ll be discussing different techniques which will let you walk around the city undetected by cameras.” Mayer begins by snipping off some of her bangs, then puts a fat dollop of white cream makeup on her nose. She shapes makeup blobs into inorganic straight lines or superflat blotches across her face, fashioning a pair of lips and then smearing them around. These features are warped so as to confound algorithmic facial-recognition tech, a first-world innovation often deployed publicly in the name of security. Mayer speaks a matter-of-fact patter about how this makeup, cheaply and easily enacted, can short-circuit cybernetic eyes. The universe in which this video makes sense is a universe of constant archival hostility, wherein every citizen is scrutinized, documented, and finally subject to a managerial profile built around their shopping habits, Facebook tags, and social activities. Mayer seems cheerful about these threats while inside her home—she’s just filming an everyday makeup thing, after all. A tiny dog runs around in the background. The dimness of the video is crushing.
The joke is that nobody would really wear this to a Thanksgiving dinner in an effort to avoid Facebook identification. This is a tutorial for an action nobody feels the need to perform. Yet there’s a very real bodily fluidity here not unlike drag’s fluidity, though rather than confusing gender hierarchies Mayer confuses body and landscape, noses and eyes, fashion and survival. This tutorial is comfortably situated between good old gender caricature—that is makeup, after all, with the hints of facial features, though deployed with a calculated inelegance—and the rumblings of something more threatening. Someone with day-to-day CCTV concerns might smirk at the tutorial, appreciating it as unusable. But others (perhaps students, or any non-affluent young, or Black Lives Matter, or, should things continue to get hotter, the rest of us) might want to participate anonymously in a peaceful protest and don makeup to skirt anti-mask laws, which are rising in popularity. Canada’s Bill C-309, which became law in 2013, promises up to ten years for masked participation in “unlawful assemblies,” which can include peaceful protests; New York City used similar loitering laws (from 1845!) to disrupt Occupy Wall Street marches and pro-Pussy Riot demonstrations.
“This isn’t about blending in. It’s about sticking out, yet remaining undetected by cameras,” Mayer intones over sped-up video, black lipstick muddying her cheeks and brow. This is the paradox of digital drag: as endlessly documenting networks and public life become ever more tightly compacted, and the potential for governance, enforcement, and punishment ever more present, drag becomes an issue that is both close to and far away from the body. This isn’t just in the old standby terms of gender ideologies, either. If you’re unable to wear a mask, and if you’re not sure who’s watching and with what sort of tech, you resort to a disguise that lies closer to the face—makeup, hair, body language, the patent misapplication of techniques in order to become beyond the spectrum, beyond sexuality, beyond human. (Now is a good time to point out that Trixie Mattel, a fan favorite from Drag Race‘s most recent season, applies makeup in a way that deliberately ignores her natural facial structure, so badly does she want to present as a Barbie doll clown. The result is either spectacular or spectacularly gross, depending on who you ask.) These recognition-frying projects are already getting sucked into commerce-mediated discourse: Meyer’s video tutorial is a home-brewed version of the much more glamorous CV Dazzle project by artist Adam Harvey, which presents similar camouflage that is a bit more fashionable, and pitches for heat-signature-hiding outerwear lines feature prototypes for signal-jamming hoodies, already perfect for joggers and suburbanites.
But these issues also float away from the individual body. Meyer’s video is oppressive; shot in a windowless apartment that could easily be underground, it presages something on the scale of Stonewall, not an event in response to police meddling with LGBT people, but an event in response to police meddling with data, with indiscriminate targets—all of us. Meyer heralds a vaporization, a melting-away of the recognizable body, or a siege, a mob of people whose gender or exact species doesn’t seem to matter so much as their numbers. It’s a method that those aspiring to anonymity will increasingly depend on until next-gen legislation outlaws funny-looking clothes, and it’s a spirit of action as eschatological and carnivalesque as drag was when this was all about men wearing dresses and women wearing suits. Drag Race nothing—the next big protest, if suitably patrolled, will be populated with shimmering golds on noses, plump lipstick shades running down necks, and clear goggles for the pepper spray. Some young person will find Meyer’s video and read it as the instruction manual it will become rather than the satire it currently is. Maybe they’ll use it outside of protest, just as a piece of critical humor. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll find it on someone’s Pinterest.
Pic of Sharon Needles via MTV.