OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPhotographs by Thurstan Redding

Almost three years on from that first ever VEET-massacre, and now being entirely accustomed to performing and partying in my plethora of pet-like wigs (they literally breathe they are so bushy and glorious,) it is still, only now, that I’m beginning to scrape the glittery surface when it comes to the political, psychological, and philosophical complexities of what Drag actually IS or DOES.

I’ve read a number of feminist critiques of ‘the Drag Queen’ being just another form of patriarchy or misogyny. The argument goes something like this: if the leftist queer theorists spent half the 20th century debunking societal, gender and philosophical binaries/stable norms, does Drag just re-construct them? I.E. is the Drag Queen yet again the ‘male’ exploitation or appropriation of the ‘female.’ From a distance, this seems plausible – the Drag Queen unquestionably utilises stereotypically fictitious ‘feminine’ signifiers (long blonde hair/voluptuous breasts/towering stilettos/ Jessica-the-rabbit red lips) – it definitely looks reductive. Admittedly, it’s made me freak out quite a few times. Am I just propagating a system I thought I was plaguing?

A panicked conversation with my dear-old Drag Queen sidekick, Aphrodite Jones, began to reassure me. Though so consciously appropriating signifiers that have been so readily associated with ‘the opposite sex,’ Drag, first and foremost, exposes how easy they are to ‘rip off.’ The obvious ‘feminine signifier’ becomes a sort of floating non-entity that was never actually rooted in anything concrete. For my now long-time hero, philosopher Giles Deleuze, such concepts or ideals that are not ‘actual’  (or to use his term, ‘immanent,’) but indeed, exist suspended beyond us like a mirage that is never quite graspable, but are ever so looming – ‘The American Dream’, ‘The Perfect Woman’, you know the drill… – sitting on what he famously termed, ‘Planes of Transcendence.’ It was his resolutely firm belief that before even beginning to think of eradicating them, it was, firstly, our job to find them and expose them.

Thinking productively about Drag through this lens can help us begin to discount much of its heated criticisms. The Drag Queen works within the limits of Deleuze’s ‘transcendent’ laws to reveal their absurdity, indeed, transcending the stereotypes appropriated. Societal stereotypes of ‘woman’ become as credible as the promises offered in a Thomas Cook holiday advert. You know, I’ve heard the Drag Queen be called many things – and many of them derogatory – but seldom have I heard of a Drag Queen looking – real – (discounting “real” as a sort of compliment for “telling it how it is” – i.e., guurl, you’re so REAL). The Drag Queen is the most glorified celebration of fiction. Everything is so self-professedly exaggerated. Lips that resemble swollen reptiles are drawn on; eyebrows are arched like Roman colonnades; Wigs are more reminiscent of animal habitats than heads of hair. It’s all based on exteriority. The external aspect of our ‘Self’ is exposed to be one blank jigsaw puzzle that can be coloured-in and moved around at will, with no final right answer or correct picture (Drag Queens are, after all, always re-shuffling their external signifiers.) It is, however, through revealing that this exteriority is a creative landscape that allows the Drag Queen to untangle the stereotypes within which ‘she’ herself is entangled. Through being fake, ‘she’ reveals the fake.

Of course this doesn’t quite paint the full picture. If the Drag Queen is such an exposition of falsity, how, then, does this theory explain the often-repeated sentiment from the many Drag Queens I’ve spoken to that ‘I feel most myself when I’m in Drag—most true.’ It gets slightly tricky.

If we continue with this idea that our external ‘Self’ is a creative canvas – a literal site of imaginative play – it is logical to then assume that this ‘imagination’ is internally rooted; the exteriority of Drag is of course a celebration of autonomous interiority. Such an argument would explain why dear friend of mine Chrystal Vaginova simply stated: ‘I am Drag.’ Since beginning Drag as an initially performative experiment, his ‘Self’ became realised as a continually creative task outside empirical, or ‘transcendent’ normatives, regardless of actually being in ‘proper’ Drag. It should be constant. I genuinely think that Drag Queens don’t get congratulated enough – ESPECIALLY in the gay world today, with its overbearing pressures to be ‘Str8 Acting or fuck off’ – for encouraging everyone to respond to their ‘Self’ as a creative, independent project. And it’s not new! It’s been a long time now since Nietzsche yelled that ‘God was Dead!’ and that the Self always prevails; as Michel Foucault was to then follow – ‘we should consider ourselves as works of art.’

For me, and this also rang true for the ever so jaw-dropping Dinah Lux, it all comes down to vulnerability. We have, of course – especially thanks to the Western hero of gender deconstruction, Judith Butler – established by now that ‘femininity’ is a construct, though this doesn’t negate that being a man who is ‘feminine’ can get bloody tricky in a society that seems, at times, irreparably patriarchal. It goes without saying that my ‘femininity’ didn’t do me any favors on the Eton College rugby pitch, and it was the constant root of why I was socially ‘vulnerable’ – (though it did do me wonders when I played the leading ladies in the school plays!) When in Drag, such ‘vulnerable’ traits become hyper-exaggerated, unashamedly celebrated – almost oppressively presented as if gold trophies, which no one can hold bar you. Previous vulnerabilities become sublimated into shiny and radiant, yet indestructibly defensive barriers – as the maddest Drag Queen I know, Shirley Do Naughty remarked, ‘I feel invincible in Drag.’ It was only recently that I had the unbelievable opportunity to watch Judith Butler speak herself; relevantly, her talk was centered on one key premise: Productive Vulnerability. It is through accepting, and then socially performing our innate vulnerabilities as human beings, that we can mobilize them as politically productive tools. Personally, it’s why I love Drag – it is, on a deeply personal level, a way for me to avenge my 14 year-old queer Self, who pretended to like football while feigning girlfriends who didn’t exist. Through reveling in vulnerability, one is, in a sense, released from it.

I realized I’ve Dragged you in circles here—not having offered a simple, resolute answer as to why Drag is so important. To provide one answer, would, however, seem silly. As we have seen, it is the ‘Self’ that is at the root, and whatever solace/joy/edification it offers you as an individual (man, woman, straight, bi-sexual, trans…whatever,) you should give it a go at least once. You might find something you didn’t know was there.

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As my fiery friend Electra Cute once explained to me:

“In Hinduism, the god Siva has a form called Ardhanarisvara where he is conjoined with Sakti, his feminine consort. It serves as a metaphor for the unity of all beings that they see having originated from one ultimate source.”

I think it’s a pretty fitting image to end on. Drag, ultimately, is about fusion. In meshing ‘male’ with ‘female,’ vulnerable with invincible, interiority, and exteriority, it becomes quite hilariously apparent that the world is one messy, formless junkyard of meaningless signifiers and fictitious constructs within which we are all collectively woven. So what’s the harm in shaking it up sometimes, showing it for what it really is, and having some fucking fun?