Last week, I wrote about the new law that passed this summer making drag illegal in public places in North Dakota. In that article I talked about the wording of the law and the way it makes crossdressing in public a misdemeanor, but I didn’t really talk about the base idea that drag is an inherently adult performance. This week, I’d like to challenge the idea that all drag is inappropriate for children.
Drag is an art form based on taking the performance of gender that everyone does and exaggerating it. There are stereotypes associated with the appearances of both men and women that, while not even remotely representative of all people of that gender, are socially considered signifiers of gender. Women wear dresses and high heels, have breasts, wear makeup, have long hair, and wear clothes that accentuate the roundness of their hips. Men wear straight-cut, less curvy clothing, and have more angular face shapes, short hair, no makeup, trousers, and flat chests. None of these things are true of all men or women – or even most, let’s be real. But these are the aspects of appearance that we associate with these two genders.
Everyone’s expression of gender has an element of performance to it, even if you’re cisgender and heterosexual. This isn’t a bad thing and doesn’t make your gender or expression any less valid, it’s just a part of how humans work. When I want to wear a dress, I tend to wear things that accentuate the more “feminine” aspects of my body. The curve of my hips and chest contrast my waist, or loose-fitting garments hide the general shape of my body but are short enough to still show off my legs. These are “girl” ways to dress, because I’m a girl. The days I wear cargo shorts and a giant t-shirt from the mens’ section, I’m not any less of a woman – I’m just choosing to express my gender differently, even if that’s in a way that fits with more masculine stereotypes.
The way I express and experience my gender as a cisgender woman doesn’t fit a lot of the stereotypes and expectations society has for women, but that doesn’t diminish my womanhood. The way I’m often expected to present myself as a “woman” doesn’t feel right to me a lot of the time. Probably half the time that I dress up in high heels and skirts and pantyhose, I consider myself to be in drag. I’m wearing a version of womanhood that I don’t particularly identify with, and I’m putting that look on for a day. Dress-up is fun, whether I’m dressing up as a character or a man or a “type” of woman that I’m not really. It’s fun to try on new identities; it’s human nature. I mean, Halloween is coming up, and the main point of that holiday is to take a night to look like something you aren’t.
The point of drag is to pick out the things that society expects men or women to perform as a part of their gender, and then draw out, accentuate, and exaggerate them. Drag queens’ makeup isn’t about passing as a woman, it’s about making yourself up to follow the expectations that society has of “women.” It’s not about impersonation, it’s about performance. That’s why there are female drag queens and nonbinary drag performers of all kinds. And, while less well known, drag kings do the same thing – they simply take the caricature of masculinity that all men are expected to perform, and make it obvious that it’s a caricature. Some drag performances are sexual or inappropriate for children, yes. But that’s not the basic point of drag, and saying it is makes as much sense as saying all dance performances are “adult-oriented.” They can be adult oriented, but so can anything. That doesn’t make the art form itself “prurient.”
I think there are a lot of reasons why drag is considered inherently sexual. One is that the only exposure a lot of people have had to drag is mainstream shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, which definitely has performances with sexual elements. People often know very little about drag and judge the whole art form based on one slight impression. Plus, there’s the fact that drag is a huge part of queer culture. America’s Puritan-Protestant morals have always bucked against queer people and anything that challenges the heterosexual, cisgender, white, Protestant norm. That’s just the culture that our country is built on. Queerness is still considered adult content, so something like drag that so blatantly challenges the idea that physical appearance = gender is immediately frowned upon.
I also think there’s an element of misogyny here. Women are sexualized at all times, no matter what we do. Men are seen as people, while women are seen as people who are either having or not having sex. I talked about this in a lot of articles last year, and I stand by it. My existence as a woman is constantly sexualized in a way that it would never be if I were a man. No one refers to female strippers as “female strippers.” They’re just strippers, and the “female” is implied. Male strippers, on the other hand, almost always have their gender tacked onto the description because women are associated with sex work far more than men. The majority of drag performers are drag queens rather than kings, performing a caricature of femininity rather than masculinity, and because we sexualize women/femininity, drag is therefore sexualized.
Finally, I’d like to note that the law doesn’t even specify drag performances. It categorizes all “male or female impersonators” as adult performers, which is an even more sweeping generalization than if they’d just said “drag.” The idea that men acting as women or women acting as men is inherently adult content is absurd. Cross-dressing has been a staple of theatre since theatre began. When Shakespeare was penning his most famous works, women weren’t allowed to act onstage. Every single original Juliet was a male actor playing the part of a woman. Is that adult content just because it’s a man in a dress? This law is based on prejudice against queer people, because if it was really about the plain text of the law, this would be a massive change to life as we know it. “Male and female impersonators” are everywhere. I haven’t been in a single school play that didn’t have girls playing boys’ parts due to a lack of male actors, and I know the people who wrote this law don’t have any issue with that.
Performance of gender isn’t inherently sexual. It’s only considered to be when the gender being performed is female, and/or it’s associated with queerness. Drag is just a kind of performance, which can be adult-oriented or child-oriented or anything in between. We have no problem with people dressing up in giant animal mascot costumes to talk to kids, so how is a drag queen any different? It’s not dressing up that makes something appropriate or inappropriate. It’s the nature of the performance, and reducing drag to adult performances is reductive, misogynistic, and homophobic.