The Crisis of Drag – Thoughts on the Scene in London

13 June 2013
This piece was written by a member of the Queer (in) Crisis collective.
I’m not a drag queen, but I am a performance maker and someone who writes about performance. I spend a lot of time watching and writing about burlesque, cabaret and drag performance more specifically. I am also emotionally and critically invested in the drag “scene” in which I participate. This investment stems from the social and sexual “communities” that I inhabit: I count myself part of an extended “family” which includes drag queens, burlesque performers, artists, writers, and fabulists. I am also in a relationship with someone who defines their professional and artistic practice as drag performance.
This investment also stems from a theoretical and affective immediacy within my own thinking and practice: the search for a space of radical social and political action/activism within queer lived experience. There is something, something as of yet unarticulated and ungraspable, for me, about drag, which returns again and again to the radical. Here, in this blog post, I want to re-think what the term “drag” could and, in some instances, does signify by considering some recent and contemporary examples of drag performance that challenge traditional notions of what a drag queen can or should be.
The drag queens I encounter are not, as a rule, attempting to successfully imitate a universalised notion of “woman”; rather, I read them as dragging up as drag queens. The four queens I find myself surrounded by on a regular basis, who I will write about in varying degrees in this post, represent for me a present and future of drag which is challenging and radical. As well as accomplished individual performers in burlesque, cabaret and performance arts settings (to name but three) they also perform as a drag troupe called &?! (Aaaaaaand What?!). Here is my interpretation of who they are.
Miss Cairo: a hyper-sexualised tour-de-force of in-yer-face drag extremism, who fucks with anyone and anything that gets in her way. Lady “Maxi” Tena: an elegant, experimental, gender-challenging queen whose 7-foot-tall presence in heels warps the space around her until she is the only thing anyone wants to see. Rubyyy Jones: a biological woman who still manages to be the fiercest bitch of them all, she combines high art integrity with glamour that’s so wrong it’s right. Meth (also known as Mr Mistress): couples aloof drag grace with a mind-bending androgynous aesthetic that plays with the fluidity of gender and sexuality, drag and performance, life and death, until no one is sure which way is up.
Before discussing drag performance in more detail I want to contextualise what I see as the “crisis of drag” by glancing briefly at the film Paris is Burning. Anyone who has seen the iconic documentary-film, which chronicles the drag ball culture in New York City in the mid- to late-eighties, will know that for many queens drag is much more than an aesthetic but also a means of survival. (If you haven’t seen the film, you should. You can watch it all online here.)
When I say drag is a means of survival, I am not investing it with a disembodied transformational power, I am rather considering drag as an assemblage of activities, tools, communal relations and embodied practices which have the potential to enact an alternative mode of being, an alternative lived experience, for those who participate within its broad and constantly evolving borders. A number of the queens encountered in Paris is Burning have been kicked out by their families, are socially and economically limited by their sexuality, their race, their class, have no means of properly existing with normative cultural sites of heterosexuality and productivity.
Drag, then, provides a site within which to enact alternative familial relations. The various Houses (the Houses of LaBeija, Xtravaganza, Ninja, for example), are examples of these survival attempts. Without traditional notions of families, these drag houses, presided over by a Mother, become places of (admittedly precarious) economic stability, as well as cultural spaces of caring and loving. Drag, in Paris is Burning, also provides a cultural space of investment, with the drag balls that the film focuses on enacting spaces of communal gathering, competition and exchange.
In the drag I am often witness to in the UK, the visceral and affective immediacy that drag has in Paris is Burning – the use of drag as a tool of resistance and survival – is somewhat dimmed. In fact, the crisis of UK drag culture is its inexpression and reflection of this role of drag. Even the most contemporary and mainstream manifestation of drag in the US, RuPaul’s Drag Race, provides examples of young queens rejected by their families, left in poverty, turning to drag Houses, Mothers and performance for support and alternative modes of existing.
British drag, or at least a large proportion of the British drag I encounter, doesn’t have this same urgency. I’m not rejecting the British drag scene, and I do not want to insult the skill and cultural importance of the scene which has produced such power houses as Regina Thong, or even Lily Savage. However, contemporary drag, in my metrocentric and London-based view, is filled with far too many queens singing Sweet Caroline and Shirley Bassey, and not enough queens making edgy, challenging and interesting drag. It is, then, to those forms of drag that I introduced above, that I turn (alongside recent contemporary American queens such as Sharron Needles or Raja), all of whom remain visceral and immediate, challenging and exciting to watch.
My reading of Paris is Burning here, and drag more generally, is of course idealised. The film also exhibits the violence, rejection and death experienced by drag queens and those gender and sexual dissidents that it attempts to capture. Drag, more generally, can be regulatory and exclusive; even as a privileged homosexual I have stood at the edge of a dance floor populated by drag queens and felt myself slowly sliding into the anonymity and invisibility which I always resist in heteronormative society as a young queer. More than my own whining privileged experience of marginalisation, traditional notions of what a drag queen is could be thought of as representing some idealised form of beauty which regulates or abjects those bodies which cannot adhere to this.
The “crisis of drag” I want to briefly talk about here also relies on an aesthetic which isn’t about attaining beauty or femininity, but which is intrinsically about both of these things at the same time. It combines both traditional elements of drag performance – lip synching, over-exaggerated gesture, drag bodily and facial constructions – as well as more interesting performance arts based-elements and an albeit clichéd emotional framework about beauty.
The performer Meth enters the stage with a bag over her head. As the opening moments of the instantly recognisable “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera play, a narrative arc begins to form in my head about where the piece is going. When the bag is ripped off and the performer’s face revealed, the expectation of a severe, beautiful and dragged-up queen meets a face distorted behind masses of clear tape. Only when this tape is ripped off is the face of the performer revealed. At the end of the piece, standing in front of the audience is a highly-emotional, well-constructed drag queen who is claiming her place as an unconventional form of drag beauty. The performance uses traditional drag practices and also conveys a traditional message about drag – that we are all beautiful, we can all be fabulous. However, the performance combines this generalised cliché with elements of performance art and enough irony to communicate to the audience the artist’s awareness of the clichés being reproduced.
Meth has been known to challenge notions of gender, sexuality, and beauty as both Meth and her alter-ego Mr. Mistress. She can be seen in a bald cap with blood pouring from her mouth, stripping until she is left with only a question mark covering her slowly bleeding crotch, lip synching erratically to Meatloaf’s “Bat Out of Hell” (no blood this time), or standing on a table in a pub performing to “If I Were a Boy” – and this is just a brief résumé of her work. I read in the work above, and in all of the work that I encounter in the “crisis of drag”, something more challenging and engaging than that seen on the drag scene for a long time. It is not just drag performance, it combines elements of performance art, burlesque, creative thought, academic engagement and a desire to fuck with things to see what will happen. As I see it, this style of performance acknowledges the UK drag scene’s ordinariness, pushing beyond it with new, exciting forms of drag performance. Meth, and drag performers in a similar vein, seem to want to express that which is not ordinarily expressed in UK drag’s tired and familiar performative repetitions. Rather, they are concerned with the expression of the visceralities of living in the contemporary moment, the possibilities of the immediate crisis-ordinary, and most importantly the potential of drag to reflect, inform, and produce new ways of being.
Drag is, for Meth and the other queens I talk to, get drunk with, and love, more than just performance or beauty, but a way of exploring and living in the world. I only have to look around my own flat covered in make-up, wig heads, glitter, sequins, a dress-maker’s dummy and a weird latex representation of a mangled crotch to see how much it has taken over my life, and the lives of those closest to me. Standing in a smoking area of The Black Cap in Camden, Meth expresses her opinion that ‘“drag has nothing to do with what is between your legs, it is a performance of gender, an idea of “femininity” or female”’. As with her performances, drag, for Meth, is more than what you think it is. More than just the subversion of the gendered body, but the performance of an idea of gender itself.
When I suggested above that the contemporary drag queens I encounter “drag up as drag queens” rather than as women, I mean to propose that the aesthetic to which they aspire isn’t necessarily female-ness and, whilst still re-producing something feminine, is an aesthetic that is no longer simply about gender parody. Contemporary drag, I believe, presents something more than just the reproduction of ordinary and even stable forms of subversive gender-binary enactment, queering this notion in its lack of adherence to the rules of gender parody. The drag queen, in a contemporary sense, is for me a queer figure because she challenges – or has the potential to challenge – the position of the drag body as conventional form, choosing to present, rather, the potential of that gender-queer drag body in all its dysphoric celebration.
I am aware, here, of the amount that I am idolising a particular mode of performance of drag and being which is, perhaps, also exclusive and regulatory in its own ways. I am enamoured with drag, I am invested in its continuation – both culturally and economically – and I am critically engaged in writing about it. But I am also aware that some drag can be terrible, and that not everything that I see is perfect or interesting or exciting. There is, also, a tremendous amount of joy and pleasure to be taken in seeing a traditional practice done well[1].
What I want to suggest, however, is that a change is happening. It is slow and, like all changes, it is resisted by those who are established in the scene already. The change in drag feels similar to the change I feel I am witnessing in young queer politics. There is a need for something more immediate, more challenging, more visceral. The new drag I see works and fucks with the traditional and takes it to places still unknown, and it is these unknown places which are exciting, which provide performative ways to explore more the alternative modes, spaces, sites of living.

[1] For example, &?! (Miss Cairo, Lady Maxi Tena, Rubyyy Jones and Meth) perform RuPaul’s “Jealous of My Boogie” in all its camp, glamour realness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I0ULQNZwtTs
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