EducationO.O.P.S.Sex & Gender

The Plurality and Quasi-Anarchism of Drag

This post is part of the Bodies, Gender, and Domination OOPS Series.

I am often told that the subject of my research, drag — as a pastime, a spectacle, a performance, or an art form — makes some people “uncomfortable.” The reasons offered as explanation range from (legitimate) concerns about transphobia and misogyny to general discomfort at seeing “men dressed as women.” In his book Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category, anthropologist David Valentine includes drag queens in his exploration of people “on the ‘radical edge’ of the category” (Duke University Press, 2007, p. 101). He writes, “‘drag’ — but most particularly ‘drag’ engaged in by male-bodied people — becomes a node of category crisis not (just) for the categories ‘man’ and ‘women,’ or ‘male’ and ‘female,’ but for the categories of sexuality and gender which underpin them” (p. 100).

Performances and bodies that complicate categories such as “male” and “female” expose the plurality of bodies-as-processes, “webs of affective and imaginary relations” [as Chiara Bottici writes in Bodies in Plural: Towards an Anarchafeminist-Manifesto (p. 10)], that then expose one’s own ambivalences and thus cultivate anxiety through uncertain categories. Just as Julia Pastrana’s transindividual body inspired simultaneous revulsion and fascination, so too does drag evoke a variety of responses, both negative and positive (often a mix of both), in its quest, Emma Goodman notes in “On Marriage,” to “break down squeamishness” (Black Rose, 1969, p. 491) about gender performativity and fluidity.

Drag in this sense reinvents everyday life, Carol Ehrlich notes in “Anarchism, Feminism and Situationism,” by “creating situations that disrupt what seems to be the natural order of things” (Black Rose, 1977, p. 503). What fascinates me about drag is precisely this: it opens up the possibilities for mind-body experience, creating a space and opportunity to go beyond the boundaries of expression and, by involving both the performer(s) and the audience, in many ways offers a sense of liberation, as defined by Peggy Kornegger in “Anarchism: The Feminist Connection,” occurring “in conjunction with other human beings” (Black Rose, 1969, p. 496).

The politics of drag in the community I’m researching, in which the rules about what constitutes drag are virtually nonexistent, produces an atmosphere and ideology that through these readings I’ve begun to recognize as a sort of unconscious anarchy (Kornegger, p. 492). The marginalized populations that account for most of this community’s members (queer-identifying people) are developing, through their art, a community similar to those posited in many of these readings, that eschew any hierarchical leadership roles in favour of a quasi-anarchist collective.

Of course, it would be disingenuous and quite ridiculous to present drag communities such as the one I study in Brooklyn, New York, as an ideal example of an anarchofeminist commune. There are key community organizers that resemble leaders, and issues of celebrity and notoriety cause certain performers to rise to prominence above others. Overall, however, the environment remains one of collective unification and celebration of (intentionally) visible and legible plural bodies. So what does this space offer in terms of total transformation and not just change, as Kornegger (p. 492) argues is the only route to abolishing domination?

Perhaps it provides a unique atmosphere for positive building and rebuilding of bodies through the transcendence of subject/object relations to develop “a consciousness of ‘Other’” (Kornegger, p. 492), providing a “social space to live and breathe” (Goodman, p. 489) that might eventually open into a positive, loving space to dismantle male hierarchical thought patterns (Kornegger, p. 492) and the oppressive authority/authorities that prevent liberation.

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Sarah Chant

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