Dragging Our Art, Crafting Our Drag

The Politics of Drag Performance and Acting

What do acting and drag have to do with each other? How do performers navigate them as the visibility of gender non-conforming people and identities increases in mainstream society? This series explores the intersections of acting and drag through the lens of individual performers. This first blog installment will contain more questions than answers.

Hello, theatre enthusiasts! Since this is my first blog post in this publication, I thought I would take up a little bit of space and precious word count to introduce myself. I am a dedicated drag performer, amateur actor, and writer. I live my craft (drag) every day, since I am genderqueer and operate in a number of public roles in my day job and various communities. In the past few years, I have pitched drag workshops to various university theatre departments, as well as been increasingly sought out by them to coach their actors in convincingly inhabiting cross-gender (often called) roles.

show poster
Transparent is only the latest television show in a long series to come under scrutiny for casting non-trans*, cis-gendered, or gender conforming actors who do not identify with the gender of the trans character they play. 

Consciously trans* or gender-non-conforming characters have been appearing in ever greater numbers in movies, television, and pop culture over the past fifteen years (and perhaps especially, over the past three). For example, Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry; Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers’ Club; Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent; and Tyler Perry in the Madea films. In addition, performers like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Natalie Portman, and Channing Tatum have performed in drag. Of course, drag performance and trans identity are not one and the same (as I can attest to personally as a card carrying trans and gender non-conforming drag artist), but the increasing pop culture visibility of each, and the demand for actors to employ their range to portray gender nonconformity or gender transgression of some kind, have coincided.

Some of these cases are gross parody, but many of them are an exercise in careful character development, political statement, or studied impersonation. Increasingly, actors are expected to smoothly demonstrate this as a part of their art—and then move on. Drag artists, however, do not move on. They dive in, deeper every time.

rupaul giving a speech
Drag artist, pop culture icon and "Drag Race" creator RuPaul has recently offered biting critique of the way pop culture "liberally lifts" from queer culture (see Spike TV's Lip Sync Battle). Photo by David Shankbone.

Pop culture icon and household name drag queen RuPaul has distilled in a recent article, by reporter Daniel Reynolds of The Advocate, the relationship between the drag community and the trans community—two broad and disparate groups themselves. RuPaul summed up the distinction this way:  “We [drag artists] mock identity. They [trans community members] take identity very seriously.” Of course, as a trans* drag artist myself, I spend most days mocking identity very seriously (kidding—kind of). In my world, there is not an “us” and “them” when it comes to the trans community and the drag community. There is, however, an “us” and “them” when it comes to the drag community and actors playing in drag.

And yet, what do drag and acting have to do with each other? Everything. In everyday use, drag means how one presents himself, herself, or themself. For example: “I had to put on my office drag to go to work today.” Drag also has a brief history of serving as an acronym used specifically by Shakespeare to describe intended garb for his actors: “Dressed Resembling a Girl.”

Gender is a social construct, a category of identity that exists in all recorded human societies. In other words, gender is a performance. Simply put, drag in a gendered sense exists in any society in which gendered expression can be transgressive.

group of men dancing in costume
The Rebel Kings of Oakland one of the San Francisco Bay Area's premier drag king troupes, perform "Hot Stuff" at the Oasis Club in San Francisco in January 2016 at SF's newest drag king show, "Dandy." L-R: Randy Puck, Mickey Finn, Joey Gelato, and Andy Topser. Photo courtesy of C. Fischer.

How do drag and acting fit together? Awkwardly and yet, they can’t be separated. The interest of many stage actors and even directors in my experience has been much more in the make-up tricks than in the identity construction, assuming that their range will take care of the gendered performance. In some ways, they are correct.

The crux of what I encounter in workshops is that the actors are often quite skilled at projecting masculinity or femininity in entertaining ways, but I don’t always see an inherent transgression or challenge in their performance. In other words, it can be enjoyable, professional, even well-executed, but it doesn’t transcend language, vision, knowledge, hierarchy, or gender binary the way good drag often does. Drag artists, on the other hand, are experts at transcendence, as well as experts at teasing us with it. Which brings me to my next question.

What tensions can drag uncover?

  • The (somewhat ironically preserved) Wage Gap: The highest paid actors are invariably male. The highest paid drag artists are invariably drag queens.
  • The Debate over Appropriation: Is drag appropriation? Am I a traitor for coaching gender-conforming professionally trained actors the tricks of what is for me, a survival trade – performance of gender?
  • Art…or Craft? Drag is definitely a craft, while acting is definitely an art. I remember countless arguments in college and graduate school classrooms about how the distinction between art and craft was itself a modern construct: craft became anything by the people (associated with women, for good measure) practical, and therefore, marginalized. Art became that which was superfluous, rich, (male) and impractical—in other words, lionized. The subtext of this categorization was, of course, that art was “skilled” while craft was “unskilled.”

What I firmly believe is that drag performance in its rawest state is by the people and for the people. Drag stars are the peoples’ stars. Drag performance is both an art and a craft.

performers dancing on stage
A genderqueer princess Leia (Randy Puck) takes center stage at the San Francisco Drag King competition, 2011. Pictured: Merigold, Vegas Jake, and Randy Puck. Photo by RJ Johnson of LightReclaimed.com.

Getting to the Heart of It
In my thirty-three years in the marketplace, I’ve come to discover that when people say “unskilled” labor it is usually synonymous with one of two things: invisible, or low-paid. And this brings us to the heart of our discussion, and to some of the questions I will be posing to my spotlighted performers in April, May, and June.

  1. Is drag performance meant to be invisible?
  2. Is drag performance low-paid?
  3. Is drag performance art, and/or craft?
  4. Can anyone do drag? Can anyone be an actor? Can any actor do drag?
  5. What does drag have to do with identity?

What I firmly believe is that drag performance in its rawest state is by the people and for the people. Drag stars are the peoples’ stars. Drag performance is both an art and a craft. And yet, the value and ownership of drag is highly contested as it gains greater visibility. As I have discovered, injecting drag as its own craft into actor’s studios often highlights similar tensions over ownership of acting in those spaces. For whom does this art or craft exist? And who holds accountability for its impact?

The best way to explore these tensions, as I have discovered in many cases, is to inquire as to how those who live with them every day manage to navigate them. I look forward to our time together!

company photo
Rebel Kings of Oakland perform and host a debut drag show at Ohlone College's Queer Prom in Fremont, California. Photo by Stefan Gonzalez.

Upcoming Featured Artist in April:
Leigh Crow

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Yes Yes Yes. I look forward to more installments of this! As a playwright, identifying as a straight female, I have lately felt the call to speak for the gender queer and for the more fluid expressions of sexuality/gender/etc. This terrifies me, in a way, because I want to honor everyone in the best way I can. I suppose this means I am feeling a calling to communicate more with those who experience these issues more directly, and listen to their stories, their hearts. I look forward to the journey, and this article was a wonderful start. Thank you.

Hello Kara, thank you so much for your comments! I very much appreciate open dialogue around these issues, and I am so glad that this piece spoke to you. My hope is that we can all grow forward together as gender fluid and gender non-conforming voices and representations become more prominently displayed, and I am most excited to share the perspectives of diverse drag artists and trans actors in the following installments. Looking forward to more conversation and exploration!