Rohnert Part, CA, 5/1/14 – As RuPaul, perhaps the most famous contemporary drag queen often states, “You’re born naked and the rest is drag” (RuPaul’s Drag Race). Building upon the “Sexuality and Attire” section from the textbook Seeing Anthropology, the use of clothing – particularly clothing done as “drag” – as communicative forms of art and identity have joined the mainstream of America and other countries. “D.R.A.G.” an acronym in folk entomology, was purportedly written on the margins of a drama to denote men literally dressedas women in theater productions during English Elizabethan era. In 15th and 16th Century Elizabethan dramaturgy, female roles were played by men, because women were not allowed to participate in theater. Drag as an abbreviation of “dressed as a girl” is one theorized origin of the term. However, there is no trace of this supposed stage direction in Dessen and Thomson’s Dictionary of Stage Directions in English Drama, 1580-1642. No reference to an actor’s sexual orientation, ethnic identity, or the like was implied by cross dressing.
In the eighteenth century drag may have been used in reference to transvestites and the tendency of their skirts to drag on the ground. Still another possibility of the words origin may come from the non-English languages. Bardah was a Persian word meaning “slave,” which developed into the Spanish term bardaje; meaning a pubescent boy who was the intimate companion of a young man in ancient Rome (http://en.wikipedia.org). Part of his servitude included passive sexual acts. Today in anthropological studies, the term berdache is used for males who take on female roles (Heider 2007: 369-370).
In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, drag takes on a whole new meaning—one that aligns itself more with sexual identity, gender identity, and sexual orientation (relatively new concepts). In American entertainment and culture, drag is considered to be a cultural phenomenon. “Drag culture, especially drag queen language, offers unique insight into existing ideologies of gender, sexuality, and race” (Mann 2011:801). With drag “performance” now part of mainstream movies and reality show competition, the behind the scene lives of drag queens performance is often tied to their personal identities—which we’re able to observe. Americans and other countries are now able to observe these personal experiences and begin to question gender and orientation categories. Drag and drag queen performances highlight society’s stereotypes, anxieties, of what it means to be masculine or feminine, gay or straight across different class, ethnicity, and “genderfucks” (intended gender confusion).
The RuPaul television series and well as films such as To Wong Foo all raise questions about the relationship of clothing, identity, and behavior: Is gender simply a “performance” in specific costume? What is the difference between a cross-dresser and a drag queen? Are cross-dressers really heterosexuals? Is there an erotic charge, eroticism to wearing women’s clothing for men? Are all drag performers gay? Can a trans-woman be a drag queen?
Drag continues to be the apex for questions about identity; to RuPaul, drag exposes much of our preconceptions about gender identification.
by Marty Apodaca
Sonoma State University
Gilead HIV/AIDS Awareness with the ladies from RuPaul’s Drag, Youtube Video, uploaded Jul 26, 2011.
Drag Queen. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drag_queen
Mann, Stephen L. PhD.
2011 Drag Queens; Use of Language and the Performance of Blurred Gendered and Racial Identities. Journal of Homosexuality 58:6-7, 793-811. DOI:10.1080/00918369.2011.581923
2014 In Drag, It Turns Out, There Are Second Acts. The New York Times, February 21. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/fashion/RuPaul-Drag-Race-television.html