Welcome back, and get ready for part two of our fabulous history of drag! In case you missed last week’s class, click here for your update.
A lot has been written about drag queens and queer theory. One of the main books on the topic was written by Carole-Anne Tyler, called ‘Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories’ (1999). She argues that drag queens aren’t always accepted within the gay community. For example, some masculine gay men don’t consider drag queens or themselves part of the same culture.
Other scholars, such as Marilyn Frye, Steven Schacht, and Richard Tewksbury argue that drag queens’ performances and use of camp only appropriate stereotypical attributes of femininity and reinforce heterosexist gender norms, making them either mysoginists or victims of mysoginy. Particularly Marylin Frye saw drag queens as a hostile parody of women. However, many would argue that drag queens aren’t being mean spirited – it’s just plain entertainment.
In the 1950s and 60s drag was often the only way for men to act out in public.
Another debate on the various schools of drag is written about by Kate Bornstein in her essay Trouble of Tranny. She wrote about the drag culture in Sydney, Australia, after being taken under Doris Fish’s wing. Doris Fish was a well-known drag queen who tragically passed away in the early nineties due to AIDS. She stated that there is a considerable difference between drag and men dressing as women (which can be considered more of an impersonation). She learnt how there is also a big difference between drag queens and transsexuals, who somtimes consider drag queens beneath them. She also argued that transgenders often had to ‘come up through the ranks’. This is particularly evident when looking at different decades. For example, in the 1980s it was more acceptable for men to consider themselves female and to not have to perform on stage as a woman. However, in the 1950s and 60s drag was often the only way for men to act out in public.
Throughout history, there have been a few significant drag performers. One of them was called Alan Haynes. He was a British performer, and teamed up with Terri Gardener who’d been a drag queen in the years leading up to WWII. He then rose to fame when he partnered up with Danny la Rue. La Rue, a drag performer originally from Ireland, mainly starred in pantomimes. For any American readers, this is a British form of theatrical cross-dressing and drag. Alan Haynes went on to open his own drag queen bar in Soho, London after parting ways with La Rue.
One of most popular drag queens in Western culture was Divine. She was born as Glenn Milstead, and known for her scarily arched eyebrows. Originally a singer, she became famous after appearing in a variety of John Waters’ films. Most people will probably recognise her as one of the lead characters in the film Hairspray (No, not the one with John Travolta!). Sadly, she died prematurely from a hidden heart condition just after Hairspray came out.
The New York times said about her films of the 80s:
“Those who could get past the unremitting weirdness of Divine’s performances discovered that the actor/actress had genuine talent, including a natural sense of comic timing and an uncanny gift for slapstick.”
Nowadays, the most famous drag queen in popular culture has to be RuPaul. Born in San Diego, he got his start as a drag queen in Atlanta and became widely known throughout the nineties. He’s said to be a real all-rounder – he acts, models, writes, sings and also performs as a drag queen. He’s known for his RuPaul’s RuPaul’s Drag U and RuPaul’s drag race, two programmes that have been hugely popular (To read up on the latest developments of series five, click here).
Well that’s it for now, folks. We hope you’ve enjoyed our two-part series of the fabulous history of drag. If you think we’ve missed anything out, please leave a comment and let us know!
And read out review on Fanny and Stella– a book all about the true criminal trial of two drag queens in Victorian London.