Give Drag a Chance

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Priscilla, queen of my heart

When I was a little girl, I loved drag queens more than anything. It was back in the days when video stores were still around, and my babysitter asked me which film I wanted to rent. Of course I said Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which was my absolute favourite as an eight year old, and I couldn’t believe she hadn’t seen it already. By the end of the film she was rather shocked, but I remember thinking thank god I am a girl. My thought was that if I had been a boy I would have had to be a drag queen, and things would have been really tough. To me being a feminine as a girl was like being a drag queen too, you just didn’t get hate for it.

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Paris is Burning

Priscilla, and films like Paris is Burning before it, helped to make drag intelligible to a mainstream audience. Today RuPaul’s Drag Race continues to work that magic, bringing a greater awareness of drag culture as well as a diversity of queens into the spotlight with each season.

But even though everyone is watching Drag Race, word on the street for those in the know is that you’ve got to be a bit careful because drag queens are, well, a bit of a drag. So the story goes, drag queens—at least those “normy” hyper-feminine ones—are just reinforcing every stereotype of womanhood that feminism has ever fought against.

Strangely this critique of drag comes from two, usually wildly oppositional, directions within discussions of gender.

578579The first is from trans-exclusionary radical feminist types, who conflate gay male culture with drag queens with transgender identity. Such perspectives see gay men, drag queens, and trans women as responsible for propping up fantasies of femininity that only serve to oppress women. Germaine Greer famously stated in The Female Eunuch 1970: “I’m sick of being a transvestite. I refuse to be a female impersonator. I am a woman, not a castrate”. Greer’s suggestion here is that there is some form of “natural” womanhood that can be liberated from the dictates of culture. Similarly, and more recently, Sheila Jeffreys has even argued that drag kings distort lesbian culture and the celebration of “natural” womanhood. She writes: “If the suffering and destruction of lesbians is to be halted then we must challenge the cult of masculinity that is evident in such activities as drag king shows”. These views are rife with homophobia and transphobia, as well as massive conflations and wild leaps that see men, masculinity, and femininity, as the true oppressors of women.

license-shutterstock_178095647z-56cddde63df78cfb37a34dedI don’t have much time for these views, which encourage us to believe that the biggest threats to women are trans women, drag queens, and gay men. This view distorts Marxist theory to argues that men in particular are *the* class that oppresses women, and sees the liberation that is to be won as a liberation from “gender”. Luckily the currency of radical feminism in academic spaces seems to be waning. But when overall activist struggle in society is low, it is easy for people to slip into arguing that we are each other’s problem, that if only we could free ourselves from gender we’d be truly liberated. It’s a much easier argument to make than organising to transform the fundamental economic arrangement of society, and it makes space for all kinds of class collaboration between powerful women and poor women alike (even if it means at the end of the day that power doesn’t actually shift).

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I heart Judy B 4eva

Understandably in many queer critical circles, no one has much time for radical feminism. For example Judith Butler—our queer theory queen writ large—has openly critiqued Jeffreys, describing her views on trans women as a “feminist tyranny”. At the end of Gender Trouble (1990) Butler famously held drag queens up as exemplars of gender subversion. There was of course a lot of responses to this, but much of these debates focused on whether drag really was the best example of the theory of gender performativity that Butler was proposing.

herofille2So that’s why it’s kind of surprising to hear people within queer communities suggesting now that drag, in its mainstream formations, is a problem. From this perspective drag, if performed by ostensibly cis males, reproduces misogynistic ideas of femininity and is really just another expression of the “gay-triarchy“. Drag that is seen as more alternative in these scenes is drag performed by faux-queens (women performing as drag queens), or drag that queers gender in some way, like the intense influx of bearded-queens we’ve seen in recent years.

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I love Sasha but I don’t doubt we occupy the same ivory tower

Within the land of RuPaul, this desire for more alternative drag to address the “problems” of drag culture is summed up by Sasha Velour. Now, there is no way that I am not #TeamSasha, obviously I love Sasha. But she also represents an extremely mobile, well-educated subset of drag culture, who can quote Butler and play with the expectations of drag (like, having a bald head) because let’s face it, they’re still going to get by even if they don’t win $100,000.

What the queer critique of drag shares with the radical feminist perspective is the view that we are one another’s oppressors, and that if we manage to transform our individual gendered selves in a particular way, this can contribute to liberation. For the rad fems this might mean rejecting expectations of femininity and trying to embody “natural” womanhood. From the queer perspective this might mean rejecting anything perceived as mainstream and normative. The conclusions are the same: do your politics through your body, and reject those individuals who don’t.

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The cast of Season 9

Let’s pause here to imagine why someone might get into drag (noting that the great thing about Drag Race is that we get to hear some of these reasons). For some, drag offers a space to play around with femininity, after growing up as a “weird” kid who didn’t meet the expectations of masculinity. For others, drag is a way of working through questions of sexual and/or gender identity. For many that have been kicked out of home or found themselves rejected by society at large, drag offers a space for new forms of family to emerge.

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Drag queens can be comrades too

For many, drag is a mode of survival, socially and economically. Drag queens struggle with expectations around femininity too. Drag queens don’t oppress women: the struggle against sexism is a shared one. There is a lot to be learned from RuPaul’s constant reminder that “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag”.

So, let’s celebrate those drag queens that can push boundaries and show us new ways to think about gender, but let’s embrace those “normy” queens too. This doesn’t mean everything in drag culture should be immune from critique, but it does mean we should give drag a chance. After all, the struggle is best won together, not alone, and drag queens are not the enemy.

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Review – Jessa Crispin’s Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto

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Jessa Crispin

Spoiler alert: Jessa Crispin is a feminist. So, if you’re one of those people who insist on holding signs up on the Internet to the effect of “I’m not a feminist because I like doing the dishes…” etc, you’re not going to get any love here. As the title suggests, Why I Am Not A Feminist is in fact A Feminist Manifesto. But it’s not the feminist manifesto we need, and I’m not even sure it’s the one we deserve.

Aside from the many contradictions of the book (as hinted at in the title), Crispin’s work doesn’t really go into her arguments in any depth—she expects us to take her ideas largely at face value (e.g. everyone unfairly dismisses radical feminists!). Probably the most teeth-grinding part is that she also consistently—though perhaps inadvertently—suggests that “we” (her readers) are all white, middle class, straight women.

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Sceptical reading selfie

We have to read this work as a letter to the “mainstream” pink-pussy-hat wearing women that basically says, “god if even you are going to call yourself a feminist, then I don’t want to”.

The amazing thing is that Why I Am Not a Feminist pulls the oldest trick in the book to make a case for feminism: it claims that feminism has been lost. Similarly to Angela McRobbie’s (2008) Aftermath of Feminism, Crispin isn’t interested in looking at where feminism is currently articulating itself in new and dynamic ways that address some of the qualms she raises. Rather, she points to the failures of the present and the positives of the past, but in an a-historic way that doesn’t acknowledge why we are where we are.

In case you don’t have $19.99 to spare, here’s a really brief run down of her manifesto:

1. Feminism has become a lowest-common denominator identity

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Helpful: Crispin uses the term “universal feminism” to describe how feminism has been watered down to the point of becoming politically meaningless. Crispin points out that under this arrangement you could easily hypothetically wear your Dior “We should all be feminists” t-shirt and be a CEO who cuts the wages of all of her staff. I certainly agree that feminism should give up its class-collaborative obsession, and should stop seeing “feminist” as synonymous with “woman”, because it’s not actually helping to improve the lot of women’s lives.

Less helpful: Crispin insists that historically change for women has come about due to fringe groups of radical women (she cites Andrea Dworkin and Germaine Greer as examples) whose ideas are too “uncomfortable” for feminists today. In particular Crispin’s target of scorn are those women “still taking pole dancing classes” and similar. Here Crispin misses: a) that we need to stop making everyday women the problem through our arguments, and instead focus on everyday sexism; b) that the critiques of radical feminism that have been made should be taken seriously, because even though Greer and co make some passionate points, they also intensely dismiss transgender existence and TBH that’s not a feminism I want to sign up to. If you’re going to make the claim that we need to return to radical feminism, at least give us some reasons why, and explain how we can do this in a way that doesn’t help to justify violence against some groups of already marginalised women and gender diverse people.

2. Change doesn’t come from above 

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Helpful: Crispin points out that we should stop thinking we can change the system that keeps women oppressed, from working within, and that we should look to ways to smash the system. For too long women have attempted to make change by getting involved in the corridors of power, only to find themselves pretty comfy once on the inside. So, instead of changing the entire shebang and what is good for “the whole”, there has been a focus on the individual and what is good for “me”.

Less helpful: According to Crispin, feminists have simply lost their way along the path, and have become narcissistic and inward-looking. It couldn’t possibly be, say, the material conditions under neoliberal ideology and late capitalism that have encouraged certain modes of thinking. Women have simply bought into their own oppression. Without an analysis of “why”, Crispin’s argument falls flat, because “the system” she is describing as the problem remains an amorphous monster that we can’t fight because we don’t actually know what it looks like or why it’s there.

3. We need to be smart with how we use our activist energy

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Helpful: Crispin points out that sometimes when we find ourselves focusing on small instances of oppression, we can miss the bigger system of oppression that is at play. In particular, fighting people (she calls them “Twitter bros”) online can be exhausting and doesn’t achieve a whole lot. She also suggests that instead of assuming that oppression happens along a horizontal axis (where I oppress you sometimes, and other times you oppress me), we should see power as more hierarchically distributed (so, where I have for example a sexist idea, that is only because that idea has come from above).

Less helpful: Crispin adds further fuel to the fire of those who would dismiss feminists as merely being unhappy and causing unnecessary fuss. Crispin calls out “call out” culture for its misdirected outrage, but throws the baby out with the bathwater by lumping a lot of things into the “petty concerns” category. For example she briefly cites one case of calling-out a “second wave feminist who was unfamiliar with the relatively new phrase ‘intersectional'” as problematic. Since Kimberele Crenshaw came up with the idea in 1989 I’m not really buying the “relatively new” argument. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be skeptical of how intersectionality is sometimes deployed to further individualise rather than find common bonds, BUT Crispin’s dismissiveness here wreaks of disengagement with feminism outside of her immediate milieu. Where Crispin argues against “outrage culture”, she overlooks the amazing work of feminists such as Sara Ahmed who have been talking about the value of “feminist killjoy” for years.

4. Feminists don’t need to focus on men 

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Helpful: In parts of her book, Crispin suggests that structural oppression affects both men and women, and argues that we all need to work together to dismantle “the system”.

Less helpful: Despite her overall goal of radical social transformation, Crispin is strangely dismissive of men. In one part of the book she addresses male readers directly: “You as a man are not my problem. It is not my job to make feminism easy or understandable to you”. While I totally get the frustration that Crispin expresses here, it undermines her point that we should work for change on the basis of core political values (i.e. needing revolution) rather than identity (i.e. identifying as a woman).

5. We can’t change the world with our haircuts

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Helpful: Crispin argues that lifestyle politics—seeing the way we style our hair, the things we eat, etc, as having political effect—isn’t going to challenge the wider system that oppresses us. This is a vital argument to be had in a world where, for example, gardening is more popular than ever but there is little action on climate change. I say this even though I am vegetarian and insist on having long hair as a queer woman, so, you know.

Less helpful: Crispin isn’t generous to feminism, or women in general for that matter.

tumblr_ngg27iYud21u54vw6o1_250Ultimately Crispin’s book is a let down because after the whole Hilary Clinton thing, it feels like we do need another articulation of feminism, one that more explicitly engages with questions around capitalism and neoliberalism. Why I Am Not A Feminist unfortunately doesn’t go there.

Crispin makes some good points but it could have been that much better if she spent less time berating contemporary women and instead looked at how we can build on what we already have. In arguing for a narrow return to (some vague form of) radical feminism, she not only misses engaging with activism happening right now but she also overlooks over a century of interventions in mainstream feminist debates, which have come from women of colour, lesbian and bisexual women, working class women, trans women, and disabled women, not to mention *cough* Marxist revolutionary women.

Overall Crispin provides some useful food for thought, not the least of which is that when we’re articulating our manifestos we really need to look beyond ourselves.

The #Tay4Hottest100 Controversy

Taylor_Swift_Hottest_100_640x360Lately there’s been a bit of a kerfuffle going on in social media land about the recent bid to get Taylor Swift’s song ‘Shake It Off’ into the Triple J Hottest 100 this year. Instead of a straightforward essay-style argument about it, my girlfriend Geraldine and I decided to record a video of us discussing the issue. We had fun talking about it, so you might enjoy listening to it. If not, there’s always this instead.