Commodification, Appropriation, Performativity and the Indy Pride Drag Lady

One of the ongoing themes of our in-class discussions over the past week and a half has been the commodification of radical subculture: Every frat boy who’s ever smoked a joint has a poster of Bob Marley hanging in his dorm room. White adolescent men make up the majority of hip-hop consumers. The lyrics to Lady Gaga’s anthem celebrating (liberal pluralistic) “diversity” are filled with racist slurs against the minorities she is supposedly trying to uplift.

Our discussion has generally been limited to racial appropriation within mainstream culture. With this week’s topic of drag within hooks’ and Butler’s articles, I’d like to examine the ways in which this phenomenon can impact and alter queer self-representation.

Take Indy Pride, for example. Pride festivals were originally intended to serve the dual functions of providing a (temporary) safe space for queer expression and increasing the visibility of these expressions. They had a radical purpose; they were supposed to make the world a queerer place.

This is not meant as some sort of glorified history of Pride festivals. Certainly, they had certain flaws from their very inception. However, I do wish to provide some sort of context for what is lost when radical spaces are commodified and appropriated.

Indy Pride 2011 had been both commodified and appropriated. In a crowd of people walking hand-in-hand (or leash-in-hand) with their same-sex partner were a number of relatively heteronormative-looking couples whose primary objective seemed to be photographing every instance of same-sex affection—seriously. Among the tables for Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and LGBT-friendly churches were booths where gay and lesbian couples could sign up for a shared membership at Sam’s Club. The message was clear: Queer was cool, queer was profitable.

Within this environment, I was not expecting much from the drag show. True, there was no cover to get in, so in that aspect, at least, capitalism had not yet triumphed. Yet there were also advertisements hung from the stage and played over the speakers between each performer, and with the July heat and a total lack of shade, it would have been nearly impossible for anyone not to purchase a $5 softdrink.

bell hooks discusses both the radical and conservative potentials of drag. Drag, she says, allowed her to temporarily inhabit a position of dominance within a patriarchal social order, but it also allowed black men to profit from that patriarchal social order by enacting caricatures of black women. Furthermore, the most positive representations of women performed by men in drag are generally representations of white womanhood, with black womanhood once again relegated to the sidelines.

The Indy Pride Bag Ladies had two drag kings among their numbers, but how these kings felt about temporarily performing masculinity, they didn’t say. The drag queens did little to disprove hooks’ criticisms of drag; they were by and large white men enacting white womanhood to songs originally performed by white female stars. However, there was one unconventional aspect of the Bag Ladies’ performance, which may have salvaged some sort of radical component of the day, at least from the Butlerian perspective of performativity: Despite their wigs, makeup, and too-tight gowns, none of the Bag Ladies were truly trying to hide the signs of their biological maleness. Some even had mustaches.

The Bag Ladies’ appearances were a striking reminder that femininity is never natural. Their performances can serve as a more dramatic way to see the performative nature of all gender—the real, repetitive work that goes into maintaining a gender ‘identity.’ Watching the Bag Ladies’ show may not have caused a radical shift in consciousness for everyone in the audience any more than signing up for a Sam’s Club membership allowed same-sex couples to enter into the privileged realm of capitalist heteronormativity. Nevertheless, it did open a brief gap in the seemingly seamless framework of gender norms.

– Jazzi Kelley

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