#YouTriedIt: Complicating Comparisons of Drag and Blackface
By Jay Dodd
A recent post from Mary Cheney (Fmr. Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter), she positioned the work of drag in comparison to that of blackface.Before we get any further, I think it is important to reiterate this comparison is sloppy and not needed. There are a variety of ways to critique drag (which we will get to) but to position it in conversation with such explicit anti-Blackness is intellectually lazy and erases many intersections of gender and race. Though there is a question underneath the sweeping sentiment. As Slate contributor Miz Cracker (a white/white-passing drag queen) already propositioned:
Is drag degrading to women?
I believe inherently, no, however with the rampant misogyny in the queer/gay community, I’m am slow to believe that we are doing enough to combat degradation. An often misguided rhetoric around drag is that performers all want to be women, or are committed to replicating women. Yes, there are many trans drag queens/kings, but the performance aspect is the critical feature. Like theater, dance, music and most art forms there are a variety of drag styles. The vocabulary of drag is so expansive there many entrances of empowerment and subversiveness to notions of femininity.
An often used critique is that drag queens, mock femininity / women. As part of Cheney’s original critique she mentioned that drag artists often “act out every offensive stereotype of women (bitchy, catty, dumb, slutty, etc.)”. This doesn’t address the problem of how personality traits are gendered and misogyny colors our adjective use. This thinking points at the symptom of (some largely uncreative) drag performances and not at the misogyny that permeates such creations. A problem with the cis-queer community is misogyny (not to mention racism, transphobia, among others). This is why many drag performances feel mocking or condescending.
The work of blackface, however, is only violent.
Mockery and shame and historical violence are rampant throughout blackface. From America’s first film to Hollywood starlets looking “halloween fun,” minstrelsy rests on reproducing Black subject available for demonization and ridicule. The history of blackface as part of American theater paints how violently un-human, Black folk are seen and read. There is very specific white supremacist power in minstrelsy’s long popularity that drag will never attain.
The politics of queer performance are too nuanced and multi-faceted to be compared to the archaic and vehemently damaging act of minstrelsy.
Discussions of why blackface is the worst are long catalogued and researched and the one aspect of this discussion that has yet to surface ishow many drag queens adopt certain minstrelsies under the guise of “performance”. White queens can often be clocked fetishizing Black men, using AAVE, utilizing coded Black (and Latin@) tropes for their acts/characters, not to mention blatantly tanning + blackening their skin for performances. Like the underlying misogyny, there is a unsettling current of racism that can permeate drag and those are the only places were a comparison can be drawn.
The politics of queer performance are too nuanced and multi-faceted to be compared to the archaic and vehemently damaging act of minstrelsy. There are ways to critique drag, but any reading must direct its accusation to the misogynistic and racist centers of the offense.
This post originally appeared here.