Schwartz: Let’s talk misconceptions about drag

Alex Schwartz, Op-Ed Contributor

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People often ask me why I love drag queens so much. They wonder why I find the prospect of men dressing up as women so entertaining, why I constantly relate situations to scenes of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and why I occasionally yell, “yaaas” or “werk” at seemingly random instances.

Granted, some elements of drag culture may quite literally be a little loud for some people, but, at a basic level, I see it as far more than just lip-syncing or wigs. It is one of the most accessible social movements in modern progressive culture, and there are many reasons why people choose to be a part of this community.

The first thing about drag that stands out to most people is its entertainment value. These men endure painful heels, stifling wigs and inches-thick makeup just to turn out a few short numbers on stage for their audiences. Some queens are known for their iconic looks; some give air-tight lip-sync performances; some tell hilarious jokes; some sing and dance; and some do all of the above. A drag show is one of the most entertaining events you can attend, and to enjoy it you don’t need to identify as LGBTQ.

Watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the popular TV show that pits America’s finest drag queens against one another to become America’s next drag superstar (a phrase which, not coincidentally, sounds a lot like “America’s Next Top Model”), is a great way to get introduced to the drag community. Besides being funny, awe-inspiring and of course dramatic (as reality TV usually is), it reminds its viewers that drag queens are people too. Throughout each season, contestants reveal personal information about themselves. They often represent the most marginalized members of the LGBTQ community, having dealt with everything from bullying to abandonment because of their identities. The fact that so many of the contestants on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” use drag as a means of discovering themselves and expressing their personalities to the world reminds all who watch the show how instrumental drag is in our society’s quest for equality.

Drag’s underlying social meaning is less obvious and even, in some cases, hotly contested.

Some have accused drag queens of “gender appropriation,” arguing that somehow these men are making fun of women by wearing heavy makeup and heels, in a few cases even likening drag to blackface and yellowface. On the surface, this might actually be an intuitive thought process: If we’re not OK with pretending to be a different race, why are we OK with pretending to be a different gender?

However, opponents of the drag community don’t realize that drag is actually antagonistic to misogyny; they just see it as a silly derision of women. What they fail to understand is this: Drag isn’t a mockery of women. It’s a mockery of the beauty standards society places on women. It’s a physical representation of the social construct of gender. A drag queen attempts to become “the ideal woman” in order to ridicule the backwards belief that such a concept exists. Just as there is no “normal” type of woman, there is no “normal” type of drag queen.

Drag is the ironic performance of gender, an exaggeration of what society has arbitrarily dubbed the most desirable feminine characteristics. In fact, many drag queens like to say that they’re not trying to look like women, that instead they’re trying to look like drawings of women.

Drag may also seem intuitively at odds with the transgender community, who might view impermanent gender performance as making light of their struggles with transitioning. However, both communities view gender as a social construct. The art of drag is a testament to their struggles with society’s rigid gender norms.

RuPaul, arguably the world’s most famous drag queen and a media mogul, frequently quotes one of his own song’s lyrics. “We’re all born naked, and the rest is drag,” he says. Therein lies drag’s central purpose: to show us that we don’t need to live under the standards society dictates. We can become the architects of our own identities, and we can choose how we want to express them.

So go to a drag show in Chicago. Watch an episode of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Even participate in one of the many drag events on campus throughout the year. If you don’t learn a little about your own personality or the struggles the LGBTQ community faces, at least you’ll learn the words to “My Heart Will Go On.” What could be the harm in that?

Alex Schwartz is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at alexanderschwartz2020@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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