"I woke up like this." So sayeth the 2013 Beyoncé anthem "Flawless," a song that also features a speech by feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. When it was released, the lyric caused some grumbling among feminists who took it literally, but in my experience, fans understand it how Beyoncé almost certainly meant it, as an ironic joke. We do not wake up like this. Feminine presentation, in particular, can be a lot of work, with heavy investment in hair, makeup and clothes. Plenty of folks feel like genderless puffbags when they wake up, until they groom and doll themselves up.
In other words, Beyoncé boiled down reams of Judith Butler-style feminist theory for the masses: Gender is a performance. It's an idea that caused much angsty academic debate for years. But when you put it like Beyoncé does, it starts to sound more like common sense.
"Flawless" has been rattling around in my head for months now, drawn out of my subconscious as reaction to months of growing right-wing attacks on drag shows. Just a couple of weeks ago, there was a mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs that left five people dead and 22 injured, on a night in which a drag show was scheduled. The alleged shooter has been charged with hate crimes. Groups like the Proud Boys have only escalated the harassment since then, successfully terrorizing some performers into canceling shows. CNN reports that investigators are exploring the theory that right-wing terrorists vandalized a power system in North Carolina, wiping out electricity for thousands of people, in an effort to shut down a drag show.
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Why the sudden right-wing obsession with drag shows? The simplest explanation is it's part of a deliberate increase in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and action from the MAGA movement in the wake of Donald Trump's 2020 election loss. Conservative media now regularly flings false accusations that LGBTQ people and allies are "grooming" children for sexual abuse. Books that feature queer characters are being banned from schools and libraries. Florida passed the infamous "don't say gay" law that is scaring teachers and students back into the closet. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott directed Child Protective Services to "investigate" families for accepting trans children. Republicans are attacking the right of trans people, especially kids, to play sports or receive gender-affirming care.
Even amid this onslaught, however, the paranoid focus on drag stands out, for the sheer volume of protests and vitriol. In addition to the now-regular protests and online threats, Republican-controlled state legislatures are threatening to ban drag and criminalize people who do it. Drag has become the focal point for right wingers intent on making homophobia great again after years of watching it recede in public life.
I have a theory as to why: Drag, probably more than any other cultural artifact of American life, exposes how much of femininity — and how much of gender overall — is socially constructed. The whole point of drag is to celebrate how much you did not wake up like this. The exaggeration of drag draws attention to the lesser, but still time-consuming, effort that everyday women and other femme-presenting people put into performing their identity. As feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir wrote in 1949, "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman." Drag, like Beyoncé, takes that concept out of the lofty world of academic theory and makes it part of the pop culture understanding of gender.
Needless to say, conservatives hate that. The growing fascist right, as represented by the Proud Boys and other MAGA-centric groups, especially hates that. As I've written before, it's important to understand how much the surge of far-right politics in our era is rooted in misogyny. Fascists recruit by appealing to straight male insecurity and grievance over women's burgeoning equality. They motivate each other with the promise that they can return men to some imaginary glory days when the line between the genders was thick and inflexible, and women's role was unquestionably that of subservience to men.
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In service to that ideal, they tend to argue that gender is not socially constructed, but a biological imperative. It's easier to cast women as a born servant class if everything culturally associated with women — especially the way women are expected to look, walk and talk — is deemed to be "natural" rather than understood as learned and practiced behaviors. Drag performers and trans people, simply by existing, throw a wrench into that understanding. They stir up not just queerphobic rage, but misogynistic insecurity about how all of us perform our genders. That double whammy is fueling the redoubled rage against trans people and drag performers we're seeing all around us. More to the point, right-wing culture warriors do not draw fine distinctions between misogyny, homophobia and transphobia. It's one big rat king of gender insecurity and fury for them, one that drag especially aggravates.
Drag exposes how much of femininity — and how much of gender overall, masculinity included — is socially constructed. Fascists hate that, since they need to believe gender is a biological imperative.
Conservatives aren't just unnerved because drag reveals how much of femininity is performative. The thing is, once you understand that, it starts to become clear how much that's true of masculinity as well. Those right-wing militia dudes marching around in camo and wielding assault rifles are, in their own way, doing masculinity drag. Granted, it's a lot less fun than the more familiar version. There's always a grim, sad character to the chest-thumping theatrics of right wing hyper-masculinity. Despite all the showy proclamations of courage and strength, you get a strong whiff of fear and weakness from such behavior. They seem to worry that relaxing, even for a moment, will expose the soft-handed losers underneath the guns and baggy cargo shorts. They most definitely did not wake up like this, and are terrified that we can see that. (Believe me, we do.)
As readers may have surmised by this point, I'm a big-time fan of "RuPaul's Drag Race," and would be happy if it ran for a dozen more seasons. From the beginning, it was important to RuPaul that we see the performers living their offstage lives and especially how they self-present when they're not in drag. This was initially controversial, as Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez explain in their book "Legendary Children: The First Decade of RuPaul's Drag Race and the Last Century of Queer Life." Some drag queens believed it was important never to pierce the illusion. But I think doing so was clearly the right call, precisely because it reveals — and honors — the work that goes into constructing gender. That's true not just of the cisgendered male contestants, but of the women and non-binary folks, as well. We see the gulf between how people roll out of bed, how they look in their everyday lives (which also takes work!) and the padded-and-painted queens who appear on stage. We're never allowed to forget that their — and our — waking hours are largely a performance, both onstage and off.
"Drag Race" has helped mainstream drag, even though we should make clear that drag has played a role in American pop culture for decades, if not centuries. RuPaul's show also made drag into a family-friendly entertainment, at least when it gets stripped of some of the raunchier humor. And why not? Kids understand playing dress-up, probably better than some of us adults who have been doing it so long we start to forget that it is dress-up. (Given the shock some adults expressed when Sen.-elect John Fetterman of Pennsylvania put on a suit, you'd think we were born in the clothes we wear.) In a healthy society, we'd be delighted to see drag queens in small-town Christmas parades, which the Washington Post reports caused so much controversy in Taylor, Texas. Drag is a reminder to take ourselves all a little less seriously, to remember that whatever self-presentation we choose is a choice, and to have some fun with it.
But of course, the right is melting down because gender, to conservatives, is deadly serious business. It determines who gets rights and privileges. It's about who gets listened to and who gets told to shut up. It dictates who deserves to be a person and who has to live as an object. You can't play with gender. It's meant to be a prison, at least for anyone who isn't a straight cisgendered man. (And arguably it's a kind of prison for them too.) If people start questioning what gender even means, then the whole right-wing system of power allocation begins to crumble. That's why the histrionic hatred of drag has been playing out onthe right for months now. For most people, drag is about being playful and having fun. For the paranoid, fascist right, however, it's an existential threat.