A Tale of Two Trans Women (Part 6): Drag

“I would suggest as well that drag fully subverts the distinction between inner and outer psychic space and effectively mocks both the expressive model of gender and the notion of a true gender identity.” –Judith Butler

To those who are unfamiliar with queer culture, a drag performer is someone who dresses in the clothing of a gender that (often) differs from that of their own. Drag queens are (mostly cisgender gay) men (sometimes transgender women and non-binary individuals) who dress as women with exaggerated feminine qualities. It is often performed in a satirical manner–hence Butler viewing it as subversion of gender essentialism, the notion that gender is an inherent property of individual persons.

In her book, Gender Trouble, Butler argues that gender is “a stylized repetition of acts…which are internally discontinuous…[so that] the appearance of substance is precisely that, a construed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief”.

Stated differently, gender isn’t something within us, it is something that we do and its reality is dependent on our behavior. The behaviors that we adopt as part of this performance are informed by our cultural beliefs about gender. Thus, gender norms produce gender and conceal their normative force through our stylized repetitions leading us to believe that gender is essential to who we are.

Further, these norms are what are behind the heterosexual matrix mentioned in the last post. Recall that anyone who deviates from commonly accepted norms are difficult to understand by many in the dominant culture. This apparent unintelligibility of queer identities seems to present a challenge for any pragmatist defense of Katy’s status as a woman. However, this challenge is rather superficial.

Most of us understand that norms regulate our behaviors and one way they do that is by prohibition. For example, social norms dictate that we in Western culture greet our friends with smiles and a verbal acknowledgement. These same norms prohibit other behaviors such as avoiding eye contact. When they do happen, such behaviors are seen as rude and a kind of social sanction often follows.

What most people do not understand is that norms are also productive. They generate certain behaviors as much as they prohibit others. Using our example, we can view smiling as a behavior that is produced by Western social norms (in the context of this particular example). Thus, if norms are productive as well as prohibitive, then what might be said about queer identities as they relate to norms in the dominant culture?

The same norms that discourage and sanction queer identities are behind their production. Queer folks like Katy, even though they don’t occupy favorable social positions in dominant culture, are still part of it nonetheless, albeit in more marginalized positions. Therefore, Katy’s status as a woman isn’t challenged by it being difficult for others around her to understand.

What about drag? Drag is a kind of performance that exposes the spurious and unstable nature of gender and the norms that constitute it. How exactly is gender unstable and how might that instability produce queer bodies? If gender is more properly conceived of as performative, what are we to do with concepts like “gender identity”, “sex” and “sexuality”?

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