I recently came across a clip online of a wonderful comedian called Sara Pascoe talking about RuPaul’s Drag Race. She was talking about her preconceived notions of issues she, as a woman and a feminist, would have with drag — namely, her “gender being satirized.” “They say women,” she says, “but I’m a woman, and I’m not all covered in glitter and shit.”
Anyway, don’t worry, because after watching she admits the show is wonderful and amazing, which we all knew anyway. But she makes a really interesting point about drag and gender, which chimed with some abstract thoughts I’d had jangling about in my head for a while. They were thoughts about female appearance through the lens of beauty writing, which is what I do, and a real life human woman, which is who I am — but mostly inspired by my most favorite queen from the show (and I don’t say that lightly): Katya Zamolodchikova.
Katya has long been doing fun things with her appearance, and thus making fun (and, I guess, subversive) comments on female appearance generally. And in case you thought this was by accident, she actually also has a lot to say on the topic. Her unusual aesthetic is based on her desire to use drag as a way to expose “the crumbling foundation of that perfect image which women have to project.”
Wearing or not wearing makeup, then, are not intrinsically feminist or anti-feminist. What actually matters is the reason, the personal authority, the choice.
Katya seems determined to bring the variousness of femininity back to drag. Because as Pascoe points out, not all real life women are glamourous and fabulous at all times, nor should we feel we have to be. When talking pageant hair and her typical lack of enthusiasm for wearing it, she says, “I love women, and I like all types of women, not just women from Texas. I like women who are like, throw on a fleece and go to the corner store to get a cliff bar.” When criticised for her refusal to wear long false nails, she rebukes that it’s “misogynistic inherently to a degree to insist that a drag queen must represent a certain picture of womanhood for no apparent reason. Do women wear long acrylic nails? Yes some of them do, but not the kind that I’m modelling my drag after.”
While I don’t think “female” accoutrements like makeup and jewellery are intrinsically evil or oppressive, what is disturbing is the seeming lack of choice imposed on women to participate in them.
You are either polished ‘n’ poised, or you don’t count as female anymore. “If you’re a woman and you don’t wear makeup to your job, it’s not considered acceptable. That’s oppressive! It’s crazy.” Wearing or not wearing makeup, then, are not intrinsically feminist or anti-feminist. What actually matters is the reason, the personal authority, the choice.
A lack of choice plagues day-to-day female appearance, and because drag is a hyperbolic, performative take on femininity, the rules are stricter. Instead of it being a fun subversion on gender, it can become another form of policing what women are “supposed” to look like. Or, as Katya (more eloquently) puts it, “beauty and fashion, especially in drag because it’s so pronounced and exaggerated has become militarized; and now a part of fascism, cultural fascism.”
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And because of thousands of years of systemic patriarchal oppression, we only have one gang to thank for all of these rigid and impossibly strict rules. Obviously, the boys! The ones who don’t have to suffer the consequences of falling over in a five inch heel, or pay $300 for a haircut, or feel like a total garbage person if they don’t get a chance to put on mascara. It’s not fair and it’s not right. “Because while pain is beauty, let’s look at those styles and who they were created by. Men!”
While male privilege is often discussed in the form of better pay, easier access to managerial roles, higher percentage of home ownership, and all that boring stuff — there's also an important and oft ignored aspect of male privilege: the free pass to be gross.
“You can smell bad, look like shit, and people don’t think anything of it. But if a girl did that? ‘Oh God! Gross!’” To be a woman and be a mess is also some sort of statement about femininity, while for a guy it’s just them being in a rush. Women can never not be associated with their appearance. Think about that.
Which is what makes a drag artist’s views on this all the more interesting. Typically, out of drag, they identify as male, yet suffer the effects of their own gender’s oppression onto others for work. As Katya puts it, “My feet are fucked from high heels. And I’ve been doing drag mere minutes, I spend a tiny fraction of the time in them, and I think, why the fuck would women wear high heels? Once you put your male privilege into the equation, when you see it through the lens of your male privilege, it’s like wow, this is fuckin’ awful. A lot of it is just absolutely crazy.” That’s a thing that I think is important to keep in mind when making aesthetic decisions as a woman. Would a man want to do this? And if the answer is no, then it’s worth thinking about why.
A lot of decisions women make in the pursuit of beauty are at best inconvenient, at worst painful or even deadly. Which is fine, if a woman is making those decisions cognizant of their choice in the matter and knowledgeable of the risks. Like all things female-y and appearance-y, I think what matters is the sense of choice and intentionality. Katya, too, tries to move the focus from the “what” to the “why,” because every choice should be purposeful, rather than coerced or automatic.
Sara Pascoe claims none of the stunningly beautiful contestants on drag race pass for female “because they are so confident. They literally swan around, flicking their hair, accepting compliments. I don’t know a woman you can say anything nice to, ‘Oh, that’s a lovely dress!’ ‘No it isn’t, I found it in a bin!’ I feel like, we have to learn from them. If they can feel like viable attractive women with a cock and balls tucked between their bum cheeks, what is stopping us?”