Drag is the most expensive, time consuming, unrecognized Olympic sport and art form. I am not a drag queen (I’ve only tried drag twice), but I’ve been exposed to a fair share of the culture. I’ve watched numerous drag shows, organized some, and, like the good queer I am, I religiously follow the TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race (my all-time dream is to be able to death drop successfully).
But while we praise drag queens for their courage, talent, and much needed deconstruction of social gender roles (all of which I believe to be very worthy of merit), we sometimes lack an awareness about the ways it can be offensive. I do not wish to say that all queens are inherently oppressive, but it is undeniable that some, like all of us, end up reproducing hateful remarks and negative stereotypes.
Yes, it is important to recognize that a lot of it comes from a place of humour and satire, which can be constructive and very valuable for the LGBTQ* community. But the largest problem, as I see it, is the fact that drag queens get a ‘free pass’ and disguise oppression with humour (even though it might be done unintentionally). It is also important to be aware that drag has been the subject of a lot of prejudice, which has required the development of thick skin and certain defense mechanisms (throwing shade and reading).
Many drag queens, however, identify as men, and choose to dress up in drag. That means that they still benefit from the privileges of being male, and are able to choose when they are called by feminine pronouns. So when they are up on a stage referencing, and sometimes mocking, women’s experiences, their humour is nothing but a guess and might trivialize the experience of self-identified women.
When it comes to the LGBTQ* community, drag has the potential to highlight how arbitrary our gender constructions are, thereby having the potential to be liberating for many. It also gives people a reclaimed space and spotlight to be unapologetically themselves and creatively laugh at certain oppressions they faced for whatever reason – a powerful tool to humanize gender and sexual minorities and point out how hurtful stereotypes can be. However, the method through which this can be accomplished is sometimes more harmful than constructive. By directing attention to the audience and reproducing hateful remarks (such as faggot, slut, whore, and racial slurs), drag queens can easily reproduce certain intolerance found in mainstream society. Risqué and dark humour are a popular representation of how oppression can be disguised as ‘just for fun’, and thereby shut down any attempts to increase sensitivity and inclusion in drag culture. I’ve seen many queens who refuse to use inclusive language and deem it to be detrimental to their humour, claiming that people nowadays are too sensitive and cannot take a joke – a discourse similar to that found in mainstream society as a way to take away the validity of the experiences of those who are oppressed. So, any remarks about how certain humour might actually be hurtful gets shut down by remarks that it’s ‘just drag’, which prevents humour and parody from evolving into a safer space for all.
In fact, such style of humour might exclude certain individuals. People who are trans might not feel included given a perceived mockery of what it means to be a woman or a man which trivializes trans experiences. People of colour might avoid drag spaces given some jokes made at the expense of ethnic minorities which tend to tokenize them and further stereotype them negatively.
Don’t get me wrong, I love drag and have myself felt liberated by it. I also believe humour is immensely valuable to break barriers and point out the stupidity of oppressive beliefs. But we must not forget that drag queens, just like any of us, are exposed to a largely oppressive society, and it becomes unavoidable that some will reproduce such dynamics. The problem is that these environments might reproduce an exclusive culture through a glorification of risqué humour done at the expense of different minorities. Constructive criticism, then, is perceived as over-sensitivity and exaggeration, silencing many.
With drag becoming a more well-known art form, we must not cease to be critical about it. Simply because drag can be a tool of liberation and social awareness, that does not make it immune from a critical glance. As a queer man, I am very wary of any discourse which condemns people’s reactions as being ‘too sensitive’ or ‘too politically correct’. It is a disservice to society at large – but especially minority groups – to take away the legitimacy from somebody’s reaction simply in the name of humour. I suggest we move forward and stop policing how other people react. Instead, let us make drag a more inclusive art form by welcoming critique and extending kindness.