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Ladies, gaga: What drag is doing for women

Wesley Morris, The Boston Globe

Maybe you’re shy, or a shut-in. Maybe you’re single and don’t want to be. Maybe all that truck driving, dog walking, kid raising, and company running has sapped your femininity.

You’re a woman, and whatever the reason, you long to feel sexy and glamorous for a change. A spa day usually does the trick. But this is a deeper, almost spiritual problem that no spa — or therapist or “Sex and the City” binge — can cure. You could turn to your girlfriends or your sisters or your stack of Sophie Kinsella books. Instead, you do something more drastic, something more unexpected.

You dress in drag.

That’s the premise of the drag queen RuPaul’s new show — “RuPaul’s Drag U.” It takes biological women who feel disconnected from themselves, and, under the tutelage of a bunch of professional male drag queens, gives them heels, a giant wig, and a drag name, like Saline Dion. They sashay down a runway. They lip synch. They dance. “I had no idea how much work went into being a woman,” says one contestant whose drag name was Kornisha Kardashian. At the end of the runway competition, a winner is selected. Everybody seems moved.

Even if you’ve been following the steady mainstreaming of gay culture, this premise may come as a perverse shock. Drag is the art of men borrowing — and often parodying — the archest and most extreme womanly characteristics. They razor-line their lips and give themselves giant hair as a kind of subversive theater. A woman, presumably, can do this whenever she feels like it. So it seems strange, not to say retrograde, for a woman to turn to a drag queen not simply to look like a woman but to feel like one.

But the women on “Drag U” may just be picking up on something in the culture. Female celebrities — think of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj — have all cheekily incorporated elements of drag into their personas. In their dramatic hair, dramatic costumes, dramatic makeup, dramatic drama, they’re biological women borrowing the drag-queen version of women. Two years ago, Beyoncé unveiled a draggy alter ego named Sasha Fierce — an amusing career move that becomes hilarious if you happen to think “Beyoncé” already sounded fabulously draggy. Mariah Carey’s nom de drag is Mimi, her dark, almost more appealing inner vamp. As for Lady Gaga, who was born Stephanie Germanotta — what really separates her from the drag veteran and “Drag U” judge Lady Bunny, besides a couple decades, a few crucial inches, and a chromosome?

RuPaul's Drag U

For decades, drag has exalted, luxuriated in, and caricatured certain ideas of how it seems to be a woman. It’s part tribute, part exploitation. Drag has used women. Now women, clearly, are using it back.

The reasons they’re doing it say something about what “femininity” has come to mean — and also what gay culture has come to mean. Whatever it is that some women feel they’ve lost touch with in the 40 or so years since the women’s movement, drag gives them a chance to rediscover it. They get something from drag that they don’t get from a normal makeover — it lets them perform womanliness, to try it on like a new outfit, but with the label still attached.

The benefits for women are clear. For gay culture, they might be less so. A woman in drag has the potential to change the whole point of drag. If Lady Gaga is so good at this sort of ironic gender theater — if “drag” is just something for anyone to try on — what’s left for the Lady Bunnys of the world?

Lady Bunny may have cause to worry. The history of drag would seem to give the impersonator the advantage over the impersonated. For centuries, cross-dressing was a way for men to capitalize on the social disadvantages of women — they couldn’t fight in combat, they couldn’t perform on stage. Trojan War myth has it that Achilles dressed like a woman to avoid his doomed military fate. Women, meanwhile, dressed as men to escape persecution, or overcome injustice — though it could catch up with them. One of the stated reasons for Joan of Arc’s being burned at the stake was that she wore men’s clothes.

Drag, as it arose in more recent gay culture, recognized a shared sense of persecution between women and gay men. Ostracized men found both refuge and kindred spirits in the glamour of classical Hollywood, theater, and opera. Drag always had a warm side, honoring the sort of strength of character that a boy might perceive in his mother. But it could also slide easily into harshness, especially when a queen overdoses on Bette Davis, Rosalind Russell, and Joan Crawford — no longer seeing women, but gargoyles. Drag queens use the term “bitch” as much as NWA ever did, and at some point, most performers seem to start channeling the high-class bullies on “Dynasty.” (There’s a similar, but separate, tradition of black comedians — Jamie Foxx, Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Tyler Perry, all descendants of Flip Wilson — in either mammy or ghetto-fabulous drag.)

As much as it was about women, drag in this classic sense wasn’t for women. That seemed fair. It was the biological women who were the superstars. And not just the vintage ones — more modern stars like Bette Midler, Cher, and Madonna have conceded that their careers would be different without the support and makeup tips of queens. The impersonators, meanwhile, remained cult acts.

The turning point was the advent of RuPaul, who, by the way, was born with that name (his surname is Charles). In 1993, RuPaul released the hit single, “Supermodel (You Better Work),” whose video starred the singer, a very tall black man, walking down runways in bikinis, heels, and a lustrous blond wig. It was both a surreal and perfectly normal parody of fashion world flamboyance. RuPaul became the world’s most famous and perhaps most important drag queen. If he didn’t entirely normalize drag, he at least made it seem palatable by its relative ubiquity. By the 1990s, there were mainstream drag-queen movies — and perhaps the most domestic drag queen of all, Edna Turnblad, the housefrau in the movie-turned-musical-turned-movie “Hairspray,” always played by a man.

But even in its domestication, drag has retained a kind of power. You can see what a young female aspiring pop star might see in a very good drag queen — the same thing little boys, in the 1970s, saw in Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand: incandescence and strength. It takes guts for Stephanie Germanotta to fully inhabit Lady Gaga, with the surreal outfits and wigs. But as she’s admitted more than once, she’s doing this so all the other insecure girls out there don’t feel so much like freaks.

This is the motivating force of “RuPaul’s Drag U.” On each episode, three women arrive more or less as Edna Turnblad and hope to transform into Sasha Fierce. Each student is paired with a drag queen and shown the mechanics of good drag — how to tease hair, walk a runway, dance. The show is comical kitsch. Drag names and potential looks for each enrollee are chosen by a fake computer called The Dragulator. The instructors — the Henry Higginses of drag — make catty comments about one another and express exaggerated doubt about the likelihood of their pupils to “draguate.”

The result is something much more sophisticated than a makeover show. The creation of a persona is a collaborative process that starts with the person beneath. Several of the women say they’re afraid of their bodies and hide them under baggy pants and shirts. Others say they feel more equal to a man when they dress like one. They offer personal histories of fatigue, sexual abuse, and crippling self-consciousness. The instructors address their problems with the seriousness of a counselor, if not with the wisdom of one. And as the drag queens build them into something new, it’s interesting watching the women stand up for themselves. When a student doesn’t like a look, she says so. If she’s feeling compromised or uncomfortable, she’ll mention that, too. The high point isn’t the runway show at the end but the one-on-one meeting RuPaul has with each contestant, in which he discusses not only their drag goals, but often their life goals. It’s obvious that he recognizes some of himself in these women. He’s feels their pain, because, in some way, he’s been there.

The women, in turn, say they’re truly transformed by the experience. To a viewer, it feels different from the average public makeover you see on a show like Oprah Winfrey’s. It’s not just a new haircut or a smaller waistline these women are getting, but — perhaps oddly — a new appreciation of their innate womanliness. They’re extracting someone who already lived within them — what the drag queens call their inner diva. It’s like going all the way to Oz to realize you were in Kansas all along.

“Inner diva” sounds jokey, but it gets to the heart of what makes drag matter. A meek woman is allowed to taste strength by turning her femaleness into theater. Drag is not about sex, in other words: It’s about power.

Sex, in this stylized world, is a subject but rarely pursued as a goal. It’s not something you have, but something you flaunt, mock, and subvert. This distinguishes the draggy modern pop star from, say, Madonna, who toyed with gender and the possible limits of femininity but who, in her prime, also embodied real carnality and seduction. Her progeny are just playing with identity. They want to look like drag queens.

For real women, of course, drag also has its limits. If you want to seem approachably sexy, the wig and costumes must eventually go. As a case in point, the second video from Katy Perry’s new record, “Teenage Dream,” which came out Tuesday, puts her in a car with a cute guy. She looks very much like her dragless self — like a young woman — and her prize isn’t some stagey, Gaga-esque encounter among surreal plastic orbs. It’s the real thing: a trip to a motel, where her jeans are unzipped.

When that real connection happens — when the woman realizes her femininity as something more real than theatrical — the drag queens are nowhere in sight. And this might be the insidious downside of the entire enterprise, at least for the gay men who are sharing their beauty tips. As with “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” — an even more wildly successful TV application of gay savvy to straight relationships — gays are coming awfully close to lifestyle maids and butlers. They’re the cultural help, the people you see only when you need their services. After so many years of empowering so many straight people, you have to wonder: Who’s going to empower them?

Wesley Morris is a film critic for the Globe. E-mail wmorris@globe.com.

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Beyonce, Gaga, and Katy Perry in Drag

This NPR (are you even surprised?) article on the not-so-subtle relationship between drag and pop stars brings up a lot of interesting points:

  • It gets at my subtle uneasiness for Lady Gaga.  I mean, don’t get me wrong – Lady Gaga rocks my socks off.  Her concerts are fantastic and so is her “platform” of gay rights and love, but some times I want more than just connecting with her larger than life character.
  • It gets at a bit of my research! (Don’t know?  Read my about me.) As far as music is concerned, we are at the core of the mid-70s with the rise of spunky glam rock with just a dash of punk’s volatility.

Labelle with multiple personalities beside Beyonce as Sasha Fierce.

Dragtastic Elton John circa mid-70s next to Stephanie Germanotta as Lady Gaga.

  • But why women?  This article doesn’t get out how the glam rock seen is remembered for its male performance artists: Freddie Mercury from Queen, David Bowie, Elton John, Kiss….  Yet now, when male singers take on a character, it’s generally one that epitomizes masculinity – talking about slappin’ bitches and doing hos.
  • And why now?  I think it’s due to the rise of MTV (origin in the mid-70s) and our ADHD need to be constantly surprised and entertained.  Take for example, the latest glam pop craze mentioned in the article – Nicki Minaj.  On her recent mixtape, Beam Me Up Scotty, she introduced herself as a plethora of people (read below).  She already has split personalities and she hasn’t even released an album.

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Pop Personae: Why Do Some Women Perform in Character?

Zoe Chace

(Embedded links are from Chace)

There are some pop stars right now who look a lot like drag queens — Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Beyonce, Katy Perry, even Ke$ha. I went to an apartment full of pillows and animal prints to ask an expert why this is so. It’s the home of Bebe Zahara Benet, winner of the first season of the glitter-drenched reality show Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Is there anything in particular about these pop stars that reminds Bebe of her colleagues? She opens her eyes wide and stares at me.

“You mean everything they wear?!” she says, laughing. “That’s my answer. Everything they wear — everything they wear on that stage is drag.” It’s the wigs. It’s the coats. It’s the dresses that look like lampshades made of lollipops. It’s the velvet stilettos that somehow resemble Slinkys.

“When you do the art form of drag, you can be whatever or whoever you want to be, and you can say whatever you want to say,” explains Benet. “I think a lot of these female artists have noticed that it’s powerful. They can use it as a platform to express themselves, even if that’s not who they are in their daily lives. They found that secret.”

Beyonce becomes Sasha Fierce when she performs. Katy Perry puts on a bright blue wig to walk the red carpet. And Stephanie Germanotta, better known as Lady Gaga, wears sunglasses made of cigarettes and sells out stadiums.

Gaga does a lot of interviews (though she declined NPR’s request for one) — and in every one, she says some version of this:

“I want to create a space for my fans where they can feel free and they can celebrate because I didn’t fit in in high school, and I felt like a freak.  So I like to create this atmosphere for my fans where they feel like they have a freak in me to hang out with, and they don’t feel alone!”

That was on Ellen last May. And this year she said the same thing to journalist Toure, on his web show On the Record with Fuse. Her fans are indeed flying their freak flags — by the millions.

“I definitely relate to her because I don’t fit in at school either,” says Katharine Weiss, from outside “The Monster Ball”, as Lady Gaga’s current tour is called, in St. Louis, Missouri. “But, her, as a person, just helps me get through.” Weiss is wearing an “I Heart Lady GayGay” T-shirt. Her friend, Sam Mandry, is wearing an outfit that he describes as “an homage to her outfit at the V Festival in England,” and he’s carrying a “disco stick, as always.” Mandry says Lady Gaga is “creating this space so that people can feel free and dress how they want and be how they want, and it’s like, we’re all crazy because of her.” Seeing the hairbows and leotards on parade outside the venue, I have to agree with that assessment.

Gaga has started calling her fans “monsters.” 18-year-old Darnell Purt is one of those them. He just graduated high school in Brooklyn.

“We’re all monsters,” he says. “Like, if they think that I’m a monster because I’m bi, or I’m a hermaphrodite, or I dress funny, or I’m gay-friendly, then we’re all monsters. We’re all crazy monsters.”

When it comes to creating outsized personas, there’s someone going toe to toe with Gaga’s monster brand. Here’s how she introduced herself on one of her songs on a recent mixtape, Beam Me Up Scotty:

“I’m Nicki Minaj; Nicki Lewinski; Nicki the Ninja; Nicki the Boss; Nicki the Harajuku Barbie.”

Nicki Minaj the Rapper hasn’t even released her first album. But if you listen to pop radio you can’t escape her. It sounds as though she’s guesting on every song this summer. What makes Minaj stand out — besides her supply of Lil Kim wigs and burlesque outfits — is her bottomless closet of characters. In one song alone, she’s Jamaican, she’s Queens, she’s British. Not to mention childlike, gangster, valley girl. Recently she introduced a new character to the mix, whom she named “Roman Zolanski.” 22-year old Britney Ross really connects with Roman.

“Have you ever noticed,” Britney asked me on the phone from her car in Chicago, “when Nicki puts on an English accent in interviews? That’s Roman.  When Roman comes out, that’s when all the voices and all the crazy styles start to come out.”

Ross loves Nicki’s alter egos so much, she’s been going to a club just outside the city, Secrets, and performing as Nicki Minaj for over a year.

“Sometimes I’m shy,” Britney says. “But when Roman — or Nicki — comes on, that just goes out the window. I don’t think about it anymore, I just do it.  That’s why I like Roman. That’s why I like being Roman.” Minaj’s almost cartoonish shape-shifting grabs her fans and hooks them. They get involved and start to tell stories.

Take 20-year old Naquasha Baker — a self-appointed expert on Nicki Minaj.  She’s been closely following the rapper’s career since her first mix tape — which was years ago, even though Minaj is just blowing up on the radio now.  Baker is a friend of Darnell Purt’s, the Lady Gaga fan in Brooklyn.

“Her father was mad abusive,” Baker tells me. “He would drink all the time.  And then to get away from her life, she would pretend that she was somebody else. So that she didn’t have to deal with the issues and the problems that her family were having. I think that’s where she gets that Harajuku Barbie thing from. In real life, that’s what people do [to get out of a bad situation], they pretend they are somebody else.”

This story is backed up by an interview Minaj gave to The Fader magazine (though she, too, declined NPR’s request for one). Baker read it because she reads everything about Minaj.

Just like Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj has named her followers. She calls them her “Barbies” and she has an army of them on Facebook and Twitter. On Facebook, Nicki Minaj imitator Britney Ross goes by “Britney Lil’Bee Zolanski”.

This generation really gets alter egos. They also have a personal stash of identities for different situations — they’re constantly deploying different versions of themselves online: one for Facebook, one for Twitter, one for going out at night. Darnell Purt’s alter ego is called Lord Glam.

“When I’m Lord Glam,” says Purt, “dancing in the club or performing in front of people, it’s a different kind of rush, it’s a different feeling. I have more confidence. It’s like Beyonce with Sasha Fierce. I kind of relate to her because I know there’s two sides. When I walk down the street, people are like, ‘Oh, Lady Gaga!’ Which is cool.” Because of Lady Gaga’s ubiquity, Lord Glam has a place in the world he maybe didn’t have before.

This is a modern phenomenon, but that doesn’t mean it’s new, says Judith Halberstam, who teaches media studies at the University of Southern California.

“Look back at the 19th century at people like Oscar Wilde,” she suggests. “Oscar Wilde may well be one of the early people who created a public persona for himself and then was happy, when called upon, to perform this role of the glib dandy who was full of one-liners.”

Instead of spinning around helplessly in a media cycle devoted to his outlandish behavior, Wilde grabbed the steering wheel. Halberstam says the British punk band The Sex Pistols did much the same thing in 1976, when they upended a live television show by lobbing expletives at the host. Halberstam sees this as a seminal moment, where a band used a created persona to manipulate their media coverage.

“It marked a new era in the way that performers were going to interact with the supposedly neutral machine that was just there to capture them,” she says.

The artists found the controls for the machine, and started feeding it images of their own creation. David Bowie created Ziggy Stardust, an extra-terrestrial version of his glam rocker self. In the ’80s, cross-dressing disco queen Grace Jones satirized popular images of black women whenever she stepped in front of a camera. Rapper Lil Kim showed up on MTV in the ’90s wearing a pink wig and matching stilettos as if to say, “You want sexy? I’ll give you a very explicit sexy, and see if you can handle it.”

Is this empowering or exploitative? For women, it can be a fine line. These musicians frequently have all-male management teams, who often push a female singer to be provocative to get exposure quickly. And the women’s images, for better or worse, directly affect the fans who follow them.

These days, that power is almost immediate. There are so many platforms for exposure, an artist’s team needs to be pretty savvy to navigate all of them consistently, in a way that will make fans catch on and stay with them. The window to make an impression is short. One video is watched by millions, all over the world, in a matter of minutes.  As current pop star Ke$ha puts it, “I have three and a half minutes to change somebody’s mood, and if I can make them in a better mood, that’s like magic. That’s like magic mind control.”

So are these stars controlling their fans, controlling their media coverage, or just enabling everyone’s inner drag queen to come out?

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The End of Men – The Atlantic

Men in ancient Greece tied off their left testicle in an effort to produce male heirs; women have killed themselves (or been killed) for failing to bear sons.

That’s messed up, right?

In this article, “The End of Men,” Hanna Rosin states that gender inequality is changing at rapid speeds in America (this tune would sound a lot differently in China): Earlier this year, women became the majority of the workforce for the first time in U.S. history. Most managers are now women too. And for every two men who get a college degree this year, three women will do the same. More than ever before parents want girls.  Is the modern postindustrial economy simply more congenial to women?

Over the course of this incredibly wonderful, long-ass, thought-provoking article, Rosin shows, through the workforce, economy, and education, how the virile macho man is becoming obsolete.  Here is the final portion of her essay, on how this shift is being reflected in pop culture, although I encourage you to take 20 minutes and absorb the entire piece.  Do it.  It’s fascinating.

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“The End of Men,” Hanna Rosin,  The Atlantic

American pop culture keeps producing endless variations on the omega male, who ranks even below the beta in the wolf pack. This often-unemployed, romantically challenged loser can show up as a perpetual adolescent (in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up or The 40-Year-Old Virgin), or a charmless misanthrope (in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg), or a happy couch potato (in a Bud Light commercial). He can be sweet, bitter, nostalgic, or cynical, but he cannot figure out how to be a man. “We call each other ‘man,’” says Ben Stiller’s character in Greenberg, “but it’s a joke. It’s like imitating other people.” The American male novelist, meanwhile, has lost his mojo and entirely given up on sex as a way for his characters to assert macho dominance, Katie Roiphe explains in her essay “The Naked and the Conflicted.” Instead, she writes, “the current sexual style is more childlike; innocence is more fashionable than virility, the cuddle preferable to sex.”

At the same time, a new kind of alpha female has appeared, stirring up anxiety and, occasionally, fear. The cougar trope started out as a joke about desperate older women. Now it’s gone mainstream, even in Hollywood, home to the 50-something producer with a starlet on his arm. Susan Sarandon and Demi Moore have boy toys, and Aaron Johnson, the 19-year-old star of Kick-Ass, is a proud boy toy for a woman 24 years his senior. The New York Times columnist Gail Collins recently wrote that the cougar phenomenon is beginning to look like it’s not about desperate women at all but about “desperate young American men who are latching on to an older woman who’s a good earner.” Up in the Air, a movie set against the backdrop of recession-era layoffs, hammers home its point about the shattered ego of the American man. A character played by George Clooney is called too old to be attractive by his younger female colleague and is later rejected by an older woman whom he falls in love with after she sleeps with him—and who turns out to be married. George Clooney! If the sexiest man alive can get twice rejected (and sexually played) in a movie, what hope is there for anyone else? The message to American men is summarized by the title of a recent offering from the romantic-comedy mill: She’s Out of My League.

In fact, the more women dominate, the more they behave, fittingly, like the dominant sex. Rates of violence committed by middle-aged women have skyrocketed since the 1980s, and no one knows why. High-profile female killers have been showing up regularly in the news: Amy Bishop, the homicidal Alabama professor; Jihad Jane and her sidekick, Jihad Jamie; the latest generation of Black Widows, responsible for suicide bombings in Russia. In Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, the traditional political wife is rewritten as a cold-blooded killer at the heart of an evil conspiracy. In her recent video Telephone, Lady Gaga, with her infallible radar for the cultural edge, rewrites Thelma and Louise as a story not about elusive female empowerment but about sheer, ruthless power. Instead of killing themselves, she and her girlfriend (played by Beyoncé) kill a bad boyfriend and random others in a homicidal spree and then escape in their yellow pickup truck, Gaga bragging, “We did it, Honey B.”

The Marlboro Man, meanwhile, master of wild beast and wild country, seems too far-fetched and preposterous even for advertising. His modern equivalents are the stunted men in the Dodge Charger ad that ran during this year’s Super Bowl in February. Of all the days in the year, one might think, Super Bowl Sunday should be the one most dedicated to the cinematic celebration of macho. The men in Super Bowl ads should be throwing balls and racing motorcycles and doing whatever it is men imagine they could do all day if only women were not around to restrain them.

Instead, four men stare into the camera, unsmiling, not moving except for tiny blinks and sways. They look like they’ve been tranquilized, like they can barely hold themselves up against the breeze. Their lips do not move, but a voice-over explains their predicament—how they’ve been beaten silent by the demands of tedious employers and enviro-fascists and women. Especially women. “I will put the seat down, I will separate the recycling, I will carry your lip balm.” This last one—lip balm—is expressed with the mildest spit of emotion, the only hint of the suppressed rage against the dominatrix. Then the commercial abruptly cuts to the fantasy, a Dodge Charger vrooming toward the camera punctuated by bold all caps: MAN’S LAST STAND. But the motto is unconvincing. After that display of muteness and passivity, you can only imagine a woman—one with shiny lips—steering the beast.

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