Tag Archives: Sex in the City

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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The Search for the Holy Grail of Female Viagra

Recently the FDA rejected an application to market a new drug to increase women’s libido – flibanserin.  It doesn’t have quite the same ring as Viagra, does it?  However, with the rejection the FDA gave a big thumbs-up to the idea pending more research.  There are reportedly several other companies working on a similar medication.

The issue of women’s frigidity is a historical one.   I’ve recently been reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment, in which she discusses a similar situation in the 1950s.  White upper-middle-class women were housewives while their husbands brought home the bacon.  Marriage was both an economic and social relationship  – both men and women were “required” to marry to fulfill their gender roles.  However, Playboy, first released in 1953, suggested men could be real men without marriage and encouraged a life of bachelorhood.  “Free Love” became women’s libido-enhancer.

Marilyn Monroe on the first issue of Playboy in 1953.

Things have changed a bit post-AIDS epidemic.  Although Samantha from Sex in the City has shown America that women still have a healthy sexual appetite (check out this ABC news poll giving some stats on that), Camille Paglia, professor at the University of the Arts, argues that we’re undergoing a current “sexual malaise” again due to stagnate gender roles.  Paglia explores this and other issues of gender, race, and class in pop culture in her New York Times editorial, “No Sex Please, We’re Middle Class.” Here are some juicy segments:

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The implication is that a new pill, despite its unforeseen side effects, is necessary to cure the sexual malaise that appears to have sunk over the country. But to what extent do these complaints about sexual apathy reflect a medical reality, and how much do they actually emanate from the anxious, overachieving, white upper middle class?

In the 1950s, female “frigidity” was attributed to social conformism and religious puritanism. But since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, American society has become increasingly secular, with a media environment drenched in sex.

The real culprit, originating in the 19th century, is bourgeois propriety. As respectability became the central middle-class value, censorship and repression became the norm. Victorian prudery ended the humorous sexual candor of both men and women during the agrarian era, a ribaldry chronicled from Shakespeare’s plays to the 18th-century novel. The priggish 1950s, which erased the liberated flappers of the Jazz Age from cultural memory, were simply a return to the norm.

In the discreet white-collar realm, men and women are interchangeable, doing the same, mind-based work. Physicality is suppressed; voices are lowered and gestures curtailed in sanitized office space. Men must neuter themselves, while ambitious women postpone procreation. Androgyny is bewitching in art, but in real life it can lead to stagnation and boredom, which no pill can cure.

Meanwhile, family life has put middle-class men in a bind; they are simply cogs in a domestic machine commanded by women. Contemporary moms have become virtuoso super-managers of a complex operation focused on the care and transport of children. But it’s not so easy to snap over from Apollonian control to Dionysian delirium.

Nor are husbands offering much stimulation in the male display department: visually, American men remain perpetual boys, as shown by the bulky T-shirts, loose shorts and sneakers they wear from preschool through midlife. The sexes, which used to occupy intriguingly separate worlds, are suffering from over-familiarity, a curse of the mundane. There’s no mystery left.

The elemental power of sexuality has also waned in American popular culture. Under the much-maligned studio production code, Hollywood made movies sizzling with flirtation and romance. But from the early ’70s on, nudity was in, and steamy build-up was out. A generation of filmmakers lost the skill of sophisticated innuendo. The situation worsened in the ’90s, when Hollywood pirated video games to turn women into cartoonishly pneumatic superheroines and sci-fi androids, fantasy figures without psychological complexity or the erotic needs of real women.

Furthermore, thanks to a bourgeois white culture that values efficient bodies over voluptuous ones, American actresses have desexualized themselves, confusing sterile athleticism with female power. Their current Pilates-honed look is taut and tense — a boy’s thin limbs and narrow hips combined with amplified breasts. Contrast that with Latino and African-American taste, which runs toward the healthy silhouette of the bootylicious Beyoncé.

A class issue in sexual energy may be suggested by the apparent striking popularity of Victoria’s Secret and its racy lingerie among multiracial lower-middle-class and working-class patrons, even in suburban shopping malls, which otherwise trend toward the white middle class. Country music, with its history in the rural South and Southwest, is still filled with blazingly raunchy scenarios, where the sexes remain dynamically polarized in the old-fashioned way.

On the other hand, rock music, once sexually pioneering, is in the dumps. Black rhythm and blues, born in the Mississippi Delta, was the driving force behind the great hard rock bands of the ’60s, whose cover versions of blues songs were filled with electrifying sexual imagery. The Rolling Stones’ hypnotic recording of Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster,” with its titillating phallic exhibitionism, throbs and shimmers with sultry heat.

But with the huge commercial success of rock, the blues receded as a direct influence on young musicians, who simply imitated the white guitar gods without exploring their roots. Step by step, rock lost its visceral rawness and seductive sensuality. Big-ticket rock, with its well-heeled middle-class audience, is now all superego and no id.

In the 1980s, commercial music boasted a beguiling host of sexy pop chicks like Deborah Harry, Belinda Carlisle, Pat Benatar, and a charmingly ripe Madonna. Late Madonna, in contrast, went bourgeois and turned scrawny. Madonna’s dance-track acolyte, Lady Gaga, with her compulsive overkill, is a high-concept fabrication without an ounce of genuine eroticism.

Pharmaceutical companies will never find the holy grail of a female Viagra — not in this culture driven and drained by middle-class values. Inhibitions are stubbornly internal. And lust is too fiery to be left to the pharmacist.

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Gender Roles in Sex in the City 2

I’m going to be honest – I was never a fan of the show nor did I ever even see the first movie nor religiously watch the show.  I can fully assure you die-hard Sex in the City fans that you do know more about the show than I ever will.

That being said, the new movie is kind of fucked up on multiple levels.  Read the plot summary here to get you caught up.

There’s so many issues we could address in the movie, from ethnic exoticism to classism, but today I’m going to tackle gender.

The ladies karaoke Helen Reddy's feminist anthem "I Am Woman" - supposedly a shout-out to feminists, but generally just confusing and frustrating.

The following is an excerpt from Jessica Bennett’s review of the film for Newsweek.  What I really like about her article is how she examines the series’ effect on the public.

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No Sex in This City:

Just a whole lot of tradition and taboo. But if the girls of ‘Sex and the City’ can’t shake gender roles, can we?

Two years ago, NEWSWEEK ran a story about over-the-counter sex lubricants that were taking suburban retailers by storm. Wholesome, family-friendly chains such as Walmart and Target were shoving aside toothpaste and Q-tips to make room for Durex mini-vibrators and a lube called Wet—products more commonly found at the likes of the West Hollywood Hustler store. What prompted the sudden demand? One thing, retailers said: Sex and the City.

The show, finally on TBS, was flowing like an aphrodisiac into small-town living rooms across the country. It made independence sexy; casual sex empowering, and rejecting tradition the norm. (Or something like that.)

But don’t expect to get your usual fill of women power when SATC 2 hits theaters Thursday—just the opposite. It may begin with a big, fabulous, gay wedding, tackle the insecurities of marriage, and culminate in an over-the-top girls vacation to “the new Middle East,” but SATC 2 is more 1950s gender roles than lipstick-and-Manolos feminism, from the moment Carrie and Mr. Big cuddle up, five minutes in, to watch It Happened One Night, circa 1934.

The girls don’t lack their usual spunk, but the film leaves us with the sobering view that even the most independent of women will fall back into traditional roles and needs: diamond wedding rings, stay-at-home-moms, husbands’ last names. It’s telling that the ladies sing “I Am Woman” in a karaoke bar, and badly at that.

The film’s promising premise is that each character must define her womanly role: as Mrs., mother, working woman, and single gal. Carrie is battling with the title of “wife,” wondering if—after two years or marriage—her relationship with Mr. Big has fallen into a mundane routine of take-out sushi and shoes up on the couch. She’s caught off guard when the doorman starts calling her Carrie Preston, and she’s really caught off guard when Mr. Preston announces he needs to spend two nights a week alone.

Miranda, the resident workaholic, is suddenly faced with a terrible, sexist boss, but rather than stand up to him, she walks out the door and into her son’s science fair, among other domestic delights. Charlotte, the eternal traditionalist, is already caving under the pressure to be the perfect mother when Samantha wonders if her young, braless, bombshell nanny is really a good idea. She should know: at 52, Samantha is fighting aging with a fury—and with handfuls of hormone pills and Suzanne Somers health advice.

I must say that for most of the movie these women looked abso-fucking ridiculous.

Remember the old, boundary-breaking, taboo-toppling Sex and the City? Forget it. Neither sex nor the city plays any role in this film. The primary dramatic tension actually comes from a split-second kiss, between Carrie and old-flame Aiden, whom she conveniently meets in an Abu Dhabi market. That’s when the roaring women turn into pathetic, squeaking girls. Charlotte falls off a camel trying to get Harry on the phone, scared he’s sleeping with the braless nanny.

Carrie immediately reveals her kiss to Big, who ultimately forgives her because “I took a vow”—and gives her a big fat diamond ring to “remind her that she’s married.” Charlotte and Miranda bitch about their kids, then raise a glass to the hard work of stay-at-home mothers who do it all—and without help. When all is said and done, only Samantha is true to her former libido—and look where it gets her. Pumped full of botox, popping hormones like Tic Tacs, she gets kicked out of Abu Dhabi for promiscuity, narrowly escaping an angry mob. After all those years of redefining female sexuality, we’re suddenly back to the beginning—Samantha has become a slut.

It is admittedly hard to keep a show relevant after all these years, especially one that defined the cultural zeitgeist as SATC did. But it’s still sad to see the characters go from trailblazers to conformists, suddenly telling us that work and child-rearing actually don’t mix, that it’s a bling on a ring finger that will prove a union to the world, and that we must worry—no matter how stable a marriage—that a husband will cheat. It’s fiction, we know. But these characters, like the lubrication they inspired, helped legions of women embrace their own fierceness—and here they are, 12 years later, nothing more than stereotype and cliché. Of course: no woman raised on SATC would ever believe that’s really how it all ends.

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