I Have Heterosexual Privelege. Thus, I Am Hollywood.
Ok. Let me start from the top: The perception of the drag community is a fascinating subject that still perplexes individuals towards Eastern Europe and other cultures less aware of the vastness of the LGBTQ+ community. I still remember how growing up in Romania, drag was considered comical and self-deprecating. The idea of performing in drag was not something that was “understood” and the idea of individuals struggling with gender identity was completely off everybody’s radar (and still is to many of the Romanian students I graduated with back in 2012).
How drag is perceived is an interesting discussion, and its something that can’t really be summed up in any one way. Being a straight white male, there’s little I can say about drag culture and what its depiction in a film like Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning means to me on an emotional level. I have to rely on nothing but academia and gut reactions, which feels both morally wrong and ill advised. The reason I say this is because I think that being a drag queen is just as much of a life choice as being a ballet dancer or a screen actor. It requires an absurd amount of dedication with little to no reward. It isn’t something you can just understand. It is a commitment that you can only comprehend if you have tried it yourself or know someone who has done it. Even when Conchita Wurst won the Eurovision song contest, people from eastern European countries were uncomfortable to say the least. As western nations become exponentially more progressive with time, the east is left in the dust, having to quietly suck up the fact that their train of thought is both dated and ignorant.
However, not even western nations completely understand the drag community. Judith Butler’s analysis of Paris Is Burning indicates elements of Hollywood’s false understanding of drag culture. She does this by comparing the real-life circumstances depicted in Livingston’s film with those of mainstream Hollywood productions that center on protagonists in drag. What it ultimately comes down to, is that the queens presented in Livingston’s film are individuals who dress as the opposite gender with the intention of treating it as craft. Sure, its a craft that doesn’t provide high chances of economic success, but its a craft nonetheless, a means of pleasing the masses (or in this case, the minority). Hollywood’s understanding of drag land-locks itself on a foundation of comedy and trickery, as a result of heterosexual privilege. Film consequently tends to present drag as if it serves no purpose other than “hiding in plain sight”.
“We might think Julie Andrews in Victor, Victoria or Dustin Hoffmann in Tootsie or Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot where the anxiety over a possible homosexual consequence is both produced and deflected within the narrative trajectory of the films.” What stands out as a result is the fact that Hollywood never deals with drag issues that are actually present in the drag community. Instead, filmmakers appear to settle for watered-down, jokey interactions that imply that drag is nothing more than a mask to accomplish an (often) selfish end-goal. The list of course goes on and on. Whether Hoffmann dresses in drag to get an acting job or Robin Williams dresses as an old lady in order to be closer to his kids, “this is drag as high-het entertainment, and though these films are surely important to read as cultural texts […] I would be reticent to call them subversive”.
Butler goes on to cover Bell Hooks’ criticism of Paris Is Burning by explaining that “Hooks criticized some productions of gay male drag as misogynist, […] this tradition within feminist thought has argued that drag is offensive to women and that it is an imitation based in ridicule and degradation.” What should always be considered when speaking about drag, is that if there is anything misogynistic in its performance, it is just as much a celebration of femininity in turn. Sure, what a drag queen might do on stage can be perceived as something that a woman wouldn’t want to be objectified as. However, what the person who takes offense should always consider is the fact that this performer is portraying an element of femininity that they are applauding.
Obviously this is just based on my gut instinct, but I would doubt that a drag queen would ever do something on stage that they themselves don’t love about womanhood. After all, a key scene in Paris Is Burning that stood out to me was when a queen was teaching women how to confidently walk and present themselves as women. This complete deconstruction of gender identity is both proof that what we view as feminine is merely a construct, as well as the fact that all genders can cherish the beauty of femininity. This does not mean that it is mandatory for a woman to behave feminine, but it proves that there is nothing misogynistic with females who desire to present themselves as confident, feminine women.
Contemporary culture’s perception of drag is something that I can barely read into. Reading Butler’s comments on Paris Is Burning does enlighten a currently pitch-black stretch of land for me, but it does not make up for the fact that like any sub-culture, I can’t possibly understand its depth if I don’t engage in personal interactions with individuals who identify as members of the drag community. Hollywood’s surface level understanding is actually the perfect illustration of how poorly I understand this community, because much like myself, Hollywood executives seem to know almost nothing about what it really means to be a drag queen, thus leaving the subject to only find its footing in humor that discredits it as a craft.