My favorite Slate columnist, besides the new Prudence, is Miz Cracker, who writes occasionally for Outward, which is one of Slate’s topical blogs on people outside the heteronorm. A few days ago she wrote about the relationship between queens and activism. There’s something interesting here, but, frankly, I’m a) exhausted and b) preoccupied with Pete Burns’ pants still, so I’ll come back later, I s’pose.
Taking as a springboard Mary Cheney’s comparison between drag and blackface, Miz Cracker posts on Slate’s Outward Bound with a discussion of the two subjects. Miz Cracker notes that, at base, Cheney objected to drag because she saw it as a mockery of an oppressed group [women] created by a powerful group [men] for degrading purposes. Miz Cracker wonders if drag is inherently misogynist.
Miz Cracker basically argues that drag is not like blackface because blackface is inherently racist, while drag is not inherently misogynist. The comparison between blackface and drag breaks down because blackface and minstrelsy used to be ubiquitous idioms with great cultural influence, but drag has never achieved such a pervasive high profile. That’s because blackface was performed by the oppressors in positions of power, whereas drag has been performed by oppressed people in positions of marginalization. I’m not sure how this is relevant to the presence or absence of misogyny in drag.
In fact, I think Miz Cracker’s contrast between blackface and drag breaks down because it does not recognize multiple axes of oppression. When she argues that drag has been performed by oppressed people who are marginalized, she’s referring to gay/queer men marginalized by their sexuality. However, though gay men may be marginalized on the axis of sexuality, they do have the privilege of being men in a misogynist society. Therefore, when men do drag, no matter what their sexual orientations, they may also be seen as performers in positions of power [as men] compared to the people that they are portraying [women]. Miz Cracker’s insistence that it’s just a few individually misogynist queens who mess up the whole art form entirely ignores the complex structure of drag and its location at the intersection of mutiple axes of power and oppression.
For those of you not up on the latest hip party game for people in their 20s and 30s, let me introduce you to Cards Against Humanity. Essentially a group form of multiple choice Mad Libs, this game features a bunch of black cards, which contain sentences with key nouns left out, and a bunch of white cards, which contain nouns or noun phrases. Each player draws a hand of 10 white cards, and then everyone gets a chance to read a black card aloud. After a card is read, players choose from their hand the white card that they think best completes the sentence. These cards are distributed to the reader anonymously. The reader reads the selections aloud and selects the one they like best. The player whose white card is chosen wins the black card. All players draw another white card to keep their hand up to 10, and the role of reading black cards passes to the next player.
In concept, Cards Against Humanity is the sort of game I love. There’s no competition and no real winning or losing. The game emphasizes creativity and amusement instead of points and strategy. It’s the type of game that grows exponentially more hilarious with more and more players, and it sparks very interesting side conversations when people ask or joke about each other’s choices.
In practice, however, I find Cards Against Humanity very problematic in terms of content and framing. The black cards, with their framing sentences, feature mostly topical references familiar to people in their 20s and 30s. Examples include: "What does Prince insist on being included in his dressing room?" and "What does Obama do to unwind?" Fine, no big deal.
It’s the white noun cards, though, that drive me up the wall. If they contained only generically amusing phrases such as "murder most foul," "inappropriate yodeling" and "licking things to claim them as your own," I wouldn’t object. But no, those cards are a distinct minority. The white cards focus heavily on topics apparently considered taboo or difficult to discuss by the white, straight, cis, male, bourgeois creator, including people of color ["brown people," "the hard-working Mexican"], people with disabilities ["amputees," "Stephen Hawking talking dirty," "a robust Mongoloid," "a spastic nerd," "the profoundly handicapped"], queer people ["the gays," "praying the gay away"], fat people ["feeding Rosie O’Donnell," "the morbidly obese," "home video of Oprah sobbing into a Lean Cuisine"], gender-nonconforming people ["passable transvestites"], genocide ["inappropriately timed Holocaust jokes," "helplessly giggling at the mention of Hutus and Tutsis"], Muslims ["Allah [praise be unto him!]," "72 virgins"], poor people ["poor people," "homeless people"], old people ["Grandma," "hospice care"], child abuse ["child abuse"], rape ["surprise sex"], paraphilias ["German dungeon porn"] and crap ["fiery poops"]. I could go on, but then I’d be quoting the entire suite of white cards.
Cards Against Humanity glancingly acknowledges the problematic structure of its game by billing its audience as "horrible people." "It’s as despicable and awkward as you and your friends," crows the main page of the game’s Web site. Of course, below this description are various cool publications and people praising the game, so clearly the game’s creators see being "despicable and awkward" as a coveted, desirable status. They quote condemnations from the Chicago Tribune ["absurd"], The Economist ["unforgivable"] and NPR ["bad"] in contrast with praise from INC ["hilarious"] and Boing Boing ["funny"]. Thus they associate criticism with old-fashioned, conservative, humorless media outlets full of old people and appreciation with the young, hip, cool crowd. To be "despicable and awkward," then, is ultimately to be cool.
What does Cards Against Humanity’s concept of coolness — that is, their idea of rebranded despicability qua awesomeness — entail? Basically it means laughing at anyone who’s not a straight, white, cis, bourgeois, hipster dude [like the creator]. Don’t try to tell me that, because the game has white cards like "white privilege," it actually critiques those who are discomfited by the concept. No, it doesn’t, not when the majority of cards make marginalized people who lack privilege into punchline after punchline after punchline.
If you’re still not convinced, let me break it down to you with a single example: the white card that has the phrase "passable transvestites." There is so much wrong with this card that it’s hard to know where to start. Well, to begin with, clearly someone thought this phrase worthy of inclusion into the deck of white cards, meaning that someone perceived it as shocking, racy, funny and potentially ridiculous. So what’s shocking, racy and entertaining about "passable transvestites?" Yeah, a gender nonconforming person who goes out in public en femme so that they avoid being clocked always makes me laugh. The stats on trans and other gender nonconforming people being harassed, assaulted and killed provide comic relief every time I read them. The outdated language on this white card — the vexed concept of "passable," coupled with the no-longer-used, clinical-sounding "transvestite" — signals that the game’s creators are hung up on old-fashioned binaries of gender presentation, the transgression of which they find hilarious and pathetic, instead of a matter of life and death.
I can make the same points about Cards Against Humanity’s treatment of people with disabilities, the prejudice against whom can be summed up in a single white card: "Stephen Hawking talking dirty." Yup, yup, of course, people who are neuroatypical, emotionally atypical and physically atypical to the extent that society doesn’t really know how to accommodate them — they’re comedy gold! I mean, really — can you imagine a man with paralysis talking dirty? First of all, he’d be doing it with the help of his computer, which is inherently hilarious, you know, because he can’t really talk. Second of all, it would imply that he, despite being unable to move parts of his body, has active sexual desires and interests, which is a shock, because no paralyzed person has ever had sexual interests and agency before — ever! They’re just…like… wheelchair-bound automatons. Yeah, "the profoundly handicapped" are a gas all right. Yet again, Cards Against Humanity’s decision to employee the passe and offensive term "handicapped" shows that they’re not interested in mocking prejudice, but in perpetuating it.
EDIT: As rosettanettle points out in a comment on my LJ crosspost, the creator of Cards Against Humanity expressed regret for the "passable transvestites" white card, which is now no longer included in decks. This does not, however, negate any of my points. If anything, it reinforces them, since the creator’s expression of "regret," which came only because he was called on his transphobia, comes across as less a regret of treasuring bigoted tenets and more a regret at getting caught. I also suspect his theatrical Tumblr photoset of him lighting the card on fire of being a self-aggrandizing performance so that he may be showered with praise about what an enlightened ally he is. Why do straight, cis, white, middle-class dudes think they deserve extra special plaudits for meeting minimum standards of decency? "Despicable," indeed.
Wow, Slate actually has an interesting article for once! On Outward ["expanding the LGBTQ conversation," whatever the hell that means], Miz Cracker writes a post on "Getting into Drag: The Many Meanings of Being a Queen." To answer the question of what drag is, the author interviews other drag performers. In bullet form, her findings are as follows:
- Drag ain’t necessarily about looking glamorous and fashionable. Nor is it necessarily about appearing unclockably feminine.
- Drag may be thought of as an acting job, performance art in which one creates and embodies a character.
- Drag usually has subversive elements in which the performers comment on and criticize society.
- Drag has an ambiguous relationship to trans identities. For some people, drag is a means to seriously explore alternative gender presentations. For others, it is not particularly reflective of their own gender identities.
In my estimation, Miz Cracker neglects some important aspects of drag. For one thing, she doesn’t really interrogate drag queening’s history as an art practiced by men, frequently in comic contexts. Thus it has an ambiguous relationship to the concepts of femininity and womanhood. In its exaggerated style, does drag reflect a loving tribute to women and femininity? Is it rather an over-the-top misogynist mockery? Drag is not inherently fabulous and therefore unproblematic, and I think a truly substantive inquiry into its nature should address its messy history.
For another thing, how does race play into dragging? Toward the end of her article, Miz Cracker refers to Kizha Carr’s treatment of racism in one of her routines. She also adds that drag "is the only forum where [she] can speak candidly…about the issues shaping [her] life," one of which includes racism. Right, so drag queens of color may take race as a subject for commentary, but how does race more generally inflect queens’ initial decisions to go into drag queening and then the development of their art in general? Drag queens from different racial and ethnic backgrounds probably have different reasons and philosophies, depending on their cultures of origin, that help them interpret their work, and we can’t have a full discussion about the meanings and goals of drag without that information.
Finally, how does socioeconomic class contribute to the discourse on drag? All the queens in Miz Cracker’s article, including the author herself, talk about performing in bars, dealing with sexual harassment from audience members, etc. In other words, the queens spend much of their time playing small venues and not earning tons of money. They work hard and depend on an uncertain income. Even though Bob TheDragQueen appears in the article with bling that says RICH clamped between her teeth, she and her sisters probably really aren’t.
What’s going on here? Aspirations to upward mobility? A proclamation of self-worth through looking richly caparisoned? I dunno, but I’d sure like to find out.