The best of South African literature
You get two kinds of drag queens. Those that are not supposed to be very convincing and those that can pass for a woman until they open their mouths or you spot their big, clumsy hands.
Examples of the former would be like Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, when they go under cover as women in Some Like It Hot, a classic film starring Marilyn Monroe. Robin Williams as Mrs Doubtfire or Dustin Hoffman as Dorothy Michaels in Tootsie also fall into this category; they look like men trying to be women.
You are always aware that they are men even though, ironically, the fictional characters they encounter aren’t aware of this fact.
Those male performers that fall into the latter category are fewer, and because their function in films is to convince us of their disguise rather than provoke laughter, they go under the radar until the big reveal at the end.
A good example of this would be the role Jaye Davidson played in The Crying Game. Of course, Davidson wasn’t playing a man trying to be a woman, but a man who had genuinely switched to the other side. So perhaps you could argue he wasn’t a drag queen at all. The line between mimicry and derision is so thin.
There is a third category of drag queens; those that appear like women in the dark, but in the harsh rays of daylight look like Jack Lemmon in a dress. I encountered just such “a lady” at 6am in Soho, London, after a big night out during my rip-roaring twenties. Like me she was holding her heels in her hands and her mascara was somewhere by her chin.
However, while I just looked like a haggard woman, she looked like a man who had lost his grip on his feminine self. The nine o’clock shadow that was creeping back wasn’t helping either.
As we stood side-by-side waiting for the first morning bus, I felt quite smug about my dishevelled appearance. For no matter how awful I looked, next to me was someone who was a poor imitation of me. But there was a lingering resentment too. A pair of heels and mascara do not a woman make.
He would never know the torture of being forced into pink dresses and bedrooms. He would not know the humiliation of discovering that you had been hired for a job because a company could get away with paying you less. Nor would he know the thrill of rebuffing an arrogant come-on from a self-satisfied man-god. He would only ever know about the blisters that a pair of heels leave on your feet after a night on a dance floor.
After catching an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race on Vuzu channel (DStv) last week, my attitude shifted. Or at least I finally realised that the drag queen I had encountered that morning wasn’t trying to look or feel like me at all. No, he was aiming to occupy a place that wasn’t female or male.
How else can you not be male or female? The gals in RuPaul’s reality series, all battling to be the queen of queens, aren’t trying to be like women, but rather convincing drag queens. This isn’t an easy quest. What is a convincing drag queen, if this very identity is built on an exaggeration of its forgery?
This complex question belies the frothy fru-fru antics of what appears to be a seemingly ridiculous reality show. The first time I stumbled upon it, I caught a group of contestants dressed up in sci-fi costumes and enacting a kind of twisted Barbarella scene.
It was like Jane Fonda meets Pieter-Dirk Uys in Star Wars.
Their transformations were quite remarkable; I honestly could not match up their drag looks to their real faces, seen in footage in between as they narrated their experiences, as is the convention of this TV genre. But, concealing who you are is just the first step – perhaps the easiest. It is far more difficult to act like a man pretending to be a woman, while pretending to be an alien from outer space.
Without sounding facetious, that takes real skill. We are always praising actors who slip seamlessly behind the mask, but really, the ones who must hold on to themselves, while balancing two other stereotypes, deserve to be admired.
Interestingly, much of RuPaul’s success as a drag queen has to do with the fact that he makes a pretty woman. In other words, that he could pass for a woman, a costumed-woman that is. It really comes down to his features; something that the contestants have no control over. Some of the contestants are unappealing as men. Overweight and ordinary looking, they are like moths that transform into butterflies with the aid of layers of make-up and costume. This creates the impression that these elaborate get-ups function as a satisfying retreat from the self. It’s such a fascinating activity and in the context of a reality show, you are never really sure whether the producers are sending up the reality genre itself, what with the drag-ification of all the conventions such as the walk of shame when they are cut from the show.
“Go on, sashay away,” bids RuPaul, prompting their exit from the stage, and the show.