A Layman’s Guide To The (not so) Colorful History of Drag

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When we talk about the social construct of gender roles, we broadly classify those into femininity and masculinity which are a product of the clear demarcation of feminine and masculine traits as per the rules and norms set up by the society. As a product of gender roles, gender identity is born which again is seen as a social fact concerning adherence to the strict rules of socially acceptable feminine or masculine conduct.

Drag shows are a huge blow in the face of orthodox gender constructs as they challenge the whole foundation of traditional customs and conventions that assign a set of rules of conduct to a specific gender and demand those to be followed without question.

In today’s world, a Drag Queen isn’t just a gay man dressed in loud women’s apparel, donning multiple layers of heavy make-up; it isn’t a cover-up, it’s an identity in itself. When on stage or performing, it’s an alter ego which brings out the most colorful, feminine, and bold characteristics of the man’s personality under the safe shelter of the whole attire.

21st century is seen as the golden age for Drag. With shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race being amongst the most watched reality shows around the globe, it is apparent that the reception this subculture receives today is positive and encouraging in nature but that wasn’t always the case. Like most unconventional by-products of large scale social oppression, Drag was also seen as a taboo even in the most modern societies for a large part of time from the very day of its introduction. This culture has only begun to receive acceptance in the past decade or so.

Drag was originally considered a form of art and was simply confined to the walls of theatres where cross-dressing was a usual thing. Jonathan David and Roger Baker focus on ancient religious theater practices in countries like Japan, and Greece, and conclude that to be one of the major originating points of Drag in history which back then was  solely performed by male artists, strictly for religious reasons. Till this time, there was no link between homosexuality and drag. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that Drag Queens came out on the streets again turning it into a mainstream culture but this time, very few straight men participated in the act. That’s how Drag culture became linked to the gay community. This was the time when the concept of “third gender” was slowly coming to life, making way for feminine men and masculine women who had carnal inclinations towards the same sex. This was the exact moment when the whole perception of Drag saw a paradigmatic shift; from being confined distinctively to white, straight men, it was now being seen as a symbol of display of homosexuality and its nuances.

 

Still, when you combine two taboos, it shakes the world of the conservative minds and that is exactly what happened in the case of Drag. Homosexuality and cross-dressing saw their lowest period during the mid-90s when Drag Queens were seen and portrayed in the most degrading and demeaning way possible for their appearance, persona and more often than not for their sexual preferences. If a Drag Queen had to be out in public, she would have worn no less than three layers of male clothing above her attire in order to avoid getting caught by policemen. Drag shows were shunned in public, Drag clubs were burnt down. Drag Queens were illegally arrested, detained and openly humiliated and maltreated extensively.

Things changed a little when movies like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and Paris Is Burning saw the light of day after much opposition. These not only presented the whole scenario in a much better light but also outstandingly depicted the grand and larger than life side of Drag Queens, bringing back in spotlight the true and original spirit of Drag that is ART.

But you can’t talk about Drag without mentioning RuPaul who blew away minds with his mega-hit song “Supermodel” which not only brought him super-stardom, but also changed the Drag industry and its general opinion of the masses by leaps and bounds, once and for all. Further, he brought to our screens Drag Race which till date has promoted over 300 Drag Queens, propagating the agenda of freewill and acceptance, in art and performance, in the minds of its audience.

History stands testament to the fact that any deviation from the standard norm of functioning of society when presented by a minority group, is never encouraged at one go. It takes decades and decades and sometimes even more before the social custom adjusts itself in accordance to the newfound idiosyncrasy of minority group, making those peculiarities acceptable. Drag holds no exception to this fact but we can clearly make out that this subculture is gradually evolving and establishing its position in the social arrangement of conventional conformities, giving us hope that one day Drag is respected for the art form that it is.


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Swapan Deep Kaur

“An engineer turned sociologist with a knack for criminal psychology who’ll quietly sit in a corner trying to read people. Likely to be found somewhere playing with stray dogs, picking carnations or looking for quiet cafes with decent coffee and books.

A self-proclaimed borderline narcissist who can never fall out of love with the night sky and rain.”
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