Social Justice / Spirit of Life

Drag queens lay bare the construction of femininity

Updated March 26, 2023
A white drag queen with a red wig lit in pink light looks up and to the left in front of a white spotlight and decorative confetti floating down.

My quiet, decades-long love affair with drag queens started in 1995.

I was a women’s studies & poli sci student at the University of Winnipeg, reading a LOT of Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, and queer & feminist theory. I was deeply immersed in the possibilities of a world beyond conventional gender boundaries. (This was the ’90s, when non-binary and gender fluid were not widely discussed gender identities, pansexual was not prominent on the sexual orientation radar, and queer clubs, bookstores and spaces were often just labelled “gay and lesbian,” minus the “B” or the “T,” let alone the Q++.)

I adored gender fuckery. And then the documentary Wigstock came out and my imagination was entirely captivated.

Wigstock the movie is an account of Wigstock, New York’s annual festival of drag. I saw the documentary one night at a repertory cinema with a gang of gay boys and queer girls, and I fell in love with those queens on screen. Afterwards, we all went back to a friend’s apartment and got into drag ourselves. Looking back on the movie now (the whole thing is on YouTube!), I think this is exactly what it wanted to inspire. (Side note: if you are looking for a brilliantly edited, well-constructed documentary with a clear narrative arc, Wigstock might not exactly be your bag. If you’re looking for some drag herstory, drag fun and occasional moments of brilliance, give it a go.)

The Wigstock festival, of course, is part of the drag lineage that preceded RuPaul and her TV show, RuPaul’s Drag Race; so, too, is the excellent documentary Paris is Burning (highly, highly recommended—it’s on Netflix). I thought about this lineage last Thursday night as I was getting ready for  Werq the World, the global tour put on by drag queens from  Drag Race. I met up with @8bitAmes at the Sony Centre, thrilled to be seeing some of my favourite queens perform in person. Hosted by the fabulous Asia O’Hara and her glittering teeth, we were treated to performances by Aquaria, Plastique Tiara, Monet X Change, Detox and Yvie Oddly. 

I am definitely not a scholar of drag, and I am not plugged in to the drag scene in Toronto (or Winnipeg, for that matter). But here’s what I know: drag is fun, and drag is also deeply political. What I’ve always loved about drag is its ability to interrogate gender expression while having a blast doing it. As Ru herself says, “Drag is one big f— you to male dominated culture.”  A show like Drag Race pulls back the curtain on just how much work it is to look like that kind of woman—even though most women don’t look like that at all. It’s precisely the artifice of femininity—the exaggerated makeup, the padding, the sky-high wigs—that makes drag work. It’s true that the queens who look the most like cisgender women are sometimes praised as being the most “fishy” (ahem), but most queens are also clear that they are dressing up not as women but as drag queens

I know there are folks who don’t want to watch drag queens or RuPaul’s Drag Race because of the feeling that drag queens mock women. My take: drag queens don’t mock women, but they do lay bare how femininity is constructed. This is to women’s advantage, because it disturbs the idea of what a woman “really” is. All these decades after the second wave of the feminist movement,  and it’s still kinda outlandish for men to wear a dress, but completely acceptable for women to wear pants. This tells us that there is still work to do in figuring out who gets to be feminine and how we value femininity.

I know RuPaul isn’t perfect, and I know the mainstreaming of drag as a result of the show is problematic for some. But it remains that Drag Race makes political conversations about gender and queerness accessible to people who may not ordinarily be willing to have them. Queer Gen Z children get to grow up watching the show and learning that there is a life beyond homophobic communities and families, and a path forward in fabulosity. Drag queens are leaders, in this sense, beacons of the possible. When my daughter went with friends to Pride a few years ago, she came home and breathed, “Look! A DRAG QUEEN gave me this candy!” Children understand that there is something extraordinarily beautiful and powerful about having the courage to express yourself in countercultural ways. Who wouldn’t want more of that in the world?