Thursday, January 10, 2019

DRAG IS EMERGING

In the book Drag, Baker says cross-dressing remained a pervasive part of theater culture until the late 19th century, when it began to take a new form. Female impersonators developed their own vaudeville acts, wherein they created caricatures of women. Some of the first queen were the likes of Julian Eltinge, Barbette and Marcel Dunchamp, who started their own highly entertaining shows and became popular acts in the numerous vaudeville theatres across America from the turn of the 19th Century until the late 1930s. 

This moment in time birthed such mocking personas as the "wench" and the "primadonna." But in order to find the first iterations of the "drag queen" as we know her today, we have to pinpoint the moment drag culture became inextricably linked with the gay community, which some believe  didn't really happen until the 1930s. Before then, the scientific field of sexology was forming and began to talk about the 'third sex, The third sex was discussed as a feminine man or a masculine woman who desires members of the same sex. By the 1930s this scientific conversation had worked its way into the popular culture and linked drag with homosexuality. This connection marked the switch: drag culture no longer belonged to straight, white men. Can you believe that??? In this moment, we witness the emergence of the first true drag queens. It was then in the mid 30's that different kinds of drag queens occurred at the time. While other female impersonators existed, the drag queens were integral to the new, gay-friendly spaces that began to pop up. Queens like Jackie Jackson, Gilda, April Stevens,  Jose Sarria and the girls of the infamous Jewel Box Revue, were among the first to start all drag revues and shows in little hidden clubs and taking  drag in a new direction. 

The modern iteration of the drag queen developed in these underground clubs over the next handful of decades. Meanwhile, in the public eye, female impersonation was given a comedic edge; cross-dressing was portrayed in film and TV as a punchline, or an object of strangeness. One classic example is Some Like It Hot, which follows a farcical, almost Shakespearean story of two men posing as women. In Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, Norman Bates is a deranged man who dresses as his mother before killing people. Who could forget the eerie shrieks of the score as the shower curtain pulls back to reveal the poorly styled wig on Norman Bates's head?

Now  venturing into the late 20th century, we can see how drag queens finally began to become a more visible part of arts and culture. Drag was a powerful movement in NYC during the 1980s and 1990s, due in large part to the explosively experimental East Village performance scene, and its products such as the Pyramid Club and the annual Wigstock drag festival. At this point, drag queens were amassing large followings. Some of the first drag icons emerged: Divine was a legend out of Baltimore who frequently worked with director John Waters. 

There was something striking about a 300-pound drag queen who gave no fucks — Divine's incredible presence even served as inspiration for Ursula the Sea Witch in The Little Mermaid. According to the story, none of the character designs for Ursula worked, until an animator named drew a vampy overweight matron who everyone agreed looked a lot like Divine. And speaking of Wigstock, Lady Bunny is the founder and creator of the event.
 Lady Bunny once told the story of her first performance in NYC, which speaks to a drag queen's complete willingness to make a fool of herself. A drag queen challenges you to laugh with her, and laugh at her. That's what makes queens so alluring and captivating.  Lady Bunny and Wigstock were what got me inspired into drag... as they captured the fierce, unyielding spirit of someone who is so sure of who they are and what they're doing that nothing can drag them down. RuPaul, who also came from Atlanta with Lady Bunny, both swung open the doors of drag in New York in a big way.

 There are many more historic queens: Australia's Dame Edna, Pepper LaBeija ,often referred to as the Queen of Harlem Drag Balls), and Flawless Sabrina. And of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't also say that Pepper La Beija and the ball culture didn't also bring about some new style of queens and performance style.
 Paris Is Burning, chronicled the aforementioned Harlem drag balls, where Pepper LeBeija reigned supreme. As we descend into this unfamiliar world, we witnessed the true artistry of a drag ball, which was like a sporting event for the LGBTQ+ community. It is also where the term reading, shade, and spilling the t came from. These balls marked a safe space for individuals to express themselves and find escape, I also firmly believe indirectly it also helped slur the "club kid" where the like of the legendary Leigh Bowery, Richie Rich and Amanda Lepore were bore.

17 comments:

  1. There is NOTHING like LaBeija reading people in The Queen. For real. Wiigstock and Paris is Burning should be mandatory viewing for any Gayling 😆😄

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    1. The Queen make Drag Race look like Romper Room!!! What an entertaining watch that movie is.

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  2. I'm with Sixpence about Wigstock and Paris is Burning, though I never knew drag wasn't always associated with those "other" who then became The Gays!

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  3. When I came out in the 80s, the documentaries "Wigstock" and "Paris is Burning" were the new hot films! Loved Divine too.

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  4. I must give kudo's to you dear. While RuPaul is very important to drag, I'm so glad your pieces don't center clearly on her. As you post, there were a great many, brave and courageous that came before her. Julian has always interested me. As do the club kids.

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  5. Thank god for drag queens. Thanks for making the world more colourful and bearable

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  6. I find all of this fascinating. You know, I used too watch Some Like it Hot and wondered how could these guys be mistaken for women. Then I saw a picture of Ann Coulter and figured if Mr. Ed could get away with drag who am I to judge Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon!

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  7. What I find amazing is how far the look and technique has come since then. But fishy for me doesn't really make it a better queen.
    They are all to be applauded.

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  8. Have I told you it's great someone keeps this month up and going? A thank you to you.

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  9. Thank you for sharing this history. I was fascinated by drag queens when I was a kid, and outrageous gay performers. I think I was attracted by their confidence and humour, and general charisma.
    I never knew that about Marcel Duchamp!
    Sx

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  10. This is so awesome!! Learning new stuff every day- thank you!

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  11. "Some Like It Hot" did play around with the idea of Jack Lemmon marrying Joe E. Brown ("for security!") and there's that final gag ("I'm a Man!" "Nobody's perfect"), but neither joke is a true acknowledgement of homosexuality's existence. Almost the opposite, really.

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  12. It's truly amazing to consider how much more there is to drag than the make-up and "costume."

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  13. There's a whole raft of artistes between Vaudeville and the "Pansy Craze" of the 20s-30s and the "club kids" and Lady Bunny/RuPaul era, and I look forward to your views on them. Over here, for example, there emerged out of years of treading the boards in pantomime and variety shows in the post-War era such icons as Danny LaRue and Stanley Baxter, not to mention the "mainstream drag" that the likes of Dick Emery, Stanley Baxter, The Two Ronnies and even Monty Python brought to our screens. In the US of A, too, you had Flip Wilson/"Geraldine Jones" and Jonathan Winters/"Maude Frickert" and much more... Jx

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    1. Stanley Baxter is one of my all time favourites! Comic genius.
      Sx

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