Sunday, November 23, 2008

What a drag

by Angie D

On Friday night, amid streamers, strobe lights, and syncopated techno beats, Princeton’s prettiest men and most handsome women strutted their stuff down a catwalk of glitz and parody at Terrace Club’s annual drag ball. The competition among the drag queens was fierce, as were the fake lashes, feather boas, and plunging necklines. The drag kings were no less impressive; Joe the Plumber and suit-clad Sean caused quite the stir – among male and female audience members alike.

Yet, while the spirit of the drag ball was certainly subversive (“gender bending” seems to liberate both men and women from the constraints of socially constructed identities), I couldn’t help but feel as though most costumes were simply affirming narrow and even misogynistic definitions of femininity and masculinity.

All but a handful of the drag queens were clad in highly sexualized costumes, many of which probably would have been recognized as demeaning to women in any other context. While the costumes varied – a scantily clad school girl, a police officer in an impossibly short skirt, and the night’s big winner, a sexy nurse with breasts as big and fake as his/her wig – the key elements of the most popular contestants’ get-ups did not; the audience went wild for men dressed as over-sexed, over-exposed women who flaunted their bodies for the enjoyment of those around them. The finalists, no coincidence, were not the drag queens dressed as grannies, but those that grinded on the judges waiting for lap dances during the final walk-off. If men dressed as women are supposed to challenge gender stereotypes, why were the women portrayed such stereotypical, objectified representations of femininity? Are gender expectations so strong that they cannot be overturned even by the ultimate celebration of gender subversion, a drag ball?

Lest I be accused of bias, let me not neglect the drag kings, who depicted their own host of stereotypes. This year’s winning drag king was dressed as (drumroll, please) a pimp. I wouldn’t want to belittle the king’s excellently crafted costume, nor his/her carefully executed demeanor on stage, but I worry that his/her victory confirms a further disturbing gender construct: the ultimate expression of masculinity is power over women and control of female sexuality. While I doubt that many women in the audience felt exploited or objectified in the atmosphere of revelry, we owe it to ourselves to question whether a drag ball might actually reinforce the gender constructs it purports to undermine.

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