Last week Mary Cheney asked why blackface is bad but drag isn't. Here's what she wrote:
Why is it socially acceptable ... for men to put on dresses, make up and high heels and act out every offensive stereotype of women (bitchy, catty, dumb, slutty, etc.) -- but it is not socially acceptable ... for a white person to put on blackface and act out offensive stereotypes of African Americans?
Shouldn't both be ok or neither?
And can you believe that made people upset? Usually my videos are about what's happening with marriage equality over on my show Marriage News Watch, but I just have to weigh in here, because I love drag, I work with drag queens, and I've seen a lot of people who don't know how to answer her question. Even if we think it's a dumb question, we should have a smart, simple answer. So let's talk about it: Why is drag different from blackface?
On the surface, yeah, there are similarities between blackface and drag. They're both one group posing as another group. They both rely on exaggerated stereotypes of people who are disempowered. They're both over-the-top caricatures.
But blackface is inherently racist. You can't take the racism out of it. Drag, on the other hand, you can easily separate from misogyny. Most drag -- in fact, almost all drag -- is about strong, powerful, admirable female characters. With blackface black people are the butt of the joke. But with drag it's not women who are the butt of the joke but rules about gender roles. Nobody looks at a drag queens and thinks, "Oh, yeah, that's what women are really like" -- the way that a lot of Americans did with blackface and minstrel shows.
And there's something else going on with drag. Unlike stock minstrel characters, drag characters are a personal expression of the performer. Drag queens aren't just imitating female stereotypes; they're expressing how fluid their own gender can be. That's why a performer's drag name, and drag family, and drag costume are so important to them. Blackface performers, on the other hand, aren't expressing anything internal. They're not asserting their personal racial fluidity. All that blackface does is lie about what people of color are like.
Now there is, of course, bad drag. Bad drag is just a man wearing a dress, not making any effort to perform, or create a character, or express anything. With bad drag, the whole joke is that it's supposedly embarrassing for a man to be seen acting feminine. That's not real drag. That's just ridiculing women and queers, and if you want to be fancy about it, it's perpetuating the cycle of patriarchal hegemony. That's bad.
I'm saying that drag is not demeaning to women, but maybe you shouldn't completely take my word for it, because I'm not a woman. A lot of the people publicly weighing in right now are men. And that's great, but since we're talking about how drag affects women, it's important to, you know, actually listen to what women are saying about it.
And this gets to another difference between drag and blackface. Not only are women not usually offended by drag, but women actually perform drag themselves. Even little girls do drag when they dress up as princesses. Those are exaggerated feminine characters, an expression of an attraction to or curiosity about gender roles. Drag is how you explore who you are, or who you can become. As RuPaul says, we're born naked and the rest is drag. No one has ever said we're born naked and the rest is a minstrel show.
So let's sum it up. Next time someone asks why drag is OK and blackface isn't, you can tell them that drag is an expression of yourself, whereas blackface is an attack on someone else; blackface reinforces an imbalance of power, whereas drag disassembles an imbalance of power; blackface is a relic, whereas drag is what we all do, every day, every time we put on clothes.
So hopefully that clears things up, and the next time we're talking about Mary Cheney, we're talking instead about how she supports the disastrous Keystone pipeline. Or how she donated money to Republican candidates who opposed the freedom to marry, like Mitt Romney, and Kelly Ayotte, and Rob Portman (before he changed his mind), and Sam Brownback, for crying out loud. In 2012 Gov. Brownback recommended that Kansas keep a law that allows the police to arrest you just for being gay. Cheney apparently liked that so much that, two years later, her consulting firm spent over half a million dollars on Brownback's reelection campaign. She also supported the reelection of Florida Gov. Rick McCollum; he's the guy who hired "ex-gay" abuser George Rekers to testify against marriage equality. Rekers was later spotted returning from a European vacation with a rent boy, and we really haven't heard a lot from him since then.
So if Mary really wants to talk about LGBT issues, she could start by apologizing for any number of those mistakes. Or for completely misrepresenting what drag is when she wrote last week that performers "act out every offensive stereotype of women (bitchy, catty, dumb, slutty, etc)." In a million years, that is not even a fragment of what drag is. If she really misunderstands drag that deeply, maybe she should try spending a little less time with Sam Brownback and a little more time around other gay people.
Big thanks to all my friends who commented on Facebook about this issue and messaged me privately to share their thoughts. I couldn't have articulated any of this without your help, so please, keep talking, and let me know what you think. I'm @mattbaume on Twitter. And if you're in Seattle, let's go catch a drag show sometime.