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Mary Cheney's Comments About Drag and Blackface

RupaulCNN obtained a private Facebook post by Mary Cheney, the daughter of Dick Cheney where she equates drag queens with white people donning blackface. Read the story here.

She says, "If a man has all the right in the world to put on a high wig, sequined dress and a full face of makeup, why isn’t it socially acceptable for a white person to don blackface?"

Apparently, a commercial for the upcoming season of RuPaul's Drag Race sparked her question.

She continues, “Why is it socially acceptable — as a form of entertainment — 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 — as a form of entertainment — for a white person to put on blackface and act out offensive stereotypes of African Americans? Shouldn’t both be OK or neither?”

Cheney is not the first woman or feminist to raise the issue of drag being anti-feminist but I'd like to take this apart for a moment. I've been reading quite a large amount of academic essays on camp and drag lately.

I first became interested in drag (and gender theory) when I started reading academic pop culture essays in anthologies and periodicals with a particular interest in applying what I was reading to Cher. Pop culture academicians kept calling her a 'female drag queen.' They called Dolly Parton one too. I went in search of what that meant. Was it a negative slur, as in Cher is a poor imitation of a real woman? Turns out calling Cher and Dolly drag queens just meant that their style of feminine dress was so over-the-top and exaggerated, it served to expose the "put on" nature of femininity. The artificiality of it.

This coincided with recent theories of gender being performative, the idea being you have no core gender self. You take on a performance character by choice. Being butch, fey, girlie, tomboy are all cultural and not biological ideas and as such are roles that can be switched, roles that are culturally-defined and arbitrary.

Right off, I imagined Cheney didn't accept performative gender theory. And because of this she wouldn't accept that that one's gender is therefore more perforamative and fluid (even hetero expressions of it) than is one's ethnicity.

Speaking directly to the issue of blackface, part of the offensiveness of it was the racism that accompanied it and how disparaging it was to black culture. The same is not true for drag. To equate the two is based on a false premise of intent. I do not read drag as dismissive, as some feminists do.

In fact, Cheny's own commentary betrays her. She takes on the the male chauvinist view when she says, "[they] act out every offensive stereotype of women (bitchy, catty, dumb, slutty, etc.)."  Gay men can be just as bitchy, catty, dumb, slutty.  So can straight men for that matter. Whose to say these are not just basic human diva traits? To assign them to women is sexist, sexist from men, lesbians or feminists. It's buying into the patriarchal view of women and refusing to see how powerful a glamazon character can be. It sends a message to both women and drag queens: tone it down; outrageousness  is not okay.

That is why is was so powerful to see a butch lesbian feel empowerment going thru Drag U. And for me, the show Drag U is what proves that not only do costumes drive feelings, (think a karate outfit, a policeman's uniform or a glamazon's couture), but that finding value in glamour isn't self-hating for women or anti-feminist for men. 

It's very different from blackface due to how women are being interpreted. This is not to say there aren't women-hatin drag queens. But they're rare. In any case, drag isn't really about "aping women." It's about finding your inner power. Its about taking on the character of the glamazon. No drag queen is performing an eek meek.

Considering RuPaul is the most prominent drag queen and a black man, I was particularly looking forward to his rebuttal. Unfortunately, he didn't address the drama of blackface directly. He just presented a history of the political history of drag: http://www.mediaite.com/online/rupaul-tells-mary-cheney-how-dressing-in-drag-is-different-from-blackface/

I was hoping for more but Betty Bowers had a good quote about it, one that assumes you know that Mary Cheney is a lesbian:

"Men in clothes traditionally worn by women is blackface, says Mary Cheney, wearing clothes traditionally worn by men."

More on performative gender theory

 

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