Rectifying the Rift: An Analysis of the Harlem Drag Culture

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Rectifying the Rift: An Analysis of the Harlem Drag Culture

Claire Pomeroy

Foucault, Moraga, Fuss, hooks, Butler. These authors, along with many more, have concerned themselves with the defining of categories. In reading these authors our class has, upon every occasion of meeting, discussed the formation of categories. What we have discovered, in part, is that things are not defined by what they are, but by what they are not. Diana Fuss, in her article "Inside/Out," states "any identity is founded relationally, constituted in reference to an exterior or outside that defines the subject's own interior boundaries and corporeal surfaces" (Fuss, "Inside/Out," 234). A common example of this, derived from Freud, is that males are defined by their having a penis, while females are defined by their lack of one. Defining identity is not necessarily so binary. As Cherríe Moraga puts it "Call me something meant to set me apart from you and I will know who I am" (Moraga, "The Breakdown of the Bicultural Mind," 237).

The subcultures of American society, cultures that are not part of the white patriarchy, are defined by how they differ from this white patriarchy. Our class was privileged to be introduced to one subculture found in Harlem during the late 1980s through the documentary Paris is Burning by Jennie Livingston (1992). This documentary captured the lives of men who lived outside the dominant culture. They had several strikes against them: they were Latino and African American, they were homosexual, and many of them were poor, sometimes even homeless. These men came together to form a kinship network, in the form of houses, to protect and support one another. Out of this milieu developed drag balls, balls in which the men dressed up and competed in different categories, such as "executive," "realness," and "voguing." The object of most of these categories was to mimic dominant society by looking like the heterogeneous members of the white patriarchy.

After watching Paris is Burning, reading critiques of it, listening to class discussions, and processing through my own thoughts about the film that I have come to struggle with an extremely large tension I am confronted with in thinking about the drag ball subculture of Harlem. Is the mimicking of dominant society by this culture a way of subverting it or is it supporting and perpetuating the white patriarchal ideal? Do these men redefine dominant society in their own terms and take control of it? Or are they trying to be as close to it as possible in order to be less on the outside and closer to the inside?

The men of this subculture clearly set themselves off from the dominant culture. They belong to houses, each with a mother who looks after them and sisters who provide a support network. Several of them live together. They compete in the drag balls under the tutelage of a house, representing their drag family while leaving all real familial connections to the outside world at the door. The spectacle of the drag balls goes so far as to create a different world, one completely apart from the dominant culture. This world is the only place that these men can go and be themselves without fear of discrimination; a discrimination that leads relentless physical and emotional harm.

However, in this world these men mimic dominant culture, thus reinforcing its norms. Some of these men desired to completely lose their identity as men and become integrated into the dominant culture as women. For Venus Xtravaganza, one of the members of the "House of Xtravaganza," her greatest dream was to be truly assimilated. She desired to be a white suburb wife with a husband and a washing machine, away from the drag culture where people knew her "little secret." On a more subtle level, dressing in drag "is nothing but the displacement and appropriation of 'women,' and hence fundamentally based in misogyny, a hatred of women" where "women are the object of hatred and appropriation, and that there is nothing in the identification that is respectful or elevating" (Butler, "Gender is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion," 127 and 125). These men take on the identity of women, parading around as them and, as one drag queen put it, "being more woman than women." If drag queens can out-woman women, and drag queens are near the bottom of the social hierarchy, they displace women to an even lower rank, supporting the patriarchy.

Dressing in drag and mimicking the dominant heterosexual white patriarchy does not just further marginalize women, but other discriminated minorities as well. These men did not just mimic womanhood, but instead mimicked a very specific white womanhood. By idealizing white womanhood, African American and Latino men devalue their own cultures and the beauty of their own women. They present the idea that the "brutal imperial ruling-class capitalist patriarchal whiteness that presents itself – its way of life – [is] the only meaningful life there is" (hooks, "Is Paris Burning?" 149). Paris is Burning is "portrait of the way in which colonized black people... worship at the throne of whiteness" (hooks, 149). To achieve an idealized, happy, prosperous life these minority men imitate the life that they see that achieves this, the white life. In doing so, they disregard their own culture; devaluing it in the process.

Dressing in drag does not solely reinforce set white patriarchal norms. It can also act as one of the "subversive places where gender norms were questioned and challenged" (hooks, 145). By dressing in drag, these men are challenging the binary division of gender. No longer is there just "male" and "female," but also "male that dresses as female," "male who thinks he is female," and so on. Pepper Labeija, the mother of the house of Labeija, makes it very clear that he is proud to be his individualistic self: a man who dresses in drag, is homosexual, but desires to remain male. Each member of this drag society is a member for their own reasons. Not all desire to be part of the mainstream society, even if they do mimic it. And in mimicking it they could be upholding it or subverting it or even both at once.

One topic which Livingston does not broach in Paris Is Burning is that of appropriation. These men have usurped the norms of dominant culture; have adjusted them to fit into their subculture and by doing so they have the chance to redefine these norms in their own way. Judy Butler, in her article "Gender is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion" discusses the idea of appropriating terms of heterosexual patriarchal society. She states: "There is no subject prior to its constructions, and neither is the subject determined by those constructions; it is always the nexus, the non-space of cultural collision" in which terms are defined and "it is the space of this ambivalence which opens up the possibility of a reworking of the very terms by which subjectivation proceeds – and fails to proceed" (Butler, 124). The same principle can be applied to the appropriation of the hegemonic practices. By adopting dominant culture's ways of dressing as their own, the members of this drag society destabilize the norms of dominant society and in doing so act to "reverse and displace" those norms (Butler, 123).

How do we rectify these two opposing ideas: that the drag culture of Harlem supports and reinstates the dominant society norms while at the same time subverting them? The only possible answer here is that, concurrently, "drag may well be used in the service of both the denaturalization and reidealization of hyperbolic heterosexual gender norms" (Butler, 125). Both aspects exist in parallel, shaping and defining the dynamic character of the Harlem drag subculture.

Two other students in our class, Arielle and Sara, both investigated ideas that I have not even touched upon surrounding this subculture. Arielle is exploring the aspect of pleasure derived from these balls. It is possible that, as Sara is investigating, this pleasure leads those taking part in this pleasure-filled culture to be completely clueless to the consequences of their actions? Could they be clueless of their impact on the greater society that so influences their own discrimination? What exactly is their influence on greater society?

At the end of the documentary, Livingston put in a news clip that demonstrates that voguing, a dance form that originated in the competition of drag balls, became mainstream; adopted in music videos and on the fashion runway. However, in becoming mainstream, it lost its roots in the drag subculture. It, instead, is described as coming from "Harlem," leaving out all references to the drag balls. Unfortunately, Livingston did not explore the greater effects of this subculture on surrounding cultures past the appropriation of voguing. How were the cultures around this drag subculture, both the dominant white patriarchal culture and the cultures of minority groups of New York City, affected by it? Was the drag subculture ostracized or embraced? And if embraced, was it embraced for the spectacle, like how it was embraced by the viewers of Paris is Burning in the same theater as bell hooks, or was it embraced for the essence and character of the whole culture? It is clear that I am unable to even begin to examine all the aspects that influence the formation of the drag subculture, leaving me with many unanswered questions that have yet to be fully explored.

Works Cited
Butler, Judith. "Gender is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion." Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex." New York: Routledge, 1993. 121-140.

Fuss, Diana. "Inside/Out." Critical Encounters: Reference and responsibility in Deconstructive Writing. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995. 233-240.

hooks, bell. "Is Paris Burning?" Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End, 1992. 145-156.

Moraga, Cherríe. "The Breakdown of the Bicultural Mind." Names We Call Home: Autobiography on Racial Identity. Becky Thomson and Sangeeta Tyagi, Eds. New York & London: Routledge, 1996. 230-239.

Paris Is Burning. Director Jennie Livingston. Videocassette. Miramax, 1992. 76 minutes.

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