Why is drag okay?

Someone tweeted me last night that they watched the controversial new ABC series, “Work It” – the one about two men dressing as women to get a job – and they didn’t find it terribly trans-phobic. But that’s not what this post is about. They also raised another interesting point.

so if straight man does it for entertainment and to be funny it’s offensive. if a gay man does it, it’s drag, and ok

Interesting question: Why is drag okay? First, you’d need to explain why “Work It” is not okay. I suspect the problem with the show is that its underlying premise is that it’s a “comedy” when men dress like women, because “everyone knows” they’re not supposed to do that. The concern is that they’re laughing at you, not with you.

But then why is drag okay when gay men do it?

Then we need to parse this further. Are there various forms of drag, and are some more offensive than others? Take the movie, “Paris is Burning.” It’s an amazing documentary of inner city drag in NYC, and illustrates the concept that “drag” isn’t about men dressing like women, it’s about whether clothes really do make the man or the woman. I remember one scene where a rather flamboyant gay kid dresses up as a successful businessman, nice suit, briefcase, and I think “intelligent” glasses. The point, as I understood it, was that the only reason you “respect” that businessman on the street, versus the street kid next to him, is because his clothes make you “think” that he’s somebody, that he’s deserving of respect. But it’s only his clothes. The street kid could dress the same way and you’d be fooled.

It was a fascinating movie. And it was an example of one form of drag that goes far beyond gender-bending. And it’s clearly not intended to mock. So does that make it okay, if the drag in question involves a man dressing as a woman, or vice versa? Is “mockery” the crux of the issue?

Then you the kind of drag that happens in gay bars, where a man dressed as a woman performs a night club act. Is that okay? Again, possibly, if it’s not mocking the concept of a man dressed as a woman.

But what about things like DC’s annual “Miss Adams Morgan Beauty Pageant,” a hilarious event every year where men dressed in drag compete before a sold out crowd of 2000+. While you could argue that the pageant is rather serious, in the sense that the guys are trying quite hard to get their lip-sync right (they’re not just hamming up it as men dressed as women), from the audience perspective, I’m not as convinced. I’ve attended a lot. And it was funny when a klutzky guy tried to pull off being a woman, and just couldn’t – he fumbled a bit on stage, couldn’t dance well at all, and best of all his wig slipped. It was funny. Wasn’t part of the fun that it was a guy trying to be a woman, and he just couldn’t pull it off? How different is that from ABC’s new show?

And finally, we have the guys at Halloween with the closer-to-god hair walking around and intentionally knocking their oversized balloon boobs into every guy they see.  Is that respectful drag?  Is that not mockery, or at the very least, making fun of the “crazy” notion of a guy dressed as a woman?

Is all drag trans?  Is any drag trans?  I’ve talked to trans people who have taken issue with cross-dressers. Is that because not all cross-dressers feel they were born into the wrong gender’s body?  Then again, there are those in the larger gay/trans community who say that what we all have in common is our non-conformity to gender stereotypes, rather than our desire to change genders (though I take issue with that definition, as it would include female pilots, female doctors and male nurses as historical members of our community as well, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity).

Which brings us back to the TV show and to drag.  I think the underlying question is whether the cross-dressing is being done to mock, whether they’re laughing at you rather than with you.  Some drag is laughing with, but some drag is laughing at. It’s an interesting question as to whether we’re asking ABC to live by a standard we don’t even hold our own community to.

What do you think?  Is drag always okay?

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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