In Celebration of Drag

For Danny, with all my love. ❤️🧡💛💚💙💜

***** CONTENT WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS REFERENCES TO HOMOPHOBIA, TRANSPHOBIA, PEDOPHILIA, MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES, SUICIDE, GUN VIOLENCE, AND HOMELESSNESS *****

Drag is under fire these days, mainly from far-right radicals with neither a sense of humor nor a basic understanding of history. The narrative – that they’re protecting children from LGBTQ+ “groomers” – is absolute bullshit, and they know it (not that these people care about statistics, but the vast majority of pedophiles are cisgender, heterosexual men). The question that keeps getting asked is, “How will we explain drag to the children?” The simple fact is we have all been exposed to drag, often from a very young age. Animated characters such as Bugs Bunny, Mulan, Robin Hood‘s Little John, The Lion King‘s Timon, and SpongeBob SquarePants have been dressing in drag for decades.

So, if most of us were exposed to drag from a young age and didn’t need it explained, what are these people protesting? It’s pretty simple, actually; they’re protesting queerness. Because these people fetishize LGBTQ+ folks, they can’t picture them in a non-sexual scenario. The conclusion is drawn that a drag queen reading a book to children must be a lascivious act. Obviously, that couldn’t be further from the truth; these events are pretty wholesome, and your kid is far safer there than alone with the wrong teacher, priest, Boy Scout leader, or family member. In fact, the only people I’d want to shield my kid from are the protesting bigots. I’m not a parent – I’m not getting into it here, but if you’re interested in the whole story: https://peanut-butter-and-julie.com/2021/05/05/the-baroness-of-barrenness/ (CW for infertility) – but if I had a child who asked me about a drag performer, I’d say something like, “Sometimes adults play dress-up, too.”

The right – emboldened by T*ump and fueled by conspiracy theories – is chipping away at LGBTQ+ rights, passing laws that criminalize LGBTQ+ folks for existing in public spaces. TERFs like She Who Must Not Be Named spew their transphobic hate all over social media. These people actively do harm and don’t even try to pretend otherwise. And they’re doing it all “for the children,” which is absolutely laughable. If these people really cared about children, they’d work to improve access to school lunches and sex education and health care, or maybe do something – ANYTHING – to make it a little harder for people to commit mass shootings. And if all this makes me woke, then fuck yes, because woke is an adjective meaning “alert to racial prejudice and discrimination.” I’ll never get over how many people side with prejudice and discrimination.

Teaching children tolerance should not be controversial, but here we are. Children are far more open-minded than many adults give them credit for. Children aren’t born with hate; they learn it. No one is trying to turn kids gay (the gay agenda, as far as I can tell, is survival, equal rights, and maybe brunch if there’s time). For kids questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity, for those enduring bigotry or bullying or abuse, and those who just feel different and aren’t really sure why, finding a role model – someone who lets them know that it’s okay to be themselves – can be lifesaving. LGBTQ+ kids have higher suicide rates and incidences of mental health issues. They’re more likely to experience homelessness, bullying, and violence. Many are abused and disowned by their families. It will be worth it if these drag story hours save even one young life. Plus, they look like a blast.

The history of drag in pop culture dates back to ancient Greek and Roman times. Many societies banned women from appearing on stage, so men played female roles. Instances of drag appear in mythology and folklore, in literature and opera. Women have dressed in drag for centuries to enter male-dominated spaces such as the labor force and the battlefield.

Drag in cinema dates back to the 1910s, when motion pictures were in their infancy. Silent film artists such as Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, who honed their craft in the English music halls of the late 19th century (more on those in a bit), dressed in drag for comedic effect. Bugs Bunny, who debuted in 1939, often dressed in drag to confound opponents like Elmer Fudd. In 1959, drag was a key plot point in what many consider the greatest American comedy of all time, Some Like It Hot.

After the end of the Hays Code era (ICYMI: https://peanut-butter-and-julie.com/2021/04/01/the-hays-code/, CW for sexual assault and racism), drag in film went mainstream, with beloved movies like Rocky Horror Picture Show, Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, and The Birdcage and pop culture icons like RuPaul, Dame Edna (Barry Humphries), and Divine. During that same period, live drag shows became increasingly popular as well. Musicians such as David Bowie, Annie Lennox, Boy George, and Prince dabbled in androgyny. Today, drag is everywhere: Pride celebrations, reality competitions like RuPaul’s Drag Race, Tyler Perry’s blockbuster Madea franchise, and yes, even children’s story hours.

So, in celebration of drag in all its forms, here is a timeline of drag in popular culture and, as always, a few of my personal favorites.

  • Ancient Greece and Rome

In ancient western societies, women were not allowed to perform onstage, so female roles were, by necessity, portrayed by men. And in Greece, men and boys were required to dress in drag for certain religious ceremonies.

  • Mummers’ play

Mummers’ plays are folk plays that originated in the British Isles, with troupes of traditionally all-male performers. The written history of Mummers’ plays is sparse, but it’s believed to date back at least to the 13th century. The tradition is still upheld, with variations of Mummers’ plays performed for holidays like Christmas, Easter, and Plough Day, an English holiday celebrating the beginning of the agricultural year.

  • Shakespeare

In the English Renaissance Theater, women were still forbidden to appear onstage, so Shakespearean heroines were played by men. Shakespeare also used drag as a plot device, most notably in Twelfth Night (heroine Viola impersonates a man and winds up in a love triangle).

Fun fact: English laws against women appearing on stage began to relax during the reign of Charles II, who took the throne in 1660, almost fifty years after Shakespeare died.

  • Music Halls

Another English tradition, music hall entertainment, was the direct ancestor of vaudeville. Music halls were Victorian-era variety shows featuring a mix of songs, comedy, and specialty acts like magicians, ventriloquists, and both male and female drag artists.

  • Silent film

In the early days of film, comedians such as Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, who came to the US in 1910 as part of Fred Karno’s comedy troupe, often dressed in drag in the English music hall style. Later comedians such as the Three Stooges, Milton Berle, and Flip Wilson carried on that tradition.

  • Ball Culture

The Ballroom scene originated in the late 19th century when LGBTQ+ folks began to organize drag shows in defiance of anti-drag laws. In the 1920s, tired of the racism and discrimination at many of these events, black and Latino drag queens started organizing their own underground balls in New York City, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Philadelphia. In the 1980s, ball culture inspired a dance style called vogue, which achieved mainstream notoriety in 1990 with Madonna’s #1 smash hit single of the same name and the award-winning documentary feature Paris is Burning.

Fun fact: The origin of the word “drag” is disputed, but one theory is that it derived from the term “grand rag,” historical slang for “masquerade ball.”

The video for “Vogue”, directed by David Fincher, won three MTV Video Music Awards but lost Video of the Year to Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” (Fincher took home the Best Director prize, though)
One more, because this is too perfect not to share
  • Bugs Bunny

One of the ultimate drag icons, Bugs Bunny has appeared in drag more than forty times. Other Looney Tunes characters to dress in drag are Wile E. Coyote, Porky Pig, and Daffy Duck. Since the ascendence of Bugs, countless animated characters – including Fred Flintstone, SpongeBob SquarePants, and many a Disney sidekick – have appeared in drag, delighting children and adults alike. Drag is also a common plot element in Japanese anime.

  • Some Like It Hot

Because of its depiction of cross-dressing, Some Like It Hot was released without the approval of the Motion Picture Production Code (AKA the Hays Code). Despite that lack of support, the film was a critical and commercial success, and a six-time Oscar nominee (inexplicably, it was not nominated for Best Picture). Some Like It Hot‘s success was a key step in the relaxing of standards in the 1960s and the ultimate abolition of the Code.

  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Going to a Rocky Horror midnight show was a Gen-X rite of passage. And Tim Curry dressed in drag as Dr. Frank-N-Furter – “the sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania” – also provided many a sexual awakening. Rocky Horror was one of the first notable cinematic instances of queer drag, making it a landmark film for LGBTQ+ visibility; the earliest midnight screening attendees were queer folks celebrating their newfound representation.

  • Torch Song Trilogy / La Cage aux Folles / The Birdcage

Beginning with 1982’s Torch Song Trilogy, Tony-winning actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein helped usher in an era of mainstream media depictions of drag. In the three-act play, Fierstein plays torch singer and drag queen Arnold Beckoff. Torch Song Trilogy was a watershed moment in LGBTQ+ history; its frank representations of gay marriage and adoption were unusual for the time. Two years later, Fierstein wrote the book for La Cage aux Folles, a musical adaptation of the 1973 French play of the same name, about a gay couple forced to play it straight when their son invites his fiancée’s ultra-conservative parents to dinner. If that plot sounds familiar, it’s because La Cage aux Folles was also the basis for 1996’s The Birdcage.

  • Tootsie

In some respects, Tootsie has not aged well. Let’s be honest, Michael Dorsey is an asshole, and it enrages adult me that he ends up with Julie despite his lies and manipulations (she deserves so much better). But certain scenes are still comedy gold, like when Michael, dressed as Dorothy, meets his agent (director Sydney Pollack) at the Russian Tea Room to test his new disguise. Tootsie was a critical and commercial smash, earning more than any 1982 movie that wasn’t E.T. and garnering ten Oscar nominations (and winning one, Best Supporting Actress for Jessica Lange).

  • Hairspray

The Hairspray franchise began in 1988 with a John Waters film featuring his muse (and drag icon) Divine as housewife Edna Turnblad. In 2002, the film was adapted into a Broadway musical, which co-starred Harvey Fierstein in a Tony-winning performance (the show won eight Tonys in all, including Best Musical). John Travolta took over as Edna in the 2007 musical feature, but Fierstein reprised the iconic role for a 2016 live performance on NBC.

OG Edna Turnblad Divine
  • RuPaul

RuPaul Andre Charles, known simply as RuPaul, burst onto the national scene in 1993 with the album Supermodel of the World and its hit single, “Supermodel (You Better Work).” Modeling contracts, more recordings, and a VH1 talk show quickly followed. In 2008, RuPaul launched a reality competition franchise with RuPaul’s Drag Race. Arguably the most commercially successful drag queen of all time, RuPaul is the winner of multiple awards, including a Tony, twelve Emmys, and a GLAAD Vito Russo Award.

RuPaul has won twelve Emmy Awards for the wildly entertaining – and wildly popular – RuPaul’s Drag Race
  • Mrs. Doubtfire

In 1993, Robin Williams brought equal amounts of humor and heart to his dual role of Daniel Hillard/Euphegenia Doubtfire. In the process, Williams won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy and America’s collective heart. In one of my favorite scenes, Daniel transforms into Mrs. Doubtfire with the help of his makeup artist brother (Harvey Fierstein, AGAIN!).

Williams’ acceptance speech – in which he channels both Euphegenia Doubtfire AND Harvey Fierstein – showcases his power to make you laugh through your tears
  • Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

A personal favorite, Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a decidedly Australian film starring Terence Stamp in an Oscar-worthy performance as Bernadette, a trans woman traveling cross-country with two drag queens (Guy Pearce and Hugo Weaving) in a dilapidated old bus they christen Priscilla. Come for the Oscar-winning costume design by Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel and the killer soundtrack; stay for Stamp’s gorgeous, BAFTA- and Golden Globe-nominated performance.

  • Madea

Mable Earlene Simmons, AKA Madea, is filmmaker Tyler Perry’s ode to the strong-willed, street-smart women in his life. In Perry’s words, Madea is “exactly the PG version of my mother and my aunt, and I loved having an opportunity to pay homage to them. She would beat the hell out of you but make sure the ambulance got there in time to make sure they could set your arm back.” Madea, the most prolific drag queen of the 21st century, has appeared in eleven plays, thirteen films, a handful of series, and a 2006 book, Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings.

More depictions of drag in pop culture:

2005’s Kinky Boots, the basis for the hit musical (that’s Chiwetel Ejiofor as Lola, the role that would later earn Billy Porter a Tony)
2006’s She’s the Man, another adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

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