Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Posts tagged ‘drag’

Camp in Culture – One man’s fabulous is another man’s poison

This article appeared in the Cambridge University Student’s Union (CUSU) LGBT magazine, No Definition, Easter 2012 edition. Enjoy!

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If there’s a single trait that causes the biggest divergence in opinion in gay circles, it’s arguably campery. Whilst it may not be obvious in generally none-too-extrovert Cambridge communities, historically there has been an overwhelming amount of hyper-masculine expressionism and performance associated with gay scenes and bodies. These ideas have been captured (and exaggerated to an eyebrow-raising degree) by the artist Tom of Finland, whose drawings encapsulate bodybuilder physiques, Village People attire, and absolutely no subtlety whatsoever.

Masculinity is enhanced if you can take an eye out on either of your nipples.

Whilst one obviously can’t say that such images are a reflection of our gay-to-day experiences (though who hasn’t seen more than a couple tank-top clad body worshippers at the local watering hole…), the more general idea of visible femininity being undesirable in gay men is all over the place. Whether people are declaring themselves ‘straight-acting’ or ‘only interested in men who are men’, I doubt I’m the only person to have heard the occasional queen declare how they cannot *stand* queens.

So I’ve been talking about masculinity and femininity, and whilst it has become pretty common for femininity expressed by men to be referred to as ‘camp’, this is very much a cultural shift the word has experienced. As with any essay, Wikipedia is our friend when it comes to historical backdrop. Originating from the French slang ‘se camper’ meaning ‘to pose in an exaggerated fashion’, campness is the creation of appeal and humour through an overstated ridiculousness. Think ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’. For an early example, think the fruit hats of Carmen Miranda from the 1940s. Camp is the kissing cousin of kitsch, but with reference to performance (naïve or deliberate) rather than objects. It’s certainly true that ‘camp’ was also used to refer to ‘gay behaviour’ – particularly in the pre-stonewall era when effeminate behaviour and sexuality were even more conflated than they are now.

The very old social stereotypes concerning gay men behaving more ‘like women’ certainly played a part in the hyper-masculine cultural backlash of the 1970s and 80s. In the days when the argument ‘we’re no different from you’ was a popular part of the rhetoric in the important struggle for rights and recognition, some saw it as damaging to the ‘gay cause’ to present anything other than homonormativity (where typical heterosexual gender norms are assimilated into LGBTQ cultures) to the rest of the world.

This may go some of the way to explain why some gay men may have a discomfort with ‘camp’ – worrying that people potentially associate what may be seen as a screaming, extroverted, kitsch performance with your identity may be very disheartening. Likewise others may just not care for the style, just as others don’t care for rap battles or musicals. But what about when the word ‘camp’ is used more to describe feminine tendencies or behaviour in men (as it so often is), without alluding to the absurd performance oriented nature that was originally intended? Without drowning in the gender politics of Judith Butler, one wouldn’t call man-bags, fake tan, foundation, and an adoration of pop divas a ‘performance’ in the traditional sense. Indeed, it may be quite sweeping and unfair to consider such behaviour ‘affected’ or ‘fake’ as some LGBTers levy as a criticism.

These sorts of behaviours are all things that 1. don’t receive special notice or consideration when done by women, and 2. result in assumptions being made about the sexuality of men who do engage with any such behaviours. Often this isn’t even questioned, with the rather poor justification of ‘but it’s true!’ – whilst masculinity in girls is also policed it generally doesn’t experience the same level of distain. In the fantastic book ‘Whipping Girl’ by Julia Serano, Serano points out (tongue in cheek) that femininity is in fact a weapon, when she points out how far the average straight man will hold a handbag away from his body if given it to hold for a minute.

Nowadays, it’s a huge thing for someone to be accused of being a misogynist. People will leap to deny this label as quickly as they will deny being homophobic or racist, even when engaging with obviously unacceptable behaviour or language. Whilst it would be shockingly naïve to make any claim that repression due to being female wasn’t still very much prevalent, judgement against femininity is arguably aired more casually.

Masculinity and femininity are often treated (simplistically, and erroneously) as oppositional, and such ‘men are from Mars women are from Venus’ attitudes are linked in large part to gender stereotyping. Whilst masculinity is ‘honest’, femininity is ‘affected’. Masculinity – strong, femininity – weak. Masculinity stoic, femininity – emotional, the list goes on. When considered in these terms, masculine behaviour by women makes more ‘social sense’ than feminine behaviour from men, due to patriarchal structures that reward such behaviour (in the ‘right’ contexts such a work – this is clearly a book’s worth of discussion all on its own). Campness has an undeniable tie to femininity both due to the historical judgement of gay men and from the indulgence and gendered challenges presented by drag performance. Whilst not really admitted, the evidence is plain to see that exhibition of femininity commands less respect and demands less social capital and power, generally speaking. Mainstream social acceptance of male femininity has only really been in terms of when done clearly for fun in a false way – such as music hall of the war era, or pantomime dames. Femininity from men presents a social challenge, even with no political intention.

What has been loved about camp could fill a book as easily as the reasons for its problematisation. The escapism, the ownership of one’s gender presentation and behaviour, some might even experience a fondness based in tradition or community kinship. Whether loved or loathed, there’s a lot ‘to’ camp, which makes it fabulous in an entirely different way.

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Book review: Gender Outlaws – The Next Generation by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman

Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation is a collection of essays submitted from a wide range of people with very different experiences of gender, and very different things to say.

This book is brilliantly original. Never before have I read a book that blurs the boundaries between academic discussion, activists talking about their causes, artists talking about their passions, and humans talking about their pain, love, and needs. This coupled with things like comics, recipes, and poetry mixed in, and the introduction formed entirely of an online conversation between Bornstein and Bergman themselves. The tone struck is witty, thoughtful, relaxed, and (certainly in my case) draws the reader in.

Obviously in a work with contributions from…*counts*…52 different authors, some styles and content will speak more to any individual than others. Despite this large heterogeneity, I found the ‘tone’ of the book remarkably cohesive. Not because what the different writers say is necessarily over-similar, but virtually all inspire a wonderful state of thoughtfulness.

Each submitted piece stands alone, and all are short (2-7 pages each). This makes it extremely easy to dip in and out of, but the organisation of the essays is such that one can read straight through and stay gripped. Even accounts that may be very abstract for some readers – for example, the negotiation of gendered experience whilst being in an all-women Roller Derby league – contain powerful insights into the treatment of other people, and I would suggest offer at least a wonderful set of alternate perspectives and empathy-inducing thought patterns.

Some of the writers speak to me more than others, and I mean this to mean how much I enjoy and respect what they’re saying and their style and clarity – rather than necessarily a direct resonance with personal experience. Indeed, many of the articles are so interesting because they can cause you to think about experiences you may never have considered – but this can then shape how you consider gender in your own life. I didn’t find terminology confusing despite much specific ‘gender language’ being used by lots of different people, but this could reflect my academic privilege. I imagine this is a book that will speak most loudly to people with either an active interest in gender or those who have experience of being a gender or sexuality minority – rather than as a present for grandma. Though I would love to be wrong about this. I would imagine that not that many straight and cis readers would pick this book up of their own accord, but that the world would be a better and cooler place if more did.

The wide range of topics covered does involve a range of areas that may be distressing for some readers. As one might expect, the submissions from writers often discuss some of the post poignant (and difficult) occurances in their own lives, which may be triggering for some readers – and unfortunately each chapter does not come with trigger warnings or particularly indicative titles. Eating disorders, gendered violence, experience of chronic illness, and racism are all themes that are touched on. Though despite this, the book didn’t leave me with a sense of heaviness. Many of the writers imbue their pieces with valuable humour.

A point that may cause some controversy and disagreement very early on in the book (which is a point raised by Bergman in the introduction) is their use of the word/slur ‘tranny’. I think they produce some valuable discourse around this important and sensitive topic, but at the same time you may not like it. If the following quote gets your brain fired up, then you will probably find the book stimulating.

S. Bear Bergman: I can see the argument for outlawing “it’s so gay” better. They’re trying to outlaw bullying, but “don’t be mean” isn’t – evidently – an enforceable school rule, so they list particular meannesses the young people are not permitted to engage in.

Kate Bornstein: But look at what happened a generation after people were damning the word queer. Now it’s something you can major in, in college.

SBB: The think I just thought is: people are who are super-protective to police the word tranny have no real confidence in the cultural power of transpeople. They police it because they fear that if not-trans-identified people get hold of it, their power will make it always and forever a bad word. And I, we, feel find about it because we have a lot of faith in the cultural power of transfolks – of trannies – to make and be change.

If this tickles your imagination, then bearing in mind some of the other essays are about:

  • The insights being trans gave one writer into corporate politics
  • A love affair with a non-binary bathroom
  • Christian anti-gay and anti-trans actions in Singapore and activism against this
  • The experience of being a Drag Queen having being Female Assigned at Birth
  • Queer sex as performance art

I would hazard you’ll be very stimulated indeed if you pick this book up.

Drag, sexualisation, and the question of ‘age appropriateness’…

Hello everyone! Sorry for the enormous hiatus. First Christmas, then New Years, then zipping about doing real-life things – time is a stern mistress. I pledge to catch up. So the next week or two should, if I’m a well-behaved little blog elf, see an inordinate amount of gender commentary. Strap yourself in, and enjoy the literary ride.

So, coming up with content on the fly is actually fairly hard. I’ve had some really great suggestions for topics to cover, which I wish to save because I’ll need to do a serious amount of research to do them justice. So if you’ve contacted me in that regard, watch this space.

I was recently chatting away to a friend of mine, when, suspecting quite rightly I’d find it both intriguing and fabulous, sent me the link to this video.

My reaction was one of delight and amusement at seeing the boy in the video busting sassy moves in a burlesque-style drag outfit. I’m always pleased to see people challenging normative gender behavior. It takes bravery, and I think for kids to both want to and be allowed to express themselves unconventionally is a positive thing. The boy also has a public Facebook page, where quite a few more videos of his dancing feature, along with photographs showing him at competition, and also having featured on TV.

These are videos that I’m sure make quite a few people uncomfortable, due to him being quite young and the dancing, lyrics and outfits being sexualised. It obviously relates back to the big question ‘is sexually explicit material damaging to children of a certain age?’ which I think is a problematic question already because it assumes that all children of a given age will respond to things in the same, or similar ways.

So, I decided to do some searching through academic literature. Even when searching with terms like “the impact of sexualized material”, the vast majority of results concern the impact of sexual abuse, sexual harassment, or the impact of pornography – none of which really hit the nail on the head*. So rather than get into a post where I take up issues with academic communities, trends and methodology problems, I thought I’d keep to my musings on the actual topic.

Based on the fact that dancing in this style at this skill level for his age is a very uncommon pursuit, I think it’s reasonable to assume that he has been developing a passion – particularly given the page that shows many routines learnt, and some competitions entered that look pretty big. This also strongly implies support from his parents – though if any Mandarin speakers care to shed any light on the page contents, that would be cool. I came to the conclusion that a free translator wasn’t going to help me once the text ‘Free friend I want you to help refuel’ resulted, which I don’t think is a particularly accurate reflection of ANYTHING. Anyway, I should think that what this boy has taken from the music he likes does not have sinister undertones of manipulation or abuse by adults. Rather it reflects showmanship, and probably an enjoyment of striking costumes and catchy sounds rather than being something that is considered sexual, despite the music being produced with this in mind.

Even if the kid is quite aware of the sexual nature of what he does (and it would be rather patronizing to assume full out that he doesn’t) why is this automatically a bad thing? There is no rational reason or obvious evidence suggesting that any harm is caused by this behaviour. The risque nature of the art form he performs rather subverts the form itself and adds a dimension of originality, rather than instantly sexualising him to his audience.

Fabulous? Absolutely. Sexual? …not really. Both culturally and politically, it means something when boys and men put on ladies clothing to entertain.

More generally, there is quite a big stigma around recognising that many children engage in non-abusive sexual play and behaviour at all, from what may be surprisingly young ages. This isn’t something that should be punished or viewed with shame, but used as an opportunity for communication and education. Also obviously, plenty of exposure and involvement with sex for children can be abusive and traumatic, which is to be abhorred. I do not believe that this kid’s hobby acts as some kind of paedophilic catnip.

There was a time when I would choreograph routines to my Spice Girls cassette (how retro, right), and I certainly donned lady’s attire at least once when I was little. This was never sexual for me, though of course there would be people who would damn the permittance of such behaviour as irresponsible. To them I say: Sod off with your gender policing.

What was I thinking…I clearly needed role models with slightly more fabulous dress sense.

*For anyone interested, here is an interesting looking paper on adolescent exposure to sexualised media, and whether this impacts on their notions of women as sex objects. Bear in mind  Also here is a paper that you may only be able to access through a University subscription, but with the title ‘Sexed Up: Theorizing the Sexualization of Culture’, how can you resist?

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