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Ladies, gaga

What drag is doing for women

Some cast members from the show 'RuPaul's Drag U.' (handout) Some cast members from the show "RuPaul's Drag U."
By Wesley Morris
August 29, 2010

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Maybe you’re shy, or a shut-in. Maybe you’re single and don’t want to be. Maybe all that truck driving, dog walking, kid raising, and company running has sapped your femininity.

You’re a woman, and whatever the reason, you long to feel sexy and glamorous for a change. A spa day usually does the trick. But this is a deeper, almost spiritual problem that no spa — or therapist or “Sex and the City” binge — can cure. You could turn to your girlfriends or your sisters or your stack of Sophie Kinsella books. Instead, you do something more drastic, something more unexpected.

You dress in drag.

That’s the premise of the drag queen RuPaul’s new show — “RuPaul’s Drag U.” It takes biological women who feel disconnected from themselves, and, under the tutelage of a bunch of professional male drag queens, gives them heels, a giant wig, and a drag name, like Saline Dion. They sashay down a runway. They lip synch. They dance. “I had no idea how much work went into being a woman,” says one contestant whose drag name was Kornisha Kardashian. At the end of the runway competition, a winner is selected. Everybody seems moved.

Even if you’ve been following the steady mainstreaming of gay culture, this premise may come as a perverse shock. Drag is the art of men borrowing — and often parodying — the archest and most extreme womanly characteristics. They razor-line their lips and give themselves giant hair as a kind of subversive theater. A woman, presumably, can do this whenever she feels like it. So it seems strange, not to say retrograde, for a woman to turn to a drag queen not simply to look like a woman but to feel like one.

But the women on “Drag U” may just be picking up on something in the culture. Female celebrities — think of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj — have all cheekily incorporated elements of drag into their personas. In their dramatic hair, dramatic costumes, dramatic makeup, dramatic drama, they’re biological women borrowing the drag-queen version of women. Two years ago, Beyoncé unveiled a draggy alter ego named Sasha Fierce — an amusing career move that becomes hilarious if you happen to think “Beyoncé” already sounded fabulously draggy. Mariah Carey’s nom de drag is Mimi, her dark, almost more appealing inner vamp. As for Lady Gaga, who was born Stephanie Germanotta — what really separates her from the drag veteran and “Drag U” judge Lady Bunny, besides a couple decades, a few crucial inches, and a chromosome?

For decades, drag has exalted, luxuriated in, and caricatured certain ideas of how it seems to be a woman. It’s part tribute, part exploitation. Drag has used women. Now women, clearly, are using it back.

The reasons they’re doing it say something about what “femininity” has come to mean — and also what gay culture has come to mean. Whatever it is that some women feel they’ve lost touch with in the 40 or so years since the women’s movement, drag gives them a chance to rediscover it. They get something from drag that they don’t get from a normal makeover — it lets them perform womanliness, to try it on like a new outfit, but with the label still attached.

The benefits for women are clear. For gay culture, they might be less so. A woman in drag has the potential to change the whole point of drag. If Lady Gaga is so good at this sort of ironic gender theater — if “drag” is just something for anyone to try on — what’s left for the Lady Bunnys of the world?

Lady Bunny may have cause to worry. The history of drag would seem to give the impersonator the advantage over the impersonated. For centuries, cross-dressing was a way for men to capitalize on the social disadvantages of women — they couldn’t fight in combat, they couldn’t perform on stage. Trojan War myth has it that Achilles dressed like a woman to avoid his doomed military fate. Women, meanwhile, dressed as men to escape persecution, or overcome injustice — though it could catch up with them. One of the stated reasons for Joan of Arc’s being burned at the stake was that she wore men’s clothes.

Drag, as it arose in more recent gay culture, recognized a shared sense of persecution between women and gay men. Ostracized men found both refuge and kindred spirits in the glamour of classical Hollywood, theater, and opera. Drag always had a warm side, honoring the sort of strength of character that a boy might perceive in his mother. But it could also slide easily into harshness, especially when a queen overdoses on Bette Davis, Rosalind Russell, and Joan Crawford — no longer seeing women, but gargoyles. Drag queens use the term “bitch” as much as NWA ever did, and at some point, most performers seem to start channeling the high-class bullies on “Dynasty.” (There’s a similar, but separate, tradition of black comedians — Jamie Foxx, Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Tyler Perry, all descendants of Flip Wilson — in either mammy or ghetto-fabulous drag.)

As much as it was about women, drag in this classic sense wasn’t for women. That seemed fair. It was the biological women who were the superstars. And not just the vintage ones — more modern stars like Bette Midler, Cher, and Madonna have conceded that their careers would be different without the support and makeup tips of queens. The impersonators, meanwhile, remained cult acts.

The turning point was the advent of RuPaul, who, by the way, was born with that name (his surname is Charles). In 1993, RuPaul released the hit single, “Supermodel (You Better Work),” whose video starred the singer, a very tall black man, walking down runways in bikinis, heels, and a lustrous blond wig. It was both a surreal and perfectly normal parody of fashion world flamboyance. RuPaul became the world’s most famous and perhaps most important drag queen. If he didn’t entirely normalize drag, he at least made it seem palatable by its relative ubiquity. By the 1990s, there were mainstream drag-queen movies — and perhaps the most domestic drag queen of all, Edna Turnblad, the housefrau in the movie-turned-musical-turned-movie “Hairspray,” always played by a man.

But even in its domestication, drag has retained a kind of power. You can see what a young female aspiring pop star might see in a very good drag queen — the same thing little boys, in the 1970s, saw in Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand: incandescence and strength. It takes guts for Stephanie Germanotta to fully inhabit Lady Gaga, with the surreal outfits and wigs. But as she’s admitted more than once, she’s doing this so all the other insecure girls out there don’t feel so much like freaks.

This is the motivating force of “RuPaul’s Drag U.” On each episode, three women arrive more or less as Edna Turnblad and hope to transform into Sasha Fierce. Each student is paired with a drag queen and shown the mechanics of good drag — how to tease hair, walk a runway, dance. The show is comical kitsch. Drag names and potential looks for each enrollee are chosen by a fake computer called The Dragulator. The instructors — the Henry Higginses of drag — make catty comments about one another and express exaggerated doubt about the likelihood of their pupils to “draguate.”

The result is something much more sophisticated than a makeover show. The creation of a persona is a collaborative process that starts with the person beneath. Several of the women say they’re afraid of their bodies and hide them under baggy pants and shirts. Others say they feel more equal to a man when they dress like one. They offer personal histories of fatigue, sexual abuse, and crippling self-consciousness. The instructors address their problems with the seriousness of a counselor, if not with the wisdom of one. And as the drag queens build them into something new, it’s interesting watching the women stand up for themselves. When a student doesn’t like a look, she says so. If she’s feeling compromised or uncomfortable, she’ll mention that, too. The high point isn’t the runway show at the end but the one-on-one meeting RuPaul has with each contestant, in which he discusses not only their drag goals, but often their life goals. It’s obvious that he recognizes some of himself in these women. He’s feels their pain, because, in some way, he’s been there.

The women, in turn, say they’re truly transformed by the experience. To a viewer, it feels different from the average public makeover you see on a show like Oprah Winfrey’s. It’s not just a new haircut or a smaller waistline these women are getting, but — perhaps oddly — a new appreciation of their innate womanliness. They’re extracting someone who already lived within them — what the drag queens call their inner diva. It’s like going all the way to Oz to realize you were in Kansas all along.

“Inner diva” sounds jokey, but it gets to the heart of what makes drag matter. A meek woman is allowed to taste strength by turning her femaleness into theater. Drag is not about sex, in other words: It’s about power.

Sex, in this stylized world, is a subject but rarely pursued as a goal. It’s not something you have, but something you flaunt, mock, and subvert. This distinguishes the draggy modern pop star from, say, Madonna, who toyed with gender and the possible limits of femininity but who, in her prime, also embodied real carnality and seduction. Her progeny are just playing with identity. They want to look like drag queens.

For real women, of course, drag also has its limits. If you want to seem approachably sexy, the wig and costumes must eventually go. As a case in point, the second video from Katy Perry’s new record, “Teenage Dream,” which came out Tuesday, puts her in a car with a cute guy. She looks very much like her dragless self — like a young woman — and her prize isn’t some stagey, Gaga-esque encounter among surreal plastic orbs. It’s the real thing: a trip to a motel, where her jeans are unzipped.

When that real connection happens — when the woman realizes her femininity as something more real than theatrical — the drag queens are nowhere in sight. And this might be the insidious downside of the entire enterprise, at least for the gay men who are sharing their beauty tips. As with “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” — an even more wildly successful TV application of gay savvy to straight relationships — gays are coming awfully close to lifestyle maids and butlers. They’re the cultural help, the people you see only when you need their services. After so many years of empowering so many straight people, you have to wonder: Who’s going to empower them?

Wesley Morris is a film critic for the Globe. E-mail wmorris@globe.com.