Drag. It’s a lot of things.
We know better, in this day and age, than to define it as simply cis men “dressed as girl” — socially, we know that’s outdated and limiting. We also know that it’s kind of an old wive’s tale – there’s no tangible evidence that ‘drag’ as an abbreviation existed before the internet era. If we try to dissect the word’s etymology, ‘drags’, as a noun, more likely originated as German theater slang — a direct reference to long, trailing skirts used in costuming.
Others argue its usage to denote an individual, a character – “a drag (king/queen/monarch/performer/what-have-you)”, or a person instilling theatricality in gender performance — spiders out of slang dialects, most specifically English ‘Polari’ (itself a romanization of the Italian word parlare, or ‘to talk’). This one feels likely, given that Polari was the happening counter-cultural slang in English commonwealths from the 1890s onward, as up-to-the-minute as anything you could find online today. The queer scene has always been a patchwork of intersecting subcultures and diverse artistic influences… but now I’m getting way, way ahead of myself.
My point is that it’s hard to define the word, the root of the term ‘drag’, much less put an entire artform — all its stories, all its history — into a neat, convenient box. If there’s one thing we hate as queer people, it’s being put in strict, binary boxes. The definition has been further muddied by a rising tide of conservative and alt-right weirdos who seem to think drag — flattened to be indistinguishable from lived trans identity — is some kind of perverse death cult, with an agenda of corrupting young minds and, I don’t know, eating babies or something.
I think, personally, drag is just character work that happens to be punk as hell. Because it can take so many different forms, including outright full-fledged protest, drag is something that is going to mean many disparate things to many different performers. That being said, there’s overlap. I would argue drag requires a few things:
- An understanding of yourself.
- An understanding that all gender is a form of performance.
- A sense of fun.
Those three pillars are what I hope to explore in this series, ‘A Brief-ish History of Drag’, in which we’ll be exploring and examining the influences and origins of the art-form, and how they molded it into the present-day performance art we know and love. From the tragicomedies of antiquity to the players of the Globe Theatre to the thriving metropolitan Ballrooms — from the maybe-trans-lesbian sci-fi crossdressing of 1915’s Filibus, to the incisive and invaluable document of Paris Is Burning, to the goofy screwball Mrs. Doubtfire, we’re going to cover it all. Or, at least, as much as we can. But where to begin?
I think the best, earliest example of something resembling ‘modern drag’ comes from the plays of Ancient Greece and Rome. Take Menaechmi by Titus Macchius Plautus, a play that (like a lot of the classics) seems to hinge much of the plot on infidelity. Scene II includes an extended gag in which the protagonist, Menaechmus, puts on his wife's dress with the intent of smuggling it off of his estate so he can give it as a gift to his mistress. It’s absurd even on its face — why does he have to wear the dress to sneak it out? Aren’t there better ways to hide and transport a stolen dress? Isn’t Menaechmus kind of inviting attention with such a risky plan? The answer to all these questions is yes, obviously. That’s part of the comedy. Menaechmus isn’t shy about making fun of himself, either. From the Oxford translation:
Menaechmus: Hey, look at me. Do I look the part?
Peniculus: What the hell are you wearing?
Menaechmus: At least tell me I’m pretty.
Our three pillars are present here; Menaechmus understands himself and his goals (get the dress out of the house), understands that wearing the dress does not change his lived identity (just his perception by others), and exhibits some self-aware silliness in making a joke at his own expense. It’s worth noting that in classical theater (like the Elizabethan theater we’ll discuss in a later blog post) it was general custom to have all the roles played by men; this scene’s comedy, then, is enhanced by it being something of a fourth-wall-break, a nod to an audience familiar with a cultural norm.
This historical connection between gender-swapping theatricality and present-day drag highlights a queer truth — the art of drag’s roots go deeper than any one point on a timeline. It’s a stage-thing that is focused on challenging societal norms, pushing boundaries, and engaging in a kind self-expression that transcends and satirizes gender binaries. Tracking a clear ‘Darwinian’ evolution of drag isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible. The essence has remained remarkably consistent, even as its forms (and their supposed ‘‘acceptability’ within so-called ‘polite society’) have changed.
Any kind of queer art existing in the public eye is a form of resistance, and that’s what makes it beautiful. There's resilience, defiance, and artistry to living your truth. Just as there's no one way to define drag, there's no one way to experience or create it — drag, at its heart, is a celebration of the broad, diverse and ever-evolving nature of queer humanity as an object. It’s enough to keep it weird, to tell the stories you want to tell on stage. To share joy or sorrow or even just strangeness with others that might find some kind of meaning in it. I’m reminded of a quote by a personal writing inspiration, Hunter S. Thompson — not queer, as far as we know, but a voice for all things countercultural:
“Why not challenge the establishment with [something] they’ve never heard of? …Why not [find] an honest freak and turn him loose, on their turf, to show up all the normal [people] for the worthless losers they are and always have been?”
Drag, at the end of the day, boils down to being an ‘honest freak’. Drag is having the bravery to wear the most electric parts of yourself on your sleeve through music, dance, through your theater. And many wonderful artists have. Stay tuned for more posts in “A Brief-ish History of Drag” as we explore the proverbial ‘lore’ of this wild, wonderful art and how we got here. Hell, maybe we can learn something along the way.