Drag performances (as Butler discusses them on pages 186-193) are often parody. Critics have interpreted them as parodies of women (when the performer is anatomically male and is dressed and comporting himself as a woman) and therefore as offensive, as a kind of ridicule of women. But Butler thinks they can in fact be parodies of something else, as she explains on page 188. What does Butler think drag performances parody, and why does she think this is subversive? Do you agree with her? Why or why not? If you’ve seen drag performances, describe them in relation to these ideas.
At the end of Chapter 4 of the third part of her famous 1990 book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler considers drag performances as one of the most obvious example of gender performativity. Contrary to some second-wave feminists, Butler does not thinks that drag performances are offensive parodies of women. This interpretation is, according to Butler, misaiming the real target of drag performances.
Indeed, Butler asserts that drag performances are calling into question gender expressions — underlying their contingence — and so, the absurdity of gender expectations, not to say gender discipline, which justify (but are they really?) the “exclusion and domination” (182) of the abnormals, i.e., these “Others become shit” (ibid).
In showing the absurdity of the gender normalization, drag performances are really subversive. That means that they destroy all the values and principles of the dominant system.
“The parody is of the very notion of an original” (188), Butler says. During their performance, drags are showing how the common definition of what-is-a-woman-or-a-man is deeply linked to our value-laden approach of normality. In other words, drag performances do not reiterate women discriminations but show how the existence of different sexes is constructed by some particular stigmates, which are associated to the ones called men and the others called women. To put it in a nutshell, the hierarchy might have been different. There is no “normality” (in its absolute value-neutral meaning) in gender. That’s why Butler says that “gender parody reveals that the original identity after which gender fashions itself is an imitation without an origin” (188).
“The dark shine of the sex”, as Foucault would say, is therefore deeply called into question: when drags play, they demonstrate that sex is not something immutable, “essential” (188) or “eternal”. On the contrary, gender/s is/are fluid in the body, in the soul and also in History. “The myth of originality itself” (188) is a myth understood as being the truth. For Butler, if we want to deeply improve our society, we should question these kind of myths which shape our political world.
Even if I never saw a drag performance, I can easily imagine how it is. I think that Butler is right when she is saying that drag performances are subversive when they question the notions of gender and normality. However, I am not sure that this subversiveness is truly understood, even in the LGBTQIA+ communities. This is evidenced by the fact that some feminists and LGBTQIA+ individuals have not the same analysis of what-is-a-drag-performance. I’m neither not convinced that all the drag queens or kings themselves are always knowing what they call into question.
However, I think that there is a practical problem in saying that drag performances are subversive. This problem is not link to the subversiveness itself of that kind of performance: it’s rather linked to the fact that the audience of such a subversive performance is really limited. Not all of the LGBTQIA+ individuals appreciate drag performances and less understand the political utility of it. Besides, few heterosexuals understand them, less are supportive of them. On the one hand because openly support drag performances is not positively connoted by our society: it is seen as abnormal. On the other hand, having heterosexuals supportive of drag performances is pretty unusual due to the cis-heterosexual privileges they call into question.
Despite (and for) these reasons, I paradoxically think that drag performances are truly subversive. Subversiveness is defined as the calling into question of all the values and principles of the dominant system. As the reactions to drag performances show (even in the feminist and LGBTQIA+ communities), drag performances disturb in demonstrating how gender(s), and so truths, can be troubled. Such a subversiveness, however, raises the question of its efficiency. Could a inclusive and progressive movement be only founded on a so deep calling into question of gender? The question deserves, I think, to be raised.
Retrospectively, I think that Butler is right. My analysis might have been more accurate, though. I really want to read Butler’s whole book.