© Copyright 2020 Joshua Ricci, Ryerson University
Drag represents something much bigger than what it can seem to represent at the surface. Its roots run deep within the queer community, and it has become unavoidable in queer establishments and, until more recently, the mainstream media. However, it seems as though there are many misconceptions about what drag can be, or how it can extend beyond female impersonation into a form of gender play that removes itself from the heteronormative binaries. I’m not talking about the kind of drag you might see on “RuPaul’s Drag Race”, or even in many of the gay bars located in Toronto’s Church and Wellesley Village, which frequently prioritize the work of female impersonators. I’m referring to the performers who push the binaries of gender into oblivion and create something new with their own ideation of what it means to be feminine, masculine, or neither. I like to think my drag alter ego, Diana Sauss, picks away at some of those binary-based restrictions. When considering these gender play expressions, it is important to wonder how the practice of dressing in drag presents itself as a disruption or stabilizer of gender norms, a visual mask for the performer at a personal level, or, simply as an extension of self-actualization. Or, in other words, how does the performers’ on-stage persona interact with their daily self, and how is this a reflection of their inner desires or insecurities?
Let’s deconstruct this idea, shall we?
Drag 101 & The Beginnings of Diana Sauss
Let’s start off with a definition of what Drag is. Historically, drag is categorized by Drag Queens, or, cisgender “gay men who dress and perform as [women] but do not want to be women or have women’s bodies” (Taylor and Rupp 115). Although, and this is very important, gender identity is not synonymous with sexuality, and, is not necessarily on a binary-based spectrum. Drag is not exclusive to gay men, as there are many lesbian, bisexual, asexual, etc. individuals who also perform in drag. On top of that, you don’t have to be a Drag Queen either, as there are many Drag Kings or non-binary performers who identify with they/them pronouns and do not conform to the restrictions of heteronormative structures of gender, performing at drag shows. In fact, the more traditional Drag Queens can often be “apt to reinforce the dominant binary and hierarchical gender and sexual systems by appropriating gender displays and expressing sexual desires associated with traditional femininity and institutionalized heterosexuality” (Taylor and Rupp 114), in the way many performers choose to represent more stereotypical and normalized portrayals of femininity.
And then there is Diana Sauss; a femme, mustached, and all over hairy Queen who thrives on the double-takes she gets while out and about in public. While she definitely is not the first Drag artist to keep some of their stereotypically male qualities, she remains a proud member of this more niche representational group. That is because her ideas of what it means to perform in Drag are an extension of the gender play Drag artists have been experimenting with since its inception. The traditionally feminine qualities many performers conform to are sometimes rooted in a misogynistic and patriarchal construction of how women are expected to present themselves, and therefore, acts as a product of misogyny itself. By keeping bold and stereotypically male features such as a mustache and body hair, there is a disruption of certain beauty ideals entrenched in the male gaze and creates a new narrative of what it could mean to be feminine.
To go even further into that concept, let’s take a song by one of the pillars of heterosexual male construction, pop star Britney Spears; and place a gender-bending Drag Queen in her place to see what happens.
The Making of: “‘Stronger’ Britney X Diana”
The aesthetic and structure of this campy music video differ from what it was intended to be during its inception. Originally, it was meant to be a documentary following Diana Sauss, an up and coming Drag Queen with 450 Instagram followers, around town showcasing her self-perceived struggles of being a local celebrity. Which, of course, was meant to represent a level of delusion faced by many local performers with big egos. Then, with the outbreak of COVID-19 and being unable to leave the house for hours at a time, the direction of the video’s concept needed to shift.
The need to dance off the anxiety, coupled with the intention of bringing joy to the viewers at home is what led to the making of this music video. Britney Spears has a nostalgia factor to her music, and so it was an easy choice to include Stronger, as the soundtrack to Diana’s little dance party.
Keeping the behind the scenes segment in the final cut as the opening portion of the video was very intentional, as I wanted viewers to hear Diana’s deeper voice, and to see the layers of makeup coming off, revealing the number of layers between her face and mine. This visualizes the aforementioned mask worn by Drag performers and the covering up and recreation of one’s own facial structures.
It was important to see the process of collaboration at hand as well. Being able to see director Makram Ayache in the mirror and to hear choreographer Nicole Lavergne’s instructions through a video call allow for the viewer to see how creative collaboration is still very much possible, regardless of a city-wide lockdown.
The Destruction of Binaries, Presuppositions & Stereotypes Through Diana Sauss
The process of deconstructing the social implications of what it means to be a Drag Queen through this visual narrative is challenging, but not impossible. By simply existing as a Drag artist, there are certain expectations of how you should present yourself, or what kind of life you must live to do something like Drag. There are many misconceptions about what Drag is and what it represents, but the main thing I would like to focus on is the personalized implications of performing in Drag. As mentioned above, there is a level of performativity to the gender norms at hand, as well as in the level of femininity Diana Sauss chooses to represent.
There is also something very evident in the first moments of the video that presents Stephen L. Mann’s idea of styleswitching, in which a Drag Queen will switch “from one language variety to another in order to perform individual aspects of [their] identity” (Mann 794). There are moments in the behind the scenes portion of Stronger when Diana’s mannerisms shift from a more directorial and assertive tone to a very performative and sultry tone in the blink of an eye. This styleswitching directly relates to the performative nature of Drag and represents a direct example of Diana as a caricature or extension of myself, rather than a completely separate entity.
So Then, Why Bother With All The Makeup & The Outfits?
Well, as it turns out there is psychological reasoning behind why individuals may pursue Drag as a creative outlet. Besides the fact that the arts, “such as visual art, dance, and music are known to have a therapeutic effect” (Knutson and Koch 56), it seems as though the sense of healing comes from projecting the more niche aspects of yourself onto an externalized character, as opposed to projecting those same qualities onto what might be considered your daily self. Knutson and Koch also mention, “Drag performance may offer coping skills for drag queens” (Knutson and Koch 55), in a sort of escapist kind of way, an idea which relates back to the personal implications of creating a caricature of myself through Diana.
Although, there are immense levels of artistic integrity involved in creating a Drag persona, and even though the performance is synonymous with a level of personal deconstruction; it also takes a lot of work to either conform to the gender-based norms we talked about earlier, or to actively not conform, and create new ways of expressing gender identities.
All of this to say, femininity or masculinity are not rigid concepts. We are all fluid beings and gender representations can and should ebb and flow.
As the very famous (but sometimes problematic) RuPaul once wisely said:
We’re All Born Naked and the Rest is Drag
Knutson, Douglas, and Julie M. Koch. “Performance Involvement, Identity, and Emotion among Cisgender Male Drag Queens.” Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, vol. 14, no. 1, 2019, pp. 54-69.
Mann, Stephen L. “Drag Queens’ use of Language and the Performance of Blurred Gendered and Racial Identities.” Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 58, no. 6-7, 2011, pp. 793-811.
Oprah’s Supersoul Conversations. RuPaul Explains What ‘We’re All Born Naked and the Rest Is Drag’ Means, http://www.oprah.com/own-supersoulsessions/rupaul-explains-were-all-born-naked-and-the-rest-is-drag. Accessed 27 Apr. 2020.
Spears, Britney. “Stronger.” Oops!… I Did It Again, Jive, 2000.
Taylor, Verta, and Leila J. Rupp. “Chicks with Dicks, Men in Dresses: What it Means to be a Drag Queen.” Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 46, no. 3-4, 2004, pp. 113-133.
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.