The Queer Student Union held a presentation entitled “Behind the Wigs: An Examination of Drag Culture” to explore the meaning behind drag performance and its role in popular culture yesterday at the UCen.
The presentation was led by fourth-year comparative literature major and QSU member Joel Munoz. Clad in a black fringe dress, cheetah-print high heels and a blonde wig, Munoz began the discussion announcing his own drag name, Athenna Anastasia Lunaire, and outlying a brief history of the subculture he and a number of other UCSB students take part in.
According to Munoz, UCSB has been holding student-run drag shows for roughly 13 years. This drag subculture, however, did not simply pop into existence, as the entire movement goes back to the 1800s, when cross-dressing was frequently used in operatic productions.
“In opera, women were given pant roles to play men so they could have higher voice settings; so their voices could hit notes men couldn’t traditionally hit,” Munoz said. “Likewise, men cross-dressed as women to give a sort of comedic effect, or something like that. It was a precursor to performance-based art.”
According to Munoz, the actual subculture of drag did not form and become part of the larger LGBTQ community until the 1900s to 1950s, pioneered by figures such as Andy Warhol and Jackie Curtis as well as club personalities such as Club Kids — a 1980s group infamous for their exaggerated costumes and heavy drug use. At the time, Munoz said, the term “drag” in “drag queen” came from a German term “trägt” meaning “dress” or “wear,” while the “queen” part was initially used as a derogatory word for queer or gay men.
Munoz discussed various drag events such as the annual outdoor festival Wigstock, a pride parade that has shown resistance to mainstream heteronormative culture since it first surfaced during the 1980s. In detailing these historical events, Munoz described the progress that has been made by drag culture, as he said the later half of the 20th century offered individuals more legal freedoms in expressing themselves and engaging in cross-dressing.
“Before that, it was illegal to even wear women’s clothing. You could get thrown into jail or face other implications, such as having to worry about job security afterwards,” Munoz said. “It was a really bold statement to go out and wear these things, congregate with people who were also members of the queer and LGBTQ community and show pride for who you are and not be scared to be who you want to be.”
He also highlighted famous drag figures such as RuPaul and displayed a set of videos of drag performance style, including upscale designer Marco Marco’s October 2013 Los Angeles Fashion Week runway show that featured drag queens as models.
According to Jake Harries, a first-year undeclared major and QSU member who attended the event, the different sorts of models — as well as the many genders and body types — in drag-style fashion surprised him.
“I thought what was interesting was when we were watching the runway and they weren’t all girls. They weren’t all drag queens and weren’t all super, super feminine,” Harries said. “I didn’t know that drag could still be showing off the male aspect of it.”
Additionally, Munoz introduced various ways of looking at the gradual mainstreaming of drag subculture. One view, Munoz said, would be the fetishization of drag models and their bodies and the over-sexualization of the queer community. Another view, Munoz said, would involve exploring notions of appropriation versus commercialization of drag within pop culture. In this sense, the subculture could be seen as inevitably paying a “cost” by being made mainstream and institutionalized.
“This shows me celebrating drag culture and mainstreaming it, but it could also be interpreted as appropriating a culture that others are not a part of, who can potentially profit on a commercialized way of representing drag,” Munoz said. “It’s a job, you know? You’re the taking the wig off at the end of the day, and so it’s about how much it means to you. What’s the point?”
Eyra Dordi, first-year sociology major and QSU member who attended the event, said she was intrigued by the argument asserting that the drag subculture is being commercialized.
“I like learning about more marginalized communities within the LGBTQ communities. I’m queer so drag is kind of interesting,” Dordi said. “I feel like I’ve learned a lot about the mainstream stuff and I want to look into the other stuff.”
Munoz said drag can be used to explore identity — many transgender women initially use drag as such, only to realize they are not comfortable with the bodies they have — while other times drag is used to embrace the body and identity that one already has. Munoz points to himself as an example of the latter.
“There’s a struggle between finding yourself and finding what feels good to you. I am a very proud member of the drag subculture; I just really like being feminine,” Munoz said. “With drag, I am sort of reclaiming my identity by not being afraid to show off. That’s why I personally do it. I want to be body-positive. I love my body; I love myself. I love drag, and I think I look sexy, you know?”
Photo by Kenneth Song / Daily Nexus
A version of this article appeared on page 3 of November 13, 2013’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.