Start Your Engines… A Brief Introduction to Drag

drag ball culture

As a cis queer woman and a fan of drag performances, I thoroughly enjoy drag as a form of entertainment but wanted to find out more drag culture, looking into the origins and talking with drag queens about their experiences and opinions. Over a series of articles, I’ll be looking at the origins, definitions, types and impact of drag and drag culture, with interviews and comments from drag queens in the community. 

This week, season three of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars premiered on VH1, with familiar faces Shangela, Trixie Mattel, BeBe Zahara Benet, Morgan McMichaels and more bursting back onto the screen. Propelling drag into the mainstream since 2009, All Stars 3 marks the twelfth consecutive season of RuPaul’s Drag Race , the opening episode having reportedly drawn in 895,000 viewers. It’s hard to deny with the popularity of Drag Race, but how many of those thousands of viewers know what came before Ru’s main stage, the werk room and “sashay, away”?

Defining Drag

“Personally, I define it as an art form,” says Marilyn Sane, the self-styled ‘Wicked Witch of the East Midlands’, a drag queen who performs regularly in Nottingham. “There’s so much that goes into it. It can be so many different things and I find it frustrating when people try and force their definition on every performer.

“It’s like if you’re a painter and someone tells you that you should be more Van Gogh or Jackson Pollock. Drag can be silly, it can be serious, it can spread important messages and start conversations – but at its heart, it’s entertainment.”

Nana Arthole, another Nottingham queen and Marilyn’s ‘sisterwife’, feels similarly about the ‘rules’ surrounding what it means to perform drag. “I don’t think that there are as many rules for drag as people try to impose on it. I’m a bearded queen, and I work with queens that identify as showgirls, comedy queens… there’s so much openness to it, so to confine it too much takes the kick out of it. You want to play with the medium. You don’t want to end up like every other bitch, because that’s boring.”

Marilyn and Nana (image via Instagram)

“When people pigeonhole themselves, what you’re doing is mimicking an idea of what you think drag should be – making yourself either too niche or not niche enough,” Nana continues. “There’s definitely a delicate balance between the two. And if you’re ever going to try and define drag you should always pre-empt it with ‘in my personal opinion’ or you risk invalidating someone else’s character and art.”

Origins of Drag

While drag in mainstream pop culture is a relatively recent phenomenon, the art of drag has been around since the first time people started dressing up and performing for entertainment. The word drag itself was coined by Shakespeare, to describe the common act of cross-dressing in theatre in a time before women were allowed to perform on stage. Even after the ladies were permitted to tread the boards, the act of drag continued to be used for comedic effect – if you’ve ever been to a Christmas pantomime with their staple dames, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

“The weird thing about drag history is that it depends what lineage you take from,” says Nana. “You’ve got origins in Shakespeare, then it’s also a queer protest for people that didn’t want to conform to society. And then you’ve got the female illusionists — it depends on what research you’ve done into it, but all of it is vital and important, and I don’t think any one of them is more important than the other.”

Evolution in Queer Culture

Drag has evolved far beyond pantomime dames. When the first LGBTQ bars appeared around the 1920s and 30s, drag performances became a part of the entertainment, and the art has continued to develop in the queer community ever since. Paris is Burning, a 1990 American documentary directed by Jennie Livingstone, centred around drag balls in the US, an underground counterculture phenomenon largely made up of members of the black and Latino queer community.

These balls provided not just a place for queens to perform, but as a safe space for members who, at the time, would have been largely ostracised by mainstream society. ‘Houses’, essentially alternative families, were lead by ‘mothers’ (often an older, head drag queen) who guided and supported drag ‘sisters’, and members would typically adopt the surname of the house. This can sometimes still be seen in the names that modern drag queens choose or are given (for example, Sahara and Kennedy Davenport, from the House of Davenport).

paris is burning

Many of the terms and phrases that modern consumers of drag will be familiar with from shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race originate in ball culture. ‘Yas’ (more often appearing as ‘YAAAAS’) is a slang term that came from queer people of colour in the ball culture of the 1980s, becoming more widely adopted in the larger queer community in the 1990s. ‘Reading’ and ‘shade’ are both terms relating to the art of assessing another queen, ‘reading’ for flaws and throwing ‘shade’ in the form of backhanded compliments. ‘Realness’ is the accuracy of your impression or performance, and ‘werk’ is the effort or talent put into your performance. The list goes on, and many of these words have begun slipping into mainstream language, becoming colloquial terms amongst young people, queer or otherwise.

Historical Impact

Often considered to be the most important event leading to the gay liberation movement and the fight for LGBTQ rights in the United States (a fight that, sadly, continues today), the Stonewall riots of the late 1960s were led by drag queens and transgender people. The riots began when members of the LGBT community fought back against a police raid at the Stonewall Inn in June 1969, an establishment that was popular with some of the most marginalised people even within the LGBT community – drag queen, transgender people, effeminate men, butch lesbians, male sex workers and homeless young people, who also made up the underground subculture of drag balls.

“I think it’s important to do your homework and know the role that drag has played, not just in history but specifically in gay history,” says Marilyn. “You need to know the role that you play within that. It was all about breaking boundaries, and I feel that there’s a social responsibility that comes with doing drag to keep pushing those boundaries and playing with people’s ideas of gender.”

“It’s important as a queer person to cast your net as far as possible in terms of looking into the history,” adds Nana. “If you haven’t had time for it that’s fine, just make sure you make time for it in the future. And if someone tries to talk to you about it, just make sure that your wig isn’t so thick that you can’t hear what they’re saying.”

You can find Marilyn Sane and Nana Arthole over on their YouTube channel, Unnamed Drag Channel, or catch them performing at Dirty Filthy Sexy nights in Nottingham.

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