Appropriation (?) of the Month: Drag Queens and Femininity

By David Shankbone (David Shankbone) [CC BY 3.0 (

By Sarah Lison

Last month Logo TV premiered the seventh season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, a flashy competition reality show that is part America’s Next Top Model, part Project Runway, and showcases fourteen drag queens in their bid to be crowned “America’s Next Drag Superstar.” 

Along with host and supermodel RuPaul Charles himself, it is perhaps the most mainstream example of drag performance and culture today. Most drag queens are gay men (though there are performers of all genders and orientations) who adopt a female persona for the purpose of performance, rather than identifying as a woman all the time. However, the history of drag as a haven for marginalized gay men, often of lower economic class and ethnic minorities, has led to a distinct and fully formed culture of performers with their own developed lexicon and unique traditions.

Drag as a performance of gender brings up complex questions around the distinctions between appreciation, appropriation, and subversion. The premise of drag itself as a performance of gender could be interpreted as an appropriation of the culture of women, as many queens aspire to look as “fishy” (realistically feminine) as possible, and compete in drag queen pageants. Female icons such as Cher, Lucille Ball, and Judy Garland are regularly paid tribute to, and celebrity impersonations are a popular category of performance. Given the shared experience of disempowerment that many women and gay men have experienced, it can be viewed as homage to imitate and perform as female celebrities who have forged their own success. On the other hand, many drag queens construct more androgynous or genderless looks, such as the Club Kids of the 1980s and 1990s, the provocative Tranimal movement, or Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst. Whether intended by each individual performer or not, drag highlights the constructed nature of gender (Butler 2006), but whether it is at the expense of women is a matter up for debate.

Feminist writings attacking drag as anti-women have likened it to gender blackface (Murphy 2014), taking and exaggerating feminine traits for the purpose of entertainment. Queens are able to don and remove their female personas at will, while women must deal with the realities of their gender constantly. Cultural appropriation often involves cherry-picking sometimes superficial aspects with no regard for the full context of living within that culture. However, most instances of cultural appropriation occur through a power imbalance, with the more dominant demographic sampling from less empowered. Drag in its infancy worked in reverse.

The individuals that made up the New York scene of the 1970s and 1980s were largely black or Latino, lower class, and often teen runaways. Drag offered a way to slip on the identity of someone else with much more social power and privilege. As performer Dorian Corey noted in the documentary Paris is Burning (1990), “Black people have a hard time getting anywhere and those that do are usually straight. In a ballroom you can be anything you want…you're showing the straight world that I can be an executive if I had the opportunity because I can look like one, and that is like a fulfillment.” In its formative years, drag was not an appropriation of a marginalized class, but an act of class aspiration. Both the stage and the persona represent a safe haven where performers are not subject to the slurs and abusive of daily life as gay men (Berkowitz and Belgrave 2010:169). However, with the increasing recognition of equal rights to LGBT people, and the more mainstream appreciation of drag culture, does this dynamic still hold true? Or with a less extreme power imbalance, do these performances lose their aspirational quality and become more complex?

To further complicate matters, drag culture itself has become subject to appreciation/appropriation. Madonna famously showcased the art of voguing, a dance style that came about the in drag ballroom scene of the 1980s, in her “Vogue” music video. Its mainstream success helped the dance form gain popularity among a much wider audience, and Madonna established herself as an icon to many drag queens. Yet such critics as bell hooks (1995:31) have accused her of tokenism and insincerity in featuring racial and sexual minorities for her own branding purpose. As a Caucasian woman, she has taken an aspect of a niche subculture, which itself draws inspiration from feminine appearance and behavior, and capitalized on it.  In this case, is this appropriation? And if so, who is appropriating from whom? And does drag benefit from its migration to a more mainstream practice, or do its nuances get reduced to its basic premise and a few catchphrases?

Drag by its nature causes provocation by mirroring aspects of mainstream society, and exaggerates it in a manner that blurs the line between reverence and parody. Whether or not it is a form of appropriation raises larger questions about society. Is there a female culture? Does the act of a man performing as a woman demean women? Does it mock our perception of what it means to be a woman, and is that a negative? Does appropriation exist when acted out by a disempowered demographic, or is drag’s status as an act of appreciation or subversion contingent on its performers remaining marginalized?

It is the history of drag and its part in providing a community for gay men otherwise rejected from society that differentiates it from a man simply wearing a dress for comedy, as in Mrs. Doubtfire or Tootsie. However, this history is all too easily left by the wayside as drag becomes increasingly accessible. Context matters and whether you are entertained, intrigued, insulted, or otherwise provoked by drag, it is important to appreciate drag’s history to help dissect the discourse surrounding it today.

Photo: RuPaul by David Shankbone (David Shankbone) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

References Cited

Berkowitz, Dana, and Linda Liska Belgrave. 2010. “She Works Hard for the Money”: Drag Queens and the Management of Their Contradictory Status of Celebrity and Marginality. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 39(2): 159–186.

Butler, Judith. 2006. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, New York.

hooks, bell. 1995. Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister? In Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text-Reader, edited by Gail Dines and Jean McMahon Humez, pp. 28–32. Sage, Thousand Oaks.

Livingston, Jennie (dir.). 1990. Paris Is Burning [Motion Picture]. Miramax, USA.

Murphy, Meghan. 2014. Why Has Drag Escaped Critique from Feminists and the LGBTQ Community? Feminist Current, accessed March 15, 2015.

Additional Reading

Baker, Roger, Peter Burton, and Richard Smith. 1994. Drag: A History of Female Impersonation in the Performing Arts. Cassell, London.

Jacob, John, and Catherine Cerny. 2004. Radical Drag Appearances and Identity: The Embodiment of Male Femininity and Social Critique. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 22(3): 122–134.

Jenkins, Sarah. 2013. Hegemonic “Realness”? An Intersectional Feminist Analysis of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Unpublished MA thesis, The Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton.

Moore, F. Michael. 1994. Drag!: Male and Female Impersonators on Stage, Screen and Television: An Illustrated World History. McFarland, Jefferson.

Moore, Ramey. 2013. Everything Else Is Drag: Linguistic Drag and Gender Parody on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Journal of Research in Gender Studies 3: 15.

Newton, Esther. 1979. Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America. University Of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Strings, Sabrina, and Long T. Bui. 2014.  “She Is Not Acting, She Is.” Feminist Media Studies 14(5): 822–836.

Taylor, Verta, and Leila J. Rupp. 2006. Learning from Drag Queens. Contexts 5(3): 12–17.

Underwood, Lisa. 2004.  The Drag Queen Anthology: The Absolutely Fabulous but Flawlessly Customary World of Female Impersonators. Routledge, New York.


Sarah Lison is an MA student in the Department of Archaeology at Simon Fraser University and an IPinCH Associate. 

Our Appropriation (?) of the Month features, written by IPinCH team members, highlight the complexity of 'cultural appropriation' and 'cultural appreciation'.