You Better Spend: Drag Culture and the Limits of Irony

By Derek McCormack

“It costs a lot of money to look this cheap” is an oft-used maxim drag performers use to express the enormous difficulties inherent to their craft. To assemble one complete look for female impersonation — which includes at least 10 makeup products, a wig, jewelry, earrings, a dress, corset, fake breasts, hip pads, pantyhose, and heels — costs well over $100, even when executed simply. As an amateur drag performer, I’ve become more aware of certain contradictions in my attitudes as my skills as a queen have improved. Derek, a wannabe bohemian with far-left views, lives with great thrift and scrutinizes his possessions and spending obsessively. Yet as the chanteuse Antigone Spade, he has amassed a large collection of lavish clothes, professional makeup products, and illusion-forming accessories. It’s tempting to claim that performers are afforded a certain ethical leeway that accounts for the disparity. But can that be true, when the dollars Derek saves are the same ones that Antigone spends? Some may be ruffled by my following conclusions about the manifold connections between drag with consumer capitalism, but be aware that this essay is an indictment of myself first and foremost.

An individual performing in drag spends and consumes; there is simply no way around it. Even if a drag performer were to present a “nude illusion” it would be thought of as a gimmick, and like all gimmicks, its appeal would fail to last once the novelty faded. On the other hand, an individual with a well-stocked arsenal of clothing, wigs, accessories, and props finds ever-growing opportunities for the expansion of their aesthetic and career. Above all, drag comments on identity — especially male vs. female identity — both of which are understood in some sense by bodily features but in a larger, consumerist sense by clothing, accessories, and stylization. (Think of conventional bathroom signs, where “men” is signified by a nondescript figure but “women” is signified by a figure wearing a dress). In most cases, the magnitude of consumption and the success of the illusion correlate positively, and a successful illusion combined with a dedicated performer will eventually translate into greater popularity and more money. But to echo Antonin Artaud, a look, once executed, cannot be executed to the same effect twice. Performers must continuously consume in order to put together new looks or they risk losing their fans’ interest. In this way, power lies in repetition with just the tiniest bit of variation, and a drag performer becomes something like a television series — fans don’t expect to see something in particular (indeed, they hope to be surprised), but they expect something familiar.

Next, consider competition: the animal impulse underlying capitalism in its most classical conception. Competition is also an omnipresent force in drag circles as more performers often vie for an audience’s interest than an audience’s interest can typically withstand. Commanding performers are able to (directly or indirectly) convince audience members to spend money, and in doing so ultimately prove themselves as financial assets to club owners (not to mention the tips they earn on stage). Those performers who don’t rise to the top and fail to hold sufficient sway over an audience’s capital will find their careers stunted.

Competition also plays a large role in the drag pageant — a traditional event of drag king and queen culture worldwide that has existed in some form since pre-Liberation days. In a pageant, performers vie for the highest scores from a panel of judges by showcasing their style, talent, and charisma in various themed rounds. The reality competition show RuPaul’s Drag Race has emerged in this decade as the pinnacle of drag pageants. The show pits drag queens against each other in a brutal, weeks-long competition for a grand prize of $100,000 and the title of “America’s Next Drag Superstar.” But no matter which performer wins, the real victors are the event managers and producers who have elevated the level of competition for the betterment of the spectacle. Once again, better engagement translates into greater profits for capitalists or, in the case of television, more eyeballs for advertisers. In this manner, drag and free-market capitalism see eye to eye — competition raises the bar for everyone and greed (for lack of a better word) is good.

Aside from the run-of-the-mill exploitation, what concerns me more is the political dimensions of drag when it is considered in a larger, societal framework. As Drag Race and other large-scale drag fandoms have skirted the mainstream, a constant rhetoric has been espoused that drag is an act of great irony — it subverts the commonly understood notion of “woman,” laughs at the way consumerism attempts to shape our identities, and is therefore, by making these charged juxtapositions, revolutionary. Yet this line of logic skips over one essential fact: in this decade, especially post-November 2016, irony maintains very little revolutionary value. Ours is a world where gesture and act have become so hopelessly confused that there’s no way for irony to function, for its very power lies in its ability to (knowingly) switch the roles of the two concepts in the signifying chain.

Look no further than RuPaul’s enduring single “Supermodel (You Better Work)” to illustrate this phenomenon. The song both proselytizes and ridicules the cult of the ‘90s supermodel, for it recognizes that for a gay man in 1993 this was just a beautiful fantasy — something that consumer society’s strict rules would never allow to cross over into reality. But individuals, both queer and non-queer, clung to this dream so fervently that the corporate world found itself faced with two options: either exclude these individuals for the sake of respectability or include them and court their wallets. As the numbers grew, the decision became obvious. In recent years, fashion stalwarts such as Cosmopolitan and Vogue have found ways to promote drag queens and culture in their branded content, with some queens even becoming successful models in their own right. This influence has then trickled down to a new generation of drag performers who find themselves fully embracing the supermodel aesthetic in an attempt to maintain a cool sense of irony while simultaneously receiving validation from a bastion of high culture. Before, the corporate world was earnest and the individual was ironic. Now, the corporate world plays at irony in order to lull the “ironic” individual into earnestness. The power dynamic has switched; irony has been tamed.

The empowering value of drag for the individual performer is immense. It allows people to discover stifled desires and express them in artful, cathartic ways. But as a political act, as an act of social performance, drag is yet another art form slowly (or not so slowly) selling its liberty for security in the grand consumerist machine. Corporations, finding no pure emotions left to exploit within their consumers, only see a way forward by exploiting emotions of affluence such as irony, apathy, and sarcasm — emotions which drag, by its contradictory nature, can provide in spades.

So why do individuals even do drag at all? Many would argue that the drag impulse, like many queer impulses, is a product of repressed desires in regard to sex, gender, and sexuality, which is largely created, abetted, or otherwise unobstructed by capitalism. For those who practice conventional female or male impersonation, this oppression was likely refracted through the prism of celebrity culture which presents passionate, glamorous, good-looking, rich, and (usually) white individuals as paragons of human existence. Many drag performers still adhere to consumer society’s cisnormative, binarist divisions, perhaps because, for homosexual and heterosexual alike, giving up these distinctions would conflict with deeply-held sexual impulses. Indeed, this is probably a large reason why they continue to be maintained by capitalist forces. Those performers who choose to explore drag or genderf*ck aesthetics would appear to be more radical in their politics as they ignore these boundaries. But just as collage requires paper, so too does genderf*ck require consumption — whether buying men’s, women’s, or non-gendered clothes, it’s still spending.

If we were to live in a socialist utopia, what would drag look like? Would it even exist? In a sense, human beings will always be doing drag (as in RuPaul’s catchphrase, “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag”) since the moment we put on clothing we become performative. But the difference is that this performativity would become profoundly uninteresting. Without capitalism and human oppression, we could all live with less deception, less irony, and more full feeling. Identities could expand and contract fluidly, rather than being stifled like water behind a dam only to let loose a flood when the pressure becomes too great.

Regrettably, this is an ideal none of us will probably experience. Therefore, drag remains one of many consolations we receive for living under a corrupt, inhumane system. But realizing a consolation’s value is the first step toward discovering what we’ve lost. Cosmetic makeup is no substitute for war paint, but for now it will do.

Leave a Reply