A toast to the women who taught me how to construct my own gender
There is an old gag (I am a big fan of old gags) which goes something like, “I’m not a doctor, I just play one on TV.” I like it, and identify with it, because it resonates with my own performance practice. I do not think of myself as a drag queen, but I know many people do; I suppose it’s because I am in possession of a penis and a rather nice stash of frocks, but now I’m being overly explanatory.
When I have to define my gender I have often been at a loss because I don’t think I’m a man, I don’t think I’m a woman, not transsexual, not a transvestite, but rather transdrogynous (and yes I did make that word up). To put it best, my gender is Katherine Hepburn. You’ll see me in trousers and a straight to business attitude when I’m writing or rehearsing, but then you’ll see me at a soirée or a book launch in a cocktail dress and clip on crystal earrings. I have learnt how to construct and express my gender almost exclusively from women, both in the theoretical and theatrical. From Kate Bornstein to Legs Malone, from Judith Butler to my sister Nicola, Simone de Beauvoir to Fauxnique, it has been ladies who have learned me.
One constant criticism that I come across with regards to my gender presentation, onstage and off, is that being born with a male body means that I have inescapably led a life of privilege and can never have the right to call myself anything other than a man. This is a familiar, depressing, reductive argument, which leaves me distended with hopelessness, swollen with sadness. My femininity is, so the argument goes, a fundamentally misogynistic impersonation which (as I can apparently opt out of it at any moment) is invalid. But maybe making femininity a sacred cow defeats the purpose? Maybe if we didn’t take, “I am this and you are NOT so you can’t sit with US,” as our jump off point for human interaction then tedious phenomena such as sexism, homophobia, and transphobia would lose their popularity.
Within the underground performance circles I emerged from, the cabals of queens, harlots, and exhibitionist artistes I pressed up against have amongst their most sacred traditions that of the Drag Mother. Sacred, invaluable, and inscrutable, she who taught you how to shade your face, our Holy Mother of the eyelash glue is held in the highest regard. Usually this tradition consists of one drag queen passing the skills she has acquired in her career onto her drag daughter; it’s a wonderful warped mirror image of Mummy teaching little Suzie how to comb her locks. For me, however, all of my drag mothers were biological women, something I think is quite unusual and speaks, I feel, to how gender roles are collapsing around us quicker than the stock markets.
At college it was my gal pal Gina who first shoved me into a dress, who shaved my legs and painted my face, before we both went onstage in drag, she masquerading as Jean Paul Tart, and I as Simone de Boudoir. For a while I was a burlesque dancer in New York, and to that end found myself in need of some lingerie a little sexier than the striped cotton pants I usually hang out in. To this end my compatriot in strip, Legs Malone, took me to a Century 21 to shop. I will never forget the look of Sunday morning astonishment on the face of the Grandma who stood between us when Legs yelled across the knicker rail, “You’re a 36c right? Of course you are, we were sharing that bra in the double act.”
Darlinda Just Darlinda taught me how to take an every day make up look and bump it up with the application of crème eyeshadow lovingly layered over with iridescent glitter, she also made me a pair of seed pearl pasties. My sister took me shopping for foundation, and my dear friend Sophie showed me the dark arts of strobe cream, and World Famous BOB taught me that if a lady wants to go to the beach in heels she should make sure she is wearing wedges not stilettos or else she will find the sandy shores a real chore. I was pieced together in my constructed femaleness at the hands of glamour Goddesses, shown the way to the form of femininity I desired by the keepers of the flame themselves.
“One is not born a woman, one is made a woman,” it was the works of women writers such as de Beauvoir, Butler, and Bornstein that proved to me that gender is a construct, and invited me to resist being imprisoned in anyone else’s demands that I be what I was apparently born as. Likewise, the great movie queens Crawford, Hepburn, Dietrich proved to me that a woman is not only an enviable mode of being, but a powerful one. Watching these women, reading them, I never felt that I must become a passive pastiche of femininity, but rather that I could possess the fury, glamour, and self-determination they exuded. And so, in spite of my own shortcomings and in no way implying that my gender expression is anything other than that, I would like to raise a toast to the ladies who taught me how to give face. Celluloid beauties, sisters in Superdrug, academic heroines; long may they shower their knowledge on the confused and curious, long may their generosity flow, and long may their ferocity be celebrated. Without you, I’m nothing, gurl.
La JohnJoseph: Boy in a Dress will be shown 2nd-26th, 4.20pm, The Stand Comedy Club III & IV at Edinburgh Festival
Photo Credit Michel Dierickx, David Curtis-Ring - Art DirectorTagged in: drag, edinburgh festival, feminism, gender, privilege, sexism, women
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