Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.
I remember those words growing up. Pantene was pretty sure that the world was going to hate on women who dared to be pretty. And now that I’ve grown up, I think they were right. Our culture has a real problem with femininity. Granted, as a 7-plus-foot-tall drag queen, my experience of femininity isn’t exactly like the typical woman’s experience. But on the flip side, because I’ve had to build my femininity from the “ground up” as it were, I like to think that maybe I have a little bit of insight on the subject. I certainly have spent a minute on it.
This post is a response in part to a letter to the editor in the Grand Forks Herlad by a Devils Lake woman, Delcie Light, that she wrote following an article about drag culture in Grand Forks in which I was prominently featured. I’ll include links to both the original article and the letter below. But I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. Recently in my blog, I’ve written a couple of posts about masculinity: one related to Brony fandom and another about masculinity as stupidity. Thinking about masculinity naturally leads to also thinking about femininity – the two are inextricable. One only really has meaning in relation/contrast to the other. We live in a world that is ruled by binary thinking, and masculinity/femininity is one of the biggest. Sexism is rooted in it; much of homophobia also, if you really look at it, boils down to a distaste for femininity. That’s probably the biggest problem with binaries: besides the fact that they often erase more than they actually, truthfully encompass, they never allow both sides of the binary to share equal status. It’s like a teeter-totter: on one end is a two-year-old and on the other there’s, well, me. In a situation like that, one side is always going to be up and one side is always going to be down. And I have yet to find a two-year-old sturdy enough to get my voluptuous ass airborne.
And why would the kid on the other end want to help lift me up? They’re enjoying the benefits of my gravity. And because our way of understanding power is like a teeter-totter, those who are on the up side think that the only way for the people on the other end to get up is for them to go down. For me to win, they have to lose. There’s only so much…power, privilege, whatever…to go around. That’s what binaries tell us. So then systems get built to help keep things out of balance. We create cultural stories about whatever is at the low end of the binary to try to keep it there. We devalue it. We make fun of it. We secretly fear it. I’m using we here, because those of us at the bottom of the binary are part of these stories, and if we aren’t careful we internalize them and convince ourselves that maybe we are less than. Maybe we do deserve to be at the bottom of that teeter-totter holding the whole fucking thing together.
I think that’s what happened with feminism. For all the good it has done and continues to do (and make no mistake, the good that feminism has done for women and men and people of other genders is practically immeasurable), feminism has had a pretty troubled relationship to femininity. For much of the second wave, femininity was a symbol of the patriarchy: it was a Better Homes & Gardens photo spread of everything women were told they had to be, all they were allowed to be. I can understand how those feminist pioneers could look at traditional femininity and decide they wanted nothing to do with it. They’d spent much of their lives being told that not only was this what they were supposed to be, but that what they were supposed to be was frivolous and superficial and unimportant. So they turned away from it, to find other ways of being. Bravo! But in doing so, many felt the need to demonize femininity itself for how it had been used in their experience of oppression.
Ok, so to cut through some of the pretentious academic speak: what I’m saying is that femininity itself isn’t bad; what we’ve allowed ourselves to be told and to believe about femininity is bad. There is nothing inherently bad about being emotionally available, being vulnerable, being compassionate, being soft, being frilly, being sexy, being pink and perky and joyful. All of those things can be good, if that’s how you want to feel or what makes you feel fulfilled as a human being. What’s bad is what our culture says about those things, about how we choose to value those things versus more traditionally masculine traits like being stoic, being rational, being aggressive. What’s bad is that we live a world where some people seem to matter less because they embrace femininity. They aren’t taken as seriously, their voices don’t get the same degree of respect, and they often don’t have the same rights and access that other people have. That’s the problem, not femininity itself.
I learned early that femininity was not something to be proud of, and it certainly wasn’t something that little boys in rural North Dakota towns should be interested in exploring. I was pegged as the “gay kid” right out the gate, mostly because of my fluid relationship to gender. I wasn’t afraid to wear girls’ clothes when playing dress up; of course I wasn’t afraid to wear boys’ clothes either. I was a creature of moods: some days I woke up wanting to be a fireman, some days I woke up wanting to be a princess. My little mind was strangely pragmatic about the whole thing. I also didn’t compartmentalize quite the same way other kids did. GI Joe would often ride into battle on My Little Pony, and while I did appreciate my Barbie doll for her keen fashion sense, I remember on more than one occasion feeling seriously annoyed that I couldn’t maneuver her into the cab of my Tonka dump truck. I think I probably tended to lean more towards feminine things, but I attribute that to my love of the forbidden. Tell me not to do something and I’ve already started. Tell me that something is off limits and that’s the next place you’ll find me. I never would have lasted in the Garden of Eden – the snake would have shown up to try to tempt me and I’d already have been halfway to the core of that apple!
My mother certainly had her hands full with me; it couldn’t have been easy. She was in her early 20s, divorced with two kids and no money in Bowbells, North Dakota in the early 80s, a time and place where divorce was still pretty scandalous. When one of those kids also happened to be a non-gender-conforming, stubborn, strong-willed, emotional, overly dramatic hellion, it’s wasn’t exactly a recipe for blissful coexistence.
That’s the part of Light’s letter that gets personal for me. Most of her letter is just stuff I’ve heard before: recycled ideas about drag as a form of mockery, drag as minstrel show, drag as anti-feminist. Those arguments are reductive and frankly not very interesting; they’ve been done before, and better. It’s been almost 40 years since Janice Raymond decided that transsexuals were just men who wanted to infiltrate and destroy feminism – now that’s some crazy worth reading! But when Light suggests that I am mocking and degrading my own mother? Gurrrrrl, hold my earrings, hold my weave, gonna throw my purse up in a tree – them’s fightin’ words!
Delcie Light doesn’t know the first thing about me, my mother, or our relationship. She has no idea that my mother is one of the strongest people I know, and that much of my strength, whether on stage or off, comes from her. Janessa is powerful on stage because my mother taught me how to be powerful, how to stand up for myself, and to know that I have value as a human being. She showed me that being vulnerable isn’t the same as being weak; it’s part of why I perform, and it’s why I write blogs like this to try to create connection with others who feel the ways I’ve felt. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, is also one of my greatest inspirations. She had a capacity to love and persevere that I marvel at to this day. I spent much of the last two weeks of her life at her bedside with the rest of my family, trying to honor all of the love and support she had given us throughout the years. When she passed, a piece of my heart was broken and every day I try to put it back together by striving to be the sort of person who would make her proud, and that informs the persona I’ve created. She might have blushed at some of the content of my performances, but I have always tried to live a life with integrity and conviction, and I’ve always tried to find the happiness she wanted for me. My performance is constructed on a sturdy foundation of love, admiration, and respect for all of the strong, beautiful, vibrant, tough, feminine, and fabulous women in my life.
As a man, I also realize that I have certain advantages and privileges that women like my mother and grandmother never had. That also is part of my performance, especially when I’m hosting a show. I love to find straight men in the crowd and flirt with them in *ahem* very provocative ways. Some are good sports about it, some try to heckle me back, and some get uncomfortable and retreat (or leave altogether). In all cases, though, the audience can see men put into a position of unwanted attention that women are all too familiar with. I get to be the one who is powerful, because I have the microphone, and I get to say things that some women probably wish they could say but they’re told are too scandalous for women. I’m a woman who is glamorous and feminine and decorated, but I refuse to just be an object. I talk, and I say whatever I want. I use vulgar language, because vulgarity is something only men are supposed to be allowed to partake in. I’m also funny, and like a good feminine hostess, I want all of my guests to have a good time. But the audience quickly figures out that they are on my turf: if you approach me with respect then you’ll get the same in return, but if you don’t, well, then good luck to you. I want to show women that you can be as feminine as you want to be and still be strong, still be assertive, still command respect. I don’t get respect because underneath it all I’m still a man; if that were the case, I wouldn’t bother with drag. I’d just go out and be a comedian or an entertainer as a man. I get respect because I take all of that forbidden femininity, all of those frilly, fluffy, sparkly things that women are told they shouldn’t like or, if they do, that it makes them less than a man, and I make it powerful and enticing and a whole lot of fucking fun! I show men that you can play around with the expectations of your gender and you’ll survive – the world will not stop spinning and you will not go flying off into space. I show other-gendered people that it’s ok to explore, that you can choose your own path and you can make a fulfilling life, regardless of what those ever-present gender police have to say.
Am I single-handedly changing the face of gender? Of course not. There’s still a lot of walls and boundaries and I’m just one person who’s knocking on doors and shining a light, trying to find the weak spots in the construction. I’m part of a conversation. But I’m proud to be a part of that conversation, and I really do believe that drag is (or at least, can be) capable of expanding the possibilities of how people live and experience their gender. Drag is all about possibilities.
And it’s important to me that I examine how I think and behave and present myself offstage as well as on. I’ve realized that I was probably so drawn to femininity as a kid because I like what it represents to me: emotional openness, compassion, and fabulous accessories! Even in “boy mode,” I try to present myself in ways that may make people look twice or question what it is that I’m up to. Janessa loves jewelry, and I’ve embraced it in my civilian life as well: for the last couple of years, I’ve been working on “bringing brooches back” (I especially love animal brooches, but the collection is expanding), I have quite a few necklaces that I wear on a regular basis, and lately I’ve started eyeing some rather fetching scarves. If someone asks me why I wear them, I say, “Because I love them.” If they push the issue or say that men shouldn’t wear this or that, I remind that that jewelry is a cultural creation – none of it is natural for anyone! We don’t pop out of the womb wearing either a necktie or a string of pearls depending on our genitals. I’ve identified as queer for quite a while now, because I feel it better represents all of the facets of my gender and sexuality better than the previous term I used, gay. Lately, I’ve thought about adding femme to how I define/describe myself. Not because I’m super feminine all the time, but because I recognize that femininity is often devalued and I think it’s a place to find some great meaning, as well as some unexplored kinds of power. Possibilities, y’all.
At the end of the day, I can’t even really be that mad at Delcie Light. Her words are frustrating, yes, and very familiar. If I had a nickel for every time someone told me that my performance was reinforcing stereotypes or degrading someone or negatively impacting some community or other, I would have much nicer gowns and would be playing much nicer venues – Vegas baby! But I recognize that Ms. Light has her own baggage about gender that impacts how she sees me and what I do. And just like femininity isn’t really the problem, she really isn’t the problem either. It’s all of the junk she’s been told about femininity and appropriateness, and how men and women should dress and behave, that is the problem. Just like she doesn’t know anything about me, I don’t know anything about her life experiences or where she comes from.
But I’d love to find out. Consider this blog post an open invitation: if Ms. Delcie Light wants to sit down and talk about how she feels about drag and how she came to these ideas, I’ll buy her lunch. I’ve heard there are a couple of charming little restaurants in DL, or if she’s in the Forks I’d love to dialogue over some Little Bangkok. I’m not as fiery as I was when I was a budding drag queen and I’m always up for a good discussion. In cases like this, I think it’s much more effective to come from a place of love rather than a place of anger.
And that’s something I learned from my mother.
Tags: Delcie Light, drag, drag art, drag king, drag performance, drag queen, drag queens, Drag Scene, drag show, Feminine, Femininity, Gender, Gender Binary, Gender Conforming, Gender Expectations, Gender Non-Conforming, gender norms, Gender Outlaw, Gender Police, Gender Policing, Gender Role, Gender Trouble, GF Herald, Grand Forks Herald, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, masculine, masculinity, Miss Jaye