Back in the olden days, sexism was so straightforward, even a person with a uterus could understand it. It was the belief that men were superior to women — more intelligent, more important, more human — and while it affected different groups of women in different ways, feminists were in a position to identify who benefited from it and who was harmed. Of course, nowadays we can see that this was a very simplistic way of understanding gender-based oppression. It was simplistic not least because it had been thought up by people who don’t have penises (such people are generally known to be less intelligent, less important, less human than everybody else). These days sexism is different. It isn’t about the appropriation of female sexual, domestic and reproductive labour or anything so crude. These days we’ve realised that the people who do this unpaid work are privileged enough to want to do it, freeing us up to focus on the more important task of validating everyone else’s sense of self.
Unfortunately this means that some women — particularly those who didn’t get the memo and remain on the wrong side of history — still think some things are sexist when they’re not (tell them this and they’ll accuse you of gaslighting, but that’s only because they don’t understand what gaslighting is). Porn is one area where they make this mistake, stupidly assuming that men getting off on women being abused could be in some way related to men getting off on women being abused. Drag is another. There are proper, long, thinky explanations as to why porn and drag subvert the very systems that those with an old-style understanding of sexism think they reinforce. Haven’t read said explanations? Then simply take your gut reaction and assume the direct opposite.
Take pantomime dames, for instance. Yes, a grown man calling on all of the misogynist stereotypes of the older woman — vain, bitchy, sex-starved, deluded — and playing them for laughs might look bad. But to think it actually is bad would just be too obvious. You don’t want to look like one of those stupid women who still bases her feminism on things that she feels are wrong. Hence it doesn’t do to make even the slightest criticism.
“That looks a bit … off,” you might say, whereupon some young non-binary type, playing his — sorry, their — get out of male free card for all it’s worth, will ask you whether you’ve read up on the long, colourful history of drag as resistance to gendered norms. Because believe them, they totally have, back when you were too busy washing underpants and cooking fish fingers and all the other crappy, boring things women like you do because you’re lucky enough to have no inner life. Then your non-binary friend will say something which makes fuck all sense, such as “by replicating and exaggerating, in a carnivalesque style, the patriarchal stereotype of femininity, the pantomime dame inhabits the revolutionary margins in a way radical feminist theory is too rigid to accommodate.” Then they’ll challenge cis norms just that little bit more by asking you to make them a sandwich.
I spent years — years, I tell you — as a post-grad, thinking this stuff sounded like sexist bollocks but concluding that there had to be something I was missing. I found the new gender theories suspiciously like the old misogyny, but kept my mouth shut for fear of looking stupid (plus I assumed that if my male friends wore the same nail polish as me, they were constitutionally incapable of considering themselves superior). This is why I chose to write a thesis that had fuck all to do with feminism (it’s on art and booze, if you’re interested). It’s only now, when I’m no longer a PhD student, when I’m writing this not in a library, but in Cafe Nero, snatching moments while my youngest child naps in a pram beside me, that I can look back and say WHAT COMPLETE AND UTTER BOLLOCKS THAT WAS.
It’s not that I don’t think men dressing as women can’t ever be subversive. In Stiffed, Suzanne Faludi includes an interesting section on the drag queens of the Stonewall Riots and the way in which they undermined the pretensions to masculinity of the fellow males who sought to restrain them. It says something about the growing conservatism of contemporary gender politics that said drag queens have now been reclaimed as trans women. It seems one cannot have that kind of behaviour tainting the purity of the male sex class. It’s fine to be “subversive” if what you’re doing is representing femininity in a way that suggests there’s no sex hierarchy in play; it’s not so fine if what you’re doing is making it plain that masculinity is a house of cards.
But even if you’re doing the latter, do men really have a right to ham up the “woman” role? I get the impression that most of the people who are cool with it are simply in denial the structural oppression female people face at the hands of male people. They’d rather make it about not-men at the hands of men, or trans at the hands of cis, or anything but look at the root of what is actually happening. But a man in drag is not just someone who suffers due to gender roles bravely lampooning said roles. He is also member of the dominant sex class acting out an exaggerated version of the strictures endured by the subordinate class. There is something both dismissive and arrogant about this, even when the misogyny is muted.
The drag artist highlights the stupidity of gender in a way that suggests it isn’t clear enough to women already. Indeed, you can only fall for the idea that he is offering a unique critique of gender if you think that women themselves buy into their own subordination or even that they are incapable of noticing it. Fakery and misogyny are intertwined in the ultimate punchline, which is that beneath the powder and paint is not a mere woman, some passive void, but an actual human being. That’s what we find so funny: that regardless of any superficial subversion, male people are still considered human and female people aren’t.
And yeah, you could put on a deep, meaningful face and say “ah, but that’s the whole point!” And you will look very clever because people will assume you’ve touched on something they’re too foolish to understand. “Women are people, too” feels like too easy an answer. I still think it’s the right one.