hese days, you don't have to go to a drag club to see men pretending to be women. You can just switch on your TV set. When Judy Finnigan of Richard and Judy fame had to take some time off presenting their morning show due to her widely publicised "women's problems" a replacement was easy to find. Instead of Judy, we got Lily Savage. Obviously a man dressed as a woman is never going to have to take time off work because of "women's problems", yet the strange thing was Richard related to Lily in much the same way as he does to Judy. He was irritated and slightly condescending, but ultimately it was clear that Lily, like Judy, was the one in charge.
Lily Savage has since had her own show on the BBC and in the same weekend you could have seen Julian Clary, self-styled "celebrity homosexual", routinely humiliating his gormless heterosexual victims. So has drag moved out of the sexual subculture and in to the mainstream?
Well, first, I suppose some clarification is needed. Lily Savage is clearly a drag queen, whereas Clary has never worn dresses. His "look", while flamboyant, has never been full drag. The rubber and PVC he originally wore was more influenced by the punk/fetish scene than anything else. Clary is an effeminate man rather than a man pretending to be a woman. In a recent Spice Girls TV special, the likes of Jonathan Ross got into Spice Girls clothes to perform; this was regarded as entertainment and nothing to do with drag. Indeed, men in women's clothes have always been part of mainstream culture, whether through pantomime, classical theatre or the vaudeville tradition.
The men who chose to do drag, sometimes for pleasure, sometimes for pay, are not one easily classifiable group. There are those who are happy enough with the term drag queen, while others prefer the term "gender illusionist" or "female impersonator". Most, though not all, are gay.
Some do it for fun, for others it's a complete lifestyle. Some know they are men and don't want to be anything else, others are on their way to a full sex-change. Some would hate to be women because then they couldn't do drag. Persona, a book of photographs by Susan Brown of American drag queens, captures the range of drag styles currently being practised. Some of the men featured could be mistaken for women, others are clearly men in make-up and dresses, some are just weird and some are so impossibly glamorous it is clear they are not "real women".
Within the gay community, drag occupies an ambiguous position. Drag queens are goddesses to be put on a pedestal, as well as an embarrassing phenomenon that always reduces homosexuality to a freak show. Yet, of course, it was some two dozen drag queens who led the rebellion of Stonewall in 1969 that marked the beginning of gay liberation. While the popularity of drag during the Seventies and Eighties was fairly limited, the Nineties has seen a resurgence of interest. Tens of thousands of revellers are drawn to the annual Wigstock celebration in the States. Drag is no longer the preserve of men. Many gay women are also getting in on the act - the Drag King scene has become established on both sides of the Atlantic.
The fascination of drag resides in its wilful confusing of the most basic category of all - that of gender. As this is the primary way we define ourselves and each other, someone who refuses or questions these categories must always have some subversive potential. At best, I think some kinds of drag achieve this, but much of it simply throws these categories up in to the air only to have them land back in exactly the same place. I do not accept, as some feminists have argued, that all drag is essentially misogynist but certainly some of it is, in that these men think they are better at being women than actual women are. They often appear to feel let down by women. As one drag queen memorably answered when asked if drag was an insult to women "No, women are an insult to drag queens!". Polly Grip comments in Persona: "If women aren't going to be glamorous then we just have to carry on the tradition ourselves." If real women no longer want to achieve an image like Hollywood stars of the Forties and Fifties then these men take it upon themselves to spend the hours it takes to achieve these film star facades.
What is at stake here is the image of femininity itself, and if that has changed, then drag must accommodate these changes. Many of those pictured in the book reveal a terrific nostalgia for the way that women used to look, consciously harking back to the pre-feminist era in which gender roles were far more restricted than they are now. It is as if the sexual personae adopted by so many of these men cannot accommodate femininity as it is currently lived.
Others, however, are up to something more interesting. Charles Busch, who has written and played the leading female roles in the plays Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party and Red Scare on Sunset, says: "I never wanted to be a woman, I wanted to be an actress ... I believe drag is not about women at all, but about the restrictions that men feel, that the male role forces on them and that's why, I think, you see drag queens playing females with outrageous wigs and big tits and a kind of whore persona." Miss Understood, someone at the cutting edge of the new drag, explains: "I really like the transformation thing, not gender transformation. I don't think of myself as a woman when I'm in drag. I think of myself as more of a fantasy creature." Understandably she/he finds the mainstream drag world far too bland.
While for some, drag is about passing as a woman to the extent that they can work as actresses, models, whatevers, many of the most exciting drag artists have no interest in fooling the rest of the world. As Zondra Foxx says: "Since I don't pass, I might as well get crazy." Describing himself not as gay but as "beyond gender", Zondra's creator declares that "Zondra was the woman I've always wanted with me. I could never find anyone as weird as I am. I found myself, and I'm the woman I've always wanted ... I know that sounds terribly egomaniacal - I am egomaniacal." It could be claimed that much of the new drag, which is freakish rather than glamorous, is closer to performance art than anything else. It is not simply about gender but about the creation of whole identities which are much harder to pin down. While, for instance, much has been made of the rituals of this kind of cross-dressing which involve the time-consuming hiding of male characteristics - especially genitals and beards - there are those now willing to drag themselves up without trying to conceal their masculine identities. As one hairy man says in the book, "I never shave for drag. I don't change my life for a party."
If some men are happy enough to appear wolves in sheep's clothing, then there are also those who choose a different model of femininity to emulate. I have seen men in clubs not glammed up, but going for a "1960s tower- block, seven-months-pregnant, fag-in-mouth" look. This we could call social- realist drag if we really had to call it anything. These are drab queens. In America, there are even drag acts who dress as lesbian bikers. So here we have a man pretending to be a woman who is herself modelling herself on a man. It certainly makes a change from the sequins and feathers of the traditional drag queens.
Our own Lily Savage is a defiantly underclass shoplifter of a certain age. Lily's trick is that while she doesn't look "real" her observations about women's lives often ring true.
While drag hits the mainstream both here and in Hollywood, it is no surprise that it has to diversify in order to continue to shock us. And shock us it should. For at the end of the day, though there may be camp drag , rubber drag, glam drag, demi-drag, to name but a few, there are only two kinds that really matter. The first kind reinforces everything we know and think about gender roles and restrictions albeit in a rather queer way. The second kind, though, stops us in our tracks for an instant and makes us wonder what's really going on underneath it all. It reminds us uncomfortably that we all impersonate one gender or another most of the time; that gender is not just natural but always something of a performance. As RuPaul put it, "Honey we're all born naked. The rest is just a drag"
"Persona" is published by Rizzoli, price pounds 24.95
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies