When drag turns conformist

Drag performance has the potential to both subvert stifling gender norms and marginalize other members of the queer community, Dr. Fenton Litwiller told students Oct. 30, 2019.

“Be careful what oppression you wreak by embracing it,” said one of five drag artists interviewed by the critical leisure scholar.

Litwiller hosts gender-play workshops for queer youth but is concerned about commercialized drag – such as the RuPaul’s Drag Race television show – that sometimes includes catty mockery of transgender women.

While others have pointed out elements of misogyny in drag, Litwiller is studying its transphobia and transmisogyny – prejudice against transgender women. Trans women are vulnerable to violence from heterosexual men who perceive them as deceptive seducers.

Straight people often confuse people born male who transition to live as women with men who dress in female clothing only when they perform on stage.

“People just think I’m a bad drag queen,” a trans woman who has no interest in looking like a hyper-feminine model told Litwiller.

Even community drag performers feel pressure to spend more hours on makeup or be thin as audience expectations change with the mainstreaming of commercial drag.

The best drag intentionally mocks the gender framework without mocking people who express their gender in unconventional ways. Litwiller said drag kings – women who perform masculinity – are more likely to bring a feminist analysis to their performances.

The Kinesiology and Recreation Management professor said straight people should be wary of parading their love of commercial drag as proof they are queer allies. The class also viewed a comedy sketch that highlights the dangers of straight people appropriating queer drag culture.


A lifetime of queer art

Multimedia artist Doug Melnyk has been an out queer artist in Winnipeg since the 1970s. “The world doesn’t want you to be an artist or gay,” he said, so he had to fight for the privilege of being both.

Melnyk’s sexually explicit art and collaboration with other edgy artists has sparked controversy. He is banned from Tumblr and Twitter for violating community standards and when he was the director of aceartinc, police insisted on previewing an artist’s video. “Being funny with nude bodies is complicated.”

He designed the poster image for this year’s Critical Conversations seminar series, based on a famous painting by Manet that was controversial in its day.

Melnyk thinks artistic, joyful pornography serves a lot of positive purposes, especially for gay men in the closet, but acknowledged that women might read the same images as non-consensual because of their different experience.

He wants people to experience art, not draw conclusions. “Ambiguity is my friend.”


What do you think about trigger warnings for sexually explicit art?

Melnyk said his poster for a controversial Fringe Festival show displayed everything that might upset audience members so they could decide whether to attend. But a public warning in a gallery about his “explicit sexual imagery” oversimplified the work by sending viewers on a treasure hunt. “An art gallery should be a safe space for investigating dangerous subjects.”

Prof. Karen Busby said that rather than giving trigger warnings in class, she tries to help students first develop through readings and class discussion the capacity and self-awareness to handle difficult topics.

Listen to podcasts from seminars in this series.