Column: Understanding the other

Watching Mrs. Doubtfire, or La Cage aux Folles, or the Harvard Hasty Pudding drag theatricals I attended in college, I laughed along with everybody else. Yet I always felt queasy, without quite knowing why.

Years later, as I became a cultural critic, I began to ask myself why drag never represents the great qualities of women – their compassion, their stamina – in ways that would parody the weaknesses of men. Rather, drag shows skewer faux-helplessness, manipulation, obsession with one’s looks and crusty coquetry. Not only are women from Venus, they say, but they are also trapped there permanently.

I am not arguing that a man can’t represent a woman. One of the stupidest artistic prescriptions in the world is “write what you know.” If this were enforced, Tolstoy would never have been able to write a novel about an adulterous housewife, nor Daniel Defoe to write a “diary” about a plague that happened before he was born. Still, choosing to represent an “other” – especially when that “other” belongs to a group that your group has traditionally oppressed – is an act that creates some hazards.

Representation is an expression of power. By painting Jews as thieves, the Nazis paved the way to steal from them. When radical Islamic fundamentalist men say that women’s hair sends out irresistibly powerful sexual rays, they give themselves permission to force them to wear the veil, or to rape them if they refuse.

The dangers of wrong representation were hammered home to me as I wrote my first novel, which is about a cellist who can’t play the cello. My narrator also turned out to be the daughter of a survivor of the concentration camp Theresienstadt. As I came to understand that my book was about trauma, that I would have to write not just about the narrator’s life but about her father’s, I became frightened: I am of Christian descent, and knew that if I was going to write about Jews, I would have to get it right.

The Holocaust survivors I interviewed were skeptical about my project, and with good reason. They showed me old newspaper cartoons that represented Jews as mercenary thieves, as vampires sucking away Germany’s resources. Over and over, they explained how being false representation was the first step to domination. And they asked me to represent them the way they saw themselves.

Perhaps our American version of nasty art about “the other” is blackface. Thankfully, blackface minstrelsy is now a thing of the past, an artifact of a racist era. But as GW Hillel and “The Out Crowd,” a gay and lesbian student group, plan a drag show for Thursday evening, it may be useful to remember how our perception shifted.

Until the ’60s, writers who thought about blackface were mostly white. Even when they acknowledged that the genre was racist, they defended it as harmless, wholesome fun, focusing on the intentions of the performers. The danger of this sort of thinking – that we’re good because we want to be good – became clear to the feminist legal scholar Catherine MacKinnon. Crucially, MacKinnon forced prosecutors to redefine rape not by the alleged perpetrator’s intentions but by what the victim experienced.

In this context, African American scholars began to explore blackface. They focused not on how whites meant blackface but how blacks experienced it. Their conclusion was that it was an unacceptably demeaning expression of white bias.
Many women scholars who think about drag have come to a similar conclusion. The issue is not private transvestitism, or freedom of sexual expression. As students in my classes know, I’m all for free sexual expression and teach writers who write about sex. But public performance drag is not about sex but power.

As Kelly Kleiman argues so forcefully in her article, “Drag=Blackface” in the Chicago-Kent Law Review, acts of drag as a public performance may be glamorous or comic, presented by gay men or straight men, but fundamentally, they all embody institutionalized male hostility to women.

Indeed, rather than liberating women, a drag contest liberates men to outdo each other in projecting just those female stereotypes I and my colleagues are working to transcend.

The organizers of this event surely had good intentions. But as the deconstructionists taught us, what an artistic expression means is not defined by the intention of its creator. While this evening’s show occurs, I hope that GW’s young women will use it as an occasion to ponder whether, in the next decades of their lives, they wish to be viewed by men in the light that shines on a drag queen’s stage.

-The writer is a professor of English.

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