Girly: Drag, clothing and rebellion

How drag inspired me to embrace my femininity.

Art by Katarina Butler

When I was a child, getting ready to go to synagogue was always a performance. As a girl, I had to wear a dress to the Orthodox Jewish service, or I would not be allowed in. When I asked my parents why, they told me that it was to show respect to God. How it was that my twin brother was able to show respect to God in his jeans and button-up was not made clear to me. 

Once I had wrestled with my mother to get the dress on, it came time to brush my hair, and the war raged on. My rejection of femininity, or “girliness”, extended beyond the realm of dressing up for God. I didn’t want the colour pink in my everyday clothing. However, pink was so ubiquitous in girls’ clothing at the time that my mum had no choice but to buy me peachy-coloured outfits, which she told me were actually orange.

Upon reflection, I believe that the reason why I was so opposed to embracing anything “girly” was because I associated femininity with weakness. The representations of women that were available to me — largely Disney characters, Bratz dolls or arbitrary male love interests — were vapid, one-dimensional and submissive. Girls in pink did not get taken seriously (I hadn’t yet reached the end of Legally Blonde).

As I entered the later years of primary school, I gained a rudimentary understanding of the word “feminism”. I eagerly embraced a brand of feminism which was concerned largely with detaching women from stereotypical notions of femininity. Some of these sentiments I stand by today: women need not necessarily be mothers; women need not be submissive in the bedroom; women don’t have to like the colour pink. 

As a young girl, I eagerly embraced a brand of feminism concerned with detaching women from stereotypical (and submissive) notions of femininity. While this taught me a lot about gender roles and their implications, it also made me associate symbols of femininity (makeup, high heels and short skirts) with the patriarchy. In my mind, women needed to abandon these ‘girly’ things altogether if we wanted to be taken seriously.

It was not until I discovered drag that I realised that femininity was far more complex than I had given it credit for. It was a friend of mine who introduced me to the television show RuPaul’s Drag Race, where drag queens from across America compete to become America’s next drag superstar. We had the house to ourselves for the weekend, so she sat me down and had me watch an entire season in one go. 

At first, I was confused. I didn’t really see the point. Was the goal to look the most like a cis-gendered woman? And if so, why were half the queens nearly six feet tall with cartoonishly large makeup and hair? As it turned out, it was not just about the looks. However, looks did matter. At the end of every episode, the queens walked the runway in their gowns and wigs, which would contribute to their performance that episode.

The runways were nothing like what we see on Top Model. There were queens of all shapes and sizes, and the garments on show (which were often hand-made by the queens themselves), ranged from sequined gowns, to Leigh Bowery inspired “club kid” drag, to a bearded Aphrodite. They showcased queer beauty and gender diversity in a way that I had never seen before. Nevertheless, high heels, false eyelashes, and heavy makeup were a consistent and seemingly essential part of the package. I began to see these components of drag, which I had always viewed as tools of the patriarchy, in another light. These queens were not using makeup to appeal to the male gaze, nor were they acquiescing to traditional notions of gender expression — they were completely subverting them. 

To these queens, “girliness” was not a form of submission, but of rebellion and empowerment. Drag queen Adore Delano states that, “to me, drag is like a superhero mask.” Learning that femininity was a source of power to queer people like Adore made me reconsider my distaste for traditionally feminine presentation. I learnt that fashion, rather than being a superficial and vain interest, was an art form — that designing and constructing an outfit takes time and a trained eye, as does the elaborate makeup used to transform facial features. As someone who has always loved to draw and paint, I began to admire the artistry and creativity of drag, and of makeup and fashion more generally, even outside of the world of drag.

Once I ventured beyond the world of RuPaul’s Drag Race and into the local drag scene, I discovered a diverse community of queer people using their femininity as a source of artistic expression, entertainment and power. I saw performances by bearded queens like Radha, trans queens like Dionysus and Marlena Dali, and Indigenous queens like Tyra Bankstown. Each of these queens represents their own unique brand of queer beauty and non-conformance, all while embracing their “girliness”.

I began to experiment with make-up, wigs and heels myself. I’d glam myself up and, even though I am a woman, would say to my friends “I’m in drag,” wig or not. While wearing a dress to synagogue had felt restrictive and unjust, when I reframed my feminine presentation as a form of drag, I felt powerful. I felt that I was engaging in a queer art form, rather than acquiescing to traditional gender roles. Today, I see an enormous amount of power in femininity, and my understanding of feminism has vastly improved thanks to my exposure to gender diverse voices and artistry.

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