Thursday, December 27, 2007

Slate's Drag of an Article

Hello readers. Before I begin, I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas/holiday break, if you had one. I'm back and ready to resume a relatively regular blogging schedule. And, this year, I'd like to incorporate some guest blogs into Fannie's Room written by people who have specialized or in-depth knowledge of a topic in which I do not. Be on the lookout!

Now, back to the blog.....

Shoutout out to Feministing, in "Oppressive Like Me," for pointing out this ridiculous testimonial on Slate of a woman who goes undercover and performs in a drag king show. (All quotes are from the Slate article). I would like to expand on Feministing's short critique of this undercover piece.

Long story short: Heterosexual woman finds a DC drag king troupe, dresses in drag, and performs a show with the troupe.

The Slate article, written by journalist Emily Yoffe, is part of Yoffe's "Human Guinea Pig" series where she claims to humiliate herself "for fun and profit."

While an interesting and entertaining idea in theory, Yoffe fails to understand that when one crosses cultural boundaries it is usually best to tread with respect. Instead of using the experience to shed some light on a culture different from her own, Yoffe used the experience to impose her judgmental attitudes on drag kings for the sake of entertainment.

For instance,

1) She claims that in her Human Guinea Pig column, she does "things that readers are too well-adjusted to try themselves." Like, the implication goes, be a drag king performer. Her life experience, she assumes, is the norm. And she uses that perspective to judge people different from her, also assuming that her readers walk the same walk in life that she does.

2) I give Yoffe some props for saying the following in reference to members of the drag king troupe that she meets:

"I will refer to people by their preferred names and pronouns—usually male."

But then, knowing that some of the drag kings identify as male in real life, she goes on to refer to them as a whole like this:

"The first thing that struck me when looking at their Web site was that drag kings are nice girls."


"I came off the stage, and the other kings, like the girls they were, patted my back, gave me thumbs up, and said I was 'awesome' and 'fantastic.'"

While she recognizes the importance of referring to people by their preferred names and pronouns, and has the opportunity to explore why doing so is important to transgender persons and drag kings, she is fixated on characterizing the drag kings in a way that is comfortable to her. They aren't women who identify as men to her, but merely a group of "nice girls." Now, not all drag kings identify as men outside of the drag arena, but some in this troupe do, as she recounts. Calling a transgender person by his or her preferred pronoun isn't a matter of "political correctness gone too far," it's a matter of politeness. It's something that we can all do out of respect for another human being at no cost to ourselves.

Had Yoffe spent an hour googling "transgender" before her experiment she could have approached these men and women with more respect.

3) Because Yoffe approached the experiment with little education and respect, her daughter will probably grow up with a very negative opinion of drag kings and transgender persons. It is unclear the extent to which Yoffe explained the experiment, transgender issues, or drag kings to her daughter. But her daughter's reaction is telling:

"Although my daughter, now 12, has accompanied me on many previous Human Guinea Pig adventures, I tried to protect her from this one. But I had to explain my Tom Jones imitations in the living room. I told her that I was going to be in a show where women dressed up as men and performed to recorded songs. She made a disgusted face and then looked alarmed.

'Mom, I don't have to go as your son, do I?' she asked. I assured her she didn't have to be a drag prince."

Is it natural for children to be disgusted by gender-bending? People are free, of course, to teach their children whatever they want about people different from them. Which makes me wonder if the child's apparent disgust is reflective more of what she has learned from others than a reaction she was born with. Because I can think of other reactions that children could have to drag kings- like, you know, amusement, intrigue, and/or curiosity.

Some may argue that 12-year-old children need to be "protected" from gender nonconformity, or that they are not ready to learn about it. Perhaps. But also, perhaps, children are more resilient than they are given credit for. And perhaps, remaining silent about drag kings, and then seeing her mother turn into a man, freaked the little girl out. She didn't understand what was going on.

In either case, Yoffe had an opportunity to inform her daughter about transgender persons and drag, and I wonder if any further education occurred other than the assurance that the daughter didn't have to also dress in drag.

4) Yoffe sums up the entire experience as scarring for herself and her family. Of her daughter, she says:

"She hated seeing me trying to be a man. I reassured her that I wasn't doing it because it came from a desire within me; it was an experiment for work, like being an actress.... I was robbing her of her safe assumptions about who her mother was."


"I knew if my experiment went on any longer, someone in my family would need hospitalization."

I can see that it probably was confusing and scary for the little girl to see her mother inexplicably dressed as a man. Although it was also a situation that could have been resolved by talking honestly about it. But, it's a reality that some people and children have to face. It's a reality that exists after Yoffe scrubs off her fake beard and removes her "package." And, it's reality that doesn't exist for Yoffe beyond how she can "expose" it, capitalize from it, and impose her judgments on it.

Where Yoffe went into drag culture and found fear and disgust, many others find pleasure, honesty, and fulfillment. Where her shallow story ends, richer and more real stories continue.

It's a shame that all those "normal" Slate readers will never know that.

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