Drag Queen 2

Drag Queen 2480
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2 Essays

  1. adriennerivers says:

    Writing about roller derby without also writing about gender and performance is almost impossible. Geisler draws comparisons between drag queens as “emblem[s] of gendered transgression” and derby skaters performing “tabooed sexualities.” Traditional drag arose during the 1980s as a “survival strategy” against marginalization, violence, and literal death. Drag houses became safe spaces for queer folks, providing care in many different forms, such as through sex education and emotional support. Although Geisler emphasizes that roller derby’s gender drag is largely different from traditional drag (and indeed, skaters are not victims of stigma on nearly the same level as drag queens and kings are), both “illustrate the possibilities of survival outside of institutional, heteronormative demands” (2014: 759).

    In Rachel Tanur’s photo, two drag queens stride across a populated street in broad daylight, a M14 Bus in the background. Both have heavily teased hair and are wearing all black lingerie. Their faces are angled away from the camera, as though unaware they are being photographed. Despite their intimate attire, they each carry small hand bags and one queen is caught fanning herself with a colorful paper fan. They are making the interior exterior in more ways than one, interacting with the outside world wearing clothing not only taboo because they are not gendered as female but also because lingerie is meant to be hidden.

    Tanur’s photograph offers little information about her subjects. As an audience, we are left to infer. We can assume that beyond Judith Butler’s concept of daily gender performativity (1988), a more explicit performance was being exhibited here. A Pride parade perhaps? Were the queens prepared to be photographed? Indeed, the frame’s composition recalls street photography and suggests that this was a candid rather than a posed shot. The surrounding photographs in Tanur’s gallery online imply that this was a parade or at the very least a gathering of drag queens. Viewing this image alone, however, makes it look as though these are two friends, merely out for a stroll, in their everyday wear. Regardless of the surrounding context, this image presents a radical narrative—one of confidence and disruption.

    Although drag has become more mainstream, as evidenced through the popularity of platforms such as "RuPaul’s Drag Race", and female sexuality and queer identities are more openly accepted, the importance of deconstructing gender has not faded. Butler asserts that “gender identity is a performative accomplishment compelled by social sanction and taboo” (1988: 520). Likewise, Bourdieu argues that patriarchy succeeds because it naturalizes gender roles, making us understand these roles as cemented and necessary (Chambers 2005:327). Thus, the ability of both drag queens and derby girls to “drag gender” through performance is a radical act that disrupts mainstream conceptions of what it means to be male, female, or otherwise-identifying.


    Gieseler, Carly. “Derby Drag: Parodying Sexualities in the Sport of Roller Derby.” Sexualities. Vol 17, Issue 5-6, pp. 758-776. 15 August 2014.

    Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal. Vol 40, No. 4, pp. 519-531. December 1988.

    Chambers, Claire. “Masculine domination, radical feminism and change.” Feminist Theory. Vol. 6, No. 3, pp. 325-346. 2005.

  2. egoldfisch says:

    The framing employed by Rachel Tanur in this photograph calls forth several interlocking layers of visual and sensory meaning. At the center of our viewing frame, two female-bodied people cross the street behind a New York City transit bus. But the margins of the photo can tell us just as much: the back end of a motorcycle, a small store with its grate down, a throng of people, at least two of whom wear backpacks. These sights at the margins also fall in the shadows of the bus and the buildings, drawing our attention further to the two subjects at the center of the photograph.

    Through the title of the photograph, Rachel tells us that the two femmes in the center are drag queens, a fact not immediately obvious from a cursory visual analysis. This context has an immediate impact on how we can understand and make meaning from the image. It brings us back to the intricate and important relationship between the margins and center, both of this photograph and of the city in which it takes place. By centering the moving drag queens while moving to the recognizable built environment of New York City to the margins of the frame, this photograph makes a crucial commentary about the nature of visual knowledge. Since its invention, photography has played a critical role in creating and systematizing knowledge about “others” in urban space (Mirzoeff 2011). One needs only to think of Jacob Riis’ photographs of recent European immigrants living in substandard housing on New York’s Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th to see the impact of such images; after their publication, Riis shot to prominence while the city set about a program of slum clearance and urban renewal which lasted half a century and dramatically altered the lives and geographies of nearly every resident of the city (Zipp 2014). But crucially, these images, and many of those which fall into this genre which we might now call “ruin porn,” are almost never for those depicted within them. Instead, these images serve to produce knowledge about their subjects, and about the spaces which they inhabit Kristie Dotson (2017) calls this “epistemic backgrounding:” the use of images and other media to create knowledge which relies on, but never centers, its subjects, who in turn become marginalized on race, gender, and other axis of visible difference.

    This photograph pushes back against epistemic backgrounding by leaving the viewer with far more questions than answers. These questions are both about the subjects and the space around them: Who are these women? What part of the city are they in, and how do they interact with the environment around them? How does their presence, or absence, shape the visual, sensory, and haptic experiences of urban space? Rather than foreclosing on these possibilities through producing an image which attempts to provide definitive answers, Rachel Tanur instead invites questions through the very framing and motifs of the photograph. In that sense, she seems to share in a broad definition of visuality which concerns itself not only with what is immediately visible, but also with the absences just outside the field of vision (Rose 2001). By allowing us to ask what goes on in the margins that produces the center, and querying what we can’t see, the invisible city beyond the remit of this image, Rachel Tanur suggests that absence and invisibility can become as politically powerful as the center of the eye itself.

    Works Cited

    Dotson, K., 2017. Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability. Social Epistemology, 31(5), pp.417–430.

    Mirzoeff, N., 2011. The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    Rose, G., 2001. Visual Methodologies, London: Sage Publications.

    Zipp, S, 2014. Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York. Oxford: Oxford University Press