Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Princesses, Bitches, Queens, and Witches: A Drag Interpretation of Shakespeare’s Female Characters.

            The turn of Juliet’s ivory wrist as she raises the knife, the heated tremor beneath the rosy skin at Beatrice’s throat as she pits her wits against her secret passion, the cruel curve of Cleopatra’s body as she arches her back and accepts the venomous bite, the lover’s pinch...these women are iconic symbols of femininity.  Romeo’s blind childlike idolatry, Benedict’s bested stutter, his mouth opening and closing like a fish’s, Antony’s lost Empire…these are iconic accolades to feminine power.  Mothers, queens, daughters, princesses, harlots, martyrs…these are the women who populate Shakespeare’s work.  Their feminine legacies are woven into the very fabric of our social conception of womanhood.  Women today aspire toward Juliet’s beauty, Beatrice’s intelligence, Cleopatra’s strength and self-possession. Or conversely, they rage against Juliet’s ceramic innocence, Beatrice’s surrender, and Cleopatra’s madness.  For this reason literary feminist criticism turns again and again to Shakespeare’s writings.  Some critics seek to illuminate, in dramatic detail, the strength and example of Shakespeare’s characters. Others try to expose them as clichés, stereotypes, projections of women written by a man, portrayed by male actors, constructed to satisfy the appetites of men in a man’s world.  The debate seems as timeless, and as hopeless, as the battle of the sexes itself. I step into this debate from a rare, yet not completely unique, point of view.  I hope to examine Shakespeare’s portrayals of femininity in Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, and Antony and Cleopatra, from the point of view of a drag queen. 
            Perhaps this point of view requires some background and justification, so before I present my argument, let me explain my paradigm. Drag is distinct from feminism because while feminists examine what it means to be female, drag examines what it means to be feminine regardless of biology. Drag is distinct from queer theory because it does not focus on sex, sexual relations, or sexual attraction. Modern drag performance is often described as the art of female impersonation or illusion, but it is by no means simply men trying to pass themselves off as women.  RuPaul Andre Charles, the Queen of Modern Drag, explains, “You’re born naked, and everything else is drag”(Adrea Charles 4), meaning that all aspects of identity are socially constructed.  The purposes and styles of drag are as varied as the artists who call themselves drag queens, but two common threads make drag an appropriate lens to examine Shakespeare’s women: First, drag is a celebration, by men, of the strength, elegance, and beauty of women, and second, drag is a caricature of socially constructed female stereo types.  It is perhaps difficult to understand how these two threads run parallel. How can a drag queen honor feminine qualities while simultaneously mocking them? Conventional wisdom argues that gender is biological, natural, and innate, women are naturally feminine, and their femininity comes naturally.  But drag argues that femininity is not tied to biological sex, and women and men are trained to perform their gender.  Consider high-heeled shoes. Women wear high heals to increase their feminine appeal, but there is nothing natural about the shoes.  Not far removed from the practice of foot-binding in pre-modern China, high heels can be painful, create unnatural posture, and require extensive practice for a woman to walk naturally and without stumbling. Drag queens nearly always appear in exaggerated high heels and still perform complicated dance routines. I once saw a drag queen, Morgan McMicheals, under a strobe light and in seven inch heals, climb atop a bar then dance her way across three swiveling bar stools and land with full poise on a rotating stage. Drag queens simultaneously expose high heels as unnatural while praising those who can master their use.  Drag queens claim gender is a performance, but a fascinating, entertaining, and admirable one. The examples of fascinating performances of femininity are various.  Consider how it is feminine for a woman to paint her nails, face, and hair all sorts of unnatural colors. Consider how popular icons of femininity are painted performers every bit as much as drag queens.  An example is super-model and pop-icon, Tyra Banks.  She is considered the epitome of femininity, yet she wears wigs, body shaping undergarments, and as much makeup as any drag queen. Yet RuPaul is considered, at best,
an outsider artist, and Tyra Banks is on the
cover of magazines that instruct women in femininity, that teach them to be better women.
            The same question has often be  How can Shakespeare honor femininity when his characters are based on socially constructed stereotypes that may have no basis in reality? The answer to both questions is the same: It works because it is drag.  Because drag queens, Shakespeare, and his actors, are all biological men, their work shows that all ideals of femininity, beauty, strength, innocence, eroticism, as well as all female short comings, weakness, irrational emotionality, social oppression, are all social constructs, not tied to biology but to society, and as easily put on or cast off as a polyester wig or strap on bust line. Large movements with in the feminist community have been based on downplaying traditional female roles or qualities.  Women were to gain power and representation in society by being as masculine as possible.  They were to gain equality with men by becoming indistinguishable from them. But a drag queen, standing firmly in her 7-inch heals, on smoky stage in West Hollywood, sweating beneath a polyester wig and caked on pancake make up, can assert that, in the true tradition of drag, Shakespeare was a feminist, and his work represents, simultaneously, a positive portrayal of women and a brilliant satire of socially constructed femininity.
en asked of Shakespeare.
            First let us turn to Juliet.  She represents the first ideal of femininity and a common character in drag today, the Ingénue. Though Shakespearean critics are quick to point out that Juliet’s character is complex and can be illuminated from several vantage points, in popular culture, Juliet is undoubtedly the paragon of maidenly innocence and girlish love. Worshipers of youth and young love claim her as a patron saint and martyr while many critics who oppose Juliet’s status as a positive feminine icon, berate her as simply a flighty teenage girl who falls for a boy, is oppressed by her father, and ends up destroying herself on a girlish whim.  And while many girls may dream of being Juliet in the arms of her Romeo, no mother wants to see her daughter devirginized in secret or draped lifelessly over a lover’s corpse.
            But let us look at Juliet through our drag lens, and see if she is not an example of female virtue who exposes the masquerading quality of youthful femininity.  First let us examine Juliet’s innocence.  She is young, not completely naïve to the ways of the world and longings of the flesh, but still pure enough to blush at her nurse’s bawdy language. She is a Capulet, loyal to her family, yet she has kept herself clean of the hatred that infects her kinsmen.  Her love for Romeo is also pure.  The brevity of their acquaintance does not mar the depth of her feeling nor her dedication to it.  This purity of character and affection cannot be deigned, but critics could still say that it is a negative feminine stereotype.  Her naivety could be construed as ignorance, her dedication to her family as willingness to accept patriarchal oppression, and her love as dramatic, irrational emotionality. But if we compare Juliet to the common drag figure, the Ingénue, portrayed by famous queens such as Manila Luzon, we can see that Juliet wears her character like a gown and uses it like a true queen.
            Juliet’s innocence does not make her ignorant. One of her most famous lines, “What's Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot, nor arm, nor face, nor any other part belonging to a man,”(Complete Works 1680), is an wonderfully insightful innuendo. She shows she understands the mechanics of love and the anatomy of man, while offering wisdom that has escaped the patriarchs of the two feuding families.  She can maintain innocence in her actions and sentiments without sacrificing maturity or wisdom.
            Juliet’s dedication to her family does not oppress her. Her love for her mother and father, push her toward obedience but not to subservience. In the end, she does plan to rebel against her father, but not like a man in open conflict, but clothed in feminine patience, resolve, and endurance.  She can rebel without hate, become independent without destroying those attached to her, and endure her oppression without giving in.
            Juliet’s love for Romeo, though it destroys her, is not irrational. Romeo is a love-sick youth.  His hot blood drives him from one woman to another while his hot head drives him to murder.  He cannot control his passions and so destroys himself.  Juliet is the opposite.  She bestowed her love quickly yet deliberately on Romeo.  What she feels for him is strong, but it does not drive her to erratic action. She formulates a plan to be with Romeo and has the patience and self-control to carry it out.  Even her suicide is a deliberate act, brought on by the sincerity of the love she has bestowed. She kills herself, not in a violent self-destructive blaze like Romeo, but with a knife purposefully sheathed in her pure feminine breast.   Juliet is a drag queen. She is beautiful, sweet, and innocent, and she wears her character with grace and dignity.
            Modern drag queens play on this character in the same way.  The drag comedy of Ingénue queens is based on clever innuendo. Let me try to describe a Manila Luzon’s comedy routine and then compare it to Juliet’s character and performance.  Manila steps on stage dressed like the beloved childhood character, Sesame Street’s Big Bird-- sort of.  Her legs match Big Bird’s, long and orange with pink stripes, and she is covered with bright yellow feathers, but her look is more appropriate for the Vegas strip than Sesame Street. Her long orange legs rise up out of a pair of seven-inch heels into a short-cut feathered skirt with a long train. Her bust-line is cut low and Big Bird’s classic beak and bobble-eyes sit atop her wig like French baret.  Her act is classic standup pointing out the subtle homo-erotic themes in classic children’s programming.          It may sound disturbing, but it is actually very clever.  She points out the obvious, that Burt and Ernie are two single adult men who live together, and the not so obvious, that Mr. Rogers is also single, changes clothes several times a day, and has an interestingly intimate friendship with the mail man, who often stops his mail route to pay extended visits to Mr. Rogers.  She points out that The Count from Sesame Street is “one of those old Liberace gays”(newnownext.com). Like Juliet, Manila uses an innocent posture and a quick mind to subvert tradition. Juliet, like Manila, is a tribute to centuries of women who dressed in white virgin gowns, stood by beside their fathers and husbands, and blatantly talked over their heads, slipping sly smiles to those who caught their cleverness. 
            On the other end of the spectrum, we find Beatrice.  While Juliet is innocent, loyal, and dramatically romantic, Beatrice is saucy, rebellious, and romantically jaded, yet both represent constructed characters.  Juliet is the maiden; Beatrice is the shrew or bitch, standard female personas. Though Beatrice’s character differs from Juliet’s, Beatrice wears it just as well.  Her sharp tongue stabs at those around her, but does not alienate them, and in the end, Benedick appreciates her all the more for her wit. Her rebelliousness is also skillfully worn.  If she were harsher, she would raise greater resistance, yet she manages to endear herself to those she opposes, and thereby achieves greater freedom and self-possession.  Her behavior toward Benedick is her greatest drag persona.  She masks her feelings so well she does not even recognize them, yet that is what attracts Benedick.  He would not have loved a fawning, sighing, female. 
            Some of the cleverest and spiciest lines in Shakespeare come from Beatrice.  She can weave entendres with double, triple, and quadruple strands. She can prick the most inflated ego and knows were to find a man’s tender spots. Still, Beatrice is not exactly cruel.  What she does can be compared to a drag concept known as “reading.” When a queen “reads” someone, criticizing their appearance, personality, or persona, she always jabs at the most sensitive areas, but it is not done to hurt or be cruel.  Consider the ridiculous idea of a man, dressed in fake boobs and caked on make-up, criticizing someone else’s appearance. Like Beatrice’s attacks, a “reading” serves to expose a person, make them laugh at their shortcomings, and accept the absurdity of humanity. In the play, Beatrice’s whip stings, but people do not hate her for it. They either see it as a defense mechanism and feel for Beatrice, or at the very least, they see the absurdity of an aging, aspiring spinster criticizing others for their romantic folly. 
            Both Beatrice and Don John are dissatisfied with their social position, she as a woman, he as a bastard, but Beatrice is the beloved heroine of the story and Don John the villain. The difference comes in the way they rebel.  Beatrice rebels with conviction, sensitivity, and tact, all three qualities that could be justly called feminine.  Don John declares war while Beatrice chooses earnest diplomacy. Don John seeks to bring down society by destroying its citizens while Beatrice uses reason, logic, and humor to convince the governors. Beatrice’s approach to reform epitomizes drag counter culture, which uses humor, hyperbole, and extreme satire to effect change. Drag queens stomp on every social construction, from the most traditional to the most sacred, and they do it in fabulous heels. It works because no one could come to blows with a dude in a dress. Beatrice rebels with the flare of a true queen, and people cringe, then smile, then let her pass. In the end, Don John destroys himself, but Beatrice negotiates a surrender from her most ardent opponent.
            Beatrice’s brand of social subterfuge is exquisitely drag in nature.  Recently, Willam Belli, a noted Hollywood drag queen, used it to challenge the Chik-fil-A corporate empire. In June of 2012 when the CEO of Chik-fil-A, Dan Cathy, took a public stance against legalizing gay marriage and donated large sums of money to anti-gay rights organizations, many in the gay and lesbian community called for a boycott of the company.  Chicago mayor, Rob Emanuel event went so far as to declare that Chick-fil-A was not welcome in Chicago. In response many groups supporting traditional marriage called for consumers to support Chick-fil-A. Many conservative icons, such as Glen Beck and Sarah Palin, and conservative politicians, such as Michelle Bachman and Lindsey Graham, went to great lenghths to stir up support for the company.  Consequently, business boomed and Chick-fil-A reported record profits. Willam Belli decided to take a more Beatrice-like, more drag, approach.  She produced a music video, Chow Down (at Chick-Fil-A), in which she ironically encourages people to eat at Chick-fil-A
regardless of their sexual orientation.  The lyrics explain, “Some day some body gonna make you wanna gobble up a waffle fry, but no-go, don’t ya know, Chick-Fil-A say you make the baby Jesus cry. Dudes with boobs, gay for pay, even dykes say, Yay! So chow down at Chik-Fil-A, even if you’re gay”(newnownext.com). The video has nearly three million views on Youtube, the track reached the iTunes best-seller list, and Willam and her band have toured internationally, singing this and other socially subversive satires. Like Beatrice, Willam is cutting and subversive, but her humor is endearing as much as it is provocative.  Like Beatirce, she masters her opponent with wit, and so she avoids inflating her enemy’s cause.
            There are feminist critics who cheer for Beatrice and would agree that she is socially subversive until the end when she falls for Benedick.  They see her relenting, letting herself become subject to the society she has fought so long against, but a drag queen would not see it that way.  Every queen is a dual being, a person and a character, a man and a woman.  Though one character is composed of flesh and the other of foam and paint, they are both parts of the whole.  Beatrice is an independent woman and a woman in love, simultaneously, seamlessly.  And Benedick loves all of her.  He could not love her as a bitch or as a fawning sycophant, but he could love her as a strong self-possessed woman in love, as a queen. Beatrice is a drag queen, she wears a spicy outfit, reads for filth, challenges all convention, and falls in love on her own terms.
            Among all the queens of Shakespearean Drama, one stands out as an Empress.  Cleopatra is a paragon of feminine power, love, and fortitude.   Shakespeare creates a character that his audience desires, fears, and reveres.  While we may feel for Juliet, be flustered and charmed by Beatrice, Cleopatra subjugates us. 
            Cleopatra is a powerful queen, her kingdom, fortune, and military might rival any empire in history, and she is not second to a man, nor is she an imitation of one.  Her power rivals that of male rulers, but it remains distinctly feminine.  Many feminists want to disavow Cleopatra as a female icon, for two reasons, first because she acts emotionally, and they claim this is a negative female stereotype, and second, because she is destroyed in the end.  True, she rules her kingdom with passion.  While men become the patriarchs of their countries, Cleopatra rules as a devoted, protective mother and jealous, passionate lover. Her propensity to rule with her heart is stereotypically feminine, but she wears it in a way that leaves the audience in awe.  No man, not Cesar, not Antony, can stand before the sheer feminine force of her personality.  Whether she rules wisely of not is irrelevant.  Shakespeare’s feminist commentary with Cleopatra is to impress on the audience the awesome power of femininity.  The fact that Cleopatra destroys herself is not a detriment either. Cleopatra is overwhelmed by her passion, but no more than Hamlet, no more than Romeo. The fact that Cleopatra is consumed by her own power is a credit to the power, not a slight against it.  
            Another reason feminists shrink away from Cleopatra is her over-sexualized nature.  True, throughout her life and the play, she uses her sexuality like a weapon or bargaining chip, but her character is saved by the fact that she loves Antony.  Her affection is more pure because it comes through her sexuality.  She has used sex for power, revenge, amusement, and many of these factors play into her relationship with Antony, at least at first. But by the end of the play her sentiments for Antony exist independent of physicality or material gain.  She calls them “immortal longings”(Complete Works 2150). Despite the jealousy, the desire for revenge, and the selfishness, Cleopatra ends her life sincerely in love. 
            The argument that Cleopatra is an over-emotional female caricature is flawed for another reason. Before she kills herself, she shows the classic and admirable female capacity to endure.  Though she kills herself in the end, Cleopatra does so deliberately like Juliet, not in an irrational rage like Romeo or Antony.  When Cleopatra learns of Antony’s death, she does not kill herself in a crazed passion. She endures for several weeks.  Physical strength may be a masculine quality, but endurance is feminine. Her last speech includes references to Antony, but she also considers her nation and position.  She kills herself not to escape the world but to avoid being taken alive.  Her suicide is not a surrender but a last act of defiance. She refuses to leave her station to become a war prize, and in her death, she defeats those who would subjugate her.
            In contemporary drag, Cleopatra would be called a diva.  A diva is a powerful female figure, often overly sexualized and prone to emotional tantrums, but commanding in person and driven in life.  Latrice Royale is a Black, 6’3’’, 350lb, formally-incarcerated, straight-out-of-Compton Diva, who fought her way out of poverty, crime, drug addiction, and discrimination and now travels the country giving motivational speeches and performing soulful ballads. At a drag celebration in Hollywood, California she gave a famous quote that has become a rallying cry for divas across the country. When asked what she hoped to teach people, she answered, “I want people to realize that it’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to fall down. Get up, look sickening, and make them eat it!” (sickening is a positive term)(newnownext.com).        Cleopatra is a complex character, difficult to understand, but she exemplifies the never-give-up attitude of a diva.  Whether women want to claim her as a queen or cast her out for a harlot, they cannot ignore her or the impact she has had on the image of women.  No woman or drag queen has ever worn a more impressive costume, nor put on a more memorable show.  Cleopatra’s power, passion, and fortitude are an echoing challenge to anyone who would call women the weaker sex. She is a queen that men and women may fear, love, or loathe, but all bow before her.
            Juliet, Beatrice, and Cleopatra are obvious symbols of femininity, but what about the female villains, witches, and monsters in Shakespeare? These may not be positive female icons, but they can serve as an interesting social commentary on femininity. Consider how Macbeth, in desperation, seeks out the witches.  He fears them, but they offer power.  The power they offer is not physical, they do not offer him an army.  Their power is knowledge.  They understand the hidden secrets of nature in a way others cannot.  This power is tantalizing, frightening, and feminine.  Physical strength and direct conflict are not masculine, but mastery of intuition and persuasion are feminine. To many men, this power is almost magical.  Consider how many songs were written about the magic of a woman’s gaze, or the spells of love and lust she casts over men.  This is a power men both fear and respect.  One of the newest trends in drag follows the magical female, or witch, persona.  The most famous witch performer is Sharron Needles, a queen from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Sharron is a female monster, a modern-day medusa, and self-proclaimed “Punk-rock sex clown,”(Needles) but her shtick is much more complicated than just dirty jokes.

            Needles’s describes her act as taking “really dark issues and forcing them into the spotlight so we can all think about it, create dialogue, and laugh at ourselves”(Needles). Like the witches in Macbeth, Sharron offers insight into the occult. She is considered and outsider-artist, even by those in the drag community.  She was barred from participating in pageants because she lacks poise and glamour, dropped from performance groups because she was too radical, and was exiled to a small, obscure club on the outskirts of Pittsburg.  However, her persistently shocking performances drew crowds along with the negative media attention. She soon became an icon to the exiled. When asked about the purposes of her performance she responded, “Being gay now-a-days is so easy, but being gay and weird, it’s down right hard. These children need a role-model”(Needles). Soon her unique, sincere, style won her fans beyond the fringe.  She appeals to the strangeness hidden in each person, the strangeness that each of us fears but secretly admires. In 2012 Her work earned her the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar, and last year she was invited back from the outskirts of Pittsburg by the mayor and given the key to the city. The city council proclaimed June 13 Sharron Needles Day, a day to raise awareness about bullying, and dedicated to children who have been judged on the basis of their race, appearance, or sexuality. In her acceptance speech Needles said, “A win for Sharron Needles is a win for every single kid in this city who is still being bullied” (Mueller).
            Juliet, Beatrice, Cleopatra, and the witches are only three among a myriad of strong female personas Shakespeare created for the world. As the creator of such beautiful, intelligent, and powerful characters, it seems obvious that Shakespeare was a feminist, especially when we consider the male dominated society he was living in.  Still, many feminists claim he was not.  They have varied reasons for their claims. Here I will deal with three.  First, some claim that his depictions of women are overblown, that they are caricatures, and do not reflect the reality of women. But this argument is deflated when it is applied to Shakespearean theatre or seen through the lens of drag. RuPaul pointed out that drag is a larger-than-life character of femininity when she said, “I do not impersonate females! How many women do you know who wear seven-inch heels, four-foot wigs, and skintight dresses? Women don’t wear that. Drag queens wear that” (Andre Charles 4). Of course they are characters.  All Shakespearean theatre is larger than life, all characters are symbols.  It is only by magnifying something that we can see it clearly.  Shakespeare wrote his female characters larger than life so we could examine femininity in detail. His women are dramatized just like his men, his settings, his romantic entanglements, his comedy, his parody, and his tragedy.      
            Second, some feminists claim that Shakespeare, and drag queens of course, lack the fundamental ability to understand women because they are men.  Here we need simply remember that Shakespeare’s commentary is not on women but on femininity.  All people, regardless of gender, are surrounded by social constructions of gender. Most feminists, and psychologists, agree that femininity and masculinity are not something someone is born with, but rather socialized into. Shakespeare appreciates that femininity is socially constructed and that it is built of qualities that are not necessarily intrinsic.  After all, he wrote his female characters to be played by men. The fact that femininity can be worn by anyone, regardless of gender, is Shakespeare’s, and drag’s, principal feminist commentary. 
            Lastly, some claim that it does not matter how well Shakespeare paints his female characters because none of them are admirable feminist role models.  The principal argument here is that no matter how strong, beautiful, independent, or powerful a female character is, she always ends the play dead or married, both repulsive ends for some feminists.  Besides overlooking a few female characters who neither kill themselves nor submit to matrimony, this argument again ignores the nature of the theatre.  One need simply note that the majority of men in the plays share similar fates.  There are as few live bachelors as spinsters. Readers and critics should ask if death or marriage mars or defeats women. I hope the above examples are enough to demonstrate that that they do not.  Juliet and Cleopatra die defiant, not defeated, and Beatrice remains herself despite taking a husband.
            Shakespeare can be all things to all people, and surely feminists will continue to praise or berate Shakespeare, according to their whim, for many years to come.  But it is possible, perhaps, that as our society continues to challenge social constructs of gender, as it opens up to alternative definitions of male and female, as more drag queens enter the conversation, more and more critics will come to appreciate Shakespeare’s artistry in constructing his heroines, describing their power and virtues, and elevation them to iconic status.
Works Cited
Andre-Charles, RuPaul. Workin’ It!: RuPaul’s Guide to Life Liberty And the Pursuit of Style. New York: Harper Collins, 2010. Print
Mueller, Benjamin. “Pittsburg City Council Honors Drag Queen with Sharron Needles Day.” Pittsburg Post-Gazette. 13 Jun. 2012. n.pag. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.
Needles, Sharron. Sharronneedles.com Web. 9 April 2013
Newnownext.com New Now Next Beyond Trends. Logo TV Network. Web. 11 April 2013
Shakespeare, William. Complete Works. Ed Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen. New York: The Modern Library, 2007. Print

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