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Drag Queens and Blackface

February 5th 2015

Kurt von Behrmann

Media, Tyler Perry's successful feminine side dispensing homespun wisdom and from time to time butt kicking.

When Mary Cheney asked the question of why “Drag Queens” were acceptable and “Black Face” unacceptable, it was clear she was going to find some answers.  More accurately, she was going to set the internet ablaze with responses.  However, there is something more to the question, particularly given the source.

                The underlying question here is of moral equivalency.  If we, the American public, allow “Drag Queens” to debase woman and it is acceptable, perhaps we should also allow for “Black Face” being that it ridicules African-Americans.   The working assumption is that they are both about debasement and ridicule.

                But, is there something deeper here?  Is there an argument being put forth that if we permit Drag Queens to perform, then we should also allow for “Black Face?”  Is there a proposal here that if we allow for one we have to accept the other?  

Is this a way to allow for the reinstatement of “Black Face”in mainstream media?

                The Cheney family political identity has never been known for their particular sensitivity to the Gay Community as a whole.  To the best of my knowledge, they have never made African-American concerns one for consideration either.  

Like the bulk of the Republican Party, the concerns of Gays and Blacks have never been a priority.  When the G.O.P. has attempted to address the concerns of Women, it has done so to curtail reproductive rights and health benefits.  They have never shown a particular concern for Female equality in the work place either. Their record speaks for loudly for itself.

                Therefore, it comes out as odd that suddenly there is deep concern about Drag Queens as unacceptable due to being offensive and dismissive to women.   

One could assume that there is also an argument being put forth that if we don’t permit Black Face we should also exclude Drag Queens from the entertainment arena.  Is there a position being put forth that in a climate of political correctness, Drag is just an unacceptable as Black Face? 

                Conservatives, I am speaking of contemporary ones here in the U.S., have never been known for tolerance of sexual diversity.  Their push has always been toward the “traditional” family.  In this universe men always dress as men, women dress as women and the roles and identities are clearly defined.  There is no room for variation.  

To question or cross gender boundaries amounts to transgressing the laws of man, nature and God.  
                What differentiates “Drag” from “Black Face” is that one has many comments to make on gender and the other has only one goal, ridicule. 

                “Black Face” was created to mimic the most undesirable treats of humanity and ascribe them to African-Americans.   Dehumanization was the goal of “Black Face.”  The humor was inextricable bound to the idea that African-Americans really were all of these horrific things.  It also provided the Euro American audience another reason to justify feeling superior.  

                “Black Face” was a form or entertainment that works on the premise that all African-Americans should be objects of amusement because they had little value as human beings.  The joke was not simply a joke.  Here the joke was an affirmation of reality.

                When someone who deals with racial humor like comedienne Lisa Lampanelli tells a racist joke, we the audience knows that she does not believe in the negative stereotypes that fuel her humor.  She is not working on the idea that this is reality.   While you may not like her humor, she does make it clear that she does dehumanize African—Americans in the real world.

                “Black Face,” on the other hand works on the idea that these are not just jokes to be brushed aside, but that they are depictions of reality and are fixed truths.  “Black Face” was never a subtle genre. It is too broad based to be concerned with irony.  The whole nature of “Black Face” is pure debasement without ever conceding that the subject of the joke is anything but the butt of the joke.

                “Black Face,” has vanished due to changing values.  

                There is one instance of the brief, “rival” of “Black Face” that met with swift audience disapproval.  Ted Danson appeared at a roast sporting black face honoring his then girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg.   Some of his humor was based on the complexion of hypothetical children he might have with the Oscar award winning Goldberg.   

Tedd Danson makes an impression with an approving Goldberg supporting him. Certainly, a proud moment.

                The jokes were crude and included the “we cannot say it for looking bigoted “N” word.

                The audience was appalled.   

                People left in disgust. 

                Golberg defended Danson’s act.  Interestingly enough, both still had active careers after the event. 
                However, there is a difference between “Black Face,” and white performers portraying black characters.  No one to the best of my knowledge mounted a protest in 1977 when Joni Mitchell released “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter” with an image of herself dressed as a black man on the cover.

An unrecognizable Joni Mitchell dons the persona of a Black Man.  It is all about the performance.

                At a private party in L.A., Mitchell donned the same outfit and went unrecognized the entire evening.  Her goal was not to “debase” black people, but rather to express the fact that she was more than just a blonde folk singer. 
                The point she was trying to make is that being a woman in a man’s world was similar to being a black man in a white world in that no one takes you seriously.  Achievements are dismissed when you are not male and white and that being a white woman there is still a certain degree of prejudice to contend with as a creative talent.

One could take issue.  Some could see it as way over the time. But the point was that she was not after cheap effect.  She was attempting to make an artistic statement. As much as we say we love cutting edge, when it cuts too sharply it can cut too deeply.

               Apparently her outing as “Art Nouveau,” her African-American male alter ego, did not negatively impact her Black audience.   Janet Jackson sampled her music, Jazz great Charles Mingus collaborated with her on a release and Herbie Hancock dedicated an entire album to her. 

                Intention is everything.

                Mitchell is not the only one to take drag seriously.   Singer, songwriter and music producer Prince has long been speculated to have his own image dressed as a women to adorn the corner of his release “Sign O’ The Times.”   Incidentally, he is openly expressed his admiration for Joni Mitchell.

Is it Prince or a someone else?  The elusive mercurial Prince may be donning drag. It certainly looks like him. Could this be payback for Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, or a tribute? 

                Artists, actors and the like who are white but make up to resemble black characters can do so for complex reasons.  Those that go this route are not automatically aiming to ridicule black people.  Controversial comic and actor Sarah Silverman has done this.  

               Her approach was to ridicule racism and prejudice via Black Face not to belittle Blacks or Jews.  There was some backlash, but she secured a successful H.B.O. special in her resume.

                The delicate lines  of racial humor and gender humor is sometimes lost in an environment in which freedom of expression has become the tyranny of the politically correct. 

                Drag, like any art form, comes in a variety of shades.  The fundamental common denominator of  Drag, as Ru Paul has stated. is that it is a commentary on femininity.  He elaborated by saying that all drag questions what the culture defines as female.  The “Drag” show becomes a comment on what is considered female and to some degree actually points out the “superficiality” of our society’s views of what it means to be female.

                The exaggerated hair, the over the top fashions, the theatrical makeup, the artifice of female illusion reveals a truth.  The subtly commentary is that the expectations of woman in terms of beauty require enormous transformations with unrealistic expectations. 

                From hair, to nails, to clothes to breast augmentation, that which is considered the epitome of female beauty  demands the skills of an entertainer in order to keep up the illusion of beauty. 
                What Drag says in so many words is that to be a woman, one has to be the illusion of a woman.  One has to be a carefully created actor that must master detail in order to succeed.  

                Drag goes deeper by delving into the “mystical” aspect of transformation.  All art has one common element, transforming materials.  Be it a painter, musician, writer and so forth, one takes ones tools to make something else.   

               Transformation is the heart and soul of art.  Either aware of this or not, every Drag Queen becomes a creation.  

Everyone is doing it.  Lily Tomlin cross gender and race lines to create another identity.

                Drag is not confined to men becoming women.  Contemporary female actors have also found in transformation expression.  Lily Tomlin, who has created numerous female characters, has created a male alter ego.  

Complete with open shirt, chest hair, and over the top confidence, she was not making fun of men, but making commentary on the caricature of masculinity.   She was making a point comment on the male singer who interjects sexual “come ons” between songs to fashion a sexually “cool” persona.  I seriously doubt it was to see all men as objects of derision.

                U.K. singer and actor Tracey Ullman has included in her vast collection of characters a male gay flight attendant and one black woman.  Again, her point was not finding humor in mocking them, but finding humor in their humanity.  

                In U.S. history, Drag Queens have made a huge cultural impact.  When the riots at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969 were begun, Drag Queens were present.  While there is historical debate on how many Drag Queens were there, the point is that they were there and have since been a part of LGBT history.  

                What cannot be ignored is that it is the outsiders, the different,the true mavericks and rebels that change history.  There can be no mistaking that by and large Drag Queens and their visibility have been instrumental in the social advancement of Gays.  While assimilationist gays and conservative gays may have issues with them, Drag Queens have been on the front lines raising money for causes and assisting in the advancement of positive social change.  I do not question their importance.

                I am not certain what the motivation was behind Cheney’s equivalency of Drag to Black Face is.  However, it does raise questions regarding why here and now.  

                Social values do change.  What is considered acceptable is largely a result of what society as a whole deems acceptable.  Those things can and do change.  For better in some cases, for the worst in others.
                Disagreements about what is inexcusable versus what is not will continue. The line between what is offensive and what is not draws into place the overreaching hand of censorship and the reactionary push of punitive actions.  When a public figure utters the unacceptable, the punishment can be swift.  One false comment can literally end a career.

                As objectionable as some things are, be it music, film, art, name your medium, to some degree we have to tolerate it.   The line is crossed when self-expression becomes a violation of another’s freedoms and rights.

                The side effect of political correctness is that no one can say what they really think.  The price of criticism is way too high.   What this has created is a coded language.   

              Ideas are hidden in innocuous words.   Law and order, inner city, cut taxes, illegal aliens and state’s rights, they mean other things.   These words have double meanings and a conservative audience “gets the message.”  Stating what you really intend directly has been abandoned.  The language of politics is deliberately vague by design.  Now it speaks in code.

                It is very possible that Cheney’s comments on the surface, superficially, are connecting Drag Queens with the degradation of women.  It is saying that Drag is as offensive as Black Face.  The notion here is that we need to publicly denounce both because we live in a society that should not tolerate either.

                Perhaps the real question is a message and a call to conservatives that the advances we have made are too much too fast and in all are a bad idea.  It could be a way to use political correctness as a weapon against those who have used it to prevent abusiveness.  P.C., ideally was a way to set a moral compass.  However, it set one that would eventually bite anyone who thinks directly in the ass.

                We  have paid a high price for it.  The least sign of a transgression of political correctness amounts to labeling the transgressor as a not only backward, but evil.  

                 No one can simply disagree.  Now those we disagree with must be totally demonized.  Instead of agreeing to disagree an imaginary world of correctness has been set to stop expression.

                 Someone once said that if you go too far to the left you wind up meeting the right.  Political correctness is way too closely related to the censorship of repressive far right wing governments to be comfortable.  Although well intended,  ultimately nothing good can ever come from demonizing ideas you do not like and asking for their removal.                

                More accurately, this could be part of an attempt to “scare” white voters into voting Republican.    This is the very start of the election seasons.  Things maybe getting very very strange very very soon.


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