By Chris Barton, Co-Editor
This past week, for whatever reason, I’ve been hearing a lot more “fake it till you make it” commentary. I’ve been told to “play the part,” “practice doing these things until they become authentic,” and “dress for the job you want.”
Also, thanks to it being Pride Week in Phoenix, I’ve seen and met far more Drag Queens (and Kings) than I would in an average week.
Now, if you don’t know what drag is, go watch a clip of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Essentially, Drag is a stylized performance of gender norms, usually by someone who’s sex doesn’t match the gender they are performing. Loosely, it’s men dressing as women (Queens) and women dressing as men (Kings), sometimes in casual everyday dress and sometimes in costumes so spectacularly flamboyant that it’s hard to look at them without your face melting off.
Notice that I said costumes. Not clothing, costumes. In that distinction is the primary tension that motivates and defines Drag. The distinction between clothing and costume is one of context – the same pair of pants can be clothing in one situation and part of a costume in another. It all depends on whether the person wearing the pants is expected to be wearing them. Costume implies that the wearer is pretending, playing a part, preforming. Clothing is casual, normal, anticipated; while costumes are intentional, put together and then put on with purpose.
A dress on a woman is clothing, a dress on a man is a costume. But as Drag performers are constantly reminding the world, that distinction is stupid. Someone can look good (or bad) in a dress regardless of whether their sex organs are inside or out. All that matters is that you wear it well, and whether you can play the part implied by the garment. Drag is about playing that part, enacting that role, preforming gender – a role that the rest of us have played for so long that we forget it’s an act. What Drag performers understand better than most is that there is no such thing as ‘clothing’ – it’s all costume. When a Queen steps into the role of a woman, it’s no different than what half of the population does every morning. As RuPaul says: “we’re born naked, and the rest is Drag.”
So when people say “fake it till you make it,” I can’t help but think of drag performers, the masters at faking it. They “play the part” so well that the role almost becomes a caricature of itself. They are “dress for the job you want” personified. Yet, importantly, they know that it is always costume, never clothing. It never stops being an act. We never ‘make it’ – we just fake it, forever.
Being a businessperson, a ‘professional’ – the part that people keep telling me to play – is an act. When I don my ‘business professional’ clothing, I am stepping into a role signified by the costume I’m wearing, and I do my best to play the part. It’s performance – it’s Drag. Personally, I’m not very good at it; the role I’m used to playing is very distinct from the role I’m dressed for when I wear my suit. But that’s why I’m here at B-school: to learn how to better play the role of ‘businessperson.’ That’s why we’re all here.
But Drag is not about imitating an archetype. It’s about reclaiming an identity. It’s subversion, discord and transgression. The act of Drag undermines the sanctity of the (gender) roles it portrays and reveals them to be frivolous accoutrements to an honest existence. By revealing gender as an act, Drag lets us look past it to the core of who and what we are. And then it gives us the ability to choose what performance we want to give.
What kind of performance do we want to give? A Drag Queen reclaims and redefines the identity of ‘woman’ every time they perform the role – just as we have the opportunity to reclaim and redefine ‘business professional’ every day. If our version of ‘business professional’ differs from the archetype, that’s OK; in fact, it’s great. Every transgression from the norm liberates the identity – and the power that accompanies it – opening up the possibility for redefinition and inclusivity.
Some of us, such as women and people of color, redefine the stereotypically white male ‘business professional’ role just by performing it. Others fit that archetype more closely – yet we still transgress it in our own, sometimes subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways. And with every variation, digression, or flat-out contradiction we incorporate into our performance, the identity we claim expands in its scope and nuance. By following Drag’s lead, by playing a part we ‘shouldn’t’ be playing, we transform the category of ‘business professional’ from a limiting stereotype into a liberating identity. We define the role, not the other way around.
So next time you find yourself compelled to don your business clothes and ‘act professional,’ just remember: this is Drag. It’s an act, you’re performing. Take the stage and make it your own. You’re a star, a Queen or a King.
Note from the author: This piece is based on mostly indirect experience with Drag. If you feel I have misrepresented the culture at all, please reach out: firstname.lastname@example.org