What A Drag!
What is it?
“What A Drag!” is a comedy/cabaret/drag show in which friends, Madiha (a Pakistani Muslim mother of 2) & Jessica (a working class white American), together build their first ever drag characters based on conversations and explorations of their respective and often depressing cultural, religious, professional, social, emotional, national experiences of being female. Composed of vignettes with pop culture references, childhood role models, music & dance routines, makeup tutorials, and history lessons, “What A Drag” finds out where their worlds meet.
What A Drag” has received the Live Bradford commission; the first 20 minutes is currently under development in association with Barrel Organ.
Why A Drag Queen?
When Madiha and I started talking about what we wanted to do, Diyah immediately expressed an interest in drag, specifically being a Drag King.
As a tall woman, with broad shoulders, a deep voice, who grew up as a tomboy, who was raised by a single mom after the passing of my dad, and as someone who started working in the summers at the age of 12, I’ve never had much time to be “girlie.” I grew up feeling like taking too much time on my appearance was extraneous or even vein, perhaps? I was valued for my achievements, which I am grateful for. But I am sad it felt like it had to be an either/or choice.
More than that, when I was coming of age in the early 2000s, being a “girlie girl” (I am using that term in a very generealized way) was somewhat controversial and even looked down upon and there was a certain mockery, vitriol, or shame surrounding women who presented as such at the time. Names that come to mind are Brittney Spears & Paris Hilton. Presenting in a highly feminised way feels performative but I also feel not allowed to own being highly feminine; women who do are shamed or punished for it.
Whereas I, as a teenager, chopped off all my hair to a pixie cut after my dad passed away; that coupled with never wearing makeup because I had a really oily complexion when I was younger, I spent most of puberty presenting as more masculine or androgynous. I’ve never quite felt comfortable or like I’ve fully explored my female-ness.
As a white female, I feel very represented in pop culture & media, etc., which is a privilege. The drawback is that, more often than not, these representations have not been authored by (white) women. There is a very clear difference between representation and authorship. For me, what it is to be female, within white culture, is very prescriptive and , ironically/tragically, some of the most damaging reinforcements of those acceptable presentations of “white female” and what constitutes valid feminism are policed by other white women. And my sexuality is often portrayed from a perspective of me being sexually appealing consumable product (like a cheeseburger) whereas VERY seldom do I see my female desire represented; there is a difference between sex appeal and sexual desire.
Looking at the art history of western civilisation, the naked white female body is one of the most common images in visual art, but how much visual art do we see presented in museums by female artists? Shockingly few. And the same applies to novels, films, commercials, cartoons, everything. That – while I am very represented in culture- I have had no say in how I am presented. I am told what I am and what I am allowed to be or where my value is as determined by the power structures (white capitalist puritan patriarchy) that have had the most power in that authorship.
The prescription of what is acceptable for a white female body is so pervasive that I recall getting lots of comments (specifically from the women in my life) as I was entering the early stages of puberty. I found in an old diary of mine when I was 14, that an aunt told me that my being naturally slender shape made my body type “out of style” as if my body could be in or out of fashion; rather than just the corporal body that carries me in this life.
I am interested in being a Drag Queen because I am interested in playing with the stereotypes/prescription of white cis-female-ness based on these representations of me that historically have been largely made by men, uncovering invisible histories of what it is to be a woman in white culture, how/why white cis-females enforce patriarchy, problematic internalised misogyny and racism, the nature of white capitalist religious patriarchal American culture itself, and asking myself what authorship of my own identity would look like.
Makeup Tutorial #1:
Both Diyah and Jessica attempt their first exploration of makeup to build their characters and introduce their motivation for exploring a Drag King and Drag Queen.
Madiha teachers Jessica about contouring and Madiha explores facial hair.
And there is a surprise guest!
Follow us on instagram for our next makeup tutorial!
Makeup Tutorial #2:
After a session that left Jessica feeling very inauthentic trying to draw inspiration from the traditional makeup style of drag performers, she tried to examine how she, as a cis-woman, could subvert and heighten the stereotype that more accurately examines her experience of being female.
It seems that her drag character might resemble a clown!
Drag Queen Playlist
Where Am I?
Where do I see myself in pop culture & media?
As I said, female bodies, particularly white female bodies, are very visible in pop culture and this is a blessing and a curse because, in my experience, most people treat me and view me according to these representations that I had no hand in making and do not reflect my internal world.
Further, the representation dehumanises because it portrays white female bodies as an object for male consumption, at best, and compares white female bodies to meat to be consumed and discarded, revealing a particular violence towards white female bodies. It feels like it is part of white patriarchal propaganda to me.
Never do I see the agency of my cis-female desire in these images.
Further, it portrays this type of beauty that is consumed as the ideal, that I should aspire towards. As if I should want to be desired in this violent way because that gives me power, somehow?
I struggle with that without feeling a little dead inside; I don’t know how to own my beauty because those standards of beauty are imposed on me and because it is made to be consumed by others not owned by me.
That image is what I am told I am or who I should want to be, but is that actually who I am? What is my desire? I’m so used to being told who I am or what I want, it is very difficult to quiet the mind and actually be able to identify that for myself.
Wonder Woman was praised as hugely feminist film when it came out and there are parts that are, to be sure. BUT….
What I see in this film is an island of Victoria Secret models. One model leaves the island and finds herself in rooms with groups of men mansplaining to her, which is normalised and justified in the narrative because she legitimately doesn’t know what’s going on.
She, herself, wears a metal bathing suit and heels in the dead of winter and is somehow never cold, she upholds the highest values and is empowered to fight for them, she is gorgeous, strong, and she can do anything; she is literally a god.
And I am being told this is the ideal woman that I should aspire towards.
So, I need to be a Victoria secret model, who is so idealistic all the men in the world need to pat my head and tell me how it is, I somehow need to have a supernatural level of strength and body heat and I need to walk around in bathing suit-style suits of armour to protect myself but somehow remain supermodel desirable to the violent world that is trying to kill me.
It feels like a very accurate portrayal of the impossible standards imposed upon women, but I do not identify with this hero at all.
I identify with The ONLY human woman in this film who is portrayed in the last 10 seconds of this trailer. She is a bit goofy and ridiculous and comparatively frumpy next to Wonder Woman.
Tellingly this Goddess asks her, “how can you fight in this?” The answer historically as a white woman is you don’t and that is what I feel like it is like to be a white female.
As a white female, I feel there is a coercion to participate in racist patriarchy by the power dynamic that has historically existed with white men (and the white women who uphold this power dynamic) and the passive threat of violence by capitalism; if I don’t participate I won’t get paid and therefore I will starve and be homeless.
One of my favourite movies and the first fictional character I remember thinking “I want to be her when I grow up.”
Based on a novel, the film is about an eccentric, independently wealthy New Yorker who has a lust for life, curiosity for other cultures, who is way ahead of her time, open minded, flawed with many vices and controversial friends, but a good person. She lived by a motto, “Life is a banquet; and most poor suckers are starving to death!”
She becomes the guardian of her nephew when her brother unexpectedly passes away and the film is about the love and relationship they have through hardship, transitions, and good times.
She was my inspiration for travelling, living the type of life that would make an interesting book one way, and wanting to adopt kids.
Her gentle but somehow “fuck it” attitude has always been intriguing to me.
Jane showed me that you don’t have to be loud about your rebellion or passion. You just do it.
I think she is a big influence in how I approached my solo travels around the world.
I found myself drawn to remote places that are not big on the beaten tourist track. I made a point of discovering the more hidden places of the world and I am a better person for it.
Thank you, Jane.
When I was little I loved Madonna’s style and would often try to dress like her (I didn’t realise it at the time, I only realised it recently). Looking back at it with the mixture of delicate vs punk clothes with the cross earrings, the belt that says “Boy Toy” and one of her early hits being “Like A Virgin” I see her now simultaneously playing into and subverting and questioning the sexualising of young women and fetishising female virginity.
She was also embedded in NYC’s arts scene and knew one of my favourite visual artists, Basquiat.
She is multi-disciplinary in her talent, has a strong point of view, a passion for art in all forms, and has done her best to be subversive from the beginning. I hope I can be half as brave or interesting of an artist.
I was a big fan of old films growing up. Audrey Hepburn was in two of my all time favourites: “Paris When It Sizzles” & “Two For The Road”.
She was a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, sharing her gratitude for the organisation because of the international aid that she, herself, received after enduring German occupation of her country.
It bothers me that a big part of her legacy is as an icon for beauty, style & grace because it overlooks her advocacy work & the rest of her fascinating life.
It bothers me mostly because few people pay attention to the fact that she survived the Dutch famine of 1944 & suffered many health problems due to malnutrition as a young person.
So, for decades, our society has set a standard for ideal body image largely inspired by a malnourished woman, only looking at her beauty & overlooking her life and actions.
There is more to you, Audrey. Thank you.
I loved watching Judy Garland growing up. Besides being a phenomenal performer, she seemed to come to life and was filled with joy when on stage. She was probably a big reason why I love to sing and dance so much.
I was always somehow aware that Judy’s personal life was much sadder than it was onscreen, filled with issues with mental health, addiction, the pressures of early stardom, and a toxic industry.
It became a big reason why I chose not to pursue the arts right away because at the time the US seemed to have a really troubling and morbid curiosity for the trope of the tortured artist.
And I knew I wanted to be a happy person first and an artist second. So I view Judy’s life as inspiration for my joy in the arts but also as a lesson in discovering what I truly value.
Thank you, Judy.
Cultural Criticism.... a growing list
If you have any interest in what I’ve been talking about, I highly recommend all of the following. Why say any of it again when all of these brilliant minds have said it already and better than me!
On 24 November, 2022 I performed a sharing for “What A Drag!”
Sadly, Madiha had been feeling poorly with a fever (not COVID) all week and ended up at the hospital waiting room to see someone to figure out what was wrong literally at the same time that we were scheduled to perform. So I went on solo.
Disappointingly for both of us, the months and months of prep we had put into our 20-minute sharing did not reach a culmination and we did not get to perform together.
However, the silver lining is that even though we didn’t share what we intended to, we did share something that felt very true to our work together. I say “we” because I discussed the idea with Madiha before going onstage and the performance felt very much like a reflection of the week we had shared together. And I discovered some things about my drag character, as well!
For the sharing, I spent 20 minutes getting into my full drag costume (as it currently exists) and spoke about motherhood and mothers.
I’d spent the whole week with Madiha, met her sons, got to see her as a mom (for the first time), I met her mother, and I was living in anticipation of seeing my mother, sister, and meeting my sister’s 6-month old child the following week. So mothers were on my mind and the notion of motherhood itself and this lens through which most of us experience women.
Based on my own relationships with these women in my life, their relationship with each other, and the expectations that society puts on all of us, I found myself feeling like it was impossible to ever hope to live up to these expectations. And I reflected on how easy it is for our society (including myself) to blame our mothers for things, whether justified or not. And how I, myself, do not have the intention, courage, or pain tolerance to be a mother myself, thus failing at fulfilling literally my one biological role on this planet.
Somewhat fittingly, my drag character is named Pandora, the woman responsible for all the evil in the world (aka the world’s first and best/quintessential mom). So, go ahead and blame me for failing at being a woman. Hopefully I conveyed how impossible it is to succeed as a woman by trying to put on full-drag makeup, wig, and costume in a mere 20-minutes. (My wig ended up backwards somehow.)
But wait! A drag show is meant to be fun isn’t?! Nope! Being a woman sometimes sucks! Wah-wah!
“What A Drag!”