A Critical Exploration of Cross-Dressing and Drag


Gender Performance and Camp

 in Contemporary North American

 Drama and Film


This work will be of interest to professional academics and students studying drama, film, television, cultural studies, communications, popular culture, sociology, psychology, gender, sexuality, identity, queer theory, feminism, camp, cross-dressing and drag. People who perform drag will also be interested.


A while back, I did some performance research with the very fabulous Greater Toronto Drag King Society.






Introduction                                                                                                             1


Chapter I:      Gender Performance and Camp                                                 13


Chapter II:    Drag:  An Elementary Fabric of Camp                                        66


Chapter III:   Female Camp                                                                                   121


Chapter IV:   Entangled Identities and Cyborg Territories                           162


Conclusion                                                                                                               212


Appendix A                                                                                                               214


List of Works Cited                                                                                                 215





My PhD thesis focuses on drag as a major component of camp in relation to gender performance. My position on drag for the purposes of this thesis is that drag's function within camp is about challenging and disrupting normative notions of gender and sexuality. I examine how cross-dressing located in sexual difference and imbricated by models of expressivity has complicated the perceived potential for drag and camp to challenge normative notions of gender and sexuality.


Chapter one shows how performance metaphors for gender located in the act of cross-dressing reinscribe traditional notions of personhood.


Chapter two shows that drag moves off the binaries of man and woman, and sexual difference located in cross-dressing, by using the norms associated with sexual difference and mandatory heterosexuality to resist the norms. This moves cross-dressing into the realm of drag and gender play. I use two Hollywood films to illustrate that while cross-dressing is incorporated into drag and gender play, cross-dressing alone does not signal drag. Likewise camp uses parody, but parody alone is not camp.


Chapter three explores notions of "identity" and the need to open up certain theoretical discourses, specifically feminist and lesbian theoretical discourses, which are still bound to conventional notions about camp, to critical revision. In this chapter The Greater Toronto Drag King Society's performances illustrate camp's potential to articulate genders and sexualities beyond the traditional binaries.


Chapter four moves into the possibilities for the proliferation of identities in drag and camp. Drag is theorized as "cross-species-dressing" in examples where animals, people and machines are entangled in complex hybrid relationships which explode notions of the organic dimensions of body as self. The cyborg is a fascinating but until now unexplored application in which to consider "couplings" which undo normative notions of gender and sexuality in drag and camp.





You're born naked and everything you put on after that is drag.
                                                RuPaul (Drag Diaries)





            The focus of my thesis is on drag as a major component of camp in relation to gender performance. My position on drag for the purposes of this thesis is that drag's function within camp is about challenging and disrupting normative notions of gender and sexuality. Drag articulates camp's fascination with gender and sexual identity, and disrupts identities bound to traditional notions of gender and sexuality. I am defining drag, a term traditionally conflated and used interchangeably with cross-dressing, beyond sartorial address. Drag encompasses gender play and includes props, costumes, role playing and reversals. Drag moves off strict binaries and into self-aware and self-reflexive discourses, effecting fluid representations of gender and the fragmentation of conventional gender boundaries.


            The conflation of the terms drag and cross-dressing hinders drag's potential to move beyond the binary of man and woman and heterosexual sexuality, a binary usually located in the traditional usage of the term cross-dressing. As we see in chapter three on "Female Camp," the inability of some theorists to regard camp as a powerful site at which to articulate feminist and lesbian discourse and subversive gender play is based on their limiting drag to cross-dressing. Drag expands upon the notion of cross-dressing, utilizing the idea of crossing over to something other than what is expected or within the boundaries of a contained self. Within drag, cross-dressing often appears as metaphor, as is exemplified in chapter three, and moves into a notion of post-cross-dressing as shown in chapter four, "Entangled Identities and Cyborg Territories," where issues of fluid identity, gender and sexuality are hyperbolized and exploded.


Chapter One:  Gender Performance and Camp


            Chapter one will investigate some of the discourses and assumptions around gender performance and performativity. I will explore notions in contemporary critical theory of performance as a metaphor for the constitution of gender. Performance metaphors foreground certain qualities which are shared among theatre, gender and camp but have, even as Judith Butler (1997) now admits, limitations. Problems for the metaphor often arise when it is intertwined with expressive models for gender behaviour and sexual difference. Cross-dressing, for example, is often seen as the literal performance of and answer to the "construction" of gender, by performing gender on the "wrong" body. This chapter begins to introduce the problem of cross-dressing as a tool to subvert normative notions of gender and sexuality. Drag in relation to cross-dressing will be addressed in chapter two.


            Readings of Judith Butler's Gender Trouble (1990a) have contributed to certain assumptions which are held in relation to performance metaphors. By addressing her concerns with performance metaphors, specifically models of "expressivity," I situate the way I will be using the notion of gender performance and performativity throughout my thesis.


             Judith Butler's work will be applied within a specific framework. Butler does not make the distinction between drag and cross-dressing which complicates even her correctives to certain readings of her work on drag. She notes rightly that there are no more than five paragraphs on drag in her groundbreaking book Gender Trouble (1990a), yet drag has been cited by readers as the example which explains the meaning of performativity.  Gender performativity has been read as that which constitutes what gender one is based on what one performs (Butler 1997, 19).[i] She rejects the conclusion that gender can be proliferated beyond the binary of "man and woman" depending on what one performs because this assumption valorizes drag as the paradigm of gender performance and as the means by which heterosexual presumption might be undermined through a strategy of proliferation (19). Heterosexual presumption cannot be undermined through strategies of proliferation in this context because proliferation is tied to expressive models of performance.  "Drag," in Butler's corrective to the possibilities for proliferation, is an expressive model which holds that some interior truth is exteriorized in performance. I agree that proliferation is not the answer to the binary positions of man and woman that are upheld in cross-dressing, nor does it undermine heterosexual presumption. As I will show in chapter two however, moving off a model of cross-dressing into a paradigm of drag enables a re-vision of the notion of proliferation. Removed from the arena of cross-dressing, drag entails notions of layering and combining in my analysis. This opens up the possibilities for the proliferation of meanings which challenge normative notions of gender and sexuality. In addition to Butler not making the distinction between cross-dressing and drag, drag is related to "melancholia" for Butler and is constituted as an ungrieved loss for the Other/Object (1997). Based on psychoanalytic models, which I am not using in this thesis, her analysis is entrenched in forms of identification closely tied to those models. My own project looks at the discursive implications for categories of meaning in relation to expressive models (cross-dressing) and models which inhabit the norms to forge resistance (drag). I take Butler's salient points with respect to these ideas to further and elucidate my own argument.


            Jill Dolan in "Geographies of Learning: Theatre Studies, Performance, and the Performative" (1993) says that "performative metaphors get extended into many cultural avenues through cultural studies, but rarely is theatrical performance a site of such extension" (1993). The following chapters do examine sites where gender performance is literally performed as theatrical performance, for example The Greater Toronto Drag King Society (chapter three), where norms which cannot be thrown off at will, but which work, animate, and constrain the gendered subject, are resisted in performances that hyperbolize performativity. Performance becomes aligned with gender play (chapter two), a play upon the norms which are the resources for resistance and which comprise gender performativity.


            While it can be said that theatrical performance and the performative are not the same because "performance is a genre with its own history, applications, and cultural uses" (Dolan 1993, 423), the intersection of the body with performances which include qualities so available for appropriation and metaphorization for that body is certainly significant and ripe for critical investigation.


            My interest in the performative is in relation to signifying practices. Because I do examine theatrical performances in film and drama which use gender as subject matter and locate sites where gender is actually performed, notions of the performative for analysis will include performances where the "living body is the center of semiotic crossing" and the discursive performative, or the acts of signifying systems themselves (language and the codes of textuality) (Phelan 1993, 15). My project combines both of these notions of the performative to investigate how "thoroughly bodies inhabit signifying systems and how signifying systems are . . . organized as bodies" (Phelan 1993, 15-16). This becomes useful for my analysis of bodies which are traditionally read as essentially male and female, feminine or masculine and informs an understanding of how these bodies signify sex, gender and sexuality (terms which will be defined and elaborated on in the thesis).


            My definition for gender performance departs from conventional interpretations which have included notions of choice and follows Butler's in relation to performativity, that is, gender performativity is not a matter of choosing which gender one will be today:


Performativity is a matter of reiterating or repeating the norms by which one is constituted: it is not a radical fabrication of a gendered self. It is a compulsory repetition of prior and subjectivating norms, ones which cannot be thrown off at will, but which work, animate, constraining the gendered subject, and which are also the resources from which resistance, subversion, displacement are to be forged. (Butler 1997, 17)

This definition is important to my thesis as a whole where I maintain and illustrate that it is the very norms located in cross-dressing and expressive models for behaviour which are hyperbolized in drag and camp practice to resist those norms.


             Chapter one will explore some of the theory around sexual difference in relation to cross-dressing and move into the contemporary fascination with refashioning the body as "a set of possibilities." Examples from Mae West's banned camp plays Sex (1926) and The Drag (1927) combine several types of improper gender and sexual behaviour exemplifying how unconventional sexuality, like gender, is often met with censure. I look at the components of camp which make it a useful application to counter the mandated "natural" performances for gender and sexuality. With Sky Gilbert's play Lola Starr Builds Her Dream Home (1989), I begin to explore how camp makes performance metaphors and sexual difference hyperbolic by confronting ideas of naturalism in fiction and life self-reflexively. Gilbert's play, however, still retains certain ties to conventional notions of expressivity with respect to his character Tina.


Chapter one serves as an introduction to many of the concepts which circulate in my thesis, many of which are explored more fully in other chapters, the groundwork of which is presented here.


Chapter Two:  Drag:   An Elementary Fabric of Camp


            Chapter one considered certain problems for notions of theatrical performance as a metaphor for the constitution and manifestation of gender identity. Chapter two introduces a notion of gender play which describes the function of drag and camp more aptly than gender performance.


            I investigate the more complex layering effect that belongs to the realm of drag, which includes cross-dressing but is not limited to the conventional wisdom and notions surrounding crossed dress (models of expressivity, binary of man and woman, mandatory heterosexuality). Drag includes cross-dressing but is not wholly comprised by it. Cross-dressing alone often appears as parody, and is often based on an essentialist position or expressive model, i.e. that an interior essence can be expressed by dressing as the opposite sex. The traditional conflation of camp with parody resonates with the traditional conflation of drag with cross-dressing all of which problematically culminate as interchangeable signifiers or terms which stand-in for one another. This chapter will show that while camp makes use of parody, parody alone does not signal camp. Similarly, drag makes use of cross-dressing but cross-dressing alone does not signal drag. Certain cinematic forms resonate with conventional notions as the Hollywood films Tootsie (Sidney Pollack, 1982) and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (Beeban Kidron, 1995) will show in critical analysis. Keith Cole's short independent film Nancy Boy vs. Manly Woman (Erwin Abesamis, 1997) illustrates the potential for a doubling of vision in drag and camp, an expansion of the form and hyperbolization of the codes for gender and sexuality.


            I look at the notion of performance as "play" where performance is aligned with gender play, a play upon the norms which are the resources for resistance and which comprise gender performativity. Gender play repeats and destabilizes rigid notions of femininity and masculinity (using the norms as resources to forge resistance, subversion and displacement) usually located in female and male bodies where femininity and masculinity are assumed to be essential to those bodies. Gender play is manifest in drag and camp texts where the body becomes a set of possibilities.


            Theoretical discourses limited to an understanding of drag and camp in films or practices which recuperate notions associated with cross-dressing have limited the ability for some theorists to move beyond definitions of drag and camp outside of conventional cross-dressing and parody. By examining the meanings and forms which hinder gender play, it is possible to understand why the conflation of terms stunts camp's perceived potential to challenge dominant meanings accorded to gender.


Chapter Three:   Female Camp


            Chapter three focuses on "female camp" and examines certain limiting critical discourses for its potential, such as citations against camp practice in feminist discourse and lesbian critical theory, and some of its stunning possibilities in theory and practice. Camp is problematically bound up with ideas which regard it "as a discourse [which] is both ironically and paradoxically the discourse of hom(m)osexuality, that is male sexuality" (Davy, 243). I will explore misconceptions about camp practice that are based on preconceptions about the gay male tradition of camp, based on a heterosexual paradigm and located in cross-dressing. The obstacles to envisioning a female camp are compounded by the call for a feminist subject position which binds the notion of "femininity" to a "wholistic" and non-negotiable female body paradoxically contested by the terms "feminist" and "femme" which is articulated  only in terms of a relation to the privileged and visible "butch." Moving the femme out of the butch-femme economy enables a female camp practice that moves into genders and sexualities. I will explore layering the codes of gender for play in a Drag King camp performance which resists hegemonic and exclusionary interpretations of lesbian and feminist identities and performances.


Chapter Four:   Entangled Identities and Cyborg Territories


            Chapter three explored the possibilities for notions of gender in camp and drag which expand upon the binaries of man and woman, sexual difference and cross-dressing. Chapter four will focus on hybrid identities and couplings which challenge normative notions of gender and sexuality. Drag is theorized as cross-species-dressing where the emphasis is on notions of fluid identities. I will develop and refashion Donna Haraway's cyborg myth ("A Cyborg Manifesto:  Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," 1985) to open up the theoretical possibilities for breached boundaries in drag. Examples from the film Tank Girl (Rachel Talalay, 1995) will illustrate possibilities for the proliferations of identity in species permutations and combinations which undermine the notion of ‘boundaries' as a stable concept. Conventional referents or boundaries are subject to splittings and unconventional meldings. Animals, people and machines are entangled in complex hybrid relationships which explode notions of the organic dimensions of body as self.


            Cross-species-dressing in Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992) takes place in an arena of sadomasochism (S/M) which offers resistance to the unitary Western subject and makes possible multiple and shifting identities. I examine the sexual practice of consensual S/M as a parodic structuring device in the film and explore the meanings which make S/M a cyborg practice within this context. Resonating with camp and drag excess, the theatrical paraphernalia associated with S/M can be found in forms of leather, vinyl, spiked boots, feathers, fur, whips, masks, costumes and scripts. Animal and human guises, like identity, are unstable and are subject to injury and rupture.



[i] Butler revisits and "corrects" readings of her work in her essay "Critically Queer" (1997).










My doctoral thesis entitled "A critical exploration of cross-dressing and drag in gender performance and camp in contemporary North American drama and film" is available


Romy Shiller is a pop culture critic and holds a PhD in Drama from the University of Toronto. Her academic areas of concentration include film, gender performance, camp and critical thought. She lives in Montreal where she continues her writing. All books are available online.

Romy Shiller is a 3rd Wave Feminist according to the book Third Wave Feminism and Television: Jane Puts it in a Box by the head of women's studies at South-Carolina U.

Books are available online. She lives in Montreal where she continues her writing.


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