I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about adolescence lately. Some of that might be the recent YA vs adult literature debate. Some of it is watching the first crop of teen writers I ever worked with in Parkes reach the point of leaving school. In 2011, five brave high school students committed to the NaNoWriMo novel-writing challenge even though it was exam season in Australia. These days, the Parkes Authorised writers’ group is for all ages, a regular, well-attended part of the town library’s programme.
October 31st is the eve of NaNoWriMo’s November kick-off. But it’s also Hallowe’en, and the release date for Fox Spirit Press’ new story collection Drag Noir. In her introduction to the collection, editor K.A. Laity writes about her childhood dream of being Jim West, cowboy/secret agent hero of The Wild Wild West.
He looked slick, fought bad guys, and lived in luxurious style in a train caboose with his pal Artemus Gordon—every week a new location and a new adventure.
But more than that, the look: that snugly fitted suit, short jacket, broad shoulders and black boots. Sure, he did spend a lot of time shirtless and tied up, too. Somehow at the advent of the androgynous glam rock look of the 70s and the nascent punk scene, anything at all seemed possible—at least until my body betrayed me with the double-whammy of adolescent hormones and a thyroid that tipped over into overdrive, hitting my rangy frame with unexpected curves and a bewildered loss of identity.
That surge of hormones denying the androgynous dream brings us back to adolescence. I’ve never quite had that feeling of being forced into a category that didn’t fit me. As I sit fairly unproblematically within the straight white male box, coming to understand my identity has been more about what Eula Biss describes as “the need to acknowledge myself as dangerous.” It’s a slow and inconsistent process of learning how harmful, and how boring, we might be when our identity oppresses others. I read Biss’ words in a Harper’s interview about her book on vaccination; I’m now keen to pick up Biss’ Notes on No Man’s Land and give her thought further attention.
Still, I remember the feeling Laity describes at the tail end of my teens, before my body made the definitive shift away from androgyny.
As a kid, dressing up had been everything to me. Spaceman, spy, Indiana Jones, whatever could be cobbled together from party masks and old clothes in the attic. My earliest memory is jumping off the (very low) roof of our back garden’s buried World War II bomb shelter dressed as Batman. I remember going to school for Hallowe’en dressed as a witch; my mum had a moment of inspiration, cut through the point of the plastic hat to make a flip-top lid, and filled the insides with exposed “brains” made from red paper and bubble wrap. It was my all-time favourite dress-up and I’ve loved Hallowe’en ever since.
Mum stayed cool with this proto-drag as the years went on. There’s a photograph somewhere of my little brother and I in her old clothes, lip-syncing and pretending to be the girls from ABBA.
In my teens this sense of dressing up and trying on new identities became more my own, not just play shared with a parent. The stakes grew higher as adulthood bore down on us.
I remember being in the pub, brown suede jacket, satchel, a metal Miss Selfridge heart from a girl’s sandal pinned in the lapel; a kind of lingering Indiana Jones get-up. I remember a guy from school telling me that with my hair worn long, I looked just like Heather Graham. I savoured the conflicted feeling that showed in his eyes.
Some of us at the all-boys’ school cultivated an air of camp, deciding which girl you’d have been in The Craft and having earnest discussions about whether Madonna’s voice coaching for Evita, which seemed to have affected her vocals on Ray of Light, had spoiled the Material Girl’s vulgar edges. The gym I went to had stacks of magazines for people to read while on the cross-trainer. Men had FHM and Loaded, women had stuff like Vogue. I would make a big show of reading copies of Marie Claire; the women were hotter and the articles better.
I remember a friend invented ‘the Bitch Dance’, which involved us pantomiming the lyrics of Meredith Brooks’ 1997 hit – “I’m a bitch, I’m a lover, I’m a child, I’m a mother, I’m a sinner, I’m a saint, I do not feel ashamed” – but if there were a soundrack to all this, it was probably Mansun’s “Being A Girl”, complete with its brilliant video:
Some of my campness was protective camouflage; a lonely teenager’s fear of socialising, a way to hide from the supposed obligations of being an eighteen year old boy. Some of it was the late 90s trend for androgynous indie musicians. Some was using a performance to keep from saying what you really felt. But it was also a feeling of potential, exultant display, the feeling that Laity reminds us of when she quotes RuPaul: “We’re born naked, and the rest is drag.”
Such a useful, powerful line that. Drag is every choice of clothes. It is signification, is language, is the art of conveying meaning. Think of Roland Barthes: “Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.” (LH Johnson writes beautifully about her love for that quotation). Drag is everything that we use to communicate with the world.
The years go by, the body thickens and changes, the clothes I choose now speak a more conventional language. At thirty-four, the space marked masculinity is, in some ways, an increasingly comfortable – or at least taken-for-granted – fit.
Hell, one of the lads in the “Being A Girl” video grew up to be Danny Dyer.
As I grew up, I had the luxury of nestling within a category which society more or less gives licence to behave as it wishes, straight, white, and privileged. If I stepped outside to play dress-up, I could always step back if things got scary. Hence why exploring identity can mean recognising oneself as vulnerable as well as dangerous.
I’ll still take any excuse to dress up, though. MC’ing the Dark Night library burlesque season last year, I tried to get a haircut based on Lois from Dykes to Watch Out For, but ended up with this:
I still savour the fact that all dressing is drag. That there is potential for expression, subversion, art, and play in every choice we make. But I also hope that getting older means listening better, and noticing when people are being hurt by the categories life imposes on them. It means remembering that RuPaul line not just as a manifesto for exultant display, but also one that guides compassion.
We’re born naked, and the rest is drag.
For more on gender and identity, check out my last blog on the Captain Marvel movie and female heroes of children’s literature, which will also lead you to further links on gender and comics.
You can read about Auckland Libraries’ Dark Night festival, “a guerrilla festival of burlesque, literary, and cinematic events that question, celebrate, and challenge sex and sexuality on page, stage, and screen”, at the US Library Journal website.
A couple of years back I got my manly-man cousin watching the TV show Justified, and he bizarrely described the lead character played by Timothy Olyphant as an “effeminate, modern-day Clint Eastwood.” I wrote about Justified, masculinity, and the modern-day cowboy at Role/Reboot in 2012. The Cultural Gutter‘s alex macfadyen, who wrote the fab How To Be A Man in Four Hours, also wrote on Justified here.