This is the last post in this series setting out our process, so you can think about how to run such an activity, and push the boundaries even further than we did.
In this entry I’m just going to focus on all the stuff which remained below the waterline – songs which didn’t make it to the final session, videos which inspired us but whose inspiration might not be very visible in the finished product. Read more →
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.
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.
Just whacked me tree up…..it's looking slightly camp this year…..can't work out how 2 give it a pair a bollocks. pic.twitter.com/6OHRpGm0GK
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 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.