Friday, 30 May 2014

We're Born Naked The Rest Is Drag

Last week I went along to one of The Beauty Project events at Selfridges in Manchester; 'We're Born Naked, The Rest is Drag: Identity, Fantasy and Beauty beyond Gender'

Upon reading this title I would have bought myself a ticket and gone along anyway! However the added draw was that Grace Oni Smith, the subject of my current portrait exploring transgender femininity, was one of the guest speakers on a panel consisting of drag queen Cheddar Gawjus (AKA Dr Micheal Atkins) and Dr Sally Hines Associate Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at The University of Leeds.

It was a brilliant talk and gave me me lots think about. Grace spoke from the heart and gave us an insight into her life as a trans gender female. How her discovery of make up was a tool she used not only to transform her appearance but also transform her life.

Taking inspiration from strong androgynous role models like Siouxsie Sioux David Bowie Grace Jones and Boy George, a teenage Grace began to experiment with her looks and built a goth persona who wore her make up like armour. Still living as a male in a small rural town, this act of deliberate defiance to the norm brought her much attention, most of it negative resulting in being beaten up for being different.

As the panel explained, gender is something we perceive through learnt roles and behaviour. We copy it from others as we develop and there are certain acceptable characteristics we associate with men and women. However as in Grace's case, these ideals are malleable, they can be played with, broken down and rebuilt into new and sometimes confusing formats that challenge society and make people uncomfortable.

Take for instance this years queen of Eurovision, Conchita Wurst. An undeniably beautiful drag artist who just happens to wear a beard along with her lipstick and wigs. Many people's reaction was one of bewilderment, even disgust; It was too provoking to flaunt both genders at once.

Cheddar Gawgus pointed out that while Conchita was challenging for many people, the fact they were introduced to a new concept of what gender can be was a positive step.

For Grace, her gender is no longer the same issue it once was. As she rather fabulously put it, she is 'a new person'. But it hasn't been easy to get to this positive stage in her life. As an individual of transgender she still scrutinizes her looks on a daily basis and it isn't easy to escape that very marginalised view of what acceptable beauty is in western society.

Cheddar illustrated this perfectly by showing us results of Google searches for 'Beautiful women' and 'Beautiful men'. Both searches showed white young symmetrical flawless faces and slim lithe bodies.This is not a representation of most of the worlds population. Yet so many people strive to attain it or as close to it as possible.

  Grace, Cheddar and Dr Hines all suggested drag was one of the most powerful ways of subverting our narrow view of beauty and gender and I found this the most interesting aspect of the discussion.

Despite drag making somewhat of a comeback in mainstream society thanks to shows like RuPaul's Drag Race, the idea of what drag can be is still to be fully explored. Traditionally viewed as a man dressing up like a woman to become an extreme character, it was argued drag can actually be a platform for anyone of any gender to play with roles and looks. Women men and people of transgender can all be drag queens or kings. However, sometimes drag doesn't even fit into these roles, as in the case of artists Leigh Bowery and Cindy Sherman. Their use of drag is both surreal and without limits.

It is this total freedom to play with the carefully constructed boundaries we put in place as we grow, and the unobtainable ideals which we try to achieve in everyday life which makes drag an awesome device to navigate your personal identity.

It really made me think. As the title to the show suggested ('We're born naked, the rest is drag' a wonderful quote by Ru Paul), we all indulge in drag to some degree to create our outward persona. From applying a dash of mascara to choosing which shoes to wear we are constructing the story we choose to tell each day. Drag, in it's fullest sense is just an extreme form of this. If you chose to ignore the learned patterns that keep our identities in check and felt free to wear anything and act in any way, how would you choose to leave the house this morning? 

I'm so glad I went to this event, I enjoyed every minute and I'm sure I'll be applying these ideas to future art work, and maybe next time I sit down at the dressing table too!

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