Female impersonation and gender ambivalence: Does drag challenge gender norms?


  • Elbie van den Berg University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa




Drag performance, gender ambivalence, gender anxiety, gender norms, gender performance, RuPaul


This article explores the question of whether drag, in the form of female impersonation, unsettles gender norms. Some scholars and analysts of drag performance, such as Rusty Barrett (1998), James Scott (1990), Verta Taylor and Leila J. Rupp (2003), argue that drag is a form of resistance to dominant gender norms. I depart from these assertions and maintain that such a perspective overlooks the complexity of drag. While it can be argued that drag highlights the performative attributes of gender (see Butler 1996), drag queens in many ways affirm the stigmatised effeminate stereotype of gay male sexuality. It is thus too simplistic to posit drag performance as either subversive or reaffirming of heteronormative gender models. Building on the insights of scholars such as Judith Butler (1990; 1996), Lila Abu-Lughod (1990), Keith McNeal (1999), Carol-Anne Tyler (2013) and Caitlin Greaf (2015), as well as drawing on some of Andre Charles RuPaul’s drag race shows, I argue that drag does not aim to challenge dominant gender norms. Rather, I maintain that drag highlights the inherent ambivalence of gender generated by heteronormativity, simultaneously playing with the inconsistencies between gendered cultural paradigms and actual experience. It is in this interstice that drag performance, as an art of irony and parody, opens up possibilities for gender multiplicity.