Sharon Needles

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Sharon Needles is by far my favorite drag performer. She embodies a drag persona that consistently challenges it’s own culture – the high-femme of drag queens – with her love of shock value. Her persona is strongly androgyne, and at other times “dusty-femme,” (defined below) but is presented within an art that most often deliberately acts in strict opposition to traditional gender display. Traditional here meaning consistent with one’s biological sex and accordingly masculine or feminine. Drag performers typically embody the opposite side of the gender binary to an exaggerated degree, which often produces a parody and theatrical performance of culturally constructed traditional gender – this can be seen in Ru Paul, Adore Delano, Alaska Thunderfuck, Courtney Act, etc. Sharon Needles does not seem to follow this “rule” of drag queen culture.

I consider dusty-femme to be a persona that is not traditionally feminine, but still is feminine: it is hard to see (it is “dusty”); it is rough around the edges, blunt, and/or crude, yet ultimately femininely styled. The mode of dress, including makeup and hair, is not always finely groomed, or elegantly presented, but the bodily movements are. This aesthetic is exemplified in the video “Kai Kai” with Sharon’s frizzy yellow hair, dark lipstick, and marijuana-leaf dress paired with femininely stylized movements. It is exemplified also in the glam-goth aesthetic of “Dressed to Kill” and “Call me on the Ouija Board.”

 

Call me on the Ouija Board

In both of these videos, Sharon Needles embodies a glam-goth aesthetic, which I consider to fall under the category of dusty-femme. In my observations and understandings, goth-aesthetic embodying females are generally viewed as unfeminine in relation to traditional female identity as a “pretty woman” (the woman we see in mass media) and thus mostly undesirable to our heterosexist and misogynistic culture at large – it is not the “proper” way to be feminine and female. It’s heavy and dark, blunt and overt, as opposed to light and passive.  Sharon Needles is the goth woman with traditional power, creating glamorous femininity with elegant movement on the fashion runway in “Dressed to Kill.”

Note: Not that upholding traditional values of the necessity of femininity in females and/or women is a great thing, but drag is an intentional performance of gender, and Sharon Needles performs well.

However, in “Call me on the Ouija Board” for a portion of the video she creates a sort of meta-drag with goth aesthetic – a male, impersonating a female, dressed in partial men’s attire. She pulls it off well, maintaining an air of femininity with elegant movements, but in partial male dress – producing a very powerful androgynous glam-goth woman complete with dark eye makeup, short black hair, long black nails, red eyes, red tie, white button-up, black dress, an aesthetically pleasing black hat, and words of ouija boards.
Sharon Needles
The androgynous figure she embodies in “Call me on the Ouija Board” calls to mind Judith Halberstam’s An Introduction to Female Masculinity as well as Judith Butler’s explanations of performance and performativity.

 

Kai Kai – Sharon Needles and Alaska Thunderfuck

I’d like to consider the approach of this video to be a parody of Pure Camp. According to Susan Sontag in “Notes on Camp,” Pure Camp is essentially naive and serious, in that the seriousness fails to be serious. This means that Pure Camp cannot be obtained with the intention to produce Camp because then it is not naive. The very statement of “going camping” is an act of deliberate Camp; deliberate camp is produced with the intention to be Campy. Alaska and Sharon fantastically, with exaggerated inflection, refer to going camping declaring, “It will be Pure Camp!” I analyze this to be a statement with deliberate intention to be paradoxical. It is not Pure Camp, and is thus a parody of Pure Camp. It is Camp that knows itself to be Camp while claiming the opposite. Camp itself has an element of parody, and self-parody, seeming to make this production a parody of parody, and under this analysis, is unquestionably humorous.
It’s certain that “Kai Kai” is Camp – it is very stylized, very exaggerated, and essentially contentless – much like John Waters film “Pink Flamingos.” In “Pink Flamingos” it is impossible to draw symbolic meaning. Every image is exaggerated and stylized to a point of unreal-ness. It is a great example of Camp (maybe even parody Camp) and is a fantastic representation of, to quote Susan Sontag, “things-being-what-they-are not.”

 

“Notes on Camp” – Susan Sontag: http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Sontag-NotesOnCamp-1964.html

Gender Roles in “But I’m a Cheerleader”

The 1999 satirical romantic-comedy film “But I’m a Cheerleader” is directed by Jamie Babbit and stars Natasha Lyonne, Clea DuVall, and RuPall to name a few. The movie focuses on a teenage girl, Megan Bloomfield (Lyonne), who is sent to a conversion therapy camp, True Directions, because her parents and friends suspect she is a lesbian. There Megan soon comes to embrace her sexual orientation, despite the therapy, and falls in love with Graham (DuVall). The movie uses the theme of socially constructed gender roles to “cure” homosexuality.

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The production and costume design of the movie was meant to reflect the idea of gender roles. There is a progression from the organic world of Megan’s hometown, where the main colors are orange and brown, to the fake world of True Directions, dominated by intense blues and pinks, which show the artificiality of gender roles. In the camp, the male campers wear only dark blue shorts, shirts, and ties, whereas the female campers wear only bright pink skirts and blouses. By having the campers wear clothes that are typically associated with the standard male outfit and the standard female outfit, it tries to show the campers how normal straight people dress.

Besides making the campers wear gender specific clothes, they make the campers perform a series of tasks associated with each gender. For example girls are taught how to clean a house, change aBut_I'm_a_Cheerleader_BLUE baby, how to sew, specifically a wedding dress, how to wear make-up and look like a “pretty young woman”. Guys are taught how to change a tire and fix a car’s engine, how to play football, and how to chop wood and spit. The idea is if the campers realize and practice their intended role in society then their homosexuality will be cured.

Along with performing gender specific tasks, the campers are also given cards with images of their gender doing the typical gender roles the campers should be emulating. Megan and Graham are going over the cards, and Megan shows Graham a card of a but-im-a-cheerleaderwoman taking out the trash. Graham responds with “I see a woman” and Megan frustratedly says “ It’s a mother. Women have roles. After you learn that you’ll stop objectifying them.” The concept that is being taught at the camp is that homosexuality is caused by not conforming to the socially constructed gender roles. In order to cure this homosexuality, you have to act and dress like an ideal man or woman performing the gender roles given to you by society.

The idea that performing gender specific tasks and wearing gender specific clothes will change who someone loves is just ridiculous and ignorant. The movie showcases this in a funny light-hearted way but still gets the message across: love is love, and it cannot be cured.

“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”: The gay anthem of the century

The Wizard of Oz tells the story of a young girl, Dorothy, who is whisked away from her drab, boring, black and white town to the elaborate and extravagant land of Oz. In her anthem, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, Dorothy sings about wanting more than the life she has and asks “If happy little bluebirds fly, beyond the rainbow why, oh, why can’t I?”

What was thought to be a song of a young girl dreaming for a bigger life became an anthem for an entire community looking for someone to guide their way out of the shadows. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” became “an anthem of pain for homosexuals who perceived themselves as belonging to a despised minority.” (Brantley, 1994) Gay men everywhere began identifying with not only the song, but Dorothy herself, calling themselves “Friends of Dorothy.” Dorothy accepted people for being different hence her friendships with the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man. And following her character from the film, Judy in real life accepted people who were different. Judy Garland, the woman who played Dorothy, became an idol for the gay community. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Judy Garland became the ultimate gay icon. She was relatable, she was human, and most of all she was camp. Camp, as defined by Babuscio, are the “elements in a person, situation, or activity that express, or are created by, a gay sensibility.” Camp was in every essence Garland. She was larger than life, over the top, and extravagant. Towards the end of her career, Judy began to fall apart, the drugs and alcohol become too much. But after all of that, her fans still loved her. In some way, her falling apart and displaying her struggles to the entire showed how human she was and that she knew how it felt to be the victim. To this day, Judy Garland is not an example of camp, Judy Garland is camp.

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Judy Garland died on June 22, 1969, one week prior to the riots at Stonewall. Some state that there is a common factor between the two; that Garland’s death lead to high emotions and rage but no truth behind that facts have ever been proven. For those who believe this to be true, Garland’s death leading to Stonewall riots shows a critical turning point in the gay rights movement.

Stonewall

After Garland’s death, her legacy continued on through her song that started it all, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The community continued identifying with the song and making their own renditions to keep it alive.

The song gives them power. Identifying with something bigger than themselves. After all, isn’t that what Judy was? She was bigger than life!

I think all of this, identifying with the song and “Friends of Judy” exemplifies a sense of world-making, a notion brought forth by Berlant & Warner (1998). To them, world-making is more than what is just evident in the public. It’s what you make of intimacies; it highlight that inventiveness of the queer world, as well as the fragility of it. World-making is building a community where you feel at home, and in an essence Judy gave that to the gay community. She showed that it’s okay to be human and makes mistakes. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” continues to be an anthem for the gay community, and I believe it always will. It will always be a sense of hope. Judy will be a sense of hope.

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On a final side note, I believe that it is not a coincidence that the flag for the gay community happens to be a rainbow flag. Even Gilbert Baker, the creator of the LGBT flag, gives some credit to Judy. No matter what, Judy will always be “over the rainbow.” (corny I know, but I couldn’t not put it.)

Miss Coco Peru- Comedian, Actress, World Savior

“We gender benders understand that if you have the balls to change yourself, you have the power to change the world.”

On any given Friday night, you are likely to find one Miss Coco Peru giving a stand up routine to some crowded theater, maybe throwing in a signature song or two to get her audience laughing. For over 20 years, Clinton Leupp has been putting on his infamous wig and becoming Miss Coco Peru.

During the week, you are more likely to find Coco volunteering at one of LA’s many LGBTQ help centers. Often still donning her red hair, she dedicates her days to making the world a better place. Although for many drag is only an avenue for entertainment, Coco has embraced the role of drag queen in a larger way. 

During her speech at the 38th Gala Event for the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, Coco shared why she got started in drag.

“Drag for me was born out of a calling to be an activist. I was living at home in the Bronx, and although I was fortunate to be out, it was the late 80s and it was a scary time for a young gay man in New York City. It was a time when walking down the street you could see the effect of AIDS on people walking towards you. People you knew were suddenly unrecognizable, and it scared the hell out of me. It also made me feel like I had to do something.”

Miss Coco was inspired to become and activist and help her community. However, she knew that in order to make an impact, she had to be visible. She empathizes storytelling as one of the best ways to educate people on issues that are unknown or controversial. The personal impact of someone’s own story is more likely to resonate with people. Coco employs gender bending as a way to help vocalize her story and the larger story of the community. She takes all the negative that is thrown at the LGBTQ community and throws it right back by celebrating it.

“I always felt the way to educate people who didn’t understand me was to tell my story, but I took it a step further, and I made the choice to embrace everything I had ever been taught to hate about myself and instead glorify it, celebrate it. I would embrace my two spirit nature with the intention that if people could listen to my story and forget all this (gesturing to her full drag), they would realize that despite appearances, it is what is on the inside that matters. And that what every human being wants and deserves is love, respect, equality, and justice. With that in mind, I created Coco Peru, and it became my mission to empower my community while letting the world know that drag queens empower a powerful law of mama nature’s. And that is, if you transform the outer, you can transform the inner, and vice-versa, if you transform the inner, you can transform the outer. Yes, we gender benders understand that if you have the balls to change yourself, you have the power to change the world.”

And so Coco began a long acting career both on screen and on stage. Notably, she starred in “Girls Will Be Girls”, “Trick”, and even “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything. Julie Newmar.” You may remember her as the angry drag queen who missed the opportunity to take the trip to California.

However, the majority of Coco’s career has been her stand up routines. For almost 20 years she has been both empowering and inspiring her audiences, while almost making the laugh out loud. Take a look:

Coco continued her activism work alongside her acting work. She helped create the bullying documentary “Teach Your Children Well” and she spends much of her time volunteering for organizations like the Trevor Project and Aids for Aids. Visibility is a big thing for her, so she shops and goes out in drag. She says this is how she feels most comfortable, and it creates an awareness of the community. You can see one of her shopping experiences here:

Miss Coco Peru just wants to make the world a better place. She says she follows a long history of drag queens making a difference. She recognizes the work that many of the queens have done for the community, which is often overlooked in queer history.

“I want to recognize all the drag queens out there in the world and in the worlds beyond, who despite being the first to start the queer movement at Stonewall and who were also among the first to respond to the AIDS crisis by organizing fundraisers, are often dismissed and their contributions rarely recognized.”

If you would like to listen to her empowering speech, you can find it here:

 

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo is an all-male ballet company based out of New York. It was founded in 1974 by a group of ballet enthusiasts and dancers, and in its early years, it performed late shows in Off- and Off-Off-Broadway spaces. The company is famous for its interpretations of classical ballets, which feature male dancers playing the lead female roles. In tutus and en pointe, their performance blends a commitment to iconic choreography and ballet technique, with a camp humor that parodies what is usually a serious art form. They just recently closed a short run at the Joyce Theatre in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, where I saw them perform, before continuing on to dates scheduled around the world.

For the most part, the Trocks (as they are known for short) maintain the choreography from the original productions, swapping in men for the roles usually played by woman. Although they are incredibly physically challenging, these roles demand grace and elegance, qualities usually associated with femininity. In the famous scene of the dying swan from Swan Lake, for example, Ulyana Lopatkina, a prima ballerina for the Kirov Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia, exudes these qualities:

The dance requires significant skill and training, yet Lopatkina makes it look effortless. As she enters the stage, her torso and her legs form a straight line, while her arms flutter in contrast to suggest the flapping of the swan’s wings. She remains mostly en pointe, which means that she dances on the her tip-toes, yet she never loses her balance. Her steps instead are either small and dainty (the careful tip-toe of the opening) or grand and flowing (the sweeping arches of legs and arms, like at 1:02). Either way her performance achieves the qualities of grace and elegance.

In contrast, the following is the Trockadero interpretation of the same scene, with Ihaia Miller, whose stage name is Maya Thickenthighya, in the role of the swan:

At the beginning of the scene, and for moments throughout, the choreography is the same as the original production. Miller keeps his torso and his legs in a straight line, and the steps that he takes en pointe as he glides across the stage are elegant–each one advances only a little bit so as not to disturb the strong line from the ankle to the head. Although his muscles are bigger than Lopatkina’s, his arm gestures maintain the grace of the swan’s beating wings. Such resemblance between the two performances suggests that feminine qualities need not emanate from feminine bodies. For the young boys who yearned to play these feminine roles throughout their ballet education, such an insight might be obvious, but Les Ballets Trockadero provides an opportunity to realize that desire on a professional stage.

In some of the scenes that the company performs, this resemblance between the original ballerina and the Trockadero ballerina is the primary goal, but like the clip from Swan Lake, most incorporate campy elements that spoof the seriousness of the original. In her iconic essay “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag describes this humor as “a vision of the world in terms of style–but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.”

This exaggeration is throughout the Trockadero performance, but we might see it most clearly in the feathered tutu. In the original, there are no feathers–just a formal tutu of stiff taffeta–but Miller has a feathered tutu that sheds throughout the dance. This shedding adds further drama, visually emphasizing the slow and tragic death of the swan. These feathers continue to fall throughout most of the dance, their ridiculous quantity contributing to the exaggeration. Even the dance gestures are changed, like at 1:20. The camera focuses first on Miller’s legs, whose steps achieve the feminine qualities of grace and elegance. Following the straight vertical line of the body, however, the camera arrives at the feathered tutu. In contrast to her legs, the ballerina’s arms are whapping the tutu with erratic gestures to precipitate the feathers’ fall. The costume, the props, and the dance work together to exaggerate the original production’s pathos, but the performers push it so far that pathos turns to humor. This incongruity is where camp emerges.