The Psychology of Drag
Understanding the science behind the art of pushing gender boundaries.
Posted Jan 30, 2018
Drag queens, otherwise known as “female impersonators," are most typically gay cisgender men (though there are many drag queens of varying sexual orientations and gender identities) who perform and entertain on stage in nightclubs and bars.
Dressed in stereotypical feminine clothing and with elaborate makeup and wigs, they usually adopt an eccentric persona or a character that might act as a means of self-expression of their own personalities or allow them to characterize various personality attributes in order to entertain.
It is important here to note that performing in drag is not necessarily rooted in questioning one's gender identity, though this is a common misconception. Drag queens put forth enormous effort and financial cost to establish an ensemble of makeup, outfits, wigs, and also must develop skills at using these means to transform themselves into their highly adorned characters. Their performances commonly involve lip-syncing and dancing to popular music or other talents such as stand-up comedy.
Drag kings, on the other hand, are just the opposite of drag queens — male impersonators. Although it’s unclear exactly why, drag kings are less common in gay communities, and are also less visible in popular culture and in research on drag. Even less common, are Bio queens — or cisgender women who dress in the style of drag queens. For the purposes of this blog post, I will focus only on drag queens.
A recent feature in New York Times Magazine chronicles the story of RuPaul Charles, arguably the most successful drag queen of all time, along with a brief history of how drag queens came to find their place in the mainstream American media. RuPaul’s influence through his multimedia career, along with his television competition show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, which has been on the air since 2009, has played a major role in bringing significant visibility to the art form of drag. As the feature points out, his ascent has coincided with an important shift in our culture in which Americans are broadening their lens on gender identity and expression.
As described through the article, drag queens have long existed within the margins of society, particularly at times when sexual minorities and subversive sexual and gender expression were highly policed and carried the risk of significant legal consequences. That started to change in the late 1960s and ’70s during the sexual revolution, when drag became more prominent within gay male communities, and eventually, thanks in part to RuPaul, a part of popular culture.
Another New York Times article titled, "Is This the Golden Age of Drag? Yes. And No" by Isaac Oliver explores the art of drag by taking a closer look at the lives of some of the more prominent current drag performers, who share the triumphs and agonies of performing full-time for a living. Most of the challenges of performing in drag are described in vivid detail — including financial costs, time investment, physical demands, and exposure to high rates of discrimination and violence. Despite all of this, these artists often devote their lives to performing — with little guarantee of relative success in the industry.
The Science of Drag
Beyond gaining visibility in popular culture, drag queens have also come into the lens of scientific research, as researchers in the social sciences have started exploring the psychology of drag performers. In one particular study published in 2017, researchers Moncrieff & Lienard use the framework of evolutionary psychology to pose the following question; given the relatively high personal costs and risks such as discrimination and violence, what might drive individuals to a life of performing drag?
In evolutionary psychology, signaling theory explains behaviors that do not seem to serve an evolutionary advantage, and in particular behaviors that are meant to attract the attention of a targeted audience. The theory argues that these behaviors typically occur in “protected social worlds” as a way to gain status within that world, despite the costs or drawbacks to the behavior. Moncrieff & Lienard relay that the gay communities in which drag was born serve as a backdrop due to their exclusive and protected nature that was once necessary for the survival of these communities.
In the study, Moncrieff & Lienard surveyed 133 gay men along with a control group of heterosexual men and women, about their perceptions of drag queens. They found that the “evolutionary costs” seem to be recognized as the core cost of performing in drag across all groups. One such cost found in their study is the perception that they are less attractive to potential mates. It is thought that this in part due to the donning of overtly feminine attire and stereotypical behaviors which are seen as less desirable traits among gay men.
As portrayed in Oliver's article, those who perform drag full-time are faced with many personal, physical, and financial sacrifices as well. They also risk being discriminated against not only in public, but also within the gay community. Signaling theory would explain that engaging in “costly” behaviors demonstrates to the intended targets that they are not “faking” those behaviors, which has the benefit of the individual being validated and appreciated more for their efforts. Furthermore, the authors explain that in signaling theory, it is key that the signaling behaviors are extravagant or loud enough to garner attention in an otherwise crowded environment and to help reach the attention of potential allies. In other words, it is critical to stand out.
The main takeaway from the study is the hypothesis that drag performers are motivated, despite the many costs, by how signaling, or performing within the gay community, promotes “upward mobility” and status within a small, protected community. Because of the costs of performing, Moncrieff & Lienard argue, drag queens are more likely to be perceived as authentic, and so those costs end up being an advantage, or a badge of honor. RuPaul and other successful drag queens are of course the exception here, as it seems their status has also been met with financial success and recognition from the mainstream culture.
What About the Art of Drag?
The research findings described here shed some light on potential motivating factors of those who perform drag, at least through the eyes of some in the gay community. However, it is important to note that the researchers did not interview drag queens themselves. Oliver's article highlights something more intangible, which is the spirit and personal significance of drag queen performers.
Additionally, drag entails dismantling traditional notions of gender, and so drag performers must be motivated by this aspect of performing as well. As it turns out, this is consistent with signaling theory in it constitutes behavior that stands apart from what is expected. Future research should continue to explore the various aspects of drag that motivate individuals to become performers, as well as the relationship between drag queens and the communities in which they develop.
Above all, drag is an art form, and drag queens are artists. Although there are indeed many costs associated with performing, how many artists in history have ever wanted to play it safe?
Moncrieff, M., & Lienard, P. (2017). A Natural History of the Drag Queen Phenomenon. Evolutionary Psychology, 15(2), 1474704917707591.