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Vicki Cooper

‘Female Camp’? Drag and the Politics of Parody and ‘Queer’ Performance

Cultural Studies from Birmingham, Volume 2, Issue 1 (1998)     ISSN 1463-9734


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‘In performance actors are not simply vehicles of discursive regimes, but material bodies differentially positioned in space and time - bodies able to demonstrate both the power as well as the fragility of prevailing fictions of gender.’

(Rachel Fensham, 1996)


This research, undertaken from September 1996 - March 1997, considers female cross-dressing from the perspective of queer performance. It offers a close reading of particular examples and representations of drag, drawn from popular culture, performance, and from my own experience. Analysis of drag has helped to focus attention on the fluidity of social gender and its representations, yet it remains a not unproblematic analytical tool. In this research I reappraised and discussed the current celebration of cross-dressing by examining the recent attention given to cross dressing in queer theory. I charted the emergence of parodic and performative strategies and identities and assessed their usefulness and political efficacy. To contribute to the current discussion on ‘camp’, I explored whether the notion of ‘camp’ is appropriate or applicable to female drag, and asked if camp, rather than apolitical, aestheticised and frivolous, is political and/or critical. Is camp simply a style or a sensibility, as is conventionally accepted, or is it an oppositional critique (of gender and sexuality) embodied in a ‘queer’ performative identity?

This piece was also, is in a sense, an exploration of my own identity/identifications. For example, I find identifying as a ‘lesbian’ contradictory. In my activism I have, and occasionally still do, politically identify as ‘lesbian’. However, I am not at ease with ‘lesbian’ as a category. While my head is telling me to resist categorisation, my practical politics is forcing me to take up a position. The partial identifications and temporary affinities associated with queer performative strategies seem to be an attractive alternative. But do they really reconcile these practical and theoretical contradictions? These are questions which informed my analysis.

I began by charting intellectual responses to camp, starting with Susan Sontag’s apolitical reading of camp and moving onto 1990s queer versions of camp as subversive practice. I discussed the emergence of queer theory and politics and discuss the ideas of so called ‘queer theorists’ such as Judith Butler and Diana Fuss. In extracts from my original research, below I will also explore the notion of a ‘female camp’ and its criticism and examine some recent representations culturally involving female drag that I have personally wanted to call ‘camp’. Here I examine in more detail the notion of ‘lesbian camp’ and of mainstream camp appropriation and its limitations. I will also look at American cross-dresser Diane Torr and her ‘Drag King for a Day’ workshops; the experiences I had of going out in drag in Birmingham; and drag performance artist Julie McNamara.

Camp: Queer subversive practice

From a refusal of essentialism and celebration of subversion, queer theorists have mounted a resounding challenge to traditional interpretations such as Susan Sontag’s interpretation of camp as apolitical and assimilationist/assimilated; and to Jack Babuscio’s steadfast claim on camp as a ‘gay sensibility’. Queer theorists insist instead on camp’s political and its specifically queer status. Subcultural lesbian and gay camp have been reclaimed as a model for a particular type of gender performance. Efforts to circumscribe camp as a type of masquerade has elided earlier critiques which sought to define camp as a particular activity or strategy that signalled the material form of a ‘gay sensibility’. To some extent, these discussions were intended to mark the specificity of lesbian and gay identity for the purpose of uniting the civil rights movement. Cooper 3.JPG (32755 bytes)

In contrast, the current discussion tends to focus on camp as a type of performance. Thomas A. King (1) has argued that Camp gesture signals an ontological challenge that displaces bourgeois notions of the Self as unique, abiding, and continuous, while substituting instead a concept of the Self as performative, improvisational, discontinuous, and processually constituted by repetitive and stylised acts. Camp is also understood within this queer paradigm to be rooted in gay men’s lack of access to the machinery of representation. For Cynthia Morrill, ‘Camp discourse is the epiphenomenon of the queer subject’s proscription in the dominant order; it is an effect of homophobia’. She goes on to argue that, ‘Camp results from the uncanny experience of looking into a nonreflective mirror and falling outside of the essentialized ontology of heterosexuality, a queer experience indeed’. (2)

Camp or queer parody, has become an activist strategy for American organisations such as ACT UP and Queer Nation. As practised by these groups, camp is both political and critical. There has also been a queer intellectual reclamation of the term ‘camp’. For example, writers in a collection edited by Moe Meyer reclaim camp as an oppositional critique embodied in the signifying practices that constitute queer identities. The contributors share such beliefs as: camp as political; camp as a solely queer discourse; and that camp embodies a specifically queer cultural critique. Because camp is defined as a solely queer discourse, all un-queer activities that have been previously defined as ‘camp’, such as popular cultural expressions, have been redefined as examples of the appropriation of ‘queer praxis’. Meyer suggests that because queer appropriations interpret camp within the context of compulsory heterosexuality, they no longer qualify as camp as he defines it. For example, films like ‘Strictly Ballroom’ (1992) and ‘Hairspray’ (1988) which have been heralded as ‘camp’, would not be seen as authentic (i.e., queer) camp. Rather it is assimilated camp, evidence of what Margaret Thomson Drewel (1994) calls the ‘camp trace’ (3) . Subcultural codes and vernaculars are constantly incorporated into the body of mainstream culture. Indeed, Chuck Kleinhans (1994) claims that ‘The media world’s cannibalisation of subcultures is a structural feature of the culture industry’ (4). Camp trace is a good example of this cannibalism, filtering into film, fashion, advertising and so on.

It is also claimed that, because gay men have been obliged by the homophobic elision of sexuality and gender identity to pay critical attention to gender, camp has emerged as a radical paradigm within which gender becomes artificial and open to deconstruction. Kleinhans claims ‘To some extent, Camp originates in a gay male perception that gender is, if not quite arbitrary, certainly not biologically determined or natural, but rather that gender is socially constructed, artificial and performed (and thus open to being consciously deformed)’ (5) . This may well be the case, however camp is a concept which has been clearly gender-specific, a strategy of gay men, and therefore problematic for lesbians.


The notion of a female and more specifically lesbian camp have come onto the agenda, then, where a ‘positive image’ style feminism has been largely replaced with the ‘queerer’ tools of parody, performance and subversion. Indeed, in her essay ‘Girls Camp’, Paula Graham (1995) argues ‘there has been some shift of focus away from critical confrontation with patriarchal representational regimes, characteristic of 1970s and 1980s lesbian politics, and towards performative subversion of gendered roles.’(6) Put simply, it has become easier for lesbians to play with, subvert and reconstruct the heteropatriarchal language of sex. Lesbian space is, arguably, a space where gender is meaningless or where meanings can be inverted.

Yet, Graham foregrounds questions of gender in her discussion of ‘lesbian camp’. She points to the role of gender in the constitution of camp claiming, ‘Camp expresses the relation of gay men to male authority, mediated by a relationship to representations of ‘the feminine‘ (7), and hence is not amenable to cooption by lesbians. Exploring the possibility of lesbian camp and ‘camp’ films, Graham suggests that the pleasure they give to lesbian audiences is problematic when invoking anti-gay feelings. Graham concludes that gender should not be displaced in studying lesbian reading practices: ‘to apply terms such as ‘camp’ or ‘queer’ to lesbian reading practices is likely to obscure both the diversity and specificity of the practices themselves as well as the power relations which structure them’ (8).

It is important to consider the ‘frames of reference’ through which female parody and performance operates. Many have shifted their alliance from feminism to queer politics. Yet some feminist lesbianisms may reject a language connected with male practices and agendas which may not be appropriate to ‘lesbian’ interests. Lesbianisms from different cultural traditions may also feel excluded from the white/western/male language traditions on which camp draws. Meyer defines camp as ‘the total body of performative practices and strategies used to enact a queer identity, with enactment defined as the production of social visibility.’(9) This expanded definition of camp, one based on identity performance and not solely in some kind of identification of an ironic moment, means that all queer identity performative expressions are circulated within a signifying system that is camp. In other words, what Meyer is claiming is that, queer identity is inseparable and indistinguishable from its processual enactment, or camp. This is all very well, but what happens when the ‘queer’ is a female? Performative practices such as cross-dressing are part of lesbian tradition, however, it is debatable whether such practices are analogous to gay male transgressive or camp practices. Gender-power relations which structure male gay identity and experience are not the same relations which structure lesbian identity and experience.

Camp Culture?

Camp, then, has been re-articulated as a queer strategy deployed to construct identifications and pleasures denied by heteronormative culture. It is argued that it was through oppositional readings and performative transformations of popular culture that homosexual subcultures initially defined themselves. Graham argues that camp reading and performativity, though ill-defined, has undoubtedly been central in forming male gay culture, art and criticism. She also argues that camp has become ‘the permissible form in which sexual deviance may be displayed as spectacle for heterosexual consumption (and its threat neutralised).’(10) Graham, though, ultimately rejects the notion of lesbian camp.

Esther Newton defines camp as a system of humour, stating that the drag queen is its ‘natural exponent’(11). Newton claims that ‘There are also women who perform as men; male impersonators (‘drag butches’). They are a recognised part of the profession, but there are very few of them.... The relative scarcity of male impersonation presents important theoretical problems.’(12) Davy posits that this has something to do with the inability of camp to serve lesbian women in the same way that it serves gay men. She argues that ‘..female impersonation, while it certainly says something about women, is primarily about men, addressed to men, and for men. Male impersonation has no such familiar institutionalised history in which women impersonating men say something about women. Both female and male impersonation foreground the male voice and, either way, women are erased.’(13)

I believe that Newton’s point about the scarcity of male impersonators no longer holds. Britain's most famous drag king, ‘transversity specialist’, and now ‘Pansexual Public Pornographer’ Della Grace/Dr Del/Del LaGrace has in the last two years been swamped with media attention, as have the workshops and acts of drag king Diane Torr. A drag king club night called ‘Naive’ was set up (but now disbanded) at Soho drag club ‘Madam Jo-Jo’s’. Many celebrities have also jumped on the beard-bandwagon including Michelle Pfeiffer, Madonna and Demi Moore, who have all sported beards and suits for photo shoots. Cross-dressing for girls is ‘in’.Cooper 4.JPG (30705 bytes)

Davy’s suggestion that women impersonating men says nothing of any importance is, I feel, unfounded. In a similar critique of cross-dressed female’s relationship to her counterpart in popular nineteenth-century theatre, Peter Ackroyd writes: ‘The male impersonator, the actress in trousers, seems... to lack depth and resonance... and is never anything more than what she pretends to be: a feminine noble mind in a boys body. It is a peculiarly sentimental and therefore harmless reversal. The female impersonator, on the other hand, has more dramatic presence - the idea of a male mind and body underneath a female costume evokes memories and fears to which laughter is perhaps the best reaction.’(14) I am not suggesting for one moment that all drag is a queer subversive critique of gender and sexual identities. However, below I explore a selection of cultural texts which I feel justify a discussion of the possibility of a lesbian or female camp.

Vanity Fair?

My first example is perhaps the most obvious and celebrated referent for ‘dyke camp’. The Vanity Fair cover featuring a scantily clad Cindy Crawford shaving pinstripe suited singer kd Lang can be seen as one highly visible instance of ‘lesbian chic’ (the 1990s has witnessed a spate of lesbianism being depicted as stylish, fashionable and commodifiable.) Inside were more gender-bending photos and a nine page interview.

Much discussion has recently occurred around lesbian butch-femme relations, particularly concerning whether they imitate or invert heterosexual relations. Certain writers, such as Joan Nestle, have reclaimed 1940-1950s lesbian role-playing as courageously visible sexuality. Others, such as Sheila Jeffreys, denounce such appraisals as nostalgic and consider contemporary role-playing a retrogression to antifeminist, heterosexual norms. In ‘Towards a Butch-Femme Aesthetic’ Sue-Ellen Case (15) suggests that camp is a neutral, non-ideologically bound discourse in that it is produced by both gay men and lesbians out of the condition of being closeted. Furthermore, she sees it is available as a strategy for other marginalised groups in much the same way that ‘coming out’ is available for assimilation as a euphemism for heterosexuals. However, in using camp generically, Case has been criticised by Kate Davy for falling ‘into the same trap De Lauretis identifies when the word homosexual is used to refer both to gay men and lesbians.’ (16) Davy sees butch-femme artifice as a part of lesbian discourse, but not camp, which she sees solely as a gay male phenomenon.

I would tend to disagree with Davy. This particular butch-femme image, to me, begs to be called camp. It is a humorous parody and an exaggerated, staged performance of a fantasy. I do, however, have my reservations whether or not camp can be non-queer.


One such non-queer instance which which warrants the question ‘is it camp?’ is the 1982 film ‘Victor/Victoria. In ‘Victor/Victoria’ Julie Andrews plays a singer who must borrow men’s clothes because her dress shrinks after being soaked with rain. During this incidental drag, her male friend, Toddy discovers a solution to Victoria’s unemployment problem: Victoria should disguise herself as Victor, a very good female impersonator.

Throughout the film as the plot progresses, it disrupts and reinstates conventional gender boundaries. The best disruption is the one featured on the video, when Victoria impersonates a female impersonator. In the audience is Victoria’s homosexual accomplice, Toddy, who knows that the female impersonation is itself a performance. That is , that Victoria is actually not male but female. Also in the audience is a businessman called King who is convinced by the female impersonation. When Victoria finishes her number, King responds enthusiastically to her performance and is obviously attracted to her. In the last shot of Victoria, she removes her wig, revealing herself as a ‘man’, Victor. King, confused, stops clapping and responds with obvious disbelief and disappointment. This one scene marks the successful accomplishment of gender disguise. King is temporarily convinced by Victoria’s ‘woman’ and Victor’s ‘man’, though the film develops from here into a conventional heterosexual romance story, King finally getting his ‘true’ woman. Here, successful ‘passing’ is permitted as long as it does not threaten a system of gender boundaries that supports the dominant heterosexual narrative.

To define this moment as camp might seem appropriate - a woman dressed in drag as a man, dressed in drag as a woman. It might even seem, momentarily, very queer. But this potentially camp performance has been detached from its queer ‘identity’. Margaret Thompson Drewal has asked ‘if gay signifying practices serve to critique dominant heterosexist and patriarchal ideology through inversion, parody, travesty, and the displacement of binary gender codes, then what happens when those practices are severed from their gay signifier and put into the service of the very patriarchal and heterosexist ideology of capitalism that camp politics seeks to disrupt and contest?’ (17) Detached in this way from any queer subject position, ‘Victor/Victoria’ may well constitute ‘camp trace’, though not camp in its newly defined queer sense.

Building on this, what do we make of a performance which is self-consciously and obviously parodying camp?

French and Saunders: ‘Metacamp’?

During the 1996 ‘French and Saunders’ series, comediennes Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders parodied a number of films which involved them acting male parts. For example, in ‘Loveheart’ French became Mel Gibson in ‘Braveheart’ andSaunders became Liam Neeson in ‘Rob Roy’ (18). They also took on male roles in their parodies of ‘Batman’ and ‘Pulp Fiction’. The most hilarious and successful of these parodies, however, was their take on two gay men, one a hairdresser, the other a make-up artist. French’s character dresses ‘butch’ in combats and piercing's, while Saunders’ character sports a goatee and a suntan. Both are caricatures of what has become known as as ‘screaming bitchy queen’ - a camp, sarcastic and whining gay man. What I want to suggest here is that although this kind of camp is not ‘queer’, it is enabled by queer - a kind of metacamp. When, for example, before queer, would two heterosexual women impersonating camp gay men be laughed at by us all without cries of negative representation. This French and Saunders parody sits in a wider context of queer self-irony and an increasing wish to push back the boundaries of ‘acceptable’ representations of ‘perverse’ sexualities. One such instance is the publication of Della Grace’s book of lesbian erotic photographs ‘Lovebites’.


In 1991 GMP published ‘Lovebites’ and it became instantly controversial when some feminist bookstores refused to stock it because of its explicit sexual and sadomasochistic content. ‘Sisterwrite’ banned it because they disapproved of the images, and ‘Silver Moon’ declined to stock it for fear of prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act. These distribution problems made the news, and the now disbanded anti-censorship and lesbian free speech group, PUSSY, took up the cause, selling the book in the street in full SM gear. The book thus became a sign of the boundaries of acceptability within the lesbian and feminist communities. (19)

Most of the images are overtly lesbian in that they are obviously concerned with same-sex object choice. For example, ‘The Ceremony’ is a series of three text-free photos which portray a leather-clad butch and femme wearing a wedding veil in a parodic resculpting of heterosexuality. This camp couple, whose identities are formed by the conscious manipulation of signs, resists any easy reading, pointing instead to the instability of sex and gender and to the dis-articulation of meaning. Artifice and parody can thus be seen as undoing and decentering gender.

Reina Lewis has commented that ‘There is an element of being looked at in this collection that does not simply relate to the stereotypical gaze of the (male) voyeur.... it forces us to theorise a lesbian gaze...’ (20) Lewis argues though that is impossible to pin the photographs down to any particular reading. Although Grace may be consciously celebrating lesbian imagery, there is no single ubiquitous female gaze that excludes heterosexuals but a range of possibilities for spectatorship offered by photographs. Despite the collections same-sex pairings the images do not challenge or resist the male viewer. In fact, as far as gay male viewers go, their pleasure in the images is, for Grace, a welcome outcome. Grace’s subsequent collection ‘Lesbian Boys and Other Inverts’ (21), represented cross-dressing and emphasised the androgyny of the lesbian figures to construct a pleasure in viewing that foregrounds a homoerotic reading and a queer, rather than lesbian or gay, affinity. In a review of ‘Love Bites’, journalist Paul Burston explored the possibility that Grace’s photographs could be taken up as erotic icons for gay men as well as lesbians:

‘Could it be that gender-bending traditions of both our communities, coupled with the disruption of gender-norms through parody (the masquerade of exaggerated masculinity, the fetish of extreme femininity) have led to the creation of a realm of erotic fantasy wherein sexual and gender boundaries can be crossed? Could we be talking about the possibility of a shared homoerotic space?’ (22)

Indeed, if we engage with the notion that identities are constructed fictions, we could ask what’s the difference between a ‘lesbian boy’ and a ‘gay man’ in terms of the transvestism of the spectator? If none of the examples is authentic, if all identities are alienated and fictional, how can we differentiate parody, camp and imitation? In this sense, does it matter what genitalia are behind the performance as to whether the performance is camp or not? I would suggest, queerly, that it does not.

Self Made Men: Diane Torr / Danny King

‘Feminists may have been writing about sexual difference since the seventies, but to

actually physicalise and perform gender is completely different.’ (23)

Diane Torr, 1995

My first recollection of the term ‘drag king’ being used was when American performance artist Diane Torr came to Britain to run Drag workshops for women. Although Torr herself had been using male drag in her performances, she got the ides for the workshops after a photo session with post-porn queen Annie Sprinkle, when, having walked the streets in drag, she was shocked to realise that she passed in the crowd and even her friends did not recognise her. She subsequently decided to combine the tradition of drag as a stylised performance with the demands set up by the realities of the street. Participants are required to cross over from camping it up to passing as men in a public space, thus taking on the creation of a male persona.

Though it may appear new and radical, nineties urban gender-bending is only the latest in a long history of gender transformations. Women have been cross-dressing for centuries. Their reasons for doing so are various: a desire for financial independence, a life of freedom, sexual relations with other women, and others that historians are beginning to disentangle. Valerie R. Hotchkiss in her book on female cross-dressing in Mediaeval Europe, claims that female transvestism was a common historical phenomenon, discussing figures such as Jeanne d’Arc, Pope Joan and Hildegund von Schonau who lived as a monk. Hotchkiss claims that boundaries between genders blurred long before the ‘modern’ era, if, in fact, they ever were clear. (24)

Unlike now, however, there were no drag workshops. ‘Have you ever wanted to dress as a man, try on a male guise and enter the male domain?’ asks Torr in the ads for her ‘Drag King For A Day workshops’. A stream of housewives, artists, straight, lesbian, young and old, sign up for Torr’s classes. The first thing Torr tells them, is to ‘stop apologising’, then over one afternoon they learn how to construct a penis, bind their breasts, sit with their legs open and ‘take up space’. They then have to go to a bar to put it all into practice.

Torr’s project involves working on a set of stylised behaviours. To do this, she feels, it is necessary to start with stereotypes, claiming, ‘every man has a part of the stereotype, otherwise he wouldn’t be a man’. Torr’s most recent show was called ‘Drag Kings and Subjects’, a multi-media romp that features several well-honed male personas. One such persona swaggering Danny King is an amalgamation of Torr’s family; powerful, slick and authorative. Another character is Jack Sprat, a parody based on the real ‘king of the mods’.

Torr claims that passing as a man may have startling results, as cross-dressed women instantly find themselves in a parallel reality of male privilege. She claims that for some women she knows, cross dressing has been adopted as a strategy for finding a job or fixing a business deal, ‘Women have a curiosity about the sense of entitlement granted to a man, just by virtue of his gender.’ When asked how far she thinks that passing may be relevant to a radical politics of gender, Torr replied, ‘I don’t see any of this as permanent. After you’ve learned the behaviour, you may then have the courage to have some slippage and deal with the consequences. If you stop being firmly rooted in one gender, you will demand from your audience a certain tactic of navigation.’ She sees that the experience gained in one of her workshops as a first step towards this goal of gender-bending. ‘The questioning of gender is in and of itself valid. I think we can eventually come to a place where we can get rid of this garbage that we have accumulated and this is what the transgendered community are doing.’ (25) Yet there is clearly a difference between those who drag-up occasionally and transsexuals. When Torr was asked whether she would consider cross-dressing full time, she replied ‘No!’ and through this refusal clearly marked her distance from transgender which is something I will return to later.

Taking tips from Torr’s workshop advice and having seen other drag artists in action, for instance ‘Trash’, I decided to drag-up myself and persuaded a few friends along the way. The aim in doing so was firstly to provide Ming with subjects for the photographs, and secondly to to see if we could, like Torr, ‘pass’ as men

Performing Ourselves:

‘A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman's garment; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God.’

Deuteronomy 22:5 (26)

His moustache and goatie define his mouth with groomed precision. His brown hair slicked back falls casually just below his ears. His gaze is confident and extremely seductive; he’s already made eye contact with at least two women and three men and we’ve only been in the bar for twenty minutes. As he fixes his gaze on me, we make eye contact for several seconds, but the moment is ruined as a smirk turns into a giggle. This is Pierre, olive skinned and extremely handsome. This is also Lisa, a community arts adviser for West Midland Arts and my housemate. She leans over and tells me that she thinks that she’s just pulled another man and the glint in her eyes tells me she’s loving every minute of her performance.Cooper 6.JPG (37605 bytes)

I do sympathise for anyone in either of the two Birmingham gay bars myself, four friends and photographer Ming de Nasty visited one Sunday evening in November 1996. Picture five women in suits and beards walking around Birmingham trying to ‘pass’ as men. It is difficult to tell, but at least three of us succeeded for most of the evening to stay in character and two of us ‘pulled’, the rest of us went away having learnt something from the experience. It took nearly two years of thinking about it for me to finally drag-up, about two months of organisation, and a few cans of lager, to convince four friends to do it with me.

So one Sunday afternoon, while photographer Ming de Nasty set up a studio in my flat, the five of us set about transforming ourselves into men. I think we all shocked ourselves with the enthusiasm and ease with which we proceeded to settle into our suits and build our characters, an ease which was made all the more extraordinary by the fact that three of us had never done this before. This process and ease, I believe, is reflected on film (27) where the transformation is shown. Within half an hour, we had all donned suits, sideburns and beards, two of us had even gone to the extent of making dicks out of flour, water and condoms. Having all become absorbed by the spectacle of our transformation, we proceeded to help each other define our personas. I had already decided on mine. For some reason wearing a suit and a goatie had made me extremely camp in a gay male sense, thus I became ‘Marc, set designer’. Clare became ‘Juan, and I seduce women’, Lisa became ‘Pierre’ a dancer, Sam remained ‘Sam, office boy’ and Sarah, already in character, just looked hard and scowled when asked his name (which was Toby). Cooper 7.JPG (36089 bytes)We were then photographed in various macho (and in my case camp) poses. It might seem strange, given that what queer is suggesting is the fluidity of gender, that we should go for such rigid and stereotypical versions of gender. The reasons behind this were that we needed to see a substantial and physical change in our appearance in order to get into character. Just as Torr’s project discussed above involves starting with stereotypes, our attempt had no shortage of (unsavoury) caricatures: A virile South American, an extremely effeminate gay man, a cute closeted office boy, a silent, moody gangster and a suave, flirtatious European. All of us grabbed our crotches more than once, the male facade giving us a licence to be bad, flirtatious and the centre of attention. (28)

Paul Burston’s earlier notion of a ‘shared homoerotic space’ is actually substantiated here when both Sarah as Toby and Lisa as Pierre are ‘cruised’ by gay men, not knowing (or not caring) that underneath the suit is a biological ‘female’. Lisa’s and Sarah’s experience, as expressed on video, was of an increased confidence to make eye contact and flirt. Their altered gender and persona allowed them both to act in a way that they would not normally. Even myself, who was the least convincing due to the fact that at the time I had blonde plaited hair, in a bold moment managed to go unnoticed in the gents toilets. The evening, then,had been a success: for different lengths of time and at different stages, we had all ‘passed’.

Cross Sexual Act: ‘Hairy O’Mara’

‘Maybe we’re not looking at the right people’, states Ming crouching down outside Holborn tube station. It’s already been ‘one of those days’ - Ming, accidentally, went into the men’s toilets at the tube station eliciting some minor amusement from a couple, while I had nearly broken my neck trying to balance a video camera and some of Ming’s equipment on an escalator whilst wearing five inch platforms. We’re awaiting Julie McNamara, a performance artist whose act incorporates drag. Julie was the only drag king to reply to my misworded advert in ‘Diva’. ‘Maybe we should look at the men as well, just in case she’s in drag!’ Ming laughs, but we both know full well that she could be right. From our own experiences in Birmingham, she could pass us by unnoticed. Yet Julie’s drag is very different from the kind we had performed. Rather than attempting to ‘pass’ as a man to show the fragility of gender, Julie prefers to critique gender by parodying it in such a way that it becomes hilarious and therefore absurd.

Julie launched her ‘Life’s A Drag!’ act at PRIDE in 1995 where she goes onstage as ‘herself’ and then drags up in front of the audience and then does a ‘double switch’ and drags up as a man dragging up as a woman. The final result, as you can see on film and in the photo’s, is a parody of a very bad drag queen. Julie is quite convincing as a drag king, but her failed drag queen aims to expose the charade of what it is to be female or feminine. It is argued that it is this kind of ‘incomplete’ gender performance that is most critical.

Esther Newton in ‘Mother Camp’ (29), distinguishes between the transvestite and the cross-dresser. The transvestite attempts to pass as a member of the opposite sex while the cross-dresser exaggerates the opposite sex’s assumed gender codes to appear obviously, inadequately disguised. The male cross-dresser appears not as a woman but as a man in woman’s clothing. Sometimes obvious male characteristics, such as a hairy chest or even a beard, contribute to a subversive and contradictory play of signification. Building on this, Rachel Fensham has argued that cross-dressing and gender parody is not always critical. She claims that Dame Edna Everage, the character performed by cross-dresser Barry Humphries, reinforces rather than disturbs gender binaries. This is because, Fensham claims, Humphries does not allow his status as a man in charge to be questioned by the audience. She contends that while transvestism can undermine the notion of a true or original sex, thereby exposing the inevitably artificial and restrictive nature of gender identity, not all gender parody is ‘troubling’. The transvestite performer, as in the case of Barry Humphries, may reproduce, impersonate and exaggerate the feminine in a way that is seductive but not unsettling of gender norms.

Fensham suggests that it is only instances of ‘incomplete performance’ that can be seen as transgressive. Those that ‘create and expose key elements of an idealised femininity, while simultaneously destabilising the notion of a cohesive and controlling male identity behind the feminine mask.’ (30) She cites ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ (1994) as an example of incomplete performance, since the protagonists are for the most part not trying to usurp the role and position of women or indeed ‘pass’ as women in any convincing way. She claims that it is imperfections in gender performance which can expose the fictions of gender identity: ‘...bodies can resist the seduction of imitation by questioning what is already an image, a mask or a reflection of gender, by undoing the performative acts of gender as opposed to constructing genders.’

Like Torr, Julie McNamara distances herself from transsexuals by suggesting that wanting to change your biological sex comes from ‘a confused position’. ‘Transgender’ has evolved into a way of identifying a whole group of people whose gender manifestation does not fit convention. This has come to include female-to-male and male-to-female transsexuals, transvestites, women who bind their breasts and ‘pack’, women who have had a double mastectomy but have no desire for a phallus, men who dress and live as women without making bodily changes, lesbians who take testosterone to increase their sex drive and other ‘masculine’ characteristics, and transvestite men with wives and children. Yet the currents underscoring the sometimes tenuous alliance of temporary cross-dressers with transsexuals needs to be addressed. While we attempted to ‘pass’ to show the social constructedness of gender, and Julie McNamara parodied gender in order to expose its incredibility - those who have had a sex change or inhabit a so called ‘third sex’ or ‘third space’, which includes those who are not happy identifying - physically, mentally or socially - as either women or men; live and breath the contradictions of gender every day.

(Some) Conclusions

...In my view queer practice, ie. camp, is a critical manoeuvre not limited to sexualities, but is one that has valuable applications for marginal social identities in general. Rather than the inherent solidarity implied within identity politics and the categories of ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘bisexual’ or ‘heterosexual’, the recognition of construction in the composed affinities of queer suggests, instead, indetermination, fluidity and contradiction. The value here is queer’s recognition of the incompleteness and instability of social identities. Queer aims to resist the cultural homogenisation of lesbian and gay lives and lifestyles, it demands the right to retain difference as well as equality.

Queer presents a radical challenge to the entire concept of an identity based on sexual orientation or desire because the substitution of a performative, discontinuous Self for one based on the unique individual, actually displaces and voids the concept of sexual orientation by removing the epistemological frames that stabilise such identifications. Queer sexualities become a series of improvised performances whose threat lies in the denial of any social identity derived from participation in those performances. This includes the denial of the difference upon which such identities have been founded. Meyer claims that it is precisely in the space of this refusal, in the deconstruction of the homo/hetero binary, that ‘the threat and challenge to bourgeois ideology is queerly executed’. (31)

Often the notion of queer is dismissed as being transgressive for its own sake, rather than appraised for its ability to destabilise boundaries of sexual definition. As I have shown, I do not consider play and performance to be necessarily subversive or transgressive; rather, performative acts can both expose and conceal binary relationships. For me queer is at most radical when it forces us to investigate how homosexuality defines itself. What it suggests is that these definitions are no longer adequate to describe our expanding sexual orthodoxies. The question that drag performance artist Trash asks - ‘who’s the man? Who’s the woman?...Who cares?’ says a lot. How exactly queer and camp parodic practices like those discussed above might effect social change demands an examination of how its subversive meanings can be articulated and sustained in a hegemonic heteronormative culture bent on assimilation or eradication. This seems to be a crucial question if, as De Lauretis argues, change is not possible ‘without altering the existing social relations and the heterosexual structures to which our society, and most others, are securely screwed’ (32) ...

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  1.     Thomas A. King ‘Performing "Akimbo" Queer pride and epistemological prejudice.’ in M. Meyer (ed), ‘The politics and Poetics of Camp’London Routledge,1994
  2.      Morril, Cynthia ‘Revamping the Gay Sensibility’ in M. Meyer (ed) 1994 p119
  3.     T. Drewel ‘The Camp Trace in Corporate America: Liberace and the Rockettes and Radio City Music Hall’, in M. Meyer (ed) 1994
  4.     Kleinhans ‘Taking Out the Trash: Camp and the Politics of Parody’, in M. Meyer (ed) 1994
  5.     Ibid. p. 188
  6.     Paula Graham ‘Girl’s Camp? The Politics of Parody’ in T. Wilton ‘Immortal Invisible’ 1995 London: Routledge p.163
  7.     Ibid. p168
  8.     Ibid. p180
  9.     Meyer, 1994, p.5
  10.     Paula Graham ‘Girl’s Camp? The Politics of Parody’ in Wilton, T 1995
  11.     Esther Newton ‘Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America’ University of Chicago Press, 1979 p.xx
  12.     Ibid. p.5 n.i3
  13.     Kate Davy ‘Fe/male Impersonation. The Discourse of Camp’ in M. Meyer, 1994 p.133
  14.     Peter Ackroyd ‘Dressing Up: Transvestism and Drag: The History of an Obsession’ New York: Simon and Schuster 1979 p. 102
  15.     Case, Sue-Ellen ‘Towards a Butch-Femme Aesthetic’ in L. Hart (ed), ‘Making A Spectacle, Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women’s Theatre’, University of Michigan Press. 1989
  16.     Kate Davy, 1994 p.143
  17.     Margaret Thompson Drewel, 1994, p.149
  18.     See video for a clip of this sketch
  19.     Smith, Anna Marie ‘Outlaws as Legislators: Feminist Anti Censorship Politics and Queer Activism.’ in Harwood, V et al (eds) ‘Pleasure Principles: Politics, Sexuality and Ethics.’ Lawrence and Wishart: London, 1993
  20.     Reina Lewis ‘Dis-Graceful Images: Della Grace and Lesbian Sado-Masochism’, Feminist Review, no 46, Spring 1994. p. 76-91
  21.     Grace, Della ‘Lesbian Boys and Other Inverts’ in Harwood, V et al (eds) ‘Pleasure Principles: Politics, Sexuality and Ethics.’ Lawrence and Wishart: London, 1993
  22.     Capital Gay, 21 June 1991, p.17
  23.     Diane Torr in ‘Diva’ Feb/Mar 1995 p.42
  24.     Valerie R. Hotchkiss ‘Clothes Make the Man: Female Cross Dressing in Mediaeval Europe’. Garland Publishing inc. London, 1996 p.9
  25.     Diane Torr ‘Diva’ 1995
  26.     This was quoted to me by a preacher at a church service after my step mother had expressed her exacerbation that she could not get me to wear a dress. I never attended again.
  27.     Available from the Department of Cultural Studies and Sociology
  28.     Sarah and I, having dragged-up again for another photo shoot at a later date, felt less of a need for such extreme versions of gender, going instead for a cool, casual, androgynous appearance. Having had longer to prepare this time around, we had deeded that in order to look believable, we needed to be more relaxed and natural. On film, Sarah tells us that people find it hard to place her because of her androgyny. To a lesser extent than Sarah, I do get mistaken for a boy, so for this shoot we decided to just sway that ambiguity more toward ‘maleness’ by wearing some facial hair. We lost the suits and brought our ‘men’ into the cool and casual nineties.
  29.     Esther Newton, ‘Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America’ University of Chicago Press, 1979 p.97-111
  30.     Fensham, Rachel ‘Transvestophilia and Gynemimesis: Performative Strategies and feminist Theory’ in ‘Cultural Studies’ Vol 10 Number 3 Oct 1996, P.491
  31.     Moe Meyer ‘The Politics and Poetics of Camp’ London: Routledge 1994 p.3
  32.     Teresa De Lauretis ‘Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction.’ Indiana University Press 1987 p. 21



Ackroyd, Peter ‘Dressing Up: Transvestism and Drag: The History of an Obsession’ NewYork: Simon and Schuster 1979

Babuscio, Jack ’Camp and the Gay Sensibility’ in Dyer, Richard (Ed) ‘Gays and Film’ BFI Publishing, London 1980

Bell, David and Valentine, Gill eds. ’ Mapping Desire’ Routledge: London, 1995

Bell, Diane and Klein, Renate (eds.) ‘Radically Speaking. Feminism Reclaimed’ Zed Books: London 1996

Butler, Judith ‘Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Gender’ Routledge: London, 1990.

Butler, Judith ‘Imitation and Gender Insubordination’ in Diana Fuss, (ed.) ‘Inside/Out : Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories.’ London: Routledge, 1991.

Butler, Judith ‘Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex’ Routledge: London 1993

‘Capital Gay’, 21 June 1991

Case, Sue-Ellen ‘Towards a Butch-Femme Aesthetic’ in L. Hart (ed), ‘Making A Spectacle, Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women’s Theatre’, University of Michigan Press. 1989

Davy, Kate ‘Fe/male Impersonation. The Discourse of Camp’ in Meyer, M ‘The Politics and Poetics of Camp’ Routledge: London, 1994

De Lauretis, Teresa ‘Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction.’ Indiana University Press 1987

De Lauretis, Teresa in the introduction to ‘Queer Theory’ issue of ‘differences: a journal of feminist cultural studies’ 1991

Dyer, Richard ‘It’s Being So Camp That Keeps Us Going’ Body Politic 10, 1977

Epstein, Steven ‘A Queer Encounter’ in Steven Seidman ed. ‘Queer Theory/Sociology’ Blackwell Publishers, 1996

Fensham, Rachel ‘Transvestophilia and Gynemimesis: Performative Strategies and Feminist Theory’ in ‘Cultural Studies’ Vol 10 Number 3 Oct 1996

Fuss, Diana ‘Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature, and Difference.’ London: Routledge 1989

Garber, Marjorie ‘Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety’ Routledge: London, 1992

Grace, Della ‘Love Bites’ ´London: GMP, 1991

Grace, Della ‘Lesbian Boys and Other Inverts’ in Harwood, V et al (eds) ‘Pleasure Principles: Politics, Sexuality and Ethics.’ Lawrence and Wishart: London, 1993

Graham, Paula ‘Girls Camp? The Politics of Parody’ in Tamsin Wilton (Ed) ‘Immortal Invisible - Lesbians and the Moving Image’ Routledge: London 1995

Hotchkiss, Valerie R. ‘Clothes Make the Man: Female Cross Dressing in Medieval Europe.’ Garland publishing, inc. London, 1996

King, Thomas A. ‘Performing "Akimbo" Queer pride and epistemonlogical prejudice.’ in M. Meyer (ed), ‘The politics and Poetics of Camp’ London: Routledge,1994

Kleinhans, Chuck ‘Taking Out the Trash: Camp and the Politics of Parody’, in M. Meyer (ed) ‘The Politics and Poetics of Camp.’ London: Routledge, 1994

Lewis, Reina ‘Dis-Graceful Images: Della Grace and Lesbian Sado-Masochism’, Feminist Review, no 46, Spring 1994

Massey, Doreen ‘Space, Place and Gender’ Polity Press, 1994

McKee, Alan ‘Review’, Screen, vol.34, no.1, Spring 1993

Meyer, Moe (ed) ‘The Politics and Poetics of Camp.’ Routledge: London, 1994

Newton, Esther ‘Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America’ University of Chicago Press, 1979

Reich, June L. ‘Genderfuck: The Law of the Dildo’ in ‘Discourse’ 15.1, 1992 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky ‘Tendencies’ Routledge: London, 1994

Sontag, Susan ’Notes on "Camp"’ in’ Against Interpretation and other Essays’ Eyre & Spottiswoode London 1967

Sontag, Susan ‘On Photography’ London, 1977

Straayer, Chris ‘Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies. Sexual Re-orientations in Film and Video.’ Columbia University Press New York, 1996

Thompson, M.D. ‘The Camp Trace in Corporate America: Liberace and the Rockettes and RadioCity Music Hall’, in M. Meyer (ed) ‘The Politics and Poetics of Camp.’ Routledge: London, 1994

‘Vanity Fair’ August 1993

Wilkinson, Sue and Kitzinger, Celia ‘The Queer Backlash’ in Diane Bell and Renate Klein eds. ‘Radically Speaking. Feminism Reclaimed’ Zed Books: London 1996


Programme / Videography

‘Central Weekend’ Central Television, 14th Feb, 1997

‘Drag King’ C4, 1996

‘French and Saunders’, BBC1, 1996

‘Victor/Victoria’. Blake Edwards, U.S. 1982

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