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What Is Drag?
Drag is a gender-bending art form in which a person dresses in clothing and makeup meant to exaggerate a specific gender identity, usually of the opposite sex.
While drag’s main purpose has been for drag performance and entertainment, it is also used as self-expression and a celebration of LGBTQ+ pride. A typical drag show will include lip-syncing or dance, and performers often have elaborate clothing, hair, and makeup.
What Is the History of Drag?
Drag has deep roots in Western culture, specifically in theatre when women weren’t permitted to perform on stage so men would play female roles. Drag performers were featured as far back as ancient Greece and carried on through Shakespearean times.
In the nineteenth century, female impersonators began to use the medium as a performative art, especially in vaudeville shows. In the 1880s, the first drag queen, William Dorsey Swann, hosted drag balls at his home. By the early twentieth century, drag was tied to the LGBTQ+ community—a community that was marginalized in the United States—and it was no longer part of popular mainstream entertainment. Instead, performances became a major aspect of city nightlife, especially in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City.
After the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City and through the 1990s, gay culture and gay pride built mainstream support, and with that came popular drag culture as well. Films like the documentary Paris Is Burning, which chronicled African American ball culture in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood in the late 1980s, and The Birdcage, a comedy about a gay couple who run a drag cabaret in Miami’s South Beach neighborhood, helped bring drag into mainstream American culture.
How Did Drag Become Mainstream?
In the twenty-first century, drag culture is a pop-culture phenomenon. Drag is especially popular because of the reality competition TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race. On the show, contestants lip-synch, walk runways, do celebrity impersonations, design and create custom outfits, and more—all to compete to be crowned as the best drag show performer. The show also serves as a platform to highlight issues in the drag community; for instance, in Drag Race season one, a contestant discussed their HIV-positive diagnosis.
Iconic drag divas from the show include Sasha Velour, Shangela, Alyssa Edwards, Katya, Bianca Del Rio, Trixie Mattel, Courtney Act, and Alaska. Other popular drag queen shows and events include DragCon, RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, Wigstock, Drag Queen Story Hour, and drag brunch events.
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