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On SNL, Drag Has Transcended Comedy as a Weapon Against Trump’s Brand of Masculinity

On SNL, Drag Has Transcended Comedy as a Weapon Against Trump’s Brand of Masculinity

Melissa McCarthy SNL

Female-to-male drag is not exactly new, but it’s application now feels important, if not entirely innovative.

Last night, Melissa McCarthy returned as press secretary Sean Spicer in the cold-open for Saturday Night Live. Spicer, in her portrayal, has been red-faced, and petty, a giant, wailing baby in an ill-fitting suit overdue for a nap. He was easily emasculated, and took everything personally. He was moderately successful in gaslighing the journalists, but mostly just confused himself and lost his cool.

McCarthy added a bit about Nordstrom dropping Ivanka Trump's products, showing off a bangle and even wearing a heel. She was followed by queer cast member Kate McKinnon as the new Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Trump's been uncharacteristically quiet on the matter, but apparently, the president was not amused. According to Politico, "It was Spicer's portrayal by a woman that was most problematic in the president's eyes, according to sources close to him. And the unflattering send-up by a female comedian was not considered helpful for Spicer's longevity in the grueling, high-profile job [...] 'Trump doesn't like his people to look weak,' added a top Trump donor."


The outrage is easy. It goes without saying that McCarthy's performance gestured powerfully toward the fragility of white masculinity. Trump was the first new president elected since The End of Men; a central preoccupation of his campaign and of his newly minted administration is a reaffirmation of white men's rights issues which are positioned as squarely opposed to, and under fire by, a progressive gender ethic. They think we're coming for them, and maybe they're right.

"Weak," as it were, is precisely the point, but is this the most effective way to make it? Is casting a woman in this role an ethical choice to combat sexist ideology? Or, does playing into stereotype only serve to reinforce it?

On Monday, Nick Offerman tweeted to Lorne Michaels, "please do Bannon next." Rosie O'Donnell agreed to take up the torch, and was met with anticipation by, it's fair to say, the entire Internet. While her reps have announced that there are no plans--yet--for her to play Bannon on the show, O'Donnell is the right candidate for the job, if only because Donald Trump is obsessed with her, but also because there's something uniquely compelling about women stepping in to lampoon this misogynistic administration.

On Wednesday, my fake uncle Jerry Saltz tweeted a composite image of Rosie O'Donnell as Steve Bannon, a dialectic of a meme. On Thursday, O'Donnell made it her profile picture on Twitter. The cognitive dissonance caused by the conflation of these two public figures, one who has been attacked and actively disempowered by the regime of the other, is almost too deliciously uncomfortable. Both people hold a diametric opposition to the other's ideology, but is there something humanizing about O'Donnell'swistful gaze as it is paired with Bannon's thoughtless stubble?

My fake auntie RuPaul says, "you're born naked, and the rest is drag." It can be said (and I have said it): the Trump administration is drag. This type of masculinity, one that grabs women by the pussy, one that judges Miss America pageants and gets into brawls at televised wrestling matches (please note: rich brawls are very different from poor brawls), is a calculated projection. A masculinity built around the spectacle of wealth -- gales of champagne laughter and cigar smoke fill the gilded, glowing room as well-paid Russian hookers piss on satin pillows -- is as performative as all those glorious Cher's out there wholeheartedly believing in life after love and serving it the fuck up. Can you hear them?

Drag within sketch comedy is not meant to be evaluated on the same realness metric that one would apply to "queer drag," as it were. Drag in sketch comedy is something of a one liner, a punchline in and of itself -- "A guy in a dress! L-O-L!" Punchline drag invites you to see the strings. It is perfected within the aesthetic logic of a platform like Saturday Night Live: the flimsy sets, the too-bright lights, the pancake makeup, the almost-good-enough wigs and prosthetics. It's pure tomfoolery meant to fool absolutely nobody. And, like a lot of things, it's great fun when it's done well, and deeply offensive the rest of the time.

Queer drag has a different preoccupation: It studies signifiers of femininity and amplifies them, making markers into memes, infinitely replicable and choreographed, obsessively studied. Feminist critiques of drag are compelling enough, if outdated, essentialist and, truly, lacking a sense of humor. Sure, this is fetishization, but it serves a higher goddess. Queer drag has the effect (whether intended or unintended) of undoing a culturally enforced gender binary. It does the same job as progressive feminist rhetoric; it just enters through a different door (or maybe, more appropriately, via a spotlit lift in the center of the stage). Queer drag has within its history an element of survival, a tactical preoccupation with "passing," if only as a performance.

Political impressions -- whether they bend gender or not -- drag power. The comedian has an important job: to pick up the mask, to channel the spirit of institutionalized power, and to turn ideology over in their (hopefully capable!) hands. It's a way of gaining access, of hearing how new words sound in the context of power. In troubled times, lampooning those in power is a process of subverting, processing, or potentially outsmarting PTSD. If you drag the monster, he can't hurt you anymore; take a small vial of the poison, "drink me," and grow much, much bigger. This too, is a form of exorcism.

Female-to-male drag is not exactly new, but it's application now feels important, if not entirely innovative. On the one hand, this is punchline drag. It seeks out cheap emasculation and is successful at it -- "Look! Spicer's a woman!" This is problematic. If the best we've got is to weaponize femininity in order to knock Trump's inner circle down by a few pegs, we are in trouble. On the other hand, if McCarty's impression makes Spicer appear "weak," it's only according to his definition of weakness, and to Trump's, and is therefore, something of a perfect trap.

Spicer's surliness, his gruff and indelicate dishonesty are all the more palpable in a drag context: If we've been conditioned to accept violent language when it comes from a man, we have also been conditioned to be shocked when it comes from a woman. The Trump ideology, therefore, can be heard more clearly this way.

Trump's preoccupation with O'Donnell comes, perhaps, from the fact that he has no use for her. She is queer, she is outspoken (in some ways as much as he is), she is not a conventionally attractive or femme woman, which is to say, she is a Rosie and not a Melania. O'Donnell represents a threat to someone like Steve Bannon, whose famously bigoted point of view doesn't allow for her humanity. To supplant his image with her own, to speak through Bannon's mouth, gives O'Donnell a talismanic power, if only as a performance: to inhabit, to live within, to break from the inside.

McCarthy and O'Donnell (if she does SNL) have the opportunity to queer the Trump administration, an administration that was built on deeply abusive misogynistic, homophobic, and racist rhetoric. The association built between them -- McCarthy and Spicer, McKinnon and Sessions, O'Donnell and Bannon -- may successfully serve as an opposition tactic more powerful than expected. This link is built around a kind of uncomfortable empathy: I am you, I am that which you fear the most. It may be an emasculation tactic, but only because it works. It offers a means to act through the traumatic elements of this election to beat the Trump administration at its own game, if only for fun.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff and Wayne Brady

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