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Gender, 'visual rebellion' and why identity is such a drag.

The days when drag queens were just gay guys who dressed up flamboyantly in women's clothes were such simple times. It seems pretty simple "flaming" gay man puts on a wig, heels and makeup and puts on a maudlin display of femininity.

We've all seen it through the "drag ball" in its most appropriated form, as the saccharine television production packaged and presented by RuPaul.

This is not to say that drag is not that. It most certainly does include gay men dressing up in female attire a the common notion of "drag." But it also includes women dressing in men's attire - as men. And nowadays, in Seoul especially, it also includes women dressing up as ... women. Confused yet? Well, here's a straightforward and concise explanation.

Two Saturdays ago was a total drag in Itaewon. Of course, it was fun and meaningful day for many in the first (likely annual) Seoul Drag Parade, the inaugural event of its particular kind in this country. But it was certainly a drag.

It also was the site of a lot of identity performance, with people showing out and off. It was an interesting event that demonstrated how identity is a social performance. And elegantly demonstrated that, by logical extension, gender is indeed a social construction that is quite separate from the meat of biological sex, which isn't the thing that indicates our social roles in terms of gender anyway, because I've never seen my friends' boobies and wee wees.

We interact with one another on the basis of social cues of dress, hairstyle and makeup and the like. It was interesting to see the social space of the drag parade quickly filled with a variety of people obviously engaged in identity performance and using the event as a comfortable way to express inner identity orientations that often would not find easy acceptance in everyday society.

In that particular sense, there was an apparent overlap with cosplay, which serves a similar social venting and expression function, albeit in the context of fan culture. Rohep Moonlight, a cisgender (displaying the same gender as one's "original"/biological sex) female drag queen, explains (and demonstrates) this quite well.

That cisgender female drag queens went to the Seoul Drag Parade and are accepted by the small but growing drag community here exemplifies the performed nature of identity. When scholar Judith Butler originally talked about identity being "performed," it was not to assert that performed identity is false or disingenuous but rather that it is purposefully put on with the same purpose that a man carefully adjusts his tie or assiduously shaves every morning (or cultivates a beard).

Despite not consciously thinking about social norms and rules, we all abide by them and work within the social program when we go to buy a pair of shoes, get our hair done, or even choose to sit in a certain way. While we may not be conscious of it, we are making choices bounded by rules and putting on a social display of adhering to them.

Butler's big point is that gender is not a static, default state but is actively maintained through specific, social acts of performance. One is not passively a gender, one does gender constantly. The state is actively argued and presented, not passively maintained.

In line with this explanation, Rohep Moonlight told me in a follow-up interview after the parade that drag today and in Korea is about (over) performing identity as a form of "visual rebellion." In other words, much of the activity at the Drag Parade was centered on violating social norms to make a point about them, and doing so in the realm of the visual, because it is important if you're looking to get the attention and understanding of an onlooker waiting for a bus.

From our conversations, Rohep outlined how girl drag utilizes traditional notions of female prettiness (e.g. heels, makeup and sexy attire) and goes past where the lines of accepted boundaries of appropriateness are drawn. For example, in Korean society, there are fairly strict rules about appropriate female dress and comportment, especially related to heels, makeup and attire. Doing those conservatively might enable categorization as a ideg(c)i i!i ("nice girl"). But if one takes the heel far higher than 3-5cm all the way up to a "slutty" 10cm, and cakes on heavy, garish makeup and then blows the look out of the water with a green, shiny and short cocktail dress, it still conforms to societal standards of female beauty, but at the overly sexy and socially unacceptable end of the scale.

The point is that anyone can do this a whether cisgender male or female a and a lot of people took the opportunity in the drag parade to violate social rules in just this kind of way a actually in a variety of ways and on a lot of levels a to make a lot of social points. And one additional lesson from visual rebels like Rohep can be taken from the necessity of wearing a mask to be able to safely engage in drag as a cisgender woman in Korea, which is a case in point of just how rigid these gender rules still are for woman even today in Korea.

In terms of being part of a visual rebellion, probably more self-consciously, socially rebellious is the case of the high school drag queen Sura the Drag. Sura is a "baby queen" who just started out after learning of the existence of drag itself as a perfomative practice, as a thing at all. Utilizing the idea accelerant and learning tools of Twitter, Instagram and especially YouTube, Sura learned to navigate the practice of drag and got the basics down before starting to develop her own drag identity. And, most importantly - got good at makeup.

In the end, Sura and Rohep are good examples of the whole new world available for young Koreans in terms of being exposed to an international marketplace of ideas that get filtered through Korean concerns and domestic/local needs.

Analytically speaking, the drag community is a subculture fostered and enabled by glocalization, a process in which global standards/practices/processes are reinterpreted through local lenses and filters, and sometimes (but not always) bounce back harder and stronger into the world.

A good example is that of K-pop, which is an amalgamation and remixing of genres outside Korea that marks itself as Korean in its manner of remixing. Or Korean street fashion, which is receiving quite a bit of attention in global fashion media and is also an ongoing masterpiece of stylistic and cultural appropriation, remixing and re-creation that is bouncing back across the world through decentralized social media that feeds buzz enough to attract the attention of traditional media, which then names the phenomenon as the next big sensation.

An even easier example of Glocalization Gone GlobalS would be if McDonald's Korea's serviceable but underwhelming Bulgogi Burger caused such an culinary sensation in Korea that tourists started coming to Korean Mickey D's to taste them before bringing the fever for the flavor back home and demanding the adoption of the Bulgogi Burger in LA, Idaho and NYC. Not everyone would like it, some would despise it, and a special few would refuse to eat anything else. Which would sound just about like K-pop does now.

So the interesting question remains a just what will the next glocalized subculture success story be? Korean street fashion is the most recent, while K-pop and Korean cinema are certainly safer examples. Might it be Korean swing dancing/lindyhop, in which Koreans are now known for being its most apt pupils? (Korea has now become a big destination among swing dancers outside Korea as the best place to learn it.) Or might it be Korea that takes the globalizing drag world by storm and legitimizes it as a more mainstream art form,"RuPaul's Drag Race" notwithstanding?

Stranger things have happened. "Star Trek" became mainstream. Nerds became cool. Korean rapper PSY became a global superstar and was on Ellen and danced with MC Hammer. Who knows if (Korean) drag performers will become a new, trendy way to open concerts and shows, or some practice like it that we can't even imagine today?

As a visual sociologist interested in glocal subcultures in Korea, it's my job to keep an eye on interesting communities and their leaders while trying to make academic sense of it all. Which is why you might want to keep an eye on interesting cultural and community formations in Korea, one of the hottest places in the world right now.

CREDITS

Drag queens who helped with this story and whom you follow on Instagram to know more:

Heezy Kim Yang (Instagram @hurricanekimchi and @heezyyang)

Hoso Hailey Satan (Instagram @hosohaileysatan)

Rohep Moonlight (Instagram @rohepmoonlight)

Sura the Drag (Instagram @ sura_the_drag)

Dr. Michael Hurt (@kuraeji on Instagram) is a photographer and professor living in Seoul. He received his doctorate from UC Berkeley's Department of Ethnic Studies and started Korea's first street fashion blog in 2006. He researches youth, subcultures and street fashion at as a research professor at the University of Seoul and also writes on visual sociology and cultural studies at his blog and book development site Deconstructing Korea.
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Publication:The Korea Times News (Seoul, Korea)
Geographic Code:9SOUT
Date:Jun 7, 2018
Words:1684
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