American Drag, Unshackled

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Little Richard: I Am Everything, Lisa Cortes, dir. 2023, screenshot

Friends of Georges, Inc. v. Steven Mulroy, Shelby County District Attorney (Memphis)

On June 3, Federal District Court judge Thomas L. Parker in Memphis, struck down the state’s new Adult Entertainment Act. The measure, also known as the “drag ban”, forbids “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest.” Though the ruling was limited to Shelby County, the decision is likely to lead to more court challenges across the state and eventual invalidation of the ban, which was signed into law by Governor Bill Lee in March.

The 70 page ruling by Judge Parker, a Trump appointee, began with an expansive definition of free speech:

“Freedom of speech is not just about speech. It is also about the right to debate with fellow citizens on self-government, to discover the truth in the marketplace of ideas, to express one’s identity, and to realize self-fulfillment in a free society.”

Parker went on to argue that the drag ban was an “unconstitutional restriction on the freedom of speech” that “reeks with…maladies of vagueness.” Continuing in the same vein, he said that though some restrictions on speech were constitutionally valid [defamation, false advertising, true threats etc], they must be “content-neutral,” not privileging one perspective over another. The AEA, however, did just that in seeking to prohibit drag. His example was pure Memphis, pure Graceland:

“Assume an individual, who identifies as male, holds a guitar and wears an ‘Elvis Presley’ costume that is revealing without being legally obscene…it is unclear if that person would violate the AEA….But if a person who identifies as a female wore the same Elvis costume and engaged in the same performance, she would clearly be a ‘male impersonator.’ The AEA is viewpoint discriminatory in that it will more likely punish the latter [drag] but not the former for wearing the same costume and conducting the same performance.”

Tennessee Republicans from the governor on down sputtered, fulminated, and vowed to appeal the judge’s ruling, but their protestations are likely to be in vain because the free speech argument is so strong. Other Republican-led states too have introduced or passed similar laws, including Florida, whose drag ban was ratified by Governor Ron DeSantis in May. (A federal judge in Orlando indicated last week he is poised to strike down the Florida law; a ban on gender care for minors is also likely to be overturned.) If these provisions are indeed revoked, a rich and venerable current in American culture and society may be unshackled in the very places it seemed most at risk. Let a thousand pansies bloom!

Drag Performance in the Eisenhower years

The idea that drag, defined as the exaggerated performance of gender, is as American as apple pie, would appall bigots in the states rushing to criminalize it. But even in the mid 1950s, the supposed heyday of family values and rock-ribbed Republicanism, drag thrived in mainstream and underground venues alike.

In April 1953, during the height of the “Lavender Scare,” President Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10450 banning employment by the U.S. Government of anyone engaged in “criminal, infamous, dishonest, immoral, or notoriously disgraceful conduct, habitual use of intoxicants to excess, drug addiction, [and] sexual perversion.” The last prohibition was aimed at queer communities. The result was the dismissal of thousands of homosexual and trans federal employees, and hundreds of thousands more queer people across the country after state and local governments passed copycat laws. And yet drag continued to thrive, perhaps more than ever before. In 1954, the comedian Jack Benny performed in drag on his popular TV show. Impersonating Gracie Allen (half of the Burns and Allen comedy duo), he exaggerated his own stereotyped queer persona — limp wrist, folded arms, and hand caressing mouth – by wearing a tight black dress, high heels, a curled wig, make up, gloves and a fox fur. Benny was not, by all accounts, either gay or trans, but his performances sometimes suggested he was.

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George Burns and Jack Benny, The Jack Benny Show, CBS Television, April 11, 1954, screenshot

The most common explanation of drag humor of that era is that men laughed because no man in his right mind would want to be a woman, while women laughed to cover up shame at their own debasement. There’s some truth to the propositions; it was a period when middle-class, straight men tried to re-assert dominance in the workplace and at home, even as women’s workforce participation rate and economic power – which accelerated during the war — continued to rise. But the Jack Benny episode at least, belies the story of drag as female disempowerment. Though Gracie is absent from most of the broadcast, she’s its motive force. Her nonchalant pursuit of a recommended “Denver sandwich” (a kind of Western omelet) — in Denver! — meant Jack had to sub for her on his show. That simple gag about Gracie’s absence underlines the source of her power: By virtue of her literalism — her rejection of “contextual disambiguation,” as the anthropologist Susan Seizer described it to me – she wins every argument; she always controls the discourse. Jack Benny’s version of Gracie – his drag — allows us to see that authority, undisguised by clichés of female ditziness.

Other mainstream drag humor of the period, for example that of Jerry Lewis, Bob Hope and Sid Cesar is less transgressive, perhaps even misogynistic. Milton Berle, however, who probably appeared in drag more than any other American comic of the period, is a complex case. The frequent lubricity of his comedy – accentuated by his personal reputation for randiness – gave his drag an erotic edge. His 1959 performance as Auntie Mildred (the trans alter ego of his trademark Uncle Miltie) on the Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, showcased his impersonation of Marilyn Monroe: batted eyelashes, breathy voice, pouty mouth, red lipstick, and beauty mark. But rather than sexist disparagement, we sense his desperate desire to please.

Near the end of Berle’s career, in 1993, the 85 year-old comedian appeared on an MTV awards show accompanied by the celebrity transvestite RuPaul. They were a funny pair. The 6’3” RuPaul in a slinky sequined gown and high heels was a foot taller than Berle. Their repartee was barbed, with testy ad libs by both. It culminated with a cue-card joke:

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Milton Berle as “Auntie Mildred on The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, Sept. 29, 1959. Screenshot.

Berle: You know, 40 years ago when I was regularly on television, I sometimes wore a gown like yours.”

RuPauL: So why did you give it up”

Berle: It was a drag.

That was the end, one might say, of the era when drag performances affirmed rather than transgressed stereotypical gender norms. But that denouement was foretold much earlier, and not just by Jack Benny impersonating Gracie Allen.

Little Richard and Marilyn Monroe

The two most flamboyant, successful, and innovative drag performers of the Eisenhower era – and cultural icons today — were Little Richard and Marilyn Monroe. The former alternated between men’s clothes (for example, a mohair zoot suit) and women’s clothes (capes, turbans, lame crop tops, brocade tunics and platform heels). In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, the young Little Richard (born in 1932 as Richard Wayne Penniman) performed in drag in Black minstrel and medicine shows across the South under the moniker “Princess LaVonne.” A little later, inspired by the openly gay bluesman Billy Wright, he began to sport his trademarked drag: pancake makeup, high pompadour, and pencil-thin mustache, and often, ostentatious, feminine clothes. Many years later, during one of his periodic renunciations of queer identity, he told a journalist from Jet that his drag was pure business: “I wore the makeup so that white men wouldn’t think I was after the white girls…. I figure if being called a sissy would make me famous, let them say what they want to.” At other times, however, he proudly called himself gay or trans — “the King and Queen of Rock and Roll.”

If Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” from 1955, was the first-born child of rock and roll, drag was their mother. The original lyrics to the song were as follows:

A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop a-good-Goddam!

Tutti Frutti, good booty
If it don’t fit, don’t force it
You can grease it, make it easy

Loving the boogie-woogie beat but recognizing the tune could never be recorded, Richard and a pair of collaborators cleaned it up, put it on acetate, and scored a hit:

Wop-bop-a loo-bop-a-lop-bom-bom

Tutti frutti, oh rootie
Tutti frutti, oh rootie
Tutti frutti, oh rootie….
I got a gal, named Sue, she knows just what to do
I got a gal, named Sue, she knows just what to do
She rock to the East, she rock to the West
But she’s the gal that I love best

Tutti Frutti, hey Rudi….

The song was punctuated with carefully timed and controlled screams, moans, cracked notes, and falsetto trills. Live performances of “Tutti Frutti,” along with other early hits including “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Lucille,” were riotous. Little Richard whirled like a dervish, pounded the piano keys with both hands and feet (and sometimes danced on the piano lid) and ripped off his shirt. A few times, police were called to stop his shows because of his semi-nudity or, in the South, violation of segregation laws. Other performers, including Elvis Presley and most notoriously Pat Boone, performed Little Richard’s songs without any of the queer theatrics — and achieved greater sales among white audiences. By the late ‘60s, during a more permissive era, many other rock, soul, and funk performers — James Brown, David Bowie, Elton John, Prince, and Michael Jackson — deployed drag as an essential part of their identities and performances.

The other most significant drag icon of the Eisenhower years was Marilyn Monroe. Born Norma Jeane Mortenson in 1926, in circumstances at least as humble as those of Little Richard, she devised a simultaneously innocent and hyper-sexualized persona, performing it with comic genius in about a dozen film. Inspired by the 1930s “blond bombshell” Jean Harlow, Monroe veritably invented the “female queen” – the drag queen who identifies as a woman — and was canonized for her efforts by mass culture (The Kinks and Elton John) and high art alike (Willem de Kooning and Andy Warhol).

In her 1950s films, including Gentlemen Prefer Blonds (1953), Bus Stop (1956) and Some Like it Hot (1959), Monroe highlighted the performance of gender. In the first of these, her character is an ingenuous gold digger whose avarice is backed by a strong ethic: just as men desire beauty as well as love in a partner, women require both wealth and affection. Near the end of the film, Jane Russell’s impersonation of Marilyn in a French courtroom (her meta-drag), include a crude rendition of Marilyn’s anthem “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.”

Marilyn Monroe, performing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” (music by Jule Styne and words by Leo Robin) in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, directed by Howard Hawks, 20th Century Fox, 1953, screenshot

In Bus Stop (1956), a filmed adaptation of a William Inge play, directed by Joshua Logan, Monroe plays Cherie, a burlesque performer worn out by men. When she’s seen singing “That Old Black Magic” by the sexually inexperienced cowboy Beauregard Decker, played by Don Murray, it’s love at first sight. Beauregard however, in an exaggerated performance of machismo, tries to rope and ride her like one of his poor rodeo animals. In the end, the cowboy learns that a woman requires respect as well as ardor, and Cherie finds out that some men are unconcerned about a woman’s reputation and can love unconditionally. The film concludes with a fine bit of symbolic cross-dressing. About to board the bus and ride off to shared happiness, Murray spies Cherie shiver from the cold and offers her his heavy, leather and fleece cowboy jacket, which she gratefully wears. Cherie then takes off her turquoise-blue silk scarf – the one she wore in her burlesque act — and wraps it around Beauregard’s neck. Both thereby acknowledge the fluidity of gender, though straight audiences at the time would probably just have called the scene cute.

Marilyn Monroe performing “That Old Black Magic,” (music by Harold Arlen and words by Johnny Mercer) in Bus Stop, directed by Joshua Logan, 20th Century Fox, 1956

Some Like it Hot, directed by Billy Wilder, is entirely about drag. It’s too well known to need summation, so suffice to say it’s about a pair of musicians – played by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon — who witness the St. Valentine’s Day massacre and disguise themselves as women to avoid getting killed by mobsters. They join a women’s jazz band of which the Monroe character is a member. Thus, the men in the film perform as women, while the women perform roles usually assigned to men. To be sure, there’s lots of heteronormativity along the way – the Curtis and Lemmon characters ogle and cozy up to the women (especially Cherie), but there are also moments of real gender confusion, including at the end when Lemmon goes off with the Joe E. Brown’s character.

The future of drag

As these few examples attest, drag is way too deeply enmeshed in American culture and social practice for it to be eliminated by legal fiat. From medicine shows to broadcast television, and from Black minstrelsy to Hollywood movies, it has been seen and enjoyed by people of all ages and generations. To be sure, there have been period when it has been suppressed and its adepts – many of them already marginalized for being gay – have suffered ostracism, beating, imprisonment and worse. But recent progress for LGBTQ rights have proven difficult to roll back. Indeed, recent court decisions, including a ruling by an Arkansas federal judge on June 20 striking down the state’s new law against gender transition care, are strong indications of more to come.

As in the Tennessee case, the law in Arkansas foundered on the grounds of “content neutrality” and equal protection. Judge James M. Moody said in his ruling: “The various claims underlying the state’s arguments that the act protects children and safeguards medical ethics do not explain why only gender-affirming medical care…is singled out for prohibition.” This case and others in Indiana and Louisiana, as well as those already mentioned in Florida and Tennessee, may eventually make it to the Supreme Court, but my guess is that by the time they does, the moral panic over drag performances and trans youth will have passed, and another will have taken its place.

Stephen F. Eisenman is emeritus professor at Northwestern University. His latest book, with Sue Coe, is titled “The Young Person’s Guide to American Fascism,” and is forthcoming from OR Books. He can be reached at