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Essay: Drag Queens’ Fascination with Disney Characters: Maleficent & Ursula

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Huizi (Angela) Yu

Professor De

English Composition 3 Lec 38

March 12 2018

Drag and Disney films

There are 23,900 video related to “drag Maleficent” on YouTube. Some shows make-up tutorials featuring the average Joe’s stunning transformation to this gracefully dangerous fairy; some are video recordings of drag queens, dressed in Maleficent’s signature tight leather suit while performing the scenes in Disney’s 2014 film “Maleficent” on stage; there was even one video about four different Maleficents in drag marching in Drag Parade 2014. Maleficent is not the first Disney character that receives widespread acclaim from the drag community. Ursula, the villainous sea witch who tricks Ariel into trading her voice in The Little Mermaid, also appears constantly on the stage of drag performances. What is the reason behind such fascination with Maleficent and Ursula in the drag community? It is quite easy to identify the physical resemblance between these two Disney antagonists and drag queens; but the physical similarities are not the only reason Maleficent and Ursula became the Drag Queens’ favorite; it’s also their voluntary demonstration of gender ambiguity and queerness, or rather, the ability to transcend binary gender boundaries that represent the essence of drag culture.

The Drag Culture and Female Persona:

When exploring the relationship between Drag culture and Disney characters, one must first fully acknowledge the history of drag as an art form. Initially designed to avoid female presence in sacred performances and religious ceremonies, female impersonators became the theatrical roots of drag culture. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that drag queens emerged, when these female impersonators developed caricatures of women outside of the original theater context. In the late 20th century, drag becomes a more visible part of arts and culture and is inextricably linked with the gay community. On stage drag performances usually include lip-syncing, live singing, and dancing of drag queens dressed in excessively feminine manners.

The unique female persona of each drag queen is the center of their image and identity. A successful drag queen persona is made of playful rudeness (Friedman & Jones, 2011), obnoxiousness (Taylor & Rupp, 2004), and unkind critical spirit (Friedman & Jones, 2011). They process of finding their inner drag queen often comes naturally. Connor Henderson ‘s stage persona “Kandyy Apple” made her debut the night Connor turned eighteen: “in black sequined high-low dress, black pumps and a red wig…. she naturally takes over the performance, dancing uncontrollably and grabbing dollars bills from enthusiastic onlookers. (thelittlerebellion)”.

In drag performances, there is an unquestionably strong emphasis on mocking hyperfemininity and ridiculing female gender stereotypes. This is achieved by portraying scathing caricatures through purposefully outlandish, often vulgar physical attires such as dramatic make-up, flamboyant costumes and high stiletto heels. These prominent feminine traits are combined with fundamentally masculine characteristics of angular bone structure, larger build and lower voice, creating a somewhat forceful and “monstrous” image that does not settle within either gender boundaries. This marks an essential difference between drag, transgender and transvestite. Unlike transgender individuals who live like a female and want to be more female, drag queens proudly embraces both gender at once.

Disney Movies and Drag:

Although not consciously introduced, drag elements in earlier Disney films are portrayed negatively. In the 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast, the theme of cross-dressing briefly appears as the Beast is getting ready to dance with Belle. After a meticulous grooming process, Beast is revealed in front of the mirror: his mustache neatly cured, hair delicately tied with a bow, and even his goatee carefully breaded. This intricate treatment of Beast’s hair resembles the drag queen’s process of preparing their wigs. However, this feminine style was deemed “stupid” and “over the top”. By snatching off the bow, Beast returns to his image of a manly muscular figure. Even though not explicitly introduced, cross-dressing and drag in Beauty and the Beast are depicted as a negative and “stupid” redundancy that can be easily cut off.

The drastic change in depiction of drag and cross-dressing came with the film Mulan. In order to fight the war for her disabled father, Mulan successfully disguises as a man and receives military training. Although she later prosecuted after the reveal of her true identity, she is able to redeem her reputation by fending China against the attack of the Huns.

Mulan voices the central belief in drag that physical appearance represents one’s identity and characters. After a complete process of cleaning, grooming, and make-up that required the effort of four women, Mulan was transformed into a traditional beauty with pale face, red lips, and thin waist. Her image as her graceful and feminine bride is approved by her mother and grandmother, who weeps tears of joy as she marches to the matchmaker’s house. Mulan’s family members’ happiness is evoked by Mulan’s body image, as if her appearance indicates her inner transformation from a clumsy maiden to an elegant bride. This confirms with the core value of drag, which is that by taking on feminine traits, one can also express previously invisible personalities under male persona.

Moreover, Mulan is evolutional because it depicts the gender itself as a performative act. It highlights the idea that gender is not an inherent set of traits, but rather it is performed (Ott and Mack 209). Because of gender’s performative nature, it can be learned and practiced. As Mulan prepares to enroll in military, she uses the sword to cut off her long hair and puts on her father’s armor. Mulan’s transformation was so successful that her horse does not recognize her initially. Before her first day of training, she was instructed by Mushu to do the “war-face”, an aggressive facial expression that makes Mulan the “tough-looking-warrior” that blends in with the troop. In the song “I’ll make a man out of you”, which served as background music as General Shang first trained the soldiers, the lyrics indicates the specific behavior codes that a man should follow: Be a man/We must be swift as the coursing river/Be a man/With all the force of a great typhoon/Be a man/With all the strength of a raging fire. These lyrics imply that one is able to “be a man” simply by excelling in military activities. By following these rules, Mulan is able to pass as Ping, a made-up brother of Mulan, under the scrutiny of a camp of soldiers, Shang, and Chi-fu. Drag performance is directly portrayed in the culmination of the film, as Yao, Ling and Chien-Po disguises as concubines and flirts with the Huns to save the emperor. After putting on dresses and make-up, they are able to swoon the Hun soldiers and create a critical opening for Shang to save the emperor. If one is able to “put on” femininity and masculinity, then gender is not natural; if gender can be dislocated from one’s body, then femininity and masculinity becomes arbitrary.

Drag performances made an even more prominent appearance in Disney’s 1989 film The Little Mermaid, where the main antagonist Ursula was inspired by the Baltimore drag queen Divine. In the movie, Ursula wears two purple shell earrings, gold nautilus necklace and a black V-neck satin dress that tightly hugs her curves; she has heavy eye make-up and blue eye shadow that extend to her eyebrows, which are signature looks of Divine. Instead of having fish tail like the rest of the merfolk, Ursula was places on the body of an octopus. With six tentacles, her movement brings out “a very kind of seductive and yet scary aspect" of her character. Not only does her physical appearance take after drag queen, she sings and moves like one. In her song monologue Poor Unfortunate Souls, Ursula uses her eels like feather boa, a standard prop for drag performances in the 1980s. The excessive body language and overdramatic facial expressions Ursula displays throughout the film imitate drag queens’ exaggerated onstage performance.

Not only does Ursula’s image resemble that of drag, her personalities and actions simultaneously display both masculine traits and feminine traits. She fervently yearns for revenge and power, plotting to overthrow King Triton so she could dominate the ocean. However, this masculine obsession with power is matched with a feminine side: she pays close attention to her physical appearance and treat her minions with motherly affection.

The drag community rejoices the 2014 Disney film Maleficent, which is a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. The source of their excitement can be easily identified just from looking at a poster of the movie: Maleficent’s leather body suit and black cape look much like the costumes of drag queens, and her sculptural (prosthetic) cheekbones are also widely sought after in the make-up process of drag performances. Like drag, which utilizes outfits as a source of empowerment, Maleficent uses clothes to signifies the development of the relationship between her power and herself. As a teenager, she wore softer, floating dresses that blend well with nature, demonstrating her carefreeness and innocence. Her attire undergoes a drastic transformation as her wings are cruelly deprived by Stephan, her former lover who trades her wings for power in the human kingdom. After the betrayal, she begins to wear black dresses and capes made of leather, a material that meant to look at snake and animal skins. In the final battle against King Stephan, Maleficent rises victoriously as her wings return. In this scene, she is donned in a tight black leather body suit, presenting a strong contrast with King Stephan, who shivered hopelessly in his heavy silver armor. Maleficent’s outfits serve as a source of power and mark her transition from innocent girl to malevolent empress to a fearless warrior.

After Stephan stripped away Maleficent’s power to fly, she was empowered by a vengeful rage that prompted her to display masculine behaviors. After King Stephan’s betrayal, Maleficent declared herself Queen of Moors. Darkness falls on the Moors as Maleficent walks to her throne, and she haughtily looks down on the frightened creatures as they bow to her reign. She established herself as the ruler in order to compete for power with Stephan. In this rivalry between kingdom of men and kingdom of Moors, Maleficent “exhibit a manly air of toughness, confidence, and self-reliance and the aura of aggression, violence, and daring” (Devor 534) Her masculine aggression reached culmination in the scene of the curse. She “tend to speak more loudly, use less polite and more assertive forms” by directly opening with “listen well, all of you”, demonstrating her authority; she also “tend to interrupt the conversations of others” by shushing King Stephan when he pleads for her leniency. With green smoke streaming off her black cloaks and a devilish smile on her blood-red lips, she casts the spell and displays “expansive and aggressive body postures.” By “holding (her) arms and hands in positions away from (her) body…she maximizes the amount of space (she) physically occupy and appear most physically masculine”. (Devor 534) Moreover, certain amount of sadism is developed when she tells King Stephan that she enjoys watching him beg. The sadism shows the joy Maleficent derives from sexual dominance and power.

Despite her vengeful and nature, Maleficent also shows a feminine side as healer and mother. She uses her magic to reattach the broken branches, displaying care and continuous relationship with her surrounding objects. She later becomes the Godmother of Aurora and grows to care for Aurora like a daughter. After realizing the fairies’ incompetence as mothers, Maleficent instructs Diaval to bring Aurora food and rock her to sleep. Using her magic, she also prevents Aurora from falling off the cliff. Although she is reluctant to admit it, Maleficent shows “a sense of maternity, interest in caring for children, and the capacity to work productively and continuously in female occupations”. (Devor 532)

Ursula and Maleficent both displays certain level of gender androgyny which is the combination of masculine and feminine characteristics. Both antagonists are able to achieve this by adopting a non-binary gender schema that allows them to find a middle ground above the traditional gender boundaries. Such middle ground is widely sought after by drag queens who use drag as a way to escape binary gender schema. They claim that “androgyny is an ideal. A lot of us strive to exist in a world where we’re not gendered or where gender presentation doesn’t matter or doesn’t affect the way people treat you”.

Response from the Drag Community: Mulan

Although Mulan, The Little Mermaid, and Maleficent all either explicitly or implicitly portray drag and crossdressing, they received varying response from the drag community. It might seem shocking that Mulan, the first Disney film that directly depicts the protagonist crossing the gender boundaries, receive much less attention from drag queens.

The first reason for Mulan’s unpopularity lies in her inability to fully capture the queerness of drag, which is signified by the coexistence of two sexes simultaneously. Although Mulan portrays masculinity and femininity as performative acts, the acts are constantly shifting from male to female and never resting on a middle ground that incorporate both. These transformations are signified by actions that incorporate the complete abandonment of traits that represent a specific sexuality. When Mulan cuts her long hair, she transforms from a virtuous lady to a fearless warrior; when Yao, Ling and Chien-Po put on dresses and make-up, they immediately change to concubines; when the three drag concubines take out the melons, apples and bananas that are disguised as breasts, they return to their original roles of warriors. Moreover, after the physical transformation, the characters ‘personalities need to be in sync with their appearance. This implied rule is demonstrated by Mulan’ s strives to behave like a man and drag concubines’ intentional demure gait.  

In contrast, drag queens celebrate sexual liberation of body image and behaviors of both genders. When they put on their colorful wigs and tight dresses, they are simultaneously adopting a masculine personality of being loud, rude and crude. Although presenting a seductive feminine body image, they do not flee from their gender but incorporate it into their costume and drag performance. They sometimes flaunt their muscular torso and prosthetic breasts, and even aggressively calling attention to their tucked away penis, emphatically affirming that they are “chicks with dicks” (Berkowitz et al., 2007; Rupp et al., 2010; Taylor & Rupp, 2004).  This freedom of expressing both female and male sexualities is non-present in Mulan. In the scene of her taking a bath in the lake, she is put under extreme distress when Yao, Ling and Chien-Po joined her; she even covers her eyes after seeing Yao’s naked body. Although part of her discomfort is caused by the fear of revealing her female gender, she still suffers tremendously after seeing naked body of the opposite sex. This directly contradicts the belief of sexual liberation of drag performance.

Another disparity between Mulan and drag is the motivation behind their transformation. Mulan is propelled to put on her male disguise and join the army so her crippled father could be spared. After the identity reveal, she is forced to return to her original gender because the male persona can no longer guarantee her acceptance to the society. As Lisa Brocklebank wrote in Disney's "Mulan"—the "True" Deconstructed Heroine, the disguise of the woman seems most often to result from socioeconomic necessity, the need to prove one’s worth as equal to that of a male, the exigencies of survival, the yearning to escape an undesirable situation or, at times from a combination of all of the above factors. (273) Cross-dressing in Mulan is not achieved due to individual passion or interests, but due to pressure from the society.

Different to Mulan, drag queens choose drag not because of social pressure, but because they regard drag as a form of self-expression and creative outlet. “Drag is an artistry, you get to create different concepts and test your creativity,” said Alexander Wright, who goes by the stage name Rumor. “Drag has given me an even bigger reason to reinvent myself without any limits and try out different kinds of personas that I normally wouldn’t get to do as a man…I may never have the chance to perform on Broadway or live a glamorous lifestyle or become a model, but drag lets me live part of that fantasy” Said Jakarta Ja’ime Jaya, a drag queen from Los Angeles. (Why drag)

Positive Response from the drag community: Ursula and Maleficent

Part of Drag industry’s love for Ursula and Maleficent originates from real life celebrities behind these two antagonists: Divine and Angelina Jolie. Divine, the Baltimore “Drag Queen of the Century”, inspired the The Little Mermaid’s principal animators. Not only does Ursula’s image closely resemble that of Divine, her crude and offensive personality can also be seen in Divine’s performances, which is described as "just good, dirty fun, and if you find it offensive, honey, don't join in." In both Ursula and Divine’s performances, they display fervent confidence, flamboyance and theatrics. Angelina Jolie, who is highly sexualized in her other Hollywood films, is portrayed as androgynous in Maleficent. When she realized her powerful image attracts the attention of drag community, she stated her support, “I would be thrilled if it’s embraced by the drag queens… I think we all share a love for this kind of costume. I’m with them.”

Both characters fail to conform to a traditional feminine beauty standard, and by doing so spread the message of positive body image. Ursula has the power to alter her appearance but simply chooses not to. Her power of shape-shifting is demonstrated by the later transformation of Vanessa, her young beautiful human alter ego. Even with this great power, Ursula still presents herself as the obese sea monster throughout most of the film and obsessively checked herself out in the mirror. Ursula’s confidence in her self-image, which some may interpret as narcissistic love, echoes drag queens’ immense pride in their varying body images and costumes. RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality TV show of drag queen competition, featured plus size drag queens in each season. One of its competitors Latrice Royal even dressed as Ursula in Miami Beach Gay Pride Parade in 2014. Thus, Ursula with all her curves represents positive body image, and serves as an inspiration for many drag. Maleficent is depicted as almost gender ambiguous in the film: her womanly curves are hid under a black cape and her long hair is covered by wraps. Moreover, the horns made of snake skin shows a dangerous and untamed glamour. The film depicts Maleficent as angular, monstrous, and mysterious, but at the same time creates a fierce imagery of beauty.

Unlike Mulan, Ursula and Maleficent simultaneously display vicious and soft characteristics. Ursula calls her minions Flotsam and Jetsam babies and treats them with affection. She’s extremely protective of them, as their death triggers her to a murderous rage in the climax of the film. There is no change in attire and appearance that signifies a gender shift in the film: she doesn’t need to cut her hair to engage in combat mode or put on make-up to show affection. In Maleficent, certain amount of sadism is developed when she tells King Stephan that she enjoys watching him beg. This sadism, which represents dominance and power, reaches culmination as Maleficent rises angelically and victoriously as her wings return. Despite her vengeful and nature, Maleficent also shows a motherly side: she affectionately calls Aurora as “Beastie” and grows to care for Aurora like a daughter. She later tries to cancel the curse, eventually succeeding by kissing on her on the forehead. Ursula and Maleficent’s ability to love and to hate, to care and to fight without changing in appearance to suit a specific gender group is fundamentally different from Mulan, and thus widely acclaimed by the drag community.

The growing acceptance of drag as an art form is reflected by increasing incorporation of cross-dressing characters and drag queens in Disney movie. However, these drag characters receive varying responses from the drag community because of the motives behind their cross-dressing behaviors and their level of androgyny. While drag queens relate with drag antagonists of Disney films, it is important to keep in mind of the main target audience of this fairy tale franchise. How will children’s perception of gender and body image be influenced by these androgynous characters? Will they too, find themselves in Maleficent and Ursula?

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