Performance collective Chez Deep explores drag performance as both physical and emotional labor.
SHE MAKES HERSELF HAPPY BY USING HER BODY. HER FAMILY AND THEIR INTERACTIONS BRING HER JOY. SHE IS HAPPY WHEN SHE USES HER FACE, HER ARMS, HER LIPS, HER EYES. SHE’S HAPPY WHEN ENERGY IS CONDUCTED AND EXCHANGED; WHEN SHE IS ABLE TO DISTRIBUTE IT THROUGHOUT THE WORLD. […]
SHE IS FOCUSED ON HER INNER LIGHT. HER LIGHT IS A FIRE THAT BURNS WITHIN HER AS IT DOES IN HER ANCESTORS AND HER HEIRS. IT IS A FIRE OF PURPOSE, REASON AND ORDER IN PERFECT CHAOS THAT FINDS ITS WAY INTO THE MAKEUP SHE WEARS, THE WAY SHE COMBS HER HAIR, THE GAIT OF HER STEP, AND THE LAUGHTER IN HER VOICE. IT IS THE ESSENTIAL IDENTIFICATION OF HERSELF AS A BEING BEYOND A BEING; A STORY; A SONG AT EVERY WAKING MOMENT THAT LIGHT INEVITABLY SPEAKS AS A LANGUAGE OF MOVEMENT, COMMUNICATION AND CHANCE.
—excerpt from the Chez Deep Manifesto
Chez Deep is a New York City performance collective—or more aptly, a sisterhood—that confronts and playfully annihilates their audience’s expectations of bodies in drag. They are a community of artists who inhabit various trans and non-trans subjectivities, in allegiance with an often unaccounted-for history of drag that refutes drag as only representative of the artistry of non-trans gay men. In their performances, the sisters (Colin Self, Alexis Penney, Hari Nef, Bailey Stiles, and Sam Banks) privilege intimacy among themselves and their viewers, and each Chez Deep event culminates in a group number that joyfully celebrates the bodies both on stage and in the audience.
Yet by releasing their own manifesto in 2013, Chez Deep decentered the stage as the primary space for drag performance. The text reads as a call to action not only for drag queens but also their audiences to understand drag’s potential as a political, poetic, and psychic force realized through a body’s labor. Labor for bodies in drag does not only mean their physical movement; it is the work required for sustaining emotional connection with an audience and transforming already-gendered signs and materials into new ways of living and performing within the very real limitations of the gender binary.
When I read the Chez Deep manifesto, I am reminded of Spiral Dance, a foundational text of contemporary goddess worship by feminist-pagan activist and organizer Starhawk. Just as Chez Deep theorizes the laboring queen’s body as the site of her language and power, Starhawk privileges bodies over ritual objects during spiritual work and invocation. In Spiral Dance, she writes, “The tools are unimportant, we have all we need to make magic: our bodies, our breath, our voices, each other.” Chez Deep invokes the language of goddess worship to underscore their bodies’ engagement with psychic and spiritual labor. Their bodies are “casting a circle,” invoking a space of positive energy for a drag that excites the possibility of a bodily transcendence that does not dismiss the material.
Although the subject of Chez Deep’s manifesto is a feminine being, she is not necessarily a woman. Feminine pronouns become a call for solidarity, much like the use of “sisterhood” as a term of collective struggle in feminist activism. Similar also to “lesbian” in “The Woman-Identified Woman” by feminist collective Radicalesbians, Chez Deep’s “she” is poetic allegiance with not only the history of women’s resistance against gender-based violence but also a celebration of feminist work that builds subjectivities through intimate engagement with others.
In “The Woman-Identified Woman,” Radicalesbians infamously state, “Only women can give to each other a new sense of self. That identity we have to develop with reference to ourselves, and not in relation to men.” Women may be at the center of Radicalesbians’ theorizing, but they were uncovering a need for a way to speak of women without speaking toward men. This language begins with a recognition of women’s affect: “A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion.”
For Chez Deep, the unnamed subject of the manifesto locates her affect within herself—her body—and finds communion with others through this action, building her identity in relation to her sisters. The labor and intimacy of drag is valued more than the glamorous “look” or “face” of the performer. The drag queen’s tools run through the extent of her body and connect to her language. Drag, for Chez Deep, is a linguistic operation of communal ecstasy and psychic liberation.
During New York City’s Pride weekend in 2013, I attended Chez Deep’s Common Visions at the Ace Hotel, which was billed as “a ritual drag transformation and performance installation.” Bailey Stiles’s performance of Christina Aguilera’s “Reflection” stood out to me as one of the night’s most powerful moments. Bailey was a queer woman on stage performing a longing that is often associated with the failure to sufficiently embody patriarchal ideals of womanhood. “Reflection” is about a desire for a female subjectivity that does not require the illusions or “mask” of femininity to substantiate authenticity: “Everyday, it’s as if I play a part / Now I see, if I wear a mask I can fool the world / But I cannot fool my heart.” Christina is lamenting her own melancholy but finds no escape from her malaise at the song’s conclusion. She is perpetually trapped by her desire for truth.
Bailey walked down a catwalk made of tables, wearing a G-string and two large plastic bags filled with balloons. The balloons were released as she made her way to the middle of the stage, making it a perfect time for her to put on coy femininity, posturing for the audience in the manner of a striptease. She slowly walked to the end of the stage where a stool and Louis Vuitton bag were waiting for her. As she sat down on the stool, she pulled makeup from her bag, applying blush and staring into a mirrored compact. At this moment she lip-synced Christina’s words, “Who is that girl I see/ Staring straight back at me?/ When will my reflection show/ Who I am inside?”
Bailey’s performance relied on a common trope of the queen’s, or diva’s, affected narcissism as she found power in the desire to gaze at herself. Both the audience and the makeup compact were Bailey’s mirrors, and it seemed she was asking us to reflect a truth about women’s subjectivity that was not yet found or apparent to her. But the performance was not about us looking at her to assuage her despondency. She embodied the stereotype of the melancholic woman to thwart the passivity that we, as the audience, project on that figure.
Bailey’s performance played with Irigaray’s conception of mimicry as resistance, which postulates that a woman must “assume the feminine role deliberately” in order to “try to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse, without allowing herself to be simply reduced to it.” Bailey was not actually passive or coy; she was celebrating the affective labor of getting dressed that is so often unquestionably expected of women (and drag queens) but dismissed as meaningless.
After applying her makeup, Bailey continues to get dressed in front of the audience: first putting on a lace bra, then lavender underwear, a skirt, a pair of heels, and lastly, a button-up blouse. The performance was not only about exposing the mechanisms of gender, or trying to uncover a gender fallacy; it celebrated the mundane act of dressing as an active labor of self-creation.
Shortly after Bailey’s performance, Hari Nef came onto the stage to lip-sync an interview with Aileen Wuornos that was conducted the day before her execution in 2002. Wuornos was convicted of murdering six men as defense against rape in 1993 and was sentenced to death for this resistance. Her life was made the subject of Monster, an exploitative lesbian serial-killer film starring Charlize Theron. The male interviewer’s voice was removed from Hari’s lip sync, leaving Hari with only Aileen’s words on the exploitation she experienced both in and out of prison: “You sabotaged my ass, society … and the cops, the system—a raped woman got executed and was used for books and movies and shit.” Aileen’s words go on to confront the imperative for remorse that incarceration expected from her: “I didn’t do anything as wrong as they said. I did the right thing, and I saved a lot of people’s butts from getting hurt, and raped, and killed too.”
Dressed in sweatpants and a sweatshirt with catholic football emblazoned across the front, Hari was wearing what looked at first to be the casual comfort of Ivy League male masculinity. Their choice of clothing was gendered insofar that it reminded me of the clothing that undergraduate men wore to the gym when I was in college—a sort of formless uniform for weight training and male-only bonding. However, my impulse to initially gender Hari’s outfit as male hypermasculinity was claustrophobic, as it relegated their performance to a mere subversion of male identity and violence. Instead, Hari’s lip sync was a painful eulogy for Aileen that simultaneously mourned and celebrated her. Their sweatsuit was an antiglamour that accentuated the rage of Aileen’s words and destroyed the audience’s expectation of drag as a sentimental performance of femininity. Hari’s remembrance of Aileen flipped the script on nostalgic diva worship—an unexpected disavowal of drag as always being glamorous entertainment.
The final performance of Common Visions, a collective lip sync of Brownstone’s “If You Love Me,” reminded me of the ending to The First Wives Club, where Bette Midler, Diane Keaton, and Goldie Hawn sing a rendition of “You Don’t Own Me” by Lesley Gore. In the film, the three women have just finished hosting a fundraising event for their nonprofit organization named in memory of a close friend. Partly a jubilant send off for her, Diane, Goldie, and Bette break into a choreographed dance that intuitively rages against patriarchy as they sing over and over again: “You don’t own me/ No, no, you don’t own me.” It is a triumph of intimacy and labor among women. Chez Deep’s last number for Common Visions likewise conveyed an ecstatic sense of liberation through collectivity as they lip synced Brownstone’s lyrics not only to the audience but to one another. Chez Deep transformed into a drag supergroup as they mimed, “I wanna love that is based on truth not just dare,” calling on the audience to join a celebration of their drag kinship.
Drag has long been understood as a language of non-trans gay men, but this gendering has washed over a complicated history of the political and poetic realities of many queer performers and artists. Drag is often thought of as culminating in a singular, glamorous look that is used only in a performance: Drag is entertainment for others. But a survey of the history of drag and, more specifically, drag queens, shows that drag is a language that not only unearths our deeply rooted expectations of gendered bodies but also formulates and reaches for radically different ways of living and laboring with a body. As Chez Deep shows, drag can be about more than the subversion of gender; it can also speak to a collective, psychic longing that does not see “man” or “woman” as its only locations of desire.
I’d like for drag’s audience to think about drag and drag performance without relying on the idea that drag is only a subversion of the gender binary. Drag may be subversive for some, but gender subversion does not so much upend gender as repackage its language. A focus on drag as an exposure of the falsity of gender also disconnects the drag performer from their labor, from their own body. Drag performance as gender muckraking positions the drag performer’s body as a site where the audience is making and unmaking meaning, rather than understanding the drag performer as a progenitor of their own truth and desires.
What about a drag that doesn’t simply show how the ideals of “man” or “woman” are done, but how the binary can be lovingly destroyed? Or how the language of drag is also used to create new embodied possibilities and intimacies among individuals, regardless of gender? If we think about drag and drag performance as always pointing toward or exposing the mechanisms with which gender is created and substantiated, then we will miss the moments when drag is asking for us to celebrate modes of being and community both within and without the gender binary.
It’s time to imagine a new poetics of drag, one that rejects audience assumptions of the gendered subjectivity of the performer onstage. I’m not asking drag performers to bear the burden of this labor; instead, I want audiences to rethink their relationship to drag performance and their responsibility as spectators. Let’s celebrate drag as a liberatory mode of being, as conscious of itself as language, rather than a gendered illusion to satiate our desire for entertainment. If we, the audience, interrogate our own expectations of drag, then we’ll recognize when drag finds liberation in the knowledge of its own historical place and potential, rather than glamorous transformation. Chez Deep demands a space for drag’s poetics to be valued as a language of “movement, communication, and chance” and for the celebration of a “being beyond being.” So let’s listen and foster a loving space for a drag that just is.