Miss Bunny (left) and Panti Bliss (right) in promotional art for The Panti Show. A nation tunes in to watch a drag queen on television but what exactly is drag?
RTÉ's Saturday Night Show began it's live broadcast on January 11th with presenter Brendan O'Connor introducing the drag queen Panti Bliss. A red curtain rose to reveal a dressing room and the occupant wearing a geisha-like gown, a voluminous blonde wig from Dolly Parton's Heartbreaker days and eyelashes so long they could gouge an eye.
A voice-over introduces the drag device: the lip sync - a faux pas in musical performance (see Ashlee Simpson) but the basis for the corporeal story-telling of the drag queen. "Brendan O'Connor? Goddamn it, I done it again; I thought this was Brendan O'Carroll's show. What the hell am I going to talk to Brendan O'Connor about?"
Appropriately, she responds with the huff of Hollywood icon Joan Crawford with a soundbite from the Crawford biographical Mommie Dearest: "WHY DON'T YOU GIVE ME THE RESPECT THAT I'M ENTITLED TO?" She then slips into Mozart's tragic Der Hölle Rache - a vocal which traditionally requires two octaves but Panti's lip movements bizarrely match the soprano.
A procession of ringing phones then demand the drag queen, furiously timed, to channel the distraught heterosexual characters of British soap operas as well as a dallying politician ('frape'-aware senator Fidelma Healy), Tyra Banks, a feminist eviscerating a beauty queen, another imploding actress in the grip of the Hollywood machine (Carrie Fisher's Postcards from the Edge), and a raged "God-Warrior" from an episode of Trading Spouses ("Every dark-sided person get out of my house. If you believe in Jesus you can stay here").
Another Crawfordian cuff from Mommie Dearest - "DON'T FUCK WITH ME FELLAS!" - halts the phones before the performer disrobes to a violet dress and syncs to the closing strains of Dreamgirls torch song 'And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going'. Panti, with her arms outstretched and mouth trembling, reaches over the song's swaggering piano and flaring trumpets, and joins with Jennifer Holliday's unruly vocal in complete emulation of the song's undying devotion, leaving us to admire its construction at the same time. She bows out to the refrain: "You're going to love me". For those watching at home who advocate for LGBT equality, they were beginning to suspect how much they would.
The man behind the manicures, Rory O'Neill, then joined O'Connor for an interview. He discussed how homophobic commentary has become increasingly unaccepted in Ireland with the exception of certain opinion pieces in newspapers. When pressed for names, he cited Irish Times columnists Breda O'Brien and John Waters, and the Catholic lobbying organisation the Iona Institute. "Feck off! Get the hell out of my life", he said with accompanying applause from the audience. "It astounds me that there are people out there in the world who devote quite a large amount of their time and energies trying to stop people achieving happiness".
O'Neill/Panti's appearance went on to become the subject of claims of defamation, and the named parties sent solicitors' letters to the performer and to RTÉ. The national broadcaster removed the interview from their online player, later reposting it with the offending piece edited out. The next episode of the Saturday Night Show issued a formal apology. Many LGBT individuals were up in arms; a considerable speaker from their community had been censored.
The revelation of an €85k payout from RTÉ to the claimants raised serious issues about the broadcaster's ability to facilitate balanced debate about homosexuality in Ireland, especially considering the forthcoming referendum on gay marriage. Minister for Communications, Pat Rabbitte, also chimed in, motioning that the term "homophobe" be removed from debates on the issue. LGBT people seeing their peers being incarcerated in Russia and facing death penalties in Nigeria felt differently.
But with Panti so spectacularly steeped in the spotlight, the performance mode of drag is widely reaching people in Ireland, many of whom for the first time and are probably thinking: what is this?
Panti performs the Noble Call at the Abbey Theatre.
When the Saturday Night Show, having felt the pressure of public outcry, facilitated a live debate about the applicability of the term "homophobia", Panti performed the noble call after the last performance of The Risen People at the Abbey Theatre:
"I am not going to, for a minute, compare my situation to the Dublin workers of 1913 but I do know what it feels like to be put in your place. Have any of you ever been standing at a pedestrian crossing when a car goes by and in it are a bunch of lads, and they lean out the window as they go by and they shout "fag" and throw a milk carton at you? Now it doesn't really hurt, after all it's just a wet carton, and in many ways they're right: I am a fag. So it doesn't hurt. But it feels oppressive. And when it really does hurt is afterwards, because it's afterwards when I wonder and worry and obsess over what was it about me. What did they see in me? What was it that gave me away? And I hate myself for wondering that. It feels oppressive. And the next time that I'm standing at a pedestrian crossing, I hate myself for it, but I check myself: to see what it is about me that gives the gay away."
Panti's Nobel Call illuminates one of the fundamental differences between a gay man and a straight man: the latter is not conscious of straightness as a performance. Gay people are not born into a society where their sexuality is considered as natural, and the heterosexual structure of the world around them is a constant reminder of their exclusion from social power. The gay man becomes aware of his masculinity as a performance; if he can demonstrate masculinity he can conceal his queerness and escape persecution. Panti's pedestrian crossing speech is a vehicle for this, and will probably be cited by Irish LGBT people for years to come.
But for some the notion of removing the stigma of homosexuality lies not in concealment but in embracing and using it to question the terms of social existence. Panti's Nobel Call is further politicised by its accompanying stage image of a man dressed as woman, gleaming in pastel purple against a monochrome backdrop. Visually it is a violation of generic norms, a divine question that calls all of the ordering of society into question: is Panti male or female?
Of course, if we're going to go by biology, Panti is a man. But he has inscribed female characteristics upon his male body, and in the act has become a stunning vexation of gender norms, not taking seriously the reality set by hetero society. Some see this as an offence against their gender. Others regard it as an act of theatre, with drag having the power to dramatise the social violence that a male dominated society directs towards anyone feminine.
Panti performs on the Saturday Night Show
Let's consider Panti's performance on the Saturday Night Show. The premise is that she's an important actress who's misplaced and appearing on the wrong show - Brendan O'Connor's rather than Brendan O'Carroll's. She syncs with Joan Crawford's cry for the respect that she's entitled to, and in doing so cites an actress whose roles recurringly chronicled a fall from ascendent female power into domesticising male society, a domestic realm whose savagery is heard in the pained strains of Panti's ensuing sync with Crawford's daughter in Mommie Dearest: "WHY DID YOU ADOPT ME?"
Similarly, a sync with the washed up celebrity/mother in Postcards From the Edge reveals an ensnared female identity pressured by society to assert sexuality around younger peers ("You only remember that my skirt accidentally TWIRLED UP!").
The voices that Panti channels are nearly all female(*), and seem at odds with institutions like Hollywood and the church (the latter seen in the piteous tantrum of the Trading Spouses "God Warrior"). When we hear rebellion it seems only able to be directed by women towards other women, such as the snap from Tyra Banks and an eloquent attack from a feminist on a beauty queen ("And when it finally did come down, Margorie, my sister caught that baton as flames illuminated her tear-stained face"). Where the performance shifts is at its conclusion, with Crawford's vicious warning towards the Pepsi boardmen and the Dreamgirls torch song managing powerful confrontations by women directed at men.
(*) The only male authorial voice channelled is Mozart, who Panti transports onto a bizarre plane away from any class or intellectual association, a derealisation of attitudes towards music itself, further confounded by a sync to the 1969 electro pop instrumental 'Popcorn'.
In the moment of watching though, these hostilities do not feel traumatic. We mightn't necessarily have accessed the flurry of references Panti has made (and usually, at her weekly show in Panti Bar, she works with one context at a time rather than several), and even if we did, the performer's ghastly performance has made comedic use of them. When she syncs to "WHY DID YOU ADOPT ME?", the audience laughs rather than feels for the child of Joan Crawford getting the crap kicked out of her. The cruel and the horrific has been made funny.
What does it say then that in the presence of a drag queen we bow to the unsettling conversion of the horrific into the comedic? Well, think about it: what's more appropriate to laugh at, to take unseriously, than the hostile social world that excludes specific individuals from power, especially in the circumstances that Panti has cited, where such realities are tragic and horrifying?
In the re-territorialising of these attrocities into comedies, it can be said that Panti's drag returns to moments in cultural history and drains them of their trauma. Furthermore, those social forces that inflicted that trauma have been undermined, as our laughter registers a failure on their part to be taken seriously.
Shirley Temple Bar
Returning to specific periods in history is an element of some Irish drag. Shirley Temple Bar, the lampooning host of the weekly Sunday night bingo in Dublin's gay club The George, is an incendiary iconoclast, who in the spirit of the old Music Hall takes the piss out of high art instrumentation (see her sync to Madonna's strings-drenched Frozen) while treading the boards to Lanigan's Ball in Irish dancing dress. In her drag we see the re-appropriation of traditional Ireland to facilitate gay Ireland.
The classic glamour of Miss Bunny, obtained from the valiant trends of Elizabeth Taylor, comes accompanied by the tragedy of the hourglass-shaped heroines of 1950s American movies, as we see the drag artist plunged into horrific circumstances in the weekly Saturday night show in Panti Bar. There is nothing expendable in her movement. While bobbing to a disco classic she might restrain an excessive gesture to signal instead the drag of a cigarette or hands landing on a piano, though a sync to the howling vocal of Black Box's Ride On Time sees her stumble across the stage with the immediacy of a heroine being chased through a film noir.
These three drag queens project an alternative and historical feminity, while others embrace a contemporary aesthetic. The pronounced feminity of Davina Devine, another drag act from the George, could connote a fall from hetero-seriousness but I also remember being told a story where a straight man confusingly admitted to find Devine attractive. In this way, drag can alienate desires that are considered legitimate in mainstream society.
As Panti's story goes global with coverage in the Huffington Post and Buzzfeed.com, the world is being shown that Irish drag is a compelling act of social theatre which doesn't necessarily end when the performer takes off their costume. The theatricality of the drag queen spills into public life, stirring debate and denouncing fashions that discriminate not only against gay experience but anyone who feels the need to double-check themselves at a pedestrian crossing.