Shamrocks, leprechauns, potatoes, pubs, lush green landscapes, and, perhaps, political upheaval might be our first thoughts when thinking of Irish culture. But drag queens? Enter stage right: Panti Bliss.
Ireland’s most famous drag queen, Panti Bliss is known for her stunning blonde hair and a long history of performing (even touring with Cyndi Lauper in the 80’s!).
Now she’s making waves as an “accidental” gay rights activist with a video that is going viral. In it, she gives a spot-on speech about homophobia and oppression that is so eloquent and moving that we just couldn’t even… Her speech knocked our socks off. Just watch it, please.
We had to hear more from her, so we sent her this letter and asked her our top 5 questions – about drag, gender, makeup, and feminism. Her answers were, not surprisingly, whip smart and incredible.
…many women think of their makeup as a mask they hide behind, when in fact it’s actually the very opposite – it exposes you
We were so moved by your speech on homophobia and oppression, and we’re thrilled to see it going viral on the web. It’s such a valuable addition to the global discussion that is happening right now about gay rights. We also love that the speech’s take on oppression can be applied to other marginalized groups and can help broaden society’s understanding of their struggles.
Oppression is often invisible to those outside the oppressed group. You articulate beautifully from your experience the big and small ways that oppression affects your life so that people who aren’t in your shoes can understand, which can be difficult to get across but crucial to fixing the problems and changing society for the better.
These ideas really resonate with us at Domestic Feminist, not just for their positive effect on the gay community, but also in how they can be applied to women’s issues.
We’ve been talking a lot lately about one small way we as women can feel oppressed – the idea of makeup. We both love it (for the confidence, fun, glamour, etc that it can give us) and hate it (for the way it can make us feel bad about ourselves or judged by society if we don’t wear it). It’s a complex relationship that is also different for everyone. We thought that this could be an interesting topic to discuss with you since makeup is one aspect of Panti’s character and because we identify with your views on oppression.
So, our questions for you…
DF: First off, for those who might not be very familiar with drag queen culture, what’s drag all about, and what’s it all about for you?
PB: Drag comes in a many different forms in the hands of many different performers so it’s hard to define broadly, but for me it’s very layered.
At it’s most surface level it’s simply a theatrical device, a visual exaggeration or extravagance that amplifies the performer. Like most cultures, our culture decided that females would be the peacocks and gave them the tools to theatrically exaggerate their appearance – makeup, big hair, sequins, heels, colourful costumes – while these same things were frowned upon when employed by men and considered feminine, dandyish or foppish. Even today there is a hint of suspicion around the “meterosexual” who is seen to be overly concerned with his appearance. But this means that males tend to be visually boring in a theatrical setting, and so even heterosexual of male performers often end up feminising their appearance in order to be more visually interesting: glam rock stars, spandex-clad big-haired metal bands, hip-hop’s fur and jewellery dripping “pimps”. Indeed, even the very act of stage performing – the exaggerated facial expressions, the expansive gestures, the expression of emotion – are all thought of as feminine and not the preserve of males who are expected to be stoic, expressionless… dull. Even our language constantly reinforces these notions. The word “histrionic” (which means ‘relating to actors’ and ‘excessively emotional’) is almost entirely used to describe women and when used to describe a man is loaded with implied “feminine” insult – he’s acting like a woman and not like a real man.
But of course drag is also about more than that – it’s playing with notions of gender and identity. It constantly asks questions about what gender is. Is gender just performed? Is it real at all? Does it matter? Does how we present our gender affect how others react to us? What exactly is the gender presented by the drag performer? Is it a third gender? A non-gender? In many primitive cultures the witch doctor or shaman is often feminine and dressed to exaggerate this “inter-gender” quality because possessing both male and female spirits is considered magical or divine.
And of course there’s a clownish element too! The drag queen as caricature, as larger than life cartoon, as court jester, as colourful fool who is allowed to say from behind her mask of lashes and powder and hair and corsetry what the regular peasant would be beheaded for. She is allowed speak to power and occasionally prick it with a sharpened stiletto.
Photo by Philly McMahon
DF: What’s your take on femininity and makeup?
PB: Makeup covers flaws, but more importantly it exaggerates our features – it makes our eyes more prominent, out lashes more fluttery, our mouths more pouty, our brows more arched, our cheekbone sharper. And this serves to exaggerate and amplify our emotions. We become open books, with every fleeting feeling readable. Painted, we become emotional big-screens. Telegraphing the slightest batting of the lashes, the tiniest quiver of the lip. (Ironically, many women think of their makeup as a mask they hide behind, when in fact it’s actually the very opposite – it exposes you) And in our culture, emotions are women’s preserve. Men are supposed to repress emotion at all cost, to slouch stoically, to not care, to remain cool, to never react.
DF: We love Panti’s glamorous look. What are your top 3 makeup tips to achieve it?
PB: 1) Werq that base! I spend half of my time in front of the mirror on my base – blending, contouring, “cutting”. Of course, I have a big man face so I have to!
2) Big lashes. I want to be able to feel the breeze when I blink!
3) French manicure. Yes, I know manicures are these days only limited by your imagination, but the classic French manicure never goes out of fashion, is effortlessly glamorous, and goes with anything, which is particularly important if you are doing a show with lots of costume changes.
Photo by Fiona Morgan
Being a feminist is an active state, rather than a passive one.
DF: What is feminism to you? How are you a feminist?
PB: The simple answer of course is that feminism is the belief in equality of the sexes, but actually I think that’s too easy. I think being a feminist means being aware of the inequalities between the sexes and actually reacting to that. Being a feminist is an active state, rather than a passive one.
I hope I’m a feminist. I certainly try to be. Being a drag queen means I often ponder questions of gender and sex and sexuality (which are often hard to separate from each other) and so I regularly monitor my own feelings and reactions to these things. I often question myself. It’s an ongoing process!
…people don’t fit easily into preassigned boxes, and that isn’t one of the weird or scary things in life, it’s one of the great joys.
DF: What can the world learn from drag queens? From Panti?
PB: That people don’t fit easily into preassigned boxes, and that isn’t one of the weird or scary things in life, it’s one of the great joys.
And that gender – like makeup – can be very powerful, but at the same time, you shouldn’t take it too seriously. Enjoy it!
Cover Photo by Fiona Morgan
This post Makeup Advice from an Irish Activist Drag Queen That Will Change the Way You Think, written by Juliana Brafa and Julie Gomez, appeared first on DomesticFeminist.com.
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