Hot Topic: Is Drag culture as harmful as blackface? Discussing Sharon Davies latest comments

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Sharron Davies MBE - ex British Olympic swimmer criticised for comparing drag to blackface over the weekend on twitter.

Drag Queen culture is continually growing in popularity, as Ru Paul's drag race launched it's first-ever UK series this year. Drag in the Merriam- Webster dictionary is defined as "usually a gay man who dresses as a woman and performs as an entertainer especially to caricature stereotypically vampish women." Drag is also performed by straight men and women. 

The Commonwealth and Olympic medalist Sharron Davies called drag a "parody of what a real woman is, like blackface,” arguing it portrays stereotypical images of womanhood.

Her comments are problematic as they highlight a lack of understanding and awareness behind the history of blackface, a trend used comically to ridicule black people using caricatures of black slaves, often with exaggerated African features.

Blackface dates back to minstrel shows in the mid 19th century when black people were depicted as lazy, ignorant and hypersexual according to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).

It is not an American issue alone, but a part of British culture from pictures of British MPs and Canadian PM found in blackface costume, to the early 2000s shows like Come Fly With Me.

Additionally, in the Netherlands protestors have been fighting against a late November festival character Zwarte Piet. This caricature wears a black curly wig, with big red lips and golden earrings. Zwarte Piet is supposedly black because he has spent a lot of time in a chimney - but this still doesn't explain the need for the character to have big red lips.

Following her tweet, Sharron's words were accused of racism. She responded with the commonly used excuse, by white people that they can't be racist due to their black associations.

“With mixed-race kids and loads of wonderful friends from all over the world don’t think I can be accused of racism.”

“I’m not reducing anyone else’s struggled just saying promoting ridiculous stereotypes is dangerous, as is racism.” 

The stereotypes used in drag is not as harmful as blackface since it involves different power dynamics. Blackface is often performed by white people who are socially and culturally in a position of power, while drag is often performed by a group already marginalised in society. Drag culture is only recently more appreciated and recognised in mainstream culture with more acceptance towards the LGBTQ community.

Drag culture may include harmful stereotypes about women through its focus on unrealistic feminine beauty standards -a cinched waist and large breast - or through acting out stereotypes of women as catty and slutty. However, the stereotypes shown in drag do not have the same influence over culture as the stereotypes created by white racist people in power.

Sharron's comments may not be racist but insensitive to black people and an inaccurate depiction of all Drag Queens.

The winner of Drag Race UK, The Vivienne said: “I have never pretended to be a woman, I do however love dressing In beautiful gowns, lovely hair and make-up.”

Lorraine Kelly TV presenter also added Drag “empowers people who often feel like outsiders,” saying “it can literally save lives. And it’s such a lot of FUN!”

Although Sharron's tweets address issues of gender stereotypes within drag culture, her words should have been more carefully worded to avoid diminishing the severity of racism.

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