Two weeks after the war began I donned my red Members Only jacket, slicked back my skate punk hair and jumped in the car to drive across the Bay. A fellow feminist and queer academic, Matt had invited me to his appearance with the drag troupe The Disposable Boy Toys at a Queer Alliance benefit in the City. Before the show he drew me backstage through a wondrous sea of boys packing and binding: punk boys with mohawks and sleeveless jean jackets, glitter boys in angel wings and pink ties, and jock boys in backward baseball caps and smudges of facial hair. I didn’t need the MC Summer’s Eve to tell me, as she did before presenting the first act, “You may think you don’t swing that way, but you do.”
Between the effeminate nerds in glasses and natty slicksters in three-piece suits, the larger political possibilities of drag denaturalize the matching of binary gender to particular bodies and present a range of femininities and masculinities. But drag can also highlight the acts of policing that non-gender normative persons are subject to in their everyday lives, the demands they face to perform the “appropriate” gender and the threats that follow. What appears as performance in the theatrical space of the drag show is a matter of off-stage survival for some. These tensions dramatized in the drag show — between the interior and the exterior of the self, the privilege of mobility and violence of normalization, the hierarchical spaces of disruption and danger– can also be put to work at other pressure points where social forces constrain the available possibilities for being in the world.
As a drag troupe with a critical political consciousness, the Disposable Boy Toys performed an anti-capitalism act and an anti-war act (and these are simplifications of their “messages”), both featuring vignettes of acts of policing. In the first, the Pledge of Allegiance was recited by a small group standing at attention before the song kicked in with heavy guitars and lyrics despairing the state of the union. As two performers furiously lip-synced the verses, men in lab coats adjusted the height of arms in salute, delivering scoldings and slaps when a person failed to maintain the proper posture. In the antiwar act, a police officer under the direction of a masked George W. Bush gagged protesters (with duct tape) who mouthed the lyrics: “Hey hey, U.S.A., how many kids did you kill today?” At the conclusion of the song, one of the protesters held up a sign that read, “What are YOU going to do about it?”
Watching these staged acts of civil disobedience, I thought about how the accumulation of an array of effects — the songs chosen, the voiceless gestures translating agreement or dissent, the address to the viewer– communicated a particular critical position in relation to nationalism and the state. The theatricalization of political rage is historically a vital component of radical queer activism, and as a strategy of contestation manifests other possibilities for a radical cultural politics. In particular, these acts can pose a challenge to the short-circuiting of the civic imagination and provide a critical mode to think through the production of national affect or sentimentality. While drag addresses the intimate levels of consciousness at which gender and sexuality are lived and felt –as meaningful embodiment or violent regulation– its theatrical mode can also be made to interrogate the intimate levels of consciousness at which nationalism and democracy are lived and felt. The anti-war acts suggests that political anger is not sanctioned in the current climate. What modes of feeling are, and what does this mean for realizing democracy?
In a national address George W. Bush reads out loud a letter from a fourth grader offering her father up for war, and television cameras capture U.S. soldiers inscribing the names of the World Trade Center dead on bombs dropped over Iraq. Tri-colored banner headlines scream “UNDER GOD” and full-color t.v. footage stream Senate members reiterating their allegiance to “God and country” after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals released their ruling on the necessary separation of church and state. Newspapers and magazines print photographs of tearful wives kissing husbands good-bye as carriers loom on the horizon, and pundits of all sorts scold anti-war protesters for undermining the social unity of the nation. Amassing at the heart of the U.S. national imagination, these are not moments that are concerned with gritty political dialogues and the democratic process. Instead, democracy is conceived as a sentimental and moral category, above or outside of the political. What emerges from these nationalizing discourses is a romantic ideal of civic life –the nation as family– that discourages participation in necessarily difficult dialogues about politics and power.
We witness the shrinking of available political exchange as war becomes the governing principle of the U.S. American foreign and domestic policy, and popular discourse allows for limited discussion of the military action in Iraq in not political but moral and emotional terms. As a dominant media source and staging ground for national sentimentality, the television news gives us the war as an orchestrated melodrama of intense emotionalism and personal triumphs; the cable news networks stream the headline “Saving Private Lynch,” and there is no doubt a docudrama in the making. As a cultural form, the melodrama presents the war in the overdetermined and excessive gestures of personal sacrifice and honor in order to frame the meaning of the war as prepolitical. In particular, the war melodrama evades critical historical and political frameworks to instead individualize interpretations of global events and “manage” them as stories. Enacting simple binaries of opposition (between savage and civilized, good and evil, most notably) to bolster its claims, the melodrama seeks to resolve uncertainty with recourse to the personal, the familial and a moral authority assumed to transcend all political stances.
The belief that the nation provides a sentimental mode of social unity that transcends the political has become a widespread, “common sense” definition of democracy. And while the television news is perhaps the most obvious example of the war melodrama, this phenomenon is not limited to the media. Generated and regulated by a national constellation of discourses and institutions, this (forcibly) consensual space of the nation is emptied of debate, in which feeling differently is a traitorous act. It takes multiple forms but always as an antipolitical gesture that refuses disagreement or meaningful contestation. There is nothing that is not ideological about this, though it pretends to be innocent. For instance — encouraged to consider the military apparatus as something other than an industrial-economic institution, as instead the folksy muster of “our boys,” the therapeutic language of troop support reduces the range of acceptable terms and categories with which to discuss war to nonpolitical and sentimental ones. And as an ethnocentric discourse (inasmuch as it pits “our troops” against a foreign “other,” out there), it traffics in the active disavowal of the political and historical conditions of the conflict and its implications for targeted populations.
These popular discourses produce modes of feeling that constrain and block the political process of functioning disagreement, contestation, and dialogue. The frightening result is the sacralization of democracy as the moral measure of the U.S. nation, residing outside of history or politics, a thing to be safeguarded from popular use or alternative interpretation. It is an exercise that assumes the protection of democracy from its actual practice. And in these sentimental moments of staged social unity, the state must seem to care, even when injustices on all sides can be attributed to its daily operation. It offers a narrow definition of democracy that is full of erasures and excuses, translating into immigrant detentions, the USA PATRIOT Act, deregulation and the dismantling of labor and environmental protections, a dangerous unilateralist foreign policy, and the slashing of domestic social programs, including billions from the Veterans Affairs budget which pays out soldiers’ benefits and other forms of “support.”
The chief social power of these sentimental discourses is in the labor of socialization. That is, they tell us how to be citizens and how to feel about the world. As political theorist Barbara Cruikshank writes, “the citizen is an effect and an instrument of political power rather than just a participant in politics,” and there are a range of dangers involved in expressing the “wrong” identifications and the “wrong” feelings. Drag, of course, politicizes these dangers in terms of gender, bodies and sexual desire. But if drag theatricalizes gender as an effect and instrument of power, can it model a similar strategy for thinking through the making of national subjects? And can we conceive of a political cultural project able to appropriate the intimate, emotional address into a demand for democratic potential?
Boy Bands Against the War (BBAW) wants to save us from an abusive relationship. Or more, they want us to save ourselves. A member of the San Francisco-based drag troupe the Transformers, Jason Blue envisions BBAW as a political network of boy band members united in their opposition to the war and the Bush administration. In a letter sent to O-Town, N. Snyc, Backstreet Boys and a slew of drag kings, Jason Blue pitches for this coalition of cuties:
Dear Past or Present Boy Band Member,
The massive anti-war demonstrations that have sprung up all over the world in the past few days have been amazing, inspiring, empowering, and beautiful – except for the embarrassing and shameful absence of boy bands. Boy Bands Against the War is the solution to that problem: a coalition of past and present members of boy bands, united in our commitment to global peace and global justice.
The letter continues, “No one understands heartbreak like a boy bander. We know: it. s time to break up with George Bush.” As an organization in its infancy, local BBAW members (a.k.a. The Transformers) have already performed their antiwar rendition of the N. Snyc Top Ten break-up hit “Bye Bye Bye” at various venues. But as a larger political project, Boy Bands Against the War speaks the language of popular culture, the wish fulfillment of crushes and other fantasies of identification with its stars. As black British theorist Stuart Hall argues, “Popular culture is a theater of popular desires, a theater of popular fantasies. It is where we discover and play with the identifications of ourselves, where we are imagined, where we are represented, not only to the audiences out there, but to ourselves for the first time.” The boy band is a commercial phenomenon of global proportions, a billion-dollar industry in and of themselves — you can’t get much more “pop.” But instead of dismissing popular culture (and its audiences) for the fact of its non-innocence, what else can we say about the character and range of any given commodity form’s power and possibility, and what pleasures it might afford?
The promises pop musicians offer to audiences ring with emotional resonance because there is something utopian about their sentiments, combined with the sheer power of their mass appeal. In particular, the break-up song is both the end of illusion and the promise of a brighter future. The self-imaginings of a stronger “me” in the aftermath of deception is a standard tale in the break-up song; I don’t know boy bands, but I do know Christina Aguilera is a fighter. ( If it wasn’t for all that / you tried to do / I wouldn’t know / just how capable / I am to pull through / so I wanna say thank you / Cause it makes me that much stronger / Makes me work a little bit harder / It makes me that much wiser / So thanks for making me a fighter! ) The break-up song is not just the realization that our horizon of potential is limited within the confines of an especially bad relationship; it is the affirmation that we deserve better than what we presently have. The break-up song is never just bitter — it is an avowal to realize a more fulfilling existence, to find meaning in other relationships, to desire other ways of being. So just as these songs (as commonplace and trite as some of them seem) employ forms of support and pleasure in pursuit of something other than a particular romance — a relationship doomed to fail because of lies, or a lack of communication, or inequality– BBAW employs forms of support and pleasure in pursuit of something other than a nationalist affect or uncritical patriotism.
This apparently trivial analogy is actually significant for the way it uses the intimate address not to shrink but expand the range of possibilities for the subject of betrayal to break away from what is safe, from what is perhaps sentimental, to instead imagine a different, more daring life. The individual initiating the (song) break with the deceptive lover or boorish President struggles through a public declaration of independence from the sanctioned space of romantic love or national unity, where we are so often told to look for social fulfillment, to demand a more equitable and accountable relationship. The prescriptive nature of courtship and marriage (especially in light of legislation privileging marriage for poor women and the continued delegitimization of non-heternormative relationships), of proper citizenship and patriotism, is challenged by this public performance of disenchantment. In the right hands, the break-up song can become the space in which the nationalization of sentimental feelings (as dominant metaphors for subordinate citizenship to the state) is rejected in the song. s revelation of its controlling violence.
While there is no word yet from the top-charting boy bands, the drag kings are in it all the way. And of course, the queering of boy bands (though perhaps not such a leap) is itself a critique of available and “appropriate” masculinities and objects of desire. That a drag king might position himself in the firmament of pop stars is to reevaluate those norms of gender and desire, as well as our understanding of fantasies of identification and what they mean for how we build new ways of being in the world.
Channeling the utopian commodity image of the boy band, BBAW suggests that self-fulfillment as a desiring subject can be found outside of the bad relationship and in the collective hunger for democratic practice. As such BBAW reimagines an ideal love as the pursuit of social justice: “When the visions of war around you bring tears to your eyes, and all that surrounds you are the government’s secrets and lies, we’ll be your strength. We’ll give you hope. Keeping your faith when it’s gone. Our love for the people of the world is like a river, peaceful and deep. Baby, call on us tonight, because this we promise you: another world is possible. And Boy Bands Against the War pledges to make it real.”
While popular culture is never innocent, it is important. Between its intense affect and ubiquitous presence, it is a critical arena for the struggle over the popular imagination and hegemony. After all, it can make tenable the nationalization of sentimental feelings and contain the available possibilities for transgression and social transformation; it can also the imaginative space where we remake ourselves as desiring, desirable subjects, as queer superheroes and transnational pop stars. The break-up song is hardly inherently subversive; but as such, BBAW offers both a critique of the limitations of popular culture and an appropriation of its pleasures. As queer theorist Wahneema Lubiano argues, “It might well be that taking popular culture seriously could teach us something about form, about aesthetics and about the development of pleasure in politics.” The use of self-theatricalization and star fantasies in the BBAW project stages and reclaims what has been made queer about democratic desire in the current political climate. And that fucking rules.
After the benefit I drove to Iraya’s house, where she gave me some lip-gloss and applied sweeps of green eye shadow to her own lids while standing on the toilet. The car loaded with crates of LPs, CDs, and a six-foot keyboard, we picked up Jesse and Reginald and a keyboard stand and headed to the bar for Co-ed Magnetic, the queer discotheque offering “nasti new wave,” “trashi rock,” “hott hip-hop” and free admission to those who brought their anti-war protest citations.
We danced to the best mixes ever (how long has it been since I’ve heard, “Boom, boom, boom, let’s go back to my room,” let alone, “Two of Hearts” by Stacey Q?) as loops of found footage screened behind us, a hypnotic blend of spliced scenes from ’70s porn, B-movies, concert films, multipled, quartered, and overlaid with Atari game graphics. Just after midnight Gary (a.k.a. D.M. Feelings) donned a black wig, shorts (tied with a chiffon sash) and a rare Frankie Goes to Hollywood t-shirt with a doctored photograph of Ronald Reagan, a bullethole square in the middle of his forehead. Only Frankie can stop me now!, the shirt read, and I pondered for a moment what it would be like had Frankie been able to do so. The small dance floor cleared, he became “Bibi,” lip-syncing to “The Professionals” from Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains as the “Bargain Bins” (a handful of us waving our arms in the air and shaking our fine asses) acted as his Greek chorus: Does this country mean that much to you? Not me not me not me!
The political project of “materializing democracy” is multifaceted. I need poststructuralist political theory, drag troupes and club nights with antiwar admission policies to sustain me in this continuing state of emergency. (As Matt said, “For some persons and populations, this level of state surveillance and social discipline is not new.”) This sort of performative political theory is as vital as arguments concerning the nuances of social policy or collective organizing for structural reform. While these difficult political dialogues and decisions require a different sort of commitment, when these dialogues and decisions are blocked by cultural practices that manage and contain discourses about democracy, we need to examine how and why.
The staging of forbidden feelings of queer desire, critical rage, or democratic disappointment is a critical counterpoint to the naturalization of hierarchies of “right” feelings, “right” ways of being. The violence of national normativity that is, among other things, gendered and sexualized, is here laid bare like a lover’s deception, or a state’s violence against its subjects. These are crucial projects that get at how ideology operates at the intimate levels of consciousness, feeling, and body, how fantasies and nightmares about who are imagine ourselves to be are produced at the junctures of power. They force us to reimagine how democracy is lived and felt, how it is translated into personal effects and collective desires, and for what purpose. And it means we recognize that these other cultural forms so often dismissed as trivial and sentimental –the break-up song, for instance, or celebrity crushes– can be politically powerful, if only we could teach everyone the right moves.