Queer Drag Versus “Normal” Drag: The Evolution of Hairspray

Corinne Schwarz


Drag performance has long existed to entertain audiences and incite discussions, balancing humor with social commentary to provide an alternate discourse on sexuality and gender roles. By taking essentially female traits—the curvaceous figure, the made-up face, the cooing speech—and exaggerating it beyond the norm, men in drag subvert these traditional traits to highlight their stereotypical, misogynistic origins. Drag exists not to reinforce the norms but to draw attention to the social constructedness of the masculine and the feminine. John Waters’s 1988 cult film "Hairspray" stars Divine as Edna Turnblad, a frumpy Baltimore housewife who changes from a homely laundress to a modern, fashionable civil rights activist in the 1960s. Divine plays Edna as queer drag—the audience can see the satire in the campy speech patterns and exaggerated female form. Divine is not playing a woman—she is playing the stereotype of a woman. Conversely, in the 2007 musical adaptation of "Hairspray," mainstream actor John Travolta plays Edna in what I might call normalized drag—his masculinity is buried beneath a fat suit, his deep voice hidden in a feminized Baltimore accent. Travolta is playing a woman without a defined, outspoken agenda. But this tamed characterization is itself an agenda: a reassertion of mainstream cinema’s power to reshape and redefine independent cinema’s quirks and questioning in a heteronormative context. By comparing the two types of drag within the films—one subversive, one family-friendly—the rules of drag become visible and easily defined, revealing a heteronormative culture that neuters drag, preventing it from challenging the status quo.


gender performance, drag queens, Hairspray

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