I get dressed up to teach five days a week this semester. And while I still work on the weekends, I get to decide how I look.
What is academic drag? Scholar Kim Solga describes it as “the practice of projecting a certain image of professional power and privilege in the academic workplace.” It’s something I engage in, as do many other scholars I know, regardless of how we identify our gender and/or sexual identities. And because it’s a burden, it’s often a relief to shed.
I’m glad I found Solga’s blog post, because in it she referred to a coauthored article by Alyssa Samek and Theresa Donofrio that described the concept of academic drag more in depth, and illustrated it through the authors’ personal experiences (see references).
One of the author’s anecdotes deeply resonates with me:
For all the privilege I have enjoyed, the way I perform gender has worked against me, particularly within the academy. Of the women I know in academia, I embrace more of the stereotypically feminine ways of presenting the self: I wear makeup, prefer dresses and skirts to pantsuits, and am animated when I speak, using a number of gestures and smiling frequently. Combined with the fact that I am small in stature and look younger than I am, I have entertained my fair share of infantilizing and diminishing comments, often aimed at the disparity between how someone who looks and acts like me ‘‘actually’’ has intelligent things to say and does ‘‘serious’’ intellectual work (33).
Yep, that’s me in a nutshell: fairly femme and young-looking, to the point where I’m mistaken for a student. So of course I dress up to compensate.
And yet, the other author’s comments on unmarked queerness also describe my experiences:
Because my gender performance falls largely within the lines, it allows me to move in the world with my queerness unmarked […] As such, my passing performance in classrooms and other professional settings may afford some comfort from the threat of transgression and difference associated with queerness. At the same time, however, in those moments where I want my queerness to be intelligible or ‘‘read,’’ it requires other forms of disclosure and/or performance. These dual limitations of hegemonic femininity should not be surprising given the reciprocal reinforcement of sexism and heteronormativity (34).
Dressing to impress is a form of emotional labor, something that most professionals do at some point in their careers. But how does the burden impact some of us (often marginalized folks) differently, when we stand to gain more by hiding more of our identities? I believe that engaging with body art can be a creative outlet as well as an identity marker; I am, after all, one of those feminists who dresses fairly femme and wears makeup because I enjoy the expressivity of it all. This comes, of course, with some class privilege, able-bodied privilege, and so on, as a lot of the clothing out there is made for bodies like mine (as much as I gripe about having some curves here, or excessive muscle from rock climbing there).
My colleague Eric Grollman has referred to his version as “professional boy drag” and characterizes it as a compromise, one that he willingly accepts though it grates on his sense of self. It is, in the end, a doomed attempt to mitigate stereotypes that are based in bigotry and hence irrational:
I am working to reduce the number of frivolous and shallow ways that I may be dismissed due to racist, homophobic, fatphobic, and classist bias. But, sometimes the joke is on me because bias cannot be reasoned with; you cannot win a logical argument with ignorance, after all.
Does dressing up get us more respect, or merely mitigate the inevitable judgments when we reveal (intentionally or not) something non-normative about ourselves? Put another way, will our bodies always speak for us, and the more deviant they are, the louder they’ll speak?
Thus, interrogating the norms and ideals of academic drag is an important endeavor. Academic conventions are just as constructed as any other social norm. As Samek and Donofrio point out, we should strive to unpack the image
of academics as mustachioed white men wearing tweed coats with elbow patches and doing their work in an office surrounded by books. Such assumptions are not only gendered masculine but have class, race, and heteronormative implications as well (46).
I like playing dress-up, but in part it’s fun because I know it’s temporary. Engaging in academic drag stimulates my creativity, and I get to select clothing that I believe is flattering on my body, and expressive of various interests and identities of mine (former goth girl, well-traveled global citizen, belly dancer, athlete, and so on).
And yet it’s such a relief when it’s the weekend, and I can wear yoga pants and let my hair down and not have to put on makeup. I flatter myself by thinking I look different enough to be shrouded in a kind of anonymity when I run around town, to hike or rock climb or attend a dance class or shop for groceries. No one’s looking at me to tell whether I’m smart or studied enough to do these activities; I just get to do them as is.
It’s difficult to disentangle academic drag from the various axes of privilege that many academics encounter, perform, and navigate. I certainly don’t have all the answers. But now that it’s the weekend, I’m going to relish doing my scholarly work in workout clothes, because I know I’m damn good at what I do regardless of how dressed up I look.
Samek, Alyssa A. and Theresa A. Donofrio. “‘Academic Drag’ and the Performance of Critical Personae: An Exchange on Sexuality, Politics, and Identity in the Academy.” Women’s Studies in Communication 36 (2013): 28-55.