Jamie: Drag Queen at 16

Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, which is available to watch on the iPlayer until the wee small hours of next Tuesday morning, is one of those documentaries that BBC Three commission every once in a while, just to undermine their reputation as the channel where comedy goes to die.  The title of the programme is, I guess, fairly descriptive, in that it follows Jamie Campbell, who is 16, as he takes his first steps towards becoming a drag queen.  I thought the programme was good, if not perfect, and had interesting things to say, both about Jamie Campbell himself, and some wider issues that his story gave the programme-makers the opportunity to explore.

Let me start with a brief note about drag.

I think quite a lot of people maybe still expect all drag queens to be in the mould of Lily Savage: played unambiguously for laughs, and very obviously a man in a dress.

Lily Savage: fabulous, but unlikely to be mistaken for a woman

This is still very much part of the drag scene, but there’s also been a recent strengthening of an alternative tradition, one that revolves around a more glamorous kind of queen who is more interested in ‘passing’ as female, and whose act consists of song and dance performances that are mostly played straight, if still a little tongue-in-cheek: RuPaul is probably the best-known example of this second kind of queen.

RuPaul: still an exaggerated and inauthentic version of femininity, but more focussed on glamour and sex appeal

This is an important distinction to take note of, because the men who become queens of this sort often feel that their alter egos are part of their personal identity in a way that comedic queens don’t.  It’s clear that Jamie falls into this second category – at one point he explains that he wants to be a drag queen because dressing as one makes him feel ‘sexy and beautiful and fierce’.

This is perhaps a distinction that the Metro’s reviewer is unaware of; certainly s/he didn’t much like Jamie, at least at the beginning of the programme:

When we first met Jamie Campbell, with his fey voice and pasted-on mannerisms, he seemed like a wearily familiar figure, a drama queen attention seeker intent on raising the bar from being the only gay in the mining village to the only gay teenage drag queen in the mining village.

Well, I disagree.  To me, Jamie’s ‘fey voice’ and his ‘mannerisms’ – by which I assume the reviewer means his effeminacy – were obviously not ‘pasted on’, but part of his authentic self (to the extent that it makes sense calling anyone’s demeanour in front of a film-crew authentic).  I’m sure it’s the case that Jamie could have been more straight-acting if he’d chosen to be, but this would have come at the cost of repressing an aspect of himself.  So far as I’m concerned, it’s a wonderful thing he hadn’t felt compelled or constrained to go down that route.  I don’t want to fall too deeply into the persona of a grizzled old greybeard activist, but this really is what the goal was all along, and it thrills me to see it achieved: a young man having the opportunity to be himself.

Not that this opportunity comes free, of course, even now.  It was clear Jamie (it feels overly familiar calling him that, but Mr Campbell would feel weird, too) had required considerable personal courage to come out at the age of 14, and the Metro review makes obvious the level of cynicism and contempt that camp and effeminate gay men still have to face.

(For the record, this is also a demonstration of why I always found Daffyd from Little Britain (the original ‘only gay in the village’, as I’m sure you know) to be a fairly poisonous character.  I know the sketches featuring him were intended as a satire of those awful, gloom-ridden coming out documentaries and dramas that used to get made, and on that level they worked.  But the character is so easily appropriated for purposes like those of the Metro reviewer: for insisting that effeminacy is fake; for insisting that anyone who is visibly gay must be a drama queen desperate to draw attention to himself (and fully deserving, therefore, of disdain and ridicule); for insisting, finally, that it’s ok to be gay, but only if you don’t seem gay.  We’ve moved on some distance from the bad old days of compulsory heterosexuality, but it does sometimes seem like the appearance of heterosexuality is still compulsory.)

Anyway, the documentary itself is an effective piece of work, following Jamie from his first private steps in towering high-heels, via workshops with an established drag queen and his first public performance at a drag club, to the climactic moment of him attending his end-of-school prom in full drag.  This had been described as Jamie’s goal from the very outset, and it wasn’t clear that he’d achieve it.  His father – who doesn’t appear in the documentary, but is nonetheless very present as a figure whose approval Jamie wants but fails to receive – was opposed to the idea, and an unnamed parent at the school tried to have Jamie banned on the grounds that a boy in a dress is ‘disgusting’.  Things came right down to the wire, with Jamie only finally being admitted when a significant number of other students came outside to join him, saying to the school authorities “no Jamie, no prom”.  (This last scene being captured via mobile phone footage, since the school had denied the documentary makers permission to film.)

It’s not a perfect documentary.  In particular, the way the programme handles the issue of gender expression is crass.  At one point a voice off-camera asks Jamie something like “Do you want to be a girl?”, which is a pretty stupid question to ask a drag queen (since the major appeal of drag – Fifi La True’s kind of drag, anyway – is the gender-fucking involved in a man dressing as a woman), and would be an appallingly insensitive question to ask a trans woman (since the whole point in such cases is that she is already a woman, albeit one with non-standard physiology).

Some aspects of the documentary also felt a little forced and unreal.  Towards the beginning, for example, the voice-over played up the idea that ‘nobody knows’ about Jamie’s interest in drag, but he’s then shown practicing his routine outside his house, in the dark, and picked out by the TV lights.  Clearly, either the voiceover was exaggerating, or (more likely) the scene was set up for the cameras, since someone who practices in such an open manner couldn’t expect his ‘secret’ to remain that way for long.  This last is a relatively minor caveat, however.  I think as TV viewers we’re pretty much beyond the stage of expecting documentaries to be true and faithful representations of unvarnished life – in the era of reality TV, we should be grateful that the manipulation of the material is so slight.

For the most part, I have to say I was pretty impressed.  The thing I found most interesting about the documentary was something that it didn’t directly address – namely the fact that drag, which was an important part of gay male identity in the pre-Stonewall era, and for a little while afterwards, seems to be re-emerging among a younger generation.  This interests me because it seems to undermine, or at least complicate, the widespread assumption that the cause of equality for gay people is leading inexorably towards us becoming a part of the bourgeois establishment.  This is something I’ve heard and read a lot lately, from people who regret the idea as often as people who celebrate it, but I’ve never been entirely convinced it’s true – or, at least, true for all of us.  There are undoubtedly gay people who want nothing so much as to melt into a conventional bourgeois existence, but the presence of people like Jamie suggests that the totality of gay experiences is going to remain a little more varied than that; even, possibly, that the narrow, crabbed insistence that all gay men have to be straight-acting will turn out to have been nothing more than a dour interlude in a more colourful history, a kind of short-lived cult of conventionality.  In any case, the possibility that this might turn out to be true gives me hope for the future.

In the meantime, something that gives me great hope in the present was also probably the thing that struck me most about the programme: the way Jamie’s straight, male friends took his drag alter ego so completely in their stride, turning up to see Fifi La True’s performance in the club, and standing with Jamie in his determination to go to prom in a dress.  Or actually, no, scrub that.  The thing that struck me most is related, but different – the fact that an out, effeminate teenager has several straight, male friends was itself fairly extraordinary to me.  I’m only (or ‘only’; I guess it depends on your perspective…) 38, but the changes there have been in the 22 years since I was Jamie’s age sometimes make me feel like a refugee from the Palaeolithic era.

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2 Responses to Jamie: Drag Queen at 16

  1. Ryan Taylor says:

    A fantastic post. I haven’t seen the documentary, but you’re dead on the money in terms of your analysis of this irrepressible desire that society has of only accepting homosexuality so long as ‘the gays’ act straight.

    Hiding your sexuality may not be needed anymore, but pretence still seems to be a massive part of it.

  2. Adair says:

    You might be interested in this link:

    http://practicalandrogyny.tumblr.com/post/7043498647/mx-justin-vivian-bond-interviewed-on-bbc-radio-4s

    It’s about a male-assigned non-binary-identified person who used to play a female character. I think there’s a fair number of people who do drag who also identify as part of the trans* community, and I wonder how that plays out. (Could be very confusing for people whose identities don’t match whatever they perceive to be the dominant narrative for people who appear/behave like they do.)

    I think that, for all that enforced gender norms linger on in many minds, there’s also plenty of spaces where you can very much break down that part of the establishment. (Including passports: http://practicalandrogyny.tumblr.com/post/6921508735/spacious-perspicacious-misc-a-uk-summary).

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