One of the current crazes at my son’s school is squishy toys that slowly regain their shape after you scrunch them up. I think they originally took off in Japan and most of them seem to be food with cute faces, but the one he picked out to spend his allowance on was a penguin in a tiger suit. He named it Icicle Jones. Looking at that serious little face peeking out from the stripy orange tiger hood, I feel a certain kinship with Icicle Jones. As RuPaul says, we’re all born naked and the rest is drag.
This month I decided to take a break from playing video games in an effort to focus more on creating things, and instead I ended up filling the void with binge watching episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race. I think I got sucked in partly by the fabulousness of drag itself, and partly because it’s fascinating to watch people come face to face with how other people see them and try to reconcile it with their own self-image. I realize that’s always an element of competition-based reality shows, but there are just so many layers when you throw drag into the mix. In addition to who they are in real life and their persona as a performer, each contestant has a fully formed drag character who they’re expecting other people to read in a particular way. The format of the show forces everyone to publicly commit to a story of themselves and then play it out against the people around them.
Of course a big part of it is how the footage is cut and I have no idea how much of the story arc is created after the fact or staged, but the finished product highlights the places where story and reality fail to sync up. Sometimes it’s that their drag persona isn’t hitting the note they think it does, like when “upbeat and bubbly with a vintage aesthetic” comes off as “manic and wearing her grandmother’s housecoat.” That’s personal, because who they are in drag is also a big part of who they are, but it’s a failure to perform in an area that they usually have a clear sense is a performance. When it’s about how they’re behaving off the stage, some of them are able to see that as a kind of performance as well but others, well…freak out.
What I’ve noticed is that the people who can’t accept it when who they think they are isn’t how other people see them are highly likely to end up Lip Syncing for their Lives. It’s left me pondering the distance between who we are, who we want to be, and who we want to be seen as. It seems to me that they’re distinctly different things that unfortunately don’t necessarily overlap. I think we all have an aspirational self – who we want to be in our heart of hearts – and we’d love other people to see us that way, but if that’s not who we are then we have a choice to accept it or fake it. (Or live in denial, see above re: Lip Syncing for your Life).
The funny thing though, is that it doesn’t actually seem like how people feel about us has as much to do with how close we are to being our aspirational selves as it does with how realistic we are about where we’re at. For instance, maybe you aspire to be on time and probably your friends would prefer that, but if you keep planning to meet them places and leaving them standing around waiting because you want to be the kind of person who would be there on time they’re going to be upset. If you admit you’re temporally challenged and plan to meet them at home ahead of time so they can do whatever they want while they wait, odds are they’ll be fine with it.
I think most people want to be seen as reasonable and sane, but it’s more important to be realistic and honest. It means taking the scary leap of letting other people tell us how they really feel about who we are, and sometimes that answer might confirm our worst fears that they don’t think we’re good enough. Sometimes they might even be right that we could or should be trying harder, but often they’ll accept us as we are because they like us and they’re not perfect either, or because what we think of as a big deal isn’t even that important to them. If we’re busy trying to fool other people about who we are, or worse yet fool ourselves, how can we ever really be sure we’re loved?
Icicle Jones’ tiger drag makes me think of cartoons where animals keep unzipping their animal costumes and other animals step out, like Ralph E. Wolf and Sam Sheepdog in Chuck Jones’ cartoon short A Sheep in the Deep (1962). Ralph catches a sheep which unzips its suit to reveal Sam, then Ralph unzips his suit to reveal a sheep, Sam unzips into Ralph and round they go, getting skinnier each time. All clothes and gender are a performance, it’s just that some people aren’t willing to acknowledge that normative gender is still arbitrary and performative. Take 18th century men’s fashion with powdered wigs and stockings, for instance, or the fact that pink used to be considered a masculine color and boy babies were dressed in frilly lace nighties. It’s like Dr. Seuss’ Star Bellied Sneetches – we just pick a set of rules and you’re only okay if you play by them, but it doesn’t really matter what they are and they change over time.
Icicle Jones is adorable and exactly who he is, whether he’s dressed like a tiger or totally naked. To quote RuPaul one more time, it’s never been the clothes that make the man.
alex MacFadyen’s favorite animal zipper suit is Gir from Invader Zim.
“The funny thing though, is that it doesn’t actually seem like how people feel about us has as much to do with how close we are to being our aspirational selves as it does with how realistic we are about where we’re at.”
Very much yes. I also think about how desperation to be one’s aspirational self can lead us to unintentionally try to use other people as mirrors who confirm that we are, indeed, who we want to be or who we imagine ourselves as.