Photo by Leigh-Anne Brown
Rather than “drag queen” or simply “drag performer,” Austin based performance artist Paul Soileau calls Christeene, his trashy, endearing, slightly frightening and ambiguously gendered persona, a “drag terrorist.” This term is reminiscent of José Esteban Muñoz’ discussion of Vaginal Creme Davis in the book Disidentifications, in which he characterizes the African-American performer’s shows in whiteface as “terrorist drag,” a strategy for acting outside dominant discourses about the politics of identity in order to exact radicalsocial critique. Covered in bruises and smeared lipstick, Christeene wears an unkempt black wig and dresses that are often recycled pillowcases, dirty lace or simply knotted lengths of pantyhose. In the course of a performance, Christeene will show you her balls and reveal her gold tooth while spitting on you, barking lyrics about her dick and her pussy. In other words, she is a far cry from what most audiences have come to expect from a drag show. And yet, after a show in front of an audience filled with go-go-dancer-ogling, Chelsea Boy types in the Los Angeles gay bar Fubar—a venue where Soileau initially read the audience as wary of Christeene’s aesthetic—one of those muscle men approached her and said, “You really just changed the way I think.”
At another Christeene performance, Soileau recalls seeing a more traditional-looking drag performer in blonde wig, flawless theatrical makeup and evening gown, standing near the stage with arms crossed, an expression of predetermined consternation on her face. This drag queen was determined to hate Christeene—and yet by the end of the show, she was dancing along with the rest of the audience, her seeming contempt replaced by giddy enthusiasm. It is possible to read this reaction as symbolic of Soileau’s own battle against a category that Muñoz identifies as “commercial drag”—the presentation of a “sanitized and desexualized queer subject for mass consumption.” This stereotypical drag queen, dressed in the trappings that, thanks to corporate-sponsored television programs like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and Hollywood films such as The Birdcage, read as standard, is a stand-in for mainstream conceptions of drag performance as a nonthreatening form of transvestitism or genderqueerness. Soileau’s disidentificatory strategy is not intended to alienate that mainstream contingent or reject the image it perpetuates but, rather, to hold a mirror up to it. And the reflection Christeene offers includes the necessarily unsanitized underbelly of queer experience—the ambiguity of identifying as queer and the anger and humor that is part and parcel of that experience. Similarly, Christeene was exposing that Chelsea Boy audience to another side of queer—a side that at least one member of the audience was tempted to contemplate. The radical social critique in Christeene’s performance ultimately addresses the same hegemonic system that sterilized perceptions of drag culture and queerness in the first place—the indiscriminate consumption of mass culture that Christeene, a sort of collective Picture of Dorian Gray, emerges from and also lays to waste.
After the initial shock or discomfort of seeing Christeene on stage, reactions shift from laughter to envelopment in the energy of the music and dancing. Like the blonde drag queen, the crowds inevitably default to cheering her on. If Christeene’s performances were any less deliberate—if her bear truck drivers moonlighting as backup dancers seemed a little more self-aware of their ironic presence, if the synchronized dance moves weren’t choreographed down to the beat, if the sound and lighting seemed half-assed, if the rouge applied between Christeene’s butt cheeks (to simulate chafing) were applied less subtly—then the effect of the show would be not only haphazard but ultimately boring. The calculated quality of Christeene’s execution convinces audience members that she respects them; she is not playing a trick on them or insulting their intelligence by choosing to play a character who seems to have the speech development of a fourth grader. Her Cajun-inflected, guttural baby-doll voice is speaking their language, or at least a language that they can recognize, though some may not wish to admit it, because her vocabulary is honed from the basest of popular culture—the mass media at its celebrity-obsessed, scandal-addicted, reality-TV-laden worst. Her angriest song, which she usually reserves for the closing number, is “African Mayonnaise.” It conveys Soileau’s sentiments most explicitly:
I am your new celebrity
I am your new america
I am the piece of filthy meat
that you take home and treat to yourself
Ain’t never seen so much bullshit on your tv screen
y’all’s magazines got
stupid people pushin on them twitter dreams and money schemes
y’all try to roll with it
and fuck that hole with it
it takes its toll
now worship on my skank troll
Though the lyrics to this New Orleans, fast-rap inspired anthem are raunchy, and Christeene delivers them with substantial rage, she is not demanding that we as her audience hold ourselves accountable for this, our national zeitgeist. Just as Christeene rips the mask off of commercial drag, she also takes on the grotesque personification of those celebrities famous for being famous and little else yet continually followed by mass media and paparazzi, recording their quotidian habits and personal scandals and hocking them as news. Christeene is a reminder that these people, underneath the hype of overwrought publicity and rampant conspicuous consumption, are not the source of our redemption and do not hold any secrets that will save us. We must do that for ourselves.
There is a reason that Soileau made Christeene stupid: if the artist’s persona is an ignorant vacuum then audience members become the torchbearers of meaning and import for the artwork. Often what we end up seeing in a performance or a work of visual art has a lot to do with the projection of our own subjectivity into our experience of the work. This idea has been more or less commonplace since Andy Warhol started answering all interview questions simply with “yes” or “no,” and critics and viewers began to interpret his artworks as avenues of self-reflection rather than as objects embodying the artist’s intent. And what does Christeene mirror back at us? That we are angry, that we are able to laugh at ourselves, that laughing does not mean that we are insensitive and that we still care.
Chelsea Weathers is a freelance writer and a PhD Candidate in art history at The University of Texas at Austin.