Drag in the Birdcage by Amanda McAfee

The heterosexual norm, a fiction, regulates the sexual field when it should only be used to describe it. Gender need not be defined by biological “sex, desire, or sexuality generally” but is informed by these categories. (Butler, 173) Ones actions, gestures, and desires are modes through which the outward bodily fabrication of gender can be displayed.

The idea that the interior, soul, is up for public and social discourse because the fabricated and performative are understood as a direct reflection of the interior is erroneous. This illusion that the core falls into categorical gender definitions is used in a regulatory manner for political, social and moral means.

In this scene from The Birdcage (Mike Nichols, 1996, USA) Robin William’s character is trying to teach his partner how to act like a man so that he can pass as their son’s straight uncle to meet his fiancés conservative parents. Here we see Armand teach Albert how to walk like a man. Specifically, John Wayne, a western icon of masculinity, who provides a perfect performance to mimic, as it is recognizable.  This is a perfect example of performative gender yet it is being used to convince the outside of what the biological sex alone cannot, which is in contrast to Albert’s feminine spirit.

Albert is also a drag star and a drag performance is a double inversion of the body to reflect the interior self yet in direct opposition to the biological sex. When the performative gender is in conscious contradiction to the known biological sex the illusion that these truths cannot coexist, then the social illusion is shattered, yet gender reality is created through a consistent social performance. In the clip Albert is trying to intentionally don this illusion of stylized masculinity to mask his gender reality, which is feminine, which augments the another layer of self reflection onto drag’s two foldedness that further highlights “the restricting [frame] of masculinist domination and compulsory heterosexuality.” (Butler, 180)


Judith Butler, “From Interiority to Gender Performatives,” Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1999), 171-180, 215-216.

Full scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SfrhCvDLlCg

Specific clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JuASKA1yxp8

One comment

  1. I like how this clip blurs the lines of what we would expect from camp, but delivering it in an understated way. Obviously the impersonation is ridiculous, but it’s also toned down. What I like most about this example is that it is actually funny, and you are not cringing at the site of watching it.

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