ON AN AUTUMNAL Friday afternoon, we had the opportunity to talk to seniors Madeleine Bouton and Phoebe Oathout, the artistic minds behind Give Face, a drag performance that was hosted earlier in the quarter at 576 Alvarado with the support of the Freeks performance collective. While sitting in Madeleine’s room with guitars hanging on the walls and beautiful wigs displayed on the dresser, Phoebe and Madeleine shared with us an insight into their respective personal relationships with drag, the significance of the art form, and the imperative and unique role that drag has, and should continue to play, on campus.
PULSE: HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE DRAG?
Phoebe: I think of drag as this kind of ridiculous take on gender and how confining it is, how it pertains to sexuality, how it pertains to beauty within yourself. And ‘ridiculous’ is a large and encompassing term, so I think of something that is both glamorous and really freaky. That’s a really incredible thing that drag invented or began to invent. Glamour and freakishness can come together in one. That’s what drag is to me.
Madeleine: I completely agree. And it originated as a haven for the most marginalized people in society, and so, as much as it is about challenging norms, elevating femininity, and offering a space for queer experience and queer expression, we can’t forget how it began. And as a cisgender woman, it is a privilege for me to be a part of this.
P: CAN YOU DESCRIBE GIVE FACE FOR PEOPLE WHO DIDN'T GET A CHANCE TO SEE IT?
M: It was a true celebration. It was gritty, dirty and wonderful, unexpected. A large part of it was improvisational. It came together last minute, which I think was a fundamental part of it.
P: It didn’t take itself seriously, yet it talked about serious subjects. It was advertised as a show – you know how people are always talking about hybrid art forms? It was like 80’s, 90’s club kid circuit party meets Ram’s Head show. Truly anything goes, as long as it’s blowing my mind. Do it.
P: WHAT EXPERIENCE WOULD YOU SAY YOU HAD WITH DRAG CULTURE AND PERFORMANCE BEFORE GIVE FACE?
M: In high school, the drag I saw was like what you see a lot of on RuPaul. Totally fabulous. But in college I saw Silkworm and Britney Smears’ performance at FKA our sophomore year and it was something entirely different. It was strange and challenging and brilliant art that I hadn’t seen before, and for the first time I was like ‘holy shit, wow, I would love to be a part of something like this’.
P: I performed some sophomore year, and it was very amateur versions of
the type of drag that I’m interested in, which is still trying to be fun but also really rooted in pain that has to do with the body. As a trans woman that wasn’t out, drag was how I first started allowing myself to wear femme clothing and it was an experience I had to constantly negotiate. I thought, ‘I’m wearing this clothing in a way that could ultimately be seen as a joke,’ and that’s something that we tried to keep in mind during Give Face. Drag today is often assumed to be exclusively ridiculous and funny and flippant, but we know that drag is really real and it’s about exploring a lot of things whether you’re cisman, ciswoman, trans, anything, that you don’t get to be every day.
M: At Stanford, the poignancy of being who you are is stripped away from you sometimes. I find that drag is ‘alright, let me celebrate’.
P: It’s just much more subversive at Stanford. It has been made loud and clear to us over four years that we are not the stereotypical Stanford student, and we never had the language to discuss that feeling until we found each other and bonded over it. What’s even harder is that as much as I feel like Stanford is embarrassed of people like me, it’s still a walk in the park compared to the real world. I have been told really screwed up stuff by people at Stanford, bad things, when I’ve worn girl’s clothing, but not nearly as bad as what has been said in the real world to me.
P: HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH THE UNPREDICTABILITY OF AN AUDIENCE WHO MAY NO BE WELL INFORMED ON THE HISTORY OF DRAG, OR WHAT IS AT STAKE?
P: Maddie and I have been talking about this so much this past week because drag and identifiers for the queer community are becoming more and more accessible lately. So, for example, if RuPaul is speaking to ten million households in the United States saying ‘yas queen’ and ‘work honey,’ that language becomes accessible to everyone, not just queer people. Power is taken away when we give that language to people who don’t know anything about queerness and suddenly have access to it. This is also not about your gaze on us. This is about a dialogue among ourselves. For example, in my performance, I did Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” and, as a trans-woman, I get naked during it and I’m like ‘Hey, I’m beautiful.’ But I want you to sing the lyrics back to me. If I’m a woman and I have a penis and I’m beautiful, then excuse me, Becky from Soto, of course, you’re beautiful too. While transness is important, this isn’t just about that.
M: The performers are given a voice, and also the audience is given this outlet for a particular type of response that in itself is a voice.
P: Dysmorphia is definitely not exclusive to trans people, and what we are doing allows us to have a dialogue. I was even getting an education from the audience, and that’s why we really stress this party atmosphere. Not necessarily a didactic show, or something that is polemic.
M: An engaged audience is the most ideal audience. An audience, who is like, ‘I wanna perform in the next show.’
P: Thinking about the communities that are on campus, you know, what does it mean if
frat boys are there? A Stanford fraternity is not like your classic fraternity, but it’s still an all-male institution. What are we trying to do, for them and ourselves, when we perform for that audience?
M: Post-show, one of the most rewarding things to me was hearing frat boys say ‘I learned so much and am totally mind blown by this performance.’ That was so great at the end. ‘I am challenged, I want to know more about this, and also I really enjoyed myself.’
P: This isn’t just about us teaching a lesson. Maddie and I are having a party the whole time!
M: And the performers are having a party! And the audience is having a party!
P: And the education is still happening.
P: HOW DID YOU DEVELOP YOUR DRAG PERSONAS?
P: Princess the Apocalypse came into my head around the time I realized I was not a boy. I did not always know that I was a woman; I first knew that I was not a boy, and Princess the Apocalypse was this persona, freshman year of Stanford, I would always DJ as whose gender was this thing I described as ‘cosmic princess’. I would wear these crazy cosmic outfits. But she started to take a back seat until I did drag sophomore year. At first, I used a different name, Krystal Beth, and I don’t know, maybe that was too flippant of a name. I am about being freaky but also glamorous. If the end of the world is Princess the Apocalypse, it’s gonna be like, ‘Oh my god, this is horrible, but oh, it is glamorous.’
M: So mine is in a constant state of flux. I was Ellis Dee, and it has recently changed to Misqué. And at the core of my drag persona is something like excess, disregard, and over-sexualization of the body. There is the body sexualizing itself, as opposed to being sexualized by others. I can be interpreted by others and sexualized by others, maybe for the way I dress, or the way I act, who knows? But as a drag persona, I am able to sort of reclaim that sexuality and say ‘Fuck what you think.’ I am nothing but what I say I am, and you know, no one else gets to decide that for me.
P: My transition was so problematic at some points. Like many women, I thought, ‘my worth as a woman is determined when men find me attractive,’ and that took a lot of unlearning. When you are raised a man, you don’t even think that you are going to have to unlearn that, but I had to unlearn it. Before I really realized who [Princess the Apocalypse] was, as my dragpersona, my entire womanhood was about being pretty for men. And then when I found that name again and thought, ‘no, this is about me being so beautiful and terrifying at the same time.’
P: HOW WOULD YOU SAY THE CURRENT VIBE OF THE DRAG CULTURE IS COMPARED TO HOW IT WAS 2 YEARS AGO, OR 3 YEARS AGO?
P: I feel like organizing the first show was a lot of us saying to performers, ‘you can literally do anything you want.’
M: I think that that’s exactly what it is, we want all sorts of drag, we want gender fuck.
P: In the past, it was harder to get drag kings because drag was still considered to just be men impersonating women. We had an advantage this first time around because there were a ton of drag kings that wanted to come out. That already makes our drag radical compared to whatever the “norm” of it is. We have commentary on masculinity from ciswomen.
P: HOW DID QUEER CULTURE AND THE EXPRESSION OF QUEER CULTURE AT STANFORD AFFECT THE DEVELOPMENT OF THIS PERFORMANCE?
P: We asked ourselves, “who are we doing this for? Are we doing this to teach a bunch of frat boys about gender?” No. We’re doing this for ourselves, and that’s where a lot of the inspiration came from. Queer culture has the incredible luck of being one that encourages
parties and celebration to talk about identity or to heal. So, it’s inevitable that something like Give Face happens. And we really wanted queer people to perform in it. The experience is always going to be queer anyway. I don’t know if any straight cismen performed in it, but if you get a straight cisman in a wig and makeup, that’s queer. The art form itself is queer regardless.
M: Right, like I told this random KA guy that I met this year about Give Face, and he looked super excited. He was like ‘do I get to come in women’s clothing?’ When I said yes, he was like ‘that’s dope!’ He seemed almost nervous to say something like that, but in this space you don’t have to be nervous.
P: How freaking awesome is that? We get to do this thing where people that would be assumed men in the real world can come wearing dresses. And no one is going to say something mean to you. If, god forbid, someone ever did something like that at Give Face, they would be thrown out and never allowed to come back. But, as a transwoman, that does not exist in the real world. Every day on the sidewalk, even every day at Stanford, is like ‘who’s looking at me and who is looking at the crotch of my pants to see if my bulge is showing?’ That would
never happen at Give Face.
P: WHAT WAS THE AUDITION PROCESS LIKE?
M: It was basically just reaching out with an email blast and then responding to whoever was interested. And, on top of that, we had to reach out to people directly. A lot of people who wanted to but weren’t quite ready, and then post Give Face, were like ‘oh, shit. Isaw what this was, I’m comfortable doing this.’
P: It’s going to be different this second time around. It’s going to be so different. Every
day someone is saying to me ‘I thought about this little thing I could do at Give Face.’ We were also conscious that our cast was super white. So, in our reflections after the show, we decided that a more diverse cast in terms of race has to happen.
M: That’s a priority.
P: Also a diverse cast in terms of socioeconomic backgrounds, which I also think is a
diversity that’s often overlooked, especially in theater. Drag is so expensive! And we want this to be an art form accessible to everyone.
P: DO YOU HAVE ANY FURTHER PLANS FOR THIS PROJECT?
P: Oh my god, we’re working on a show with this incredible group of people! They’ve
blown our minds, and we’re doing more of these. We’re just excited to keep the party going.
P: IF THERE'S ONE THING YOU WANT TO LEAVE FOR THE GROWING COMMUNITY, WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE IT TO BE?
P: You can be so scary, and so beautiful, and so weird, and people are going to love that. I spent my first two years at this school trying to be a perfect boy, first, and then trying to be a perfect cisgirl, second, and failed beautifully at both. Thank god I found this because I realized that I can be scary and beautiful at the same time, and people will love that more than anything else I did while I was here.
We are grateful to have had Phoebe and Madeleine briefly bring us into the world of drag at Stanford with them, and share with us their own experiences, and hopes for the future of this inclusive and evolving culture on campus. Keep your eyes and ears open and be on the lookout for the next drag performance next quarter!
CHECK OUT SOME OF THE GIVE FACE CAST
BIG BIG MIKE
Luke Soon Shiong:
Prince Johnny, Who's Not Annie One At all
PRINCESS THE APOCALYPSE
CHIPPY THE VALET
By: Lexi Neilan & Anna Ceci Rosenkranz
Photography by: Jonathan York