On the fierce femininity of drag queens

Linguistics news from Stanford: the public portion of a PhD oral exam, next Monday, 6/19/17, 3-4:15: Jeremy Calder, Handsome Women: A semiotics of non-normative gender in SoMa, San Francisco.

Drag queens in the 2015 SoMa “Oasis Follies” drag night


This dissertation examines the relation between the linguistic and the visual in communicating social meaning and performing gender (in the Butlerian sense, e.g., 1990). Many sociolinguists and linguistic anthropologists adopt the view that different linguistic signs carry multiple social meanings. Previous literature has grappled with the fluid links between linguistic signs and their meanings (e.g., Silverstein 2003), arguing that the social meaning conjured by a linguistic form at a particular moment is dependent upon the linguistic context in which the form is situated (e.g., Eckert 2008). I adopt the view that for each linguistic sign, there is a range of possible meanings that narrows depending upon context (ibid.), and argue that an important part of this context is the visual presentation of the body. This work focuses on queer individuals who perform gender identity outside of the heteronormative binary. I argue that performances of gender can be either inhibited or enhanced by the visual bodily material within which they are situated.

I conducted an ethnography with a group of male-bodied drag queens and queer performance artists in SoMa, San Francisco, a community characterized by its anti-normative orientation to gender. This ethnography was supplemented with video- and audio-recorded interviews during which participants transformed into feminine drag, using makeup, wigs, and other resources. I documented this transformation to facilitate an analysis of the effects of fluid gender presentation on linguistic performance.

I focus on the pronunciation of /s/ forward in the mouth (i.e. the “gay lisp”), which results in a higher acoustic frequency that has been shown to correlate with femininity, both perceptually and in production (e.g., Campbell-Kibler 2011, Zimman 2013, Podesva and Van Hofwegen 2014). An acoustic analysis of /s/ among my participants reveals that they produce a more fronted /s/ on average than heterosexual and homosexual males in the same geographical region (e.g., Zimman 2013, Podesva and Van Hofwegen 2014). Expanding upon the ideological link between fronted /s/ and femininity in previous literature, I argue that among SoMa queens, visual presentation of the body influences the type of femininity fronted /s/ conjures. While many of the subjects feel performances like fronted /s/ are interpreted as inadequately masculine when they present male (e.g. sissy), dressing in feminine drag allows the same performances to conjure a more positive, powerful femininity (e.g. fierce) that the subjects use to wield social capital in their communities.

In the construction of their “fierce” femininity, participants draw upon qualities like “harshness” and “sharpness” across both the visual and acoustic modalities. In the recording industry, a process called “de-essing” is used by audio engineers to reduce the so-called “harsh” and “sharp” sibilance in a vocalist’s delivery, accomplished by reducing the volume in the frequency ranges sibilants typically occupy. SoMa queens discuss both of these qualities in their aesthetic choices — for example, painting on a “harsh contour” (a makeup technique used to exaggerate the highlights and shadows on the face), using “sharp eyeliner”, and achieving a “sharp” silhouette through the use of corseting and hip pads. Linguistically, SoMa queens increasingly draw upon these same qualities over the course of the transformation by increasing the volume of /s/ relative to other segments as they get into drag. I argue that the use of “harshness” and “sharpness” makes the queens’ performances of femininity more extreme in both the linguistic and visual modalities. Through a multi-modal congruence, the visual and linguistic streams become iconic of the extreme, larger-than-life, and “fierce” femininity the queens embody.

Oral exam committee: Penny Eckert and Rob Podesva (Linguistics, co-advisors), Miyako Inoue (Anthropology), Jonathan Rosa (Education; Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity). University oral exam chair: Yoshiko Matsumoto (East Asian Languages and Cultures)

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