Think Like A Drag Queen


This post is not to be confused with anything related to Steve Harvey’s book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man (or the movie, Think Like A Man).  I know nothing about it, but a quick internet search confirms my suspicion that I am saving myself from a waste of time and anger by avoiding it.

Rather, this is a post about embracing one’s inner confidence in academia. From reading The Ultimate Guide to Grad School Survival by Lesli Mitchell years ago, the one suggestion that sticks out in my memory is to pretend you are a drag queen at academic conferences:

Pretend you’re someone else who has more confidence.  I pretend I’m a drag queen when I do a reading (p. 160).

Mitchell offers this advice to overcome the nervousness and doubt we experience as we prepare for public speaking, particularly presenting at a conference.  Many people experience anxiety about public speaking — not just academics.  In part, this is because we want to do a great job.  But an internal voice (really, a critic) raises concerns that we are not strong enough, prepared enough, or qualified enough.  And, this is compounded by the fear of being negatively evaluated by our audience, and/or that something will go wrong during the talk.

But, because academia is hierarchical and status-obsessed, academics are constantly evaluated.  So, some have an internal critic that is constantly talking, casting doubt on small (e.g., my lecture won’t cover enough material) to big (e.g., I won’t get tenure!) matters.  This is further compounded by prejudice and discrimination in academia, leaving scholars on the margins at risk for a lifelong case of “imposter syndrome,” distress, and even the resultant health problems.

Fake It

There is some great advice out there on overcoming “imposter syndrome,” which I share at the end of the article.  One tip that I like is to “fake it ’til you make it”:

Acting as if I belong will eventually lead to belonging.  Imagining how I would behave if I were not feeling so insecure was useful. I just acted that way until I owned it (I even named my unflappable alter-ego and acted as if I were her. Also, I have a theme song. I don’t know: it just works!) (from gradhacker).

As Megan Fork, a very bright graduate student, pointed out, we can change how we feel internally by making external changes — at least to some extent.  The research of psychologist Dr. Amy Cudy demonstrates that how we hold our body — i.e., postures that signal greater (or lesser) power — alters our internal state (i.e., mood).  Of course, that has external meaning as body language, which signals to others how to perceive and interact with us.

If only it were that simple.  Adding insights from the sociological side of social psychology, we must acknowledge that others may sanction (or reward) our behavior.  Our behaviors, cognitions, and emotions do not exist in a vacuum; they are influenced by various social interactions and processes.  For example, a man standing in a “high-power” pose is accepted without question, yet a woman in the same pose may be dismissed as aggressive, bitchy, or a lesbian (as if these are bad things…).  So, to get ahead, we must think and behave in ways that indicate confidence and authority, but within the allowable limits for our gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, weight, social class, etc.

Think Like A Drag Queen

I really like Lesli Mitchell’s suggestion to pretend one is a drag queen.  And, I would extend this advice beyond conference presentations.  Drag queens are known to be confident, flashy, and provocative.  In a way, they embody stereotypically masculine behaviors — aggression, competition, and sexual prowess — but through feminine expression and attire.  There is an art to the drag queen’s ability to flip the audience’s power via evaluation (e.g., applause, or lack thereof) to her own control over the audience.  Audience members squirm in fear yet desire that drag queens will make jokes at their expense, or pull them into embarrassing interactions during performances.

This may be a useful mentality for academics to embody.  Students are taking your class; they work to make good grades by your standards.  You are offered a job because a university wants you; and, they hope you will do the work necessary to earn tenure and stay for life.  You have been invited to submit an article, present a paper, review others’ work, participate on a panel.  We must resist the easy temptation to live in constant fear of negative evaluations.  Even in the face of negative evaluations, we must recognize our strengths and accomplishments, and contexualize what the “haters” think appropriately (e.g., prejudice, standards that are not transparent, conflicting standards).  Or, take (drag queen superstar) RuPaul‘s perspective — “what other people think of me is none of my business” — at least to the point that you are actually formally evaluated and held accountable.

Make Them Eat It And Gag!

How my advice, to think like a drag queen, differs from the mantra of “fake it til you make it” is the recognition that traditional, mainstream academia does not want us (scholars on the margins), and will employ various strategies to keep us from “making it.”  It has been a long fight to even get through the doors of colleges and universities for women, immigrants, people of color, disabled people/people with disabilities, and people of poor and working-class backgrounds.  The fight to be treated as equals, taken seriously, and be rewarded continues for these groups, as well as people who are trans*, lesbian, bisexual, gay, and fat.

I see the world of drag as communities that have carved out their own spaces, but not with the intention of being accepted into the mainstream.  Drag, by its very nature, is subversive to the values of the heterosexist patriarchal dominant society.  Drag queens, in particular, differ from “female impersonators” because they do not aim to mimic the heterosexist society’s obsession with the gender binary, rather to mock and subvert it.  More specifically, for some queer people of color, there is a recognition that one will never be accepted into the mainstream.  Through the process of disidentification, the queer individual of color resists dominant ideology and embraces a “disempowered politics or positionality that has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture” (p. 31, Muñoz).

The gift that marginalized individuals have is the DuBoisian notion of a double consciousness.  By being kept outside of the dominant mainstream, we are in a unique position to better understand it.  Because behaviors and values celebrated by whites are taken for granted, they are unable to grasp a full consciousness of how these acts are socially constructed, reinforced, and performed.  As a person of color, I sometimes feel I understand whiteness and white culture better than white people themselves.  I feel I can effectively convince whites that I am just like them, albeit with brown skin.  But, it takes an additional oppressed status — for example, queer people of color and women of color — to see the trap of tolerance that some singly disadvantaged people fall into.  As white lesbian, gay, and bisexual people celebrate the recent victory in the movement for marriage equality, queer people of color watch with a suspicious eye as the tide reverses on racial justice.

The parallel for scholars on the margins is the ability to clearly observe the values, practices, and structures of academia.  We are the outsiders within.  To be so far removed from it — both by others’ force, and the disjuncture between academic values and those of our communities of origin — allows us to convincingly perform the normative role of “academic.”  We can show them that we came to work, that we are professionals.

But, we also have the alternative path of subverting it.  We can resist the messages that critical methodologies and marginal communities are inferior by recognizing the inherently hierarchical and oppressive natures and histories of those methods and fields that are considered acceptable.  Or, like myself, you can work to build up credibility and resources (former path) that allow you to more freely make changes (latter path).  For, “the haters will read, even if you peed.  You still the ‘T’ — just pose, turn, and flaunt.”  So, “make them eat it and gag.”

Eric | Denise

Eric                                                      Denise

Do It For The Children, Hunty!

Another bit of advice that others have offered is to find support and serve as a mentor.  During my first official week as a professor, I experienced great anxiety about how I presented myself, being taken seriously by my students and colleagues, and that stupid fear of being “found out.”  But, after a great first day in my Gender and Sexuality course, and then seeing two students (from that class) on campus, I was reminded that my agenda as an academic is to create change for and inspire the next generation — particularly those of marginalized backgrounds.  By focusing on myself, my own internal demons, I am taking attention away from offering support to others going through the same thing, and from being a role model.  I do not want to send the message to my students that they, too, can earn a PhD and land a job at a top university… if only they censor themselves and dress just like their privileged peers.  I want them to see a great scholar who is brown, queer, and fabulous.

By prioritizing improving academia, specifically to become a more welcoming, diverse, and socially just place, getting a job, earning tenure, getting published, etc. become means to that end.  I need not stew in my stress and worry about tenure because devoting all available energy just to winning tenure means I am doing nothing to better others’ lives, only serving my own (professional) needs.  And, I am better able to flip the question “do I belong here?” to “does this career/field/university work for my goals and values?”  (Fortunately, the answer is a clear “yes!”)

Seek Professional Help, If Needed

I do not mean to make light of the anxiety and self-doubt that underlies imposter syndrome — I know them all too well to think it a laughing matter.  But, RuPaul’s Drag Race, including RuPaul herself and her queens, have given me life.  After a tough day at work during my grad school days, my escape was the fantasy world of reality show drag realness.  Blogging was a useful escape during the dissertation phase.  Find something that works for you!

And, sometimes the weight of this form of distress is simply too much, too disruptive to our lives.  That is the point at which one should seek professional help.  This is just a job.  There is no reason why we should be suffering with mental health problems.  Frankly, I do not think it is worth it!

Actually, I would say to seek the help of a mental health provider even if the symptoms are mild, or just for regular checkups (the way we do for physical health).  Considering the persistence of the interpersonal and institutional factors that bring this on, there is no reason to feel ashamed or weak that you need to ask for help.  Consider it a long-term investment, so that you do not shorten your lifespan, have to take time off for health reasons, or retire early, or leave academia all together feeling bitter and stressed-out.  As it turns out, we are responsible for our own health and well-being — it is not our jobs’ responsibility (or concern, even).

Other Advice

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