Brow Beat

In the World of Wig, “Real” Drag Died With Wigstock

A new HBO doc mourns the loss of the gritty, transgressive NYC drag scene of the 1980s and ’90s. But its tears blind it from performers pushing the art form in new directions today.

Lady Bunny stares valiantly toward drag's uncertain future.
Lady Bunny at Wigstock. Mikhail Torich/HBO.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

Just in time for Pride Month, HBO has released Wig, a new documentary by Chris Moukarbel about Wigstock, the beloved drag festival created by iconic New York drag queen Lady Bunny that ran from 1984 to 2001. The film explores the East Village origins of Wigstock, the gritty nightlife scene that produced drag superstars like RuPaul, and the events that set in motion the contemporary drag movement. Lady Bunny, Flotilla DeBarge, Linda Simpson, and Kevin Aviance all deliver oral histories that run throughout, and Moukarbel includes interviews with new queens like RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Willam and Charlene Incarnate, a trans performer who is meant to represent the “new generation” of drag performers and the “Brooklyn Scene.” The film culminates with the festival’s resurrection in Wigstock 2018, an event designed to “bring drag back to its roots” with a multigenerational showcase of performers.

For those already familiar with Wigstock lore, Wig offers little new insight into its history. A significant portion of the documentary consists of archival footage from Nelson Sullivan and the 1995 Wigstock documentary, Wigstock: The Movie, much of which has been available online for years. The influence of Wigstock: The Movie weighs particularly heavily on Wig, which follows many of the same beats. But where the two films really diverge is in how they capture their respective presents. The 1995 film fully inhabits the era of the early-’90s drag scene while, Moukarbel‘s documentary, outside of a few shots of Charlene’s drag show and a brief mention of Bushwig (the drag festival that’s come to functionally replace Wigstock) captures very little of what drag culture looks like today. Instead, Moukarbel seems dedicated to advancing the narrative that “real drag” died with the end of Wigstock in 2001.

What is captured about the present is the tension between older and younger generations of the queer community. Lady Bunny’s commentary throughout the film, while charming, reveals a deep sense of resentment and suspicion about her drag successors, frustration she expresses through a handful of shady monologues. From the influence of RuPaul on drag (too careerist and professionalized) and the mainstreaming of homosexuality to the rising cost of living in NYC and the impact of technology on culture, Bunny’s anxieties reflect those one hears in many gay intergenerational conversations in 2019. For example:

There’s a lot that’s changed about New York. We talk about this sense of community but are we really in each other’s lives? I don’t think so, I think we’re all scrolling on instagram and I don’t like that community and I don’t like that community and I don’t need to be in a community with somebody who’s profile picture is a cat.

The impact of dating apps and social media on gay culture has been a source of anxiety and debate for years. The worry is that apps like Grindr and Instagram will end the necessity for queer spaces. All over the world, gay and lesbian bookshops, bars, bath houses, and dance clubs—places which have been crucial for community establishment and for the advancement of LGBTQ rights—have been closing at an accelerated pace. But these closings represent a fundamental shift in the way that many younger LGBTQ people relate to one another and to themselves. There is a suspicion that the mainstream acceptance of homosexuality will somehow make the queer spaces redundant and that, absent a uniting threat, the gay community will fall apart, leaving a sanitized, commercialized husk in its place. Again, Bunny:

We could use a dose of community. When we had a common enemy like rampant unchecked discrimination, inability to marry or serve in the military, or aids, we did come together because there was an enemy to fight. Now I think we’re tending to fight each other more. 

Bunny’s fear that an emphasis on individual identity is overtaking the LGBTQ community echoes the diagnosis of “narcissism” that every generation casts on the one below it. But the logic here suggests that a community requires oppressive or dangerous circumstances in order to come together. It’s a kind of conservative argument made by Daniel Harris in his 1997 book, The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, in which he argues that the”end of oppression necessitates the end of the gay sensibility,” and that entry into the mainstream will spell the end of the “gay subculture” as a distinct subset from American culture. “And yet,” Harris writes, “the fact remains that we feel sentimental about things like camp, drag, and aestheticism now that they are disappearing into the oblivion of a world dominated by Coke commercials and sitcoms.”

Wig is nothing if not sentimental for the way things used to be. And this sentimentality would be merited if drag really had died with Wigstock, but obviously it did not. While it’s undeniable that the LGBTQ and drag communities have changed since the ’90s heyday of the festival, the film declines to investigate what these changes mean or ask what they look like. Probably because acknowledging that an underground drag scene persists after Wigstock’s reign would undermine the film’s declinist narrative by proving that a thriving, creative drag community can exist, Wigstock or not. The fact remains that a vibrant community is doing all kinds of drag just outside of the frame of this film; it’s just not one that the film does not seem to recognize as a “community,” or at least not one worth documenting very closely.

In an interview with “up-and-coming queen” Charlene Incarnate, Moukarbel asks if she considers her drag similar to Lady Bunny’s. Her response could serve as a counterargument to the whole documentary:

No, we’re not of the same time. My message is different because I’m of a different time. I’m coming into drag in a time that needs visible trans women and trans bodies transgressing the drag stage.

Drag communities, LGBTQ communities, local communities, and, well, all communities change and respond to the needs particular to their time and cultural context. The film’s nostalgia for a previous era of drag blinds it from fully exploring what’s exciting and new about the drag community and people that contribute to it today. It’s a shame Wig didn’t do more to connect the dots between this generation of New York drag with the previous. Instead, we’re left with a mostly bitter complaint about glory days gone by—and there’s nothing worse than a bitter old queen.