Monday, August 17, 2009

Hitler Wore Pasties

If you would have told me when I was a little girl, that someday, a girl dressed as Hitler would beckon me from a stage with a riding crop and a crooked finger, I would not have believed you. And when it happened the other night, I still reeled with disbelief!

We were hanging right in front of the stage at San Francisco Drag King Contest, waiting to pelt our Latin lover Delicio Del Toro with tortillas during the Ricky Martin number. FACT: I was secretary/honorary vice-president of my friend’s Menudo fan club in middle school; it was called Mano a Mano con Menudo, but my favorite member was not Ricky Martin.

Earlier in the show, I had caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a stripper with an SS (Nazi) patch, and as she scampered up the stairs, I thought that there was no way that someone was going to come out in Hitler drag. I was immediately boggled because I see Hitler is an off-limits punchline. I believe in pushing boundaries in imaginative ways, but what is there to push when we’re talking about Hitler? Though I am -- perhaps detrimentally -- obsessed with the grayscale of human complexity, there are a few things that I see as black and white with little room for interpretation. Adolf Hitler is one of those things.

Anyway, despite my prediction I was going to be pissed and walk out of the Hitler number, I was surprisingly intrigued. It was all very high-energy, dazzling, and bafflingly compelling. I guess I was intrigued with the shock-value, as I spent most of the number with my hand in front of my face in dandy-esque shock (adjusting my cravat so I wouldn’t choke). This version of Hitler sucked his thumb and had a stretchy dong that was manipulated in a ways I cannot actually describe; I was already preparing what we were going to discuss and drunkenly analyze on the way home.

And then the stripper edged closer to the crowd and pointed at me. I shook my head (oh so demurely), but felt someone pushing me from behind. I heard a disembodied voice saying, “go! go!” and I could only squeal and bury my face in my girlfriend’s shoulders. There was just no way that I could have anything to do with a sexualized Hitler.

FACT: My family is part of an ethnic and religious minority group who are historically persecuted by the Russian government. Our family had nothing to do with the Nazi party or Hitler, but escaped government imprisonment, harassment, violence, and torture.
FUN FACT: They are called Molokan, which is Russian for “milk drinker.” Also, when my great-great grandfather was imprisoned in Russia, he was visited by Leo Tolstoy himself, who was a big fan of the Molokans. Finally, aforementioned great-great grandfather wrote a spiritual book that sort of resembles notes from an LSD-trip.

So, I feel a little conflicted. On the one-hand, I am a little flip about my family history, but the experiences of Molokans feel embedded in me on a sub-atomic level. Though there were about 500,000 Molokans at the end of the 19th- entury, today there are are approximately 20,000 Molokan descendants worldwide and only 2,000 go to church regularly to maintain the religion. For every person going to church, 250 died or didn’t carry the identity or religion forward.

And, their story is inspiring: my great-grandparents walked overland from the Caucasus to Spain and then sailed to Los Angeles and then built an entirely Russian-speaking church so that I could, today, experience the sweet freedom to find salvation wherever I find it, and since I can find personal salvation in drag and queerness in general, then do I need to feel conflicted at a drag show? Even if I am not what my relatives had in mind for Americanized descendants (there is even a word for me: ninosh, or unclean), I embody a type of freedom that was certainly part of Maxim Rudometkin’s spiritual trip, and that freedom includes living in a country obsessed with freedom of speech and living in a community of people who think outside of societal norms in an effort to make life better.

On the other hand, even if I found the Hitler-based stage show dazzling from a boundary-pushing standpoint, I still arrived at a place of wondering: why? It’s not so much that I felt offended at watching the Hitler stripper, but that since I believe in drag’s ability to create new realities and identities through titillation and suggestion, I couldn’t identify a point to watching Hitler shake his booty. Watching a jiggling swastika felt gratuitous. And yet, I couldn’t stop watching, even after I refused contact.

But then, does drag have to have a ‘point’? Or, more accurately, is the line from drag to meaningfulness so clear-cut? I am wildly entertained by drag shows where a bunch of hot queers sing Boys II Men, but am not really sure why girls who look like boys inspire such profound philosophizing in me. It may just be because genderqueer fags, particularly female-bodied people passing as men, are hot to me in a way that everyone else isn’t. Is it possible that if the person posing as Hitler had a body type I was attracted to, that the performance would have tilted firmly towards titillation? Or, maybe if it had been a butch Hitler, I would have been more overtly offended because it would have felt more true to life? This Hitler had wisps of blonde hair intriguingly peeking out from under the SS hat, and in that respect, maybe the image existed– for me -- firmly not in drag, but in costumed-stripper, and so for me, the individual components didn’t add up to anything, leaving the suggestion of Hitler-adoration too compelling to ignore.

I think for me, perhaps more pertinent than my family’s history as a religiously persecuted people, is that I grew up in an Orange County suburb rife with active neo-Nazis. Seeing swastika’s spraypainted on lockers or hand-stenciled on items of clothing in abject seriousness was a regular part of my high-school experience. Sometimes, I still cannot process what I saw or experienced. When I read newspaper articles about the neo-Nazis who named their child “Adolf Hitler” and pushed to have a birthday cake with his name on it, I can’t get behind their civil liberties, because all I can see is selfish and ignorant hate that I experienced in high school. Personally, I can recognize that my reactions to seeing someone stripping as Hitler may be related to my own experiences, but then again, it’s not like I have some unique relation to history that other people don’t. I’d bet a million tortillas that there were more Jews than Molokans in the audience, and neo-Nazis are everywhere. I kept looking around the crowd trying to ascertain other people’s reactions, and I couldn’t quite figure it out. There were plenty of people cheering and clapping, but other people may have been similarly as confused as I was.

Interesting that I started the show thinking that Hitler is "always" off-limits, but once the Hitler-with-pasties was about to touch me, suddenly it became more complicated. Drag pushes the viewer to consider the tenuousness of identity and image, and no matter how in your face (swastika) or subtle (concealed package), I realize the folly of hanging my hat on any sort of truth, whether it's about gender, or about ethnicity and history and political correctness. Once again, drag yanks me -- in all of my awkward shyness - to consider something about myself.

Anyway, so with that all said, since I am obsessed with etiquette, I feel that I must comment on the trend of taking one’s shoes off at a show. Peeps, I can understand if your pointed shoes and/or heels are hurting, but standing barefoot on a club floor looks so disgusting that I can barely stomach it. I guess I can’t really say that there’s anything wrong with it – they’re your feet, what do I care? – but I’ve seen this more than once now and am a little flummoxed.

But, just to be fair, I’ll turn the laser beam of judgment on myself: if you are drinking beer in a show, hold onto it with both hands, and don’t spill it, no matter how badly you want to clap for the performers or rip into a tiny bag of peanuts. It’s always a good idea to make friends with the people standing around you by not dousing them with Sierra Nevada, because you never know when you’ll need to shove them towards the Hitler stripper beckoning to you from the stage.

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