The Importance of Being EarnestPosted: March 8, 2013
It’s late, and here I am, watching another rainbow-filled episode of Rupaul’s Drag Race. The Season 5 drag queens are slathering on foundation, puckering their lips for fuchsia-colored lipstick, and highlighting their eyes with glittering aqua eye shadow, preparing to show off their transformation, their other side, their duality.
This past week’s reading was Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (The Seagull Reader) and some might wonder what does Drag Race have to do Wilde’s play. And the answer is: a lot, actually. The main parallel is that the play is considered a farce, a parody, a satire of the Victorian era – basically, everything and anything fun and funny – just like drag queens.
Jack Worthing, a respected man in Hertfordshire (a country estate), pretends to be Earnest, his irresponsible younger brother, so he can go to London (the city) and basically misbehave. Algernon Moncrieff, Jack’s friend/brother, invents Bunbury, a fictional invalid so that he too, can escape from mundane and serious situations. This play touches on themes of hypocrisy to morality to concepts of love; but the power of freedom is the theme that really speaks to me.
In Act I, Jack says: “When one is placed in the position of guardian, one has to adopt a very high moral tone on all subjects (262),” clearly referring to the strict and elitist attitude adopted during the Victorian era. Jack and Algernon’s response to this rigid life style is to create fictitious characters in order to satisfy their ego, live a little, and still be respected. Apparently, the elegant but stuffy Victorian conventions didn’t leave much room for fun.
When guys dress up as drag queens on Rupaul’s Drag Race, it’s the same concept that Wilde encourages: freedom of expression, the will to enjoy life, and being true to ourselves. Though it’s ironic that drag queens promote honesty under heavy makeup, a sky-high wig, and eight inch platforms, the message of freedom doesn’t change. And a huge part of it is saying “screw you” to the gender conventions and masculine/feminine stereotypes that plague us from the moment we’re born. When Jack and Algernon created their characters, they’re doing the same thing: giving the middle finger to their society – minus the Cleopatra wig and sequin gown (I think).
When I think of the word “earnest,” it means serious, and when juxtaposed against the ridiculous humor of the play – like Gwendolen’s fixation on Earnest’s name (“It is a divine name. It has music of its own. It produces vibrations (268).”), I see irony. The idea of a name creating such strong feelings could not be more absurd and less serious! Another example is when Jack says: “It is very vulgar to talk like a dentist when one isn’t a dentist. It produces a false impression (261).” The idea that Jack, who has an “immoral” false identity, is giving Algernon a speech about “false impression” is blatantly hypocritical and completely comical. Everything in the play is so dramatic and exaggerated that it’s just another parallel to drag queens.
Aesthetically, drag queens are comical exaggerations of people. The huge hair, Amanda Lepore-esque lips, and spooky contacts are all meant to honor, poke fun, and challenge the conventional perception of beauty. It speaks on the ludicrous obsession society puts on external beauty, wealth, and status, mirrored in similar values of the Victorian era. Inversely, the play and drag queens are encouraging introspection, and to question the legitimacy of personal values.
The Importance of Being Earnest, like drag queens, promotes self-acceptance and love through honesty and freedom. Essentially, this play is about everyone’s search for freedom to experience genuine happiness. And the avenue to achieving this is to not be so “earnest”; to challenge manufactured morality (the dual identities and Bunbury); to love who we want to love without pretense (Jack and Gwen, Algernon and Cecily); and to be honest with ourselves (Jack and Algernon’s shedding of the name Earnest, and the big reveal at the end). Though it’s sometimes all right to be earnest, it’s always fabulous to be free.