Philly Drag Queen Offends With 9/11-Themed Performance. Did She Go Too Far?

Divine, from the Official Divine Facebook

Divine, from the Official Divine Facebook

When I was an undergrad, I took a feminist art history course as a random elective, and I loved it so much that I almost changed my major. When it came to the 1970s segment of the class, we spent a lengthy amount of time discussing performance artists. The piece I will always remember, not because of the physical performance, but because of the debate in our class surrounding it, was Carolee Schneemann‘s 1975 work “Interior Scroll.” In it, Schneemann posed nude while covering herself with mud. Then, she took a scroll out of her vagina and started reading it.

We were all really torn about whether or not to call Schneemann’s work “art.” That’s not really the point here: Call it whatever you want, but she really wasn’t harming anyone by performing the work, and it’s still considered one of the most provocative feminist “artworks” of the 20th century.

That clearly won’t be said about a performance that took place at last week’s Philadelphia Drag Wars competition that’s caused quite a stir. The show, which took place on September 11th, featured a number by drag queen Ariel Versace. Dressed in Muslim garb, Versace entered the stage adorned with bombs. From a balcony, someone threw dolls and shards of paper. The dolls were supposed to represent people jumping from the Twin Towers on 9/11, and the paper? If you watch footage from the day of the attacks, you can clearly see shards of Xerox copies falling from various offices in the World Trade Center.

Needless to say, a number of individuals didn’t find the performance too funny. People took to social media pretty quickly to remark on the act.

One Facebook user was pretty clear: The performance went way too far:

This is absolutely the shittiest thing I’ve ever seen anyone in the gay community do…What the fuck is wrong with this dumb bitch? …The performer needs to apologize to the community along with the contest host, Mimi Imfurst. Gay Muslims face prosecution in their countries and they are sentenced to death by hanging, public stoning, or a bullet to their head. Some, if they’re lucky enough, are fired to leave their friends, family, and country to escape death sentences because they are gay.

Ariel had quite a different view. “I’m not going to apologize for something that had no intention of being harmful,” she wrote. “The point was to create a mix about an offensive topic. I obviously reached that goal. Sorry to anyone who has a bad taste left if their mouth, but that was the point of the show.”

For those offended, she gave this advice: “It’s just a performance. It’s DRAG. Don’t take it so seriously.”

I reached out to two friends of mine who frequent Drag Wars and other drag shows in the Gayborhood.

“It’s a performance!” said one of them. “People can get offended at anything. I get offended every day when I look at the way certain people dress: does that give me a right to demand an apology?”

“I hear what you’re saying,” I replied. “But don’t you think this may have gone a little too far? On September 11th, of all days?”

“Look,” he said, “Maybe Ariel should have posted something on her Facebook wall about it afterwards. But Mimi shouldn’t have to apologize. And these people need a place to start somewhere! Look at Divine and Joan Rivers: they had to start somewhere, right?”

I told my other friend about the performance. His response was as a bit different.

“These performers are not Joan Rivers,” he said. “You can’t make that comparison. Despite what they may think, these people are a blip on a map. That act is repulsive. It is disgusting and has no place.”

Playing devil’s advocate, I asked, “Is there any room to say it was ‘art’ and a ‘performance?'”

“Bryan, it was 9 fucking 11!”

The next day, I ordered I Am Divine on Netflix. It is one of the best gay documentaries that I’ve ever seen, period, and it felt right to re-examine just how “wrong” Divine was on her rise to fame. Yes, she did some crazy things to become famous: She got raped by a giant fake lobster on film (see below), she ate dog poop at the end of Pink Flamingosand gave on-camera oral sex to a character who played her son. She danced and rolled around in a tub full of dead fish in Female Trouble.

Here’s the thing: You can eat dog shit all day, and get attacked by a costumed crustacean, and roll around in fish … and you aren’t harming anyone but yourself and your pride. Like I mentioned earlier, Schneemann wasn’t really harming anyone when she pulled the scroll out of her vagina.

But, the game changes when you are harming others, whether intentionally or non-intentionally. A performance on 9/11 that essentially re-enacts a terror attack where thousands of people lost their lives, while dressed in Muslim garb, is offensive, especially given that the sting of the attacks still lingers: Just recently, there have been questions raised by victims’ families about missing pages in the 9/11 Commission Report. This is still current, real, and present.

Then again, as my one friend suggested, “You know, Ariel did get voted through to the next round of the contest after that performance.”

Who knows? Maybe 30 years from now, we’ll be talking about the great “Ariel Versace 9/11 act” in art history classes.

But I highly doubt it.