Bowie and gender transgression – what a drag

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Same old thing
In brand new drag
Comes sweeping into view

– David Bowie, Teenage Wildlife (1980)

Time and again, David Bowie has confounded us with enigmatic acts of gender transgression.

Those acts have been fuelled by a restless drive for recreation, often in the form of ambiguously-gendered personas, such as Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke.


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The cover for David Bowie’s album, Changes One Bowie (1972), illustrates the androgynous Thin White Duke persona, in which Bowie drew on the gestural traits of Frank Sinatra.
RCA Records

Bowie’s mutating personas do not simply emerge from a constant need for transformation. They are created as part of a complex process of performativity, in which Bowie mimics and re-animates the gestural traits of performers such as Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Greta Garbo, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra.

In her book Gender Trouble (1990), Judith Butler described this aspect of gender play as “drag” – an ongoing process by which gender is performed, imitated and re-performed.

Bowie fell to earth and thrust himself into this cycle of mimicry at a prescient moment in the seismic landscape of gender politics. Never content to just mimic the costume and bodily gestures of other performers, Bowie has been a cultural alchemist, hybridising gestures with references from music, theatre, philosophy, literature, avant-garde art and cinema.



Image courtesy of ACMI

In the process, he has given new life to certain gestures, performing acts that transgress the boundaries of normalised gendered behaviour.


The cover for David Bowie’s album, The Man Who Sold The World (1970).
Mercury Records

This has been played out progressively over several of Bowie’s album covers. His elaborately feminine dress and reclining pose on the cover for The Man Who Sold the World (1970) provocatively invites us into his game of gender play.

Bowie’s pose and self-touching gestures on the cover of Hunky Dory (1971) are drawn from those of Garbo, Hepburn and Dietrich. For the Aladdin Sane (1973) album cover, Bowie mutates beyond gender. He is reborn as an exquisitely androgynous, carnal alien, who plays with the alienation of being “Other”.


The cover for David Bowie’s album, Hunky Dory (1971).
RCA Records

Alienation and gender fluidity also play out in Bowie’s music videos. A particularly enduring gestural act is performed in the music video for Boys Keep Swinging (1979), directed by David Mallet.

In the midst of his drag of Hollywood starlets, Bowie aggressively pulls his wig off and throws it off stage, then with the back of his hand, defiantly smears his lipstick across his face. Reappearing moments later as another drag persona, he repeats those gestures, as if to reinforce the gender subversion.

Being a master of drag, Bowie probably foresaw the cyclic reiteration of the back-handed lipstick smear. It resurfaces in the music video for China Girl (1983), when New Zealand model Geeling Ng smears her lipstick in a clear echo of the Boys Keep Swinging video – but this time as an act of defiance to the racial positioning of the “exotic Other”.