As a professional drag performer, it’s hard not to feel the impact of RuPaul’s Drag Race everywhere you turn. Undoubtedly, the reality show, in which drag queens compete to be the last contestant standing, has catalysed the mainstream cultural appetite for drag performers – but it has also limited conceptions of what drag can be.
When people find out that I’m a drag performer, one of the first remarks I get is: “You should so go on Drag Race,” and this is without having seen me perform. The truth is I really wouldn’t want to, and nor do I think it would celebrate my take on drag. I started drag long before watching the show, and whilst I enjoy tuning in, I’m not creatively or politically aligned with it. The show is not a ubiquitous demonstration of what it means to be a drag queen, and does not represent the zenith of success for all aspiring drag performers. So I was disappointed to read this weekend’s Guardian feature celebrating Drag Race as a truly subversive “F-you to male-dominated culture”.
Decca Aitkenhead’s frustrating write-up short-sightedly platforms RuPaul’s problematic viewpoints, many of which reject what should be drag’s inherent inclusivity. For instance, in a piece arguing that Drag Race is a critique of male-dominated TV culture, it simultaneously proliferates RuPaul’s misogynist belief that drag is at its best when it’s a men-only sport. He is quoted saying: “Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it, because at its core it’s a social statement and a big F-you to male-dominated culture. So for men to do it, it’s really punk rock, because it’s a real rejection of masculinity.”
This is enraging. How can it be that only men have the privilege of irony and transgression when it comes to gender identity? The idea that the social critique of male patriarchy can only really work when it is enacted by men is nonsensical and offensive. Does RuPaul believe that counter-culture, as well as mass-culture, should privilege male voices? RuPaul’s claims disregard the wealth of talent coming from bio-queen communities: cisgender or non-binary, female-bodied performers exploring drag femininity.
I’m a fan of many of these performers, and their work is far more transgressive than lots of the male queens on Drag Race. One such hero of mine is Victoria Sin, whom I made a film about for online video channel Nowness. Victoria’s drag far surpasses the aesthetic capabilities of many RuPaul contestants, and fiercely challenges the way we culturally understand femininity. When Victoria is in drag, their aim is to unapologetically take up the space around them – simply drinking a glass of milk on stage, or slowly buttering bread in a deadpan routine, demanding that we just watch them in all their glory. Their politics is to show that the daily labours of femininity expected of female bodies are invisible – they make this unmistakably visible by being in drag.
The weekend’s feature also gives air to RuPaul’s trans-exclusive rhetoric when he suggests conflict between trans and drag identities, discussing “the dichotomy of the trans movement versus the drag movement”. He is effectively arguing that whilst drag is gender-subversive, trans is gender-conforming.
This argument is reductive and misinformed. Firstly, there are an infinitude of experiences of what it means to be trans. And whilst trans women are women, who’s to say that they couldn’t also be involved in the parodying and exploration of femininity? The same question keeps arising: why does it become a men-only sport? There are many trans women who perform drag versions of femininity. One example is Amanda Lepore, a cult figure in the LGBT+ club scene, who has aesthetically revived images of Marilyn Monroe and old Hollywood in her looks. And last season of Drag Race saw a trans woman, Peppermint, reach the final – crucially for RuPaul, though, it was the fact that she hadn’t yet had breast surgery that meant she was “man-enough” to compete. Who’s the gender-conformist here, Ru?
Whilst RuPaul’s views may look subversive on the surface, a closer look reveals some divisive and regressive politics. If we really do want mass-cultural audiences to learn about minority experiences, in left-leaning newspapers and elsewhere, we need to present the issues and identities with the level of nuance and sensitivity they deserve.
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