The announcement of a RuPaul’s Drag Race UK sent drag communities into overdrive. Reactions were mixed: some wonderfully shameless thirst, and some stagey disavowal from queens who will definitely apply. There was also fear, or ambivalence. And then finally, a sense of hope.
Would the UK show be mostly oriented around cis white male queens, like its US counterpart? Would the artists that bring the greatest edge and talent to the British scene – cis and trans women, non-binary artists, trans male artists, drag kings – even be allowed on?
I’m a London-based non-binary drag queen and Drag Race fan, so I emailed the BBC to find out more. “Our application process doesn’t exclude anyone. The only thing we’re looking for is charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent,” a spokesperson told me. This surprised me, so I researched the US application process, finding that the US show seems, similarly, to have no official stipulations around gender.
Yet, Drag Race has never featured an assigned-female competitor (Lady Gaga’s cameo notwithstanding). Peppermint was the first out transwoman to enter the competition, while other trans contestants came out during filming in earlier seasons, yet transwomen contestants still withstand backhanded treatment on the show. Drag Race often invalidates trans bodies, treating them as closer to their assignation than their reality. On top of that, it has also stubbornly refused to acknowledge that drag kings exist.
In a mini-challenge on season 10 of the show for example, the queens “masc’d up” to promote Trade, a fake fragrance. They wore facial hair, flexed their muscles and played on their masculinity – all basic drag king techniques, with not a whisper of where they came from. An implicit bias can be just as devastating as one written in the terms and conditions.
Many people outside the industry believe drag is only good when gay cis men do it. But queer women, non-binary people, and other trans people deserve access to the art of satire. Drag today is not just about impersonating women, but is about pushing all kinds of gender boundaries. Performers other than cis men are already tearing up stages globally.
Sometimes, drag still seems like a boys’ club, a misogynist industry where cis men are at the centre of the space, opportunities come through male bonding, and women are allowed in only on the sidelines, as spectators and admirers, if at all. In that vision of the world, my trans body becomes not just unsexy, but unintelligible.
Drag queens are loved, in part, because they embody powerful kinds of femininity. Maybe it is no surprise that teenage girls make up a major part of the Drag Race fandom. The femininity pushed onto young women is too often coercive, complete with expectations about how girls should behave, speak, or dress, and sometimes violent penalties for stepping out of line. But drag femininities are presented as fabulous, autonomous. They say f*** you to what other people think. The problem is when drag femininities are only allowed to be powerful, or even valid, through their association with men.
Teenage girls are allowed to spend money on Drag Race but not participate; the vision of the show is not that they can become drag artists themselves. Women don’t own femininity, but the exclusion of women from a valorised form of what is so often used to oppress them is misogyny. Drag demands charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent, and men do not have a monopoly on this.
Drag queen Amrou Al-Kadhi writes for the Guardian that the problems with Ru Paul’s mainstreaming of drag are not only those of gender and representation, but also of capital: “The aesthetic expectations of Drag Race are economically exclusive for most ... Drag Race is now an economy – and like all capitalist systems, inherent within it is the exclusion of many.” The disconnect between the TV franchise and the real life art form takes place at the level of capital, where the joy of drag is seen as valuable only to the extent it is saleable.
In this entrepreneurial machine, even political radicalism is co-opted. Contestants are allowed to talk about class, or race, or injustice; conversations about being a black drag performer or having the money to participate, debt or who can afford the “right” drag items are introduced, but only just enough an episode to add some spice. The poor treatment of The Vixen in Season 10 is indicative of that format: let your radicalism be defanged to benefit the show’s bootstraps, meritocracy narrative, or see yourself edged out, made to seem aggressive or ungrateful.
Where I’m based, the best drag nights are a place you can be your weirdest, freakiest self and still be embraced. If drag is already a parody, Drag Race too regularly feels like a parody of the parody, where the heart and love of the scene I know is re-visioned as soundbites and catfights. The question is how our subcultures can continue to thrive when up against (mis)representation in the mainstream, and when economic disparity opens up further between those with mainstream appeal and those judged by gatekeepers not to have it.
Ray Filar is a writer and performer. You can see their work here
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