As part of a new series of posts, we’ve opened up the Auto Italia newsblog and invited contributions from a range of different artists, curators and writers. This week, Victoria Sin explores the mainstreaming of drag culture and alternative representations of “femininity”.
On RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Subversive and Feminist Potential of Drag
by Victoria Sin
Drag is seen by many as a subversive queer performance. It was drag queens that were at the forefront of the Stonewall Riots and it is drag queens that have and continue to shamelessly represent an outspoken section of the queer community; ever-present at LGBTQIA protests, marches and parades. Underground and cult media representations of drag culture including Rocky Horror Picture Show, Pink Flamingos and Paris is Burning ignited fires in queer youth that gave hope outside of heteronormative binary gendered family life and schooling. However, as gay rights have come to the fore in western culture, gay media representations and drag culture have flourished in the mainstream, and at this point we should be careful not to blindly label any and all on-screen representations of drag as liberating and subversive.
For seven seasons, RuPaul’s Drag Race has been bringing drag and queer representation into mainstream culture. As a result an unprecedented amount of young gay men inspired by the show have taken up arms in the form of sequins, wigs and lipstick to express their queer identities and feelings of otherness in the still conservative, misogynist and homophobic world of today. However, the genre of drag that is being popularized in RuPaul’s Drag Race is confined to a man dressing as a woman and personifying western feminine beauty ideals, something which is not enough considering how far drag has already come. The gender essentialism in RuPaul’s Drag Race is evident with comments from the judging panel criticizing contestants who retain elements of their maleness while in drag or whose performance questions the binary status of a man parodying femininity (“You’re giving me boy”, “It’s not feminine enough”). Aside from RuPaul, who is the only drag performer ever on the judging panel, the permanent judges consist of Michelle Visage, and Santino Rice/Carson Kressley and Ross Matthews; either gay male presenting men or female presenting women positioned either side of RuPaul and serving to tighten the stronghold of normative representation.
A quick look at the cast of season seven and how the contestants are presented in and out of drag in any series would also confirm this. When the contestants are out of drag they are authentic men, and when they are in drag they are their female alter egos, emphasizing that they are men performing femininity and when they remove their padding, clothing, wigs and makeup they will return to being men.
RuPaul’s Drag Race has put drag culture into the mainstream, but only represents a limited, normative aspect. Drag usually refers to a man dressed and made up in a way that would dramatize femininity for comic and satirical effect. However in the past artists have shown that it can be used as a tool to disrupt binary conceptions of what it means to be a man or a woman. This is evident in performers who have made it into the mainstream eye such as Leigh Bowery, David Bowie, Sylvester, Divine and Boy George. RuPaul himself was an espouser of “genderfuck” in the 80s, a genre of drag that sought to discredit gender constructs and disrupt the binary styles of gender representation and identification. One of his most well known quotes “You’re born naked and the rest is drag” suggests a Butlerian view of culturally constructed corporeal styles inscribed from birth. However, the drag being consumed and regurgitated under the RuPaul brand and following only works to reinforce these cultural constructs.
When drag queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race are punished for failing to embody feminine values, is it any different from the real life punishing and marginalization of people who fail to perform along the strict confines of masculinity or femininity? The message is certainly clear to budding drag artists: if you are “fishy” or “serving fish” (a compliment in drag vernacular meaning you succeed in performing a beautiful, feminine and convincing woman while in drag), you are held as a role model for future drag queens. The term fishy implies both that a vagina smells of fish and also that a vagina is the sign and origin of authentic femininity; in itself it typifies the problems with the currently popularized drag model. It whiffs of casual misogyny and gender essentialism, things that are all too common in the homonormative culture that drag race is often consumed by and proliferates.
Many terms from the RuPaul vernacular actually come from Paris is Burning, a film about the underground Black and Latino drag ballroom scene in Harlem in the 80s. Paris is Burning reveals how people involved in ballroom scene used drag as a tool to reclaim what society has denied them because of their race, sexuality and class. Many people adopting terms like “throwing shade, “realness”, “reading”, and “serving ______” from RuPaul are unfortunately unaware of the class and race struggles deeply entrenched with the terms. The appropriation of underground drag ball culture began perhaps with the film itself, directed by a white female Yale university graduate. The continual glossing over by mainstream and pop culture (including Madonna, Lady Gaga, etc.) of the societal problems that were at the film’s heart is nothing new but something we should be sensitive to.
None of this is to say that drag queens and especially high femme drag queens are not an integral part of queer culture. However, sensitivity is needed when something declares to represent queer culture, but in reality is providing the language and attitude to punish drag queens that maintain elements of masculinity and hold them together with their feminine performance, labeling them “bad trannies” or unpolished. Performers like “drag terrorist” Christeene Vale, performance artist Boychild, Rapper/poet Mykki Blanco, drag troop Sink the Pink, burlesque performer Rubyyy Jones, “tranny with a fanny” Holestar, disco queen Hard Ton, cabaret sensation Le Gateau Chocolat, performance artists Scottee, Jonny Woo, Oozing Gloop, A Man to Pet , and David Hoyle, to name (really) just a few, are and have been pushing the boat out for drag and gender performance. RuPaul’s Drag Race is exposing drag performance and queer culture to an audience previously unreachable and in that making leaps and bounds for queer visibility. However RuPaul has to pander to the mainstream, which limits its representative potential for a diverse and progressive queer community. RuPaul is arguably the most successful and polished drag queen in the world, but the most exciting parts of drag culture are happening all around us. Drag should be recognized not just as a stage act but a tool that can be used for empowerment and to demystify the power structures we live in.
The worlds of drag and feminism do not overlap enough, as it is often forgotten that homophobia and misogyny are deeply intertwined. The subversive potential of drag as a tool for postmodern feminism is huge: the fact that drag separates the gender performance from the body points toward a parodic performance of all gender on different levels. This alone is not enough to disrupt and challenge existing power structures however; in order to do this drag must seek to destabilize the terms by which gendered subjects are constituted.
If the inner truth of gender is a fabrication and if a true gender is a fantasy instituted and inscribed on the surface of bodies, then it seems that genders can be neither true nor false, but are only produced as the truth effects of a discourse of primary and stable identity. (Judith Butler, Gender Trouble).
If genders are produced and normalized through discourse, RuPaul’s Drag Race and similar shows establish a pejorative frame for a specific condoned male femininity. The policing of this pejorative frame mirrors that for the specific condoned ‘authentic’ femininity to be performed by women. What is the difference between a drag queen’s performance and the performance of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, or Nicki Minaj? The use of wigs, wardrobe and plastic surgery to pad and enhance their gendered appearance on stage has matched if not surpassed that of many drag artists. Women are already parodying femininity. What drag can do is purposefully invade the construction inscribed on the surface of bodies that the world orders itself around. We can look at drag not just as entertainment performed by entertainers but also as a tool for gendered disarmament to be performed in different degrees by anyone. This might give us a lens to aid in unpicking the subtleties of gendered representation and identification, so that we can become more adept and coding and decoding our everyday gendered experience.