Race To The Middle

On RuPaul and The Mainstreaming of Drag

A fragrance by Pearl Liaison, a competitor on the seventh season of RuPaul’s drag race.

MAYBE IT WAS THE raw hem? My skirt is a patchwork of raw edges, intricately brought together in a cobweb of dark bleached denim (think Christina Aguilera’s ‘Dirty’ era, but with a nod to modesty). High-waisted and curving, it is met by a pair of faux-snakeskin purple high-heeled boots – and the unnerved gaze of passerby unaware that such a wonderful combination could be achieved on a hairy, male shin. His reaction was visceral, violent – spitting. The spit was laced with fear and disgust. Maybe it was my raw hem, or was it was the lurid shade of green coating my nails, whose chips seemed to endanger his notion of masculinity?

Gender fluidity is no longer a fringe idea. It is used by multi-million-dollar companies like Calvin Klein to sell underwear (Young Thug said in their Fall 2016 Global Campaign video that ‘I feel like there is no such thing as gender’).1  RuPaul’s Drag Race, the Emmy-winning reality show, has achieved unprecedented viewership for media documenting a queer subculture. Part of the global vernacular, it is referenced in countless memes. (I have had ‘Miss Vanjie’ crooned at me from some of the most unexpected sources.) It was sponsored by Absolut Vodka. When we can capitalise on our otherness, we know we’ve really made progress, right? Unfortunately not.

The drag of Drag Race often reminds me – a queer man who might be considered to blur the gender binary in my everyday dress – as much of being spat on the sidewalk, as of a post-gender future. In thirteen seasons, the show has reinforced the demarcations that are still so prevalent in the heteronormative world. When the queens are in drag they are a parodic ideal of a Western woman. They are hyper-feminine, and when they stray from the condoned framework, by ‘giving them boy,’ as it’s referred to by judges, they are punished, they lose challenges, and they do not receive the money that they crave.

A successful illusion of a biological woman, or to be ‘fishy,’ is revered among the contestants of Drag Race and its judges, who are often dismissive of forms of drag that aim to blur the gender binary. Contestants are expected to ‘tuck,’ ‘contour,’ ‘cinch their waists’ and ‘pad their bodies’ to show their dedication to the art of appearing as cartoonishly biologically female as possible. Outside the show, many drag performers – for instance, Christeene Vale, David Hoyle and Oozing Gloop – are destabilising the gender binary, and redefining drag. But within the Drag Race world, the riot grrrl, unrefined aesthetic of Adore Delano, for instance, is consistently ridiculed for her ‘hog body’ (an inadequately hourglass figure). In the second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, Adores leaves in an emotional voluntary exit, ‘embarrassed’ for presenting her version of drag. ‘To be told that I have to be put back into a bubble of cinching my waist… I feel like I don’t belong here.’

Milk, a ‘club kid’ queen who presents a subtle version of genderfuck drag, meanwhile, is ridiculed by a fellow participant in season six. ‘I’m upset that there are other cross dressers still in there that fucking came to a drag show dressed as boys,’ Gia Gunn, a classic ‘fishy’ queen, complained in the fifth episode. ‘I mean if you look up drag it means dressed up as girls, not enhance what you already are, a big fucking man.’ Gunn is implying that facial hair – Milk often wears a small goatee as a non-binary visual cue – delegitimises drag, as it does not signify an ‘authentic’ (cis) woman.

Drag’s history is full of misogynistic takes on ‘female impersonation,’ but at its best, the artform can destabilise socially-assigned gender roles. Paris is Burning, the seminal documentary about the 1980s ballroom scene in New York, depicts a group of people for whom drag is an escape from daily oppression and a means of articulating myriad identities across the gender spectrum: ‘butch queen’; ‘banjie girl’; ‘executive realness.’ What Drag Race unfortunately does is narrow the cultural understanding of drag, at the very pivotal moment which it also has made queer representation mainstream.

Why is it that this particular form of drag – often a heightened, unrealistic stereotype of femininity – has proved so easily digestible to a mainstream audience? A New York-based friend, Justin Bontha, routinely incorporates women’s clothing into his aesthetic, but resolutely views himself as a ‘sexy AF man’ – a combination he finds is ‘often met with a lot of confusion.’ He argues that the spectacular nature of Drag Race makes it palatable: Through placing something subversive on a screen, the show provides a barrier which enables the viewer to believe that its contents aren’t real, he said. It provides society with necessary distance.

The clothing that the queens wear to present ‘woman’ is performative. When the queens aren’t in drag, they wear men’s clothing, and although there may be residual physical cues that speak of their alter-egos (shaven eyebrows, fillers and accentuating implants), they are categorically men. The ever- present tagline – ‘Gentlemen, start your engines, and may the best woman win!’ – is a strict guideline for proceedings where the presence of transgender or cis women as contestants is categorically denied.

‘Somewhere in a small town that doesn’t have a pride or a gay bar, a conservative family or a young queer kid is watching shows like [Drag Race] and seeing that being openly gay and subverting fixed gender identities is normal and widely accepted, and that is an important first point of contact for a lot of people,’ according to Victoria Sin, an assigned female at birth non-binary artist who makes use of drag in their work. ‘The problem is that people stop there or stop being critical of it.’ Sin’s own performances dismantle the demarcations of gender as they go. One performance piece they are known for is buttering slice after slice of bread, completely deadpan – highlighting the labours that the female body undertakes that go invisible in the patriarchal world. ‘For a show that has so much visibility to set an example of exclusion for the LGBTQ communities’ least-visible people just perpetuates violent attitudes,’ says Sin.

In an interview with the Guardian, RuPaul called drag ‘a big F-U to male-dominated culture.’ Elsewhere, though, he made it resoundingly clear that on his show the same gender binary which upholds male-dominated culture is very much revered. Peppermint, a transgender contestant in the ninth season, along with Monica Beverly Hillz in season five, chose not to disclose their identity for fear of not making it through the audition process. ‘Peppermint didn’t get breast implants until after she left our show,’ RuPaul told the newspaper. ‘She was identifying as a woman, but she hadn’t really transitioned.’

With this, RuPaul swiftly trivialised the trans experience as something that is based purely on physical appearance. That a surgical procedure can be a barometer of exclusion from a competition that sells itself as ‘a big F-U to male-dominated culture’ is astounding. On the show, gender fluidity is reserved entirely for performance, a moment for contestants to access a different part of themselves, and to potentially make money. It is this comfortable distinction that allows the show’s success.2 

Drag Race queens are a commodity; they play a role that is useful to the wider population as a form of entertainment. RuPaul has described him/herself as a ‘motherfucking marketing genius,’3 believing that in order to succeed as an ‘other’ there has to be a degree of embracing the system that you are not a part of and using it for your own gain. In this sense, Drag Race often simultaneously embraces capitalism and activism at once. An unwieldy tightrope is walked between the activistic attempt to bring queer visibility and acceptance into the mainstream, while also arming the queens with the ability to make a living outside of the studio, and make use of their otherness for capitalistic gain. The queens are both encouraged to build their own brands (amid endless product placements that make up a huge chunk of the show), while also engaging with the ostracism and trauma they have faced from their families and wider society. A tragicomedy ensues, in which persecuted queer men are made to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get on with whatever bizarre task to promote their brand is in front of them. The ultimate goal is to win, and not only receive a vast sum of money and various prizes, but also be finally accepted by the society from which they have continually been rejected.

RuPaul’s belief that ‘all sins are forgiven once you start making a lot of money’4 is resounding throughout the show. It is money that separates the queens on the show and the queer men in pencil skirts on the city street. Money means you are succeeding in the most masculine of ways, although presenting as female to get it. And these contestants are making money, with their ‘fierce tucks’ and breast-plates and faultless ‘nude illusions’ of femininity. A man that makes money to the degree that these queens are able to, after leaving the show, is forgiven for his sins of queerness and homosexuality by society.

Of course there is nothing wrong with wanting to live a comfortable life. RuPaul has said that after finding himself broke at twenty-eight, while performing the genderfuck drag that he began with, he realised that in order to succeed he had ‘to glam the fuck out.’ He shaved his legs and chest: ‘went glamazon.’ He had to conform to the prescribed idea of commercial drag femininity to be embraced by the world – as he is now.5 And when out of drag? He wears a suit. Drag Race today neglects the queer activism at its heart (and at the heart of RuPaul), in favour of capitalist gain for the queens involved, appeasing the heteronormative world and keeping the viewing figures rising. The activism and punk nature of a man wearing women’s clothing has no sugar of capitalistic entertainment that Drag Race has when offering its societal medicine.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Though flawed, Drag Race offers alongside its sugary ‘activism’ a space in which the queer isn’t the other, and in which clothing offers an escape from the burden of gender. Both the boy on the street in a pair of heels and the queen in Drag Race are in a battle for their identities. ‘Gender,’ Judith Butler wrote, is ‘an imitation for which there is no original.’ Drag Race seems to forget that at the centre of drag, underneath all the costume and padding, there is no solid gender at all.  Everything we wear is temporary, every garment is a performance. It’s all costume, all paint, whether on TV or on our way to work. The performing queens should embrace this point, rather than dated stereotypes.  

Ethan Price is a writer and casting director living in London. He has been featured in i-D, Garage, Pylot, King Kong, Gut, The September Issues and Recens Paper, among others.

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ymE6dUF98Y 4 

  2. https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/mar/03/rupaul-drag-race-big-f-you-to-male-dominated-culture 

  3. https://theconversation.com/rupauls-drag-race-is-still-figuring-out-how-to-handle-gender-and- 5 race-96711 

  4. Quoted by Joslyn Pine in: Money and Wealth: A Book of Quotations, Courier Dover Publications, 6 2013 

  5. https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/mar/03/rupaul-drag-race-big-f-you-to-male- 7 dominated-culture