FEATURE

Drag is for Everyone: Realising the Potential of an Art Form

BY LEVENT DILSIZ

 

RuPaul’s Drag Race (hereafter referred to as Drag Race) has amassed a large and diverse fan base that continues to grow. A large part of its growing audience is due to the show’s emphasis on queer visibility and racial/transgender inclusivity. To see this focus, we need look no further than RuPaul Charles, the shows founder and host, asking the show’s cast at the conclusion of every episode, “if you can't love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else? Can I get an amen?”, to which the show’s cast of (mostly) gay men, in drag, reply “amen” before the credits roll. In one of the more poignant moments of the show, in season 5 episode 7, Roxxxy Andrews spoke of “not feeling wanted, and not feeling good enough”, going on to say, “I just feel like like my mom never wanted me”.  RuPaul consoled Roxxxy with a heartfelt speech: “We as gay people, we get to choose our family… I am your family, we are a family here.”

These foundational values of inclusivity and sisterhood were recently debased by RuPaul during an interview with The Guardian.1 When asked about the potential inclusion of ‘bio queens’ (women who perform in drag) on Drag Race, RuPaul asserted that “drag loses its sense of danger and irony once it’s not men doing it”, before enforcing his personal philosophy of drag as “a big f-you to male-dominated culture”.1 Although many competitors have come out as transgender either during or after the show (including Monica Beverly Hills, Stacy Lane Matthews, Gia Gunn, Jiggly Caliente, and, most recently, Peppermint), RuPaul attempted to justify their inclusion on the show by claiming their being transgender didn’t factor into their performance at the time, as was the case, he claimed, for Peppermint: “Peppermint didn’t get breast implants until she left our show; she was identifying as a women, but she hadn’t really transitioned”.[1]


Within contemporary Western drag performance, Drag Race plays a powerful role in defining unnecessary parameters to the art form.  Choosing to reject contestants who had “really transitioned” indicates the limited scope of the show. This choice openly excludes drag talent which lives outside the drag category of ‘female illusion by cis-man’, the category considered by the show to be the solely valid form of drag expression. Outside of Drag Race, there exists a vast self-defined terrain of drag aesthetics and performance, ignored by the contemporary handbook of drag which chooses to televise and popularise only a single shade of an infinite spectrum of colours.

This single shade features cis-men imitating women, the “irony” of the act considered by RuPaul, as expressed in his Guardian interview, as a “social statement”. RuPaul’s mistake is assuming that drag is not politically and socially provocative at all times, no matter the sex or gender of the performer and the performed persona. Judith Butler notes the “dissonance” between “anatomical sex, gender identity, and gender performance” within drag.[2] A man performing in drag as a woman demonstrates the social construction of gender through the ability of the individual to distinctly move between genders. If a man can act, dress, and perform like a woman, and then proceed to remove the costume, change their act, and “become” a man again, then the distinctions our society places on these categories are redundant.

Yet the performative nature of gender is not only demonstrated by performing across a gender boundary, but also by changing one’s performance within it. Just as a man may perform as woman, a single woman may mould her identity to perform as a different category of woman. For instance, the same woman can at different times perform as hyper-feminine or as a “tomboy”, and therefore, through altering behaviour and dress, fluctuate between feminine identities for performance. This is a similarly political act, as a woman performing in drag as a distinctly different woman dismantles the concept of there being a singular unquestionable female gender identity. Anyone in drag is “implicitly [revealing] the imitative structure of gender itself”.[2 ]

Even defining drag as simply an imitation of gender is inaccurate, and misses the self-expressivity of the style. This is a point made by many drag performers themselves, in their description of drag. Shangela Laquifa Wadley, a three-time contestant on Drag Race, describes drag as “a heightened sense of myself… it’s this extra-ness you add on, you put on the make-up you put on the wig”, adding that she likes “to give female illusion”. [1] Lady Bunny, a seasoned queen, agreed that “drag is an expression, you are expressing something that you feel is in you” [2] and, similarly, nineties New York nightlife extraordinaire Leigh Bowery described it as “expressing…ideas and having fantasies and making them all happen and also looking different and being a little bit subversive.”[3] Peppermint, who was the Drag Race season nine runner-up, a trans-woman, and a drag queen, describes it as “heightened expression, heightened gender expression, for the sake of performance.”[4] Outside of the framework of Drag Race, the clear consensus is that drag is a mode of expression, whether or not that includes playing with gender. This could be likened to an art gallery which only displayed expressionist paintings. Though the works of Kandinsky and Schiele are beautiful, they cannot speak for the entire history of the medium, which is exactly where Drag Race is failing its audience. As the only pop cultural platform representing drag performance, Drag Race is erring in single-handedly defining narrow parameters for the future of the art form.

The consequences of the narrowness of these parameters can be seen online. Milk, a drag performer who appeared on Drag Race in 2014, has displayed an artistic evolution from cis-man performing as woman to cis-man performing as, well, anything she really wants to. She has thrown out the large glamorous wigs, high heels, and sequinned gowns, instead sporting a short coloured undercut, painting abstract lines or colourful blotches over her face, and wearing suits, sneakers, heels, and dresses interchangeably. All it takes is a glance at the comment section of one of her social media posts to see an immediate invalidation of her drag style by a fan base conditioned to exclusively accept female illusion as valid. @Brandonraines92 comments “This is not drag! This is a kindergarten kids mess of a drawing.” @Melanie_Black tweets that Milk is “not a drag queen. [Her] looks are more like a boy in makeup.” On YouTube, TheLABound123 simply states that “Milk still not doing drag”.

Milk’s style of drag isn’t anything necessarily new. She is inspired by a long line of drag performers like Leigh Bowery, James St James, Kabuki, Walt Kassidy, Kenny Kenny, and Susanne Bartsch, all of whom did not prioritise gendered expression in their drag performance, but rather used the beauty of costumes, makeup, and wigs as their mode of expression. These performers did not allow the dualism of gender to permeate their aesthetics or performance, but rather used their own identities as the medium to mould. There are countless contemporary acts who do the same: Ryburk, Hungry, Gott Mik, Jarry the Clown, and Lucy Stoole, to name only a few. These are some of the many performers who do not look and perform as distinctly man or woman, but rather play with gendered characteristics to express themselves. Once it is recognised that all drag is simply the creative, artistic expression of identity, infinite categories and styles of drag that deviate from Drag Race’s narrow scope of female illusion by cis-man become possible. Milk responded to the supposed invalidity of her drag style by stating that her critics “still live in a strictly masculine/feminine spectrum… embrace the gray area.” [5]

Drag Race needs to be more inclusive of this grey area by diversifying its cast to include individuals who aren’t necessarily cis-men and aren’t necessarily impersonating women. Including drag kings, trans people, and performers who are stylistically unorthodox will encourage fans to escape the “strictly masculine/feminine” binary. It’s even possible that this change will come soon; following his comments in his interview with The Guardian, RuPaul received significant enough backlash for him to tweet an apology: “Each morning I pray to set aside everything I THINK I know, so I may have an open mind and a new experience. I understand and regret the hurt I have caused. The trans community are heroes of our shared LGBTQ movement. You are my teachers.” Hopefully, this “open mind” will help drag audiences transcend the binary imposed onto such a free and expressive art form.

REFERENCES

[1] D. Aitkenhead, ‘RuPaul: ‘Drag is a big f-you to male-dominated culture’’, The Guardian, 3 March 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/mar/03/rupaul-drag-race-big-f-you-to-male-dominated-culture,

[2] J. Butler, ‘Three Subversive Bodily Acts’ , in Gender Trouble, p.157 New York, Routledge, 1999, p.175.

[3] Shangela Laquifa Wadley is out of the box and ready to snatch the crown, [online video], 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bJWFJO4AYM&t=2918s

[4] Lady Bunny breaks down the difference between "Drag Race" and the world of drag, [online video], 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VOxdReoQjvg&t=638s

[5] New York Club Kids on Phil Donahue talkshow 1993 (complete TV show), [online video], 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=llnSZqNGJtk

[6] Drag Race' runner-up Peppermint opens up about transphobia in the drag world, [online video], 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ggjnh13FBL0&t=334s,

[7] MILK (@bigandmilky) “For all those who have messaged me saying they are tired of my ‘boy’/line looks: 1. Hello, Happy New Year! 2. Do you just as easily tire of “fishy, traditional” makeup? 3. I doubt it, because you still live in a strictly masculine/feminine spectrum. 4. Embrace the gray area. xo” 17 January 2018, 7:50PM. Tweet.




 


 


 



 


 


 


 


 



 


 



 


 



 


 


 

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