Seeing “RuPaul’s Drag Race” Critically
© Copyright 2018 Maria del Mar Londono Forero, Ryerson University
The art of drag is like other forms of art in that it is open to interpretation and it has been evolving and changing for centuries. Its scope is much more encompassing than people believe because the impersonation of women for theatrical purposes has been around since Shakespeare’s time. In an interview with TIME magazine, drag historian Joe E. Jeffreys emphasized that this style of performing arts has always been “mainstream”, but what has come out of the gay community has an added purpose to be purer and more daring (Jeffreys). He likened those drag queens to the fools in Shakespeare’s plays and shamans, who get to say and do things that people out of drag do not. The comedic and bold personality of this kind of drag has moved it from a hidden counterculture to the mainstage of popular media, and it has always been inseparably linked with strong messages about politics, gender, sexuality, and equality.
Background information on RuPaul’s Drag Race
Drag’s rise to near household fame has been from performers who have made careers out of female impersonation paving the way for queer artists to express themselves through this medium. RuPaul Charles is arguably the most famous and powerful drag queen in the world and her influence has created RuPaul’s Drag Race, a competition reality TV show that aims to crown America’s next drag superstar.
The show brings a dozen queens together every year and each episode is made up of themed challenges to test their creativity, sewing skills, acting chops, and lip-syncing and dancing bravado. A final runway challenge at the end of each episode punctuates the importance of high fashion for drag and everything is judged by a panel headed by Mama Ru herself. The contestants are all professional drag queens from the United States and Puerto Rico and many have been sending in audition tapes for years to the “Olympics of Drag”. As the queens compete for a $100,000 cash prize, they win the hearts of the world with personal stories, catty fights, and the overall amount of creativity and talent that they employ in transforming from men into gorgeous, hypersexualized drag queens.
These transformations are not only for the sake of making good television. Instead, many scholars have analyzed the impact of drag queens and how they have simultaneously served to oppose and reinforce the gender laws that are engrained in current society. Gender is now recognized as a social construct, but who imposes these constructions and could they be reinforcing binaries formed from cultural law (Butler, 10)? This critical analysis of RuPaul’s Drag Race aims to start a conversation about what lies at the centre of the value and place of gender, and the boundaries that are placed on radical movements in this inherently heteronormative and conservative society.
The impact of RuPaul’s Drag Race on mainstream media to start to value non-conformity
The medium of a reality TV show for the dissemination of a form of artistic expression allows for a continual progression of the artists and the audience’s understandings. In the case of RuPaul’s Drag Race, this progress is displayed in the evolution of the show and in the way that the bar is set higher every season. The impact of the show comes from the many factors that make it appealing to a wide range of viewers. The strong counterculture of drag is filled with its own language, herstory, and etiquettes and watching it feels like you are in an exclusive party that gives you a crash course on drag. This is amplified by the personal aspects of the show, from hearing about the contestant’s life stories to seeing the friendships that are cultivated. All of this gets placed in a current context with the contestants’ discussions of current events like the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting or Russia’s strict gender expression laws.
The contact that the audience has with the queens also expands to a range outside the scope of the show because Drag Race catapults the career of any queen that makes an appearance, and this makes the visual culture of the show a real life, tactile thing for audiences. Many queens launch their brands and start scheduling tours, selling merchandise, and even hosting their own shows on mainstream media outlets. Season six winner, Bianca Del Rio, has gone on to star in two full-length movies and headline her own comedy world tour, and Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova, both from season seven, now have their own show on the TV network Viceland. RuPaul’s drag queens are larger than life and this has undeniably carved their place into mainstream media with all sorts of mainstream celebrities, from Cardi B to Lisa Kudrow, recognizing their value. As pop artists see the influence of these queens and collaborate with them, their visibility increases and more people are exposed to this visual redefinition of femininity and gender.
Their fame builds on their non-conformity and the amazement that people get from seeing the skill that is required to be a successful female impersonator. As it continues to grow as an interactive form of artistic expression, more people are encouraged to experiment with drag and how it redefines the parameters of what they believe is “feminine”. For example, two recent winning queens of Drag Race are Sasha Velour and Violet Chachki. Both have confessed their struggles with gender because parts of them lean towards an undefined area of gender. Discovering their drag personas gave them space to express that side of themselves and their wins allowed them to spread a new image of feminine. Sasha is a bald queen and this is daring because women and drag queens place a great amount of value on hair. As can be seen inthe picture below, Violet combines hypersexualized female characteristics with male features to create an androgynous aesthetic that has not deterred her fame. In fact, she has recently finished a world tour with Dita von Teese, one of the world’s biggest burlesque performers and Violet headlines many tours of her own.
The approach that these queens take with their identities and their drag styles aligns with a 2004 study conducted by Jacob and Cerny where four gay men publicly cross-dressed without trying to appear like women. These scholars believe that radical drag means an appearance of neither female or male, because this is the only way to “reveal… social dynamics of appearance and identity” (132). Maybe there is some semblance of that radical drag in what Sasha and Violet achieve with their unique drag styles. Yet, what Jacob and Cerny realize is that, ultimately, expressing femininity can be the only way to make sense of identity because it can “visually communicate” gender confusion in male bodies (133). With so many interpretations of drag in the public eye, light is shed on different understandings of gender and the media works to appreciate this visual aesthetic.
The presence of heteronormativity in RuPaul’s Drag Race
There are several aspects of RuPaul’s Drag Race that abide by the same exclusionary binaries that society uses to propagate an agenda of heteronormativity, and this section will outline some of the trespasses that show how difficult it is to escape from the values of an oppressive society.
There is a clear hierarchy of power that is immediately created due to the competitive structure of RuPaul’s Drag Race which posits RuPaul’s opinions at the top of the pyramid and equates her to an omnipotent being. There is a strong sense of family in this show and being a contestant makes a “Ru girl” for life. Although it is her show, the problems arise when Ru’s opinion becomes a mandate for what a drag queen should look, act, sound, or dance like. Not only does this place limits on an art form but it places boundaries on what is supposed to be an expression of the fluidity of gender. The message that RuPaul’s Drag Race is making is that you can be strange and different, if you still follow Ru’s rules of drag. This rigidity masked under a fun and entertaining show is leading to toxicity and divisiveness between drag queens, RuPaul, and the 2LGBTQ+ community. This is also tries to define gender in the same way that heteronormativity contests that there are only two genders.
It is in the scholarship of gender studies that there are ideas for why problematic values continue to exist in spaces that are supposed to be working for equality and openness. Judith Butler’s book Gender Trouble explains the “reality” of gender as something that is assumed to be known from anatomy or how a person wears their clothes (xxiii). There is comfort in accepting drag queens because their gender reality is straightforward: they are men pretending to be hypersexualized women. RuPaul believes that only gay men can give drag the danger that it needs to be a “big f-you to male dominated culture… because it’s [a] real rejection of masculinity” and this mentality has led to ostracizing other members of the 2LGBTQ+ community (Charles). When a voice is as powerful as RuPaul’s, a few words can result in massive steps back for entire communities.
There have been several contestants of the show who credit drag for helping them discover their gender identity as trans women. Peppermint of season eight was the first ever trans runner-up and possibly the first contestant to compete while out as trans. Shortly after her season aired, she had a breast augmentation surgery as part of her transition, which received transphobic comments from RuPaul. In an interview with The Guardian, the top queen made it very clear that she did not think that drag was a space for anyone who identifies as female or non-male. She likened Peppermint’s transition to athletes who are doping, which further reinforces the false idea that being trans is a choice and that it is made to try to win something, even though it is just who she is. There have been several voices that have called out Drag Race’s exclusionary mentality for anyone whose drag does not look a certain way or is coming from outside of the gay community, and these statements reinforce the presence of binary ideals.
Ru’s opinion that there is only space for two genders in drag is strengthened by one of the catchphrases Ru uses at the start of every runway portion: “gentlemen, start your engines, and may the best woman win”. In this quote, and throughout the whole show, only female and male pronouns are used and many things are framed as being for either pretty or ugly girls. This is an example for the main reason why this style of drag is not free from the heteronormative constrains of society. Ru claims that drag is powerful because it is gay men impersonating women but that reinforces the binary and reinforces sexist views that the physical appearance of a woman leads to success if she is hypersexualized, covered in makeup, and weighed down by extremely expensive wigs, gowns, and padding (Greaf, 664). Not only is this unrealistic for many drag queens, but it is also unattainable for women who cannot simply take off their gender identity at the end of a performance.
The strides that RuPaul’s Drag Race and drag queens have made for the gay community are undeniable. RuPaul’s positive impact has been reiterated by drag queens and audiences worldwide who have been inspired to explore their gender expression because of the show. Many contestants went from working two or three jobs and being struggling drag artists without the resources to advance their careers. They are now wildly successful and sought out for recording or fashion contracts. However, this progress is diminished if it is done at the cost of excluding others who would greatly benefit from what RuPaul offers. In an interview where Peppermint discussed the RuPaul controversy, she affirmed that one of the biggest problems with this discourse is the essentializing of women to their body parts even though she continues to be the same woman from before her surgeries. This further reaffirms the heteronormative definitions of gender which equate biology to gender and sexuality.
One of the most astounding things about drag is observing biological males be more feminine than many women could or would like to be. Judith Butler writes about this realization in Undoing Gender and her points applies to the line that RuPaul is walking of controlling the expression of gender and art. Butler outlines that drag exposes that that there are agreed upon “bodies and sexualities [which] will be considered real and true” and those that are not (214). In the context of Drag Race, which accepts a wider array of gender expression, there are still bodies that are devalued in comparison to others and this discounts many different experiences and drag artists who do not fit into the mold.
After receiving backlash for his transphobic comments, RuPaul says that he has recognized the harm in his words and is open to change. The first part could be opening a conversation about the lack of acceptance in this drag community and realizing that a rainbow flag encompasses drag for a reason.
Butler, Judith. “Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire.” Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 2nd ed., Routledge Classics, 2010, pp. 10–13.
Butler, Judith. “The Question of Social Transformation.” Undoing Gender, Routledge, 2004, pp. 212–215.
Charles, RuPaul. Interviewed by Wilder Davies. Time, 9 Mar. 2018, time.com/5188791/rupauls- drag-race-history/. Accessed 01 Apr. 2018.
Greaf, Caitlin. “Drag Queens and Gender Identity.” Journal of Gender Studies, 25, no. 6, 24 Aug. 2015, p. 664. Scholars Portal Journals, journals- scholarsportal-info.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/pdf/09589236/v25i0006/655_dqagi.xml.
Jacob, John, and Catherine Cerny. “Radical Drag Appearances and Identity: The Embodiment of Male Femininity and Social Critique.” Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, vol. 22, no. 3, 2004, pp. 125–133., doi:10.1177/0887302×0402200303.
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