Two nights ago, in anticipation of its forthcoming all-star season, I finished watching RuPaul’s Drag Race (available on Logo’s Web site). It is, as they say in my field, a rich text. It’s also a lot of fun. Where else on my television will I see a group of blind-folded drag queens play “Pin A Cock on Ru’s Mouth”? Or hear someone sing “Jesus is a biscuit–let Him soak you up”? Werk.
What am I responding to exactly? Without pulling Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter off the bookshelf (too late) in order to theorize drag in relation to performativity, repetition, (failed) imitation, and parody, Drag Race’s most useful intervention is asserting that drag–like identity, like life–is not one thing. Instead, drag is multitudinous, intraculturally specific, and thrives on difference. SO/CAL queens don’t tend to use padding as their Southern counterparts do. Some queens focus on runway presentation and modeling. Some queens use drag as a form of comedic address. Some queens came to drag culture as actors, designers, and makeup artists. Some queens lip sync. Some queens have bands. Some queens have language barriers. Some queens come up through the pageant circuit. Many of them internalize normative ideas about feminine beauty. Some of them react against sisters who specialize in more deliberately avant-garde forms of drag (which has its own normative ideas about feminine beauty). Some queens are dads. Some queens transition. The show has a number of referents, most notably America’s Next Top Model. I lost interest in that show after the show ran out of ways to compellingly represent the ongoing construction of beauty. Drag Race could potentially explore these issues without ever touching the bottom.
An interesting tension that many contestants work through is ambivalence about the political import of their work. They see themselves as entertainers and often want to keep politics out of their work. But a commitment to drag as a profession and lifestyle usually assumes a set of decisions with very real consequences. Though at least two contestants have since come out as transgendered and taken steps toward transitioning, most contestants identify as gay men. I don’t want to collapse gay male and trans female identities any more than I want to assume that a skinny gay white man from Philadelphia, a muscular gay Puerto Rican man, or a fat black gay man from Compton share the same struggle and politics. However, to the ire of some commentators sensitive to tropes of gay male victimhood, one of the show’s dominant narratives is that many of these contestants lived through homophobic bullying in their youth and live against homophobic policies in their adulthood. Thus in some sense these queens are seen as survivors whose art has given them tools for self-actualization, aspirant female icons, and communities peopled by chosen families and sisters.
It’s worth mentioning the show’s relationship to commercialism. Sponsorship is a real presence on the show. Contestants win a number of prizes and amenities from gay-owned businesses like ALANDCHUCK.travel and an assortment of goodies from drag-oriented clothing lines, cosmetic companies, and jewelry collections. Winners also represent Absolut Vodka, a mass-produced liquor strategically marketing itself toward LGBT consumers. To my knowledge, Drag Race has yet to include a sober contestant. This sponsorship limits the show’s availability to potential contestants who received or are in treatment for alcohol addiction. Absolut’s sponsorship tacitly assume that all queens drink. Each episode involves some bit of vodka-motivated hobnobbing and catfighting. I’ve yet to see a queen abstain.
Furthermore, RuPaul uses the show as a platform to extend her brand by promoting albums, books, shoes, and other properties. The show involves the contestants in that branding process by using the show’s challenges to mount infomercials and music videos for RuPaul’s work. They may be (and often are) very entertaining challenges that make for compelling television, but we must think through commercialism’s relationship to drag culture. While I don’t want to lean on Michel de Certeau’s binary concept of strategies and tactics (that article is under a stack of papers), I do think the political implications of “making do” with the limited resources bestowed upon marginalized groups by dominant institutions and structures yields powerful, potentially subversive results when applied to drag. Though drag is, in some sense, mainstream, its origins are more modest and hard-scrabble. Compromised access to economic resources motivated many queens to fashion themselves into various personae with whatever they could sew, glue, find, copy, or steal. How does that change when queens compete to win a designer lace-front wig?
It’s also worth noting how the show sanctions what kinds of drag queens RuPaul chooses to represent her. Bloggers Tom and Lorenzo argued that the show tends to champion queens who prioritize image over talent. You could make the case that this is true of Raja and Sharon Needles. Even though their styles of drag were edgier–Raja’s look is genderqueer editorial, Sharon’s goth sensibility has range and humor–their crowned status as the future of drag was still based on their appearance. Both contestants also flirt with hipster racism. Raja–who is of Indonesian and Dutch descent–used her background as a make-up artist in order to attempt to transcend race, a feat endeavored several times by her former employer, America’s Next Top Model. Needles recently encountered pushback for using racial epithets as well as Nazi and rebel imagery in her drag show.
This doesn’t diminish my pleasure as a viewer. If anything, it enriches and adds depth to my reception. Where I derive the most pleasure as a viewer and critic is during the “lip sync for your life” segment, which pits the two lowest-ranking queens against one another in a lip sync challenge that manages to feel redemptive, regardless of which queen wins. If I had to choose a LSFYL anthem, it’d be “Whispers” by Kathy Diamond and Aeroplane. You want a track you know by heart that allows you to rise over the competition like a motherfucking phoenix. To quote a wise queen, “Get up, look sickening, and make them eat it.” Alexis Mateo did just that with Fantasia Barrino’s “Even Angels.”
During a deliberation, RuPaul observed that successful queens need to be fluent in popular culture. Drag is an inherently intertextual form, one built on reference to various cultural icons as well as parodic and imitative gender performances. Celebrity impersonation and lip syncing as hallmarks of drag culture. Unfortunately, the show’s editing rarely allows us to see the artistry behind lip syncing. Instead, it relies upon judge and contestant response to convey the success of certain performances. It may also suggest that musical genres are cultural categories and contestants’ mastery over particular genres is dependent on race. In the context of the show, ”Large and in charge, chunky yet funky” contestant Latrice Royale can’t access Wynonna Judd’s “No One Else On Earth” as well as competitor Chad Michaels. But no one can touch Royale’s rendition of Aretha Franklin’s “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman)” or Gladys Knight’s “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination” (which I recently played at a deejay gig in her honor).
Yet it’s not as simple as saying the show is racist for suggesting she can do a soul classic better than a country crossover hit, in part because Royale has an understanding of those songs’ performance traditions and the emotional meanings to them that is as much learned as it is felt. In other words, Royale demonstrates how lip syncing is an embodied act supported by a real intelligence about the cultural texts she’s situated within. She doesn’t need to sing for you to hear her voice. That’s not the talent of a Miss Congeniality. Make them eat it during the all-star season, Latrice. You’re a queen who deserves to take home the crown.