Last fall, I saw my former thesis adviser, Mary Kearney, give an excellent presentation on sparkle, girlhood, and post-feminist luminosities. In The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture, and Social Change, Angela McRobbie identifies luminosities as spotlight effects of power that bring young women forward as individualized subjects. While luminosity promises to make young women legible cultural subjects, this visibility often becomes a form of surveillance. Kearney takes up sparkle as a form of luminosity that is simultaneously glamorous and vexingly ephemeral for girls and young women. Toward the end of her talk, she argued that scholars should consider what queer theory—and queer political actors like drag queens and glitter bombers—can teach us about sparkle. At the bar afterwards, I asked her what glitter can teach us about throwing shade.
As a Drag Race fan, I’m familiar with throwing shade as a vital historical practice within drag culture. To throw shade is to insult someone. For especially quick, observant queens, it’s an art form. There’s an intellectual component to throwing shade, as indicated by associative terms like “reading.” It is effectively summarized in a segment of Jennie Livingston’s essential 1989 documentary Paris Is Burning, which investigates the New York drag ball scene.
Dorian Corey’s comment at the end of this scene suggests that reading is more overtly performative and communal, whereas shade is a subtle, more ephemeral form of subterfuge. Shade complements luminosity. For female celebrities, luminosity is a double-edged sword. What’s the difference between a red carpet appearance and a mug shot? But drag queens frequently harness the light sources found in cosmetics, sequins, and rhinestones to honor feminine strength and often to challenge conventional femininity. They help cast sparkle in a different light. They sparkle to deflect shade. But when a queen shines, she may also become vulnerable to another queen’s shadow, particularly if her light source is basic or counterfeit. Glitter reflects light and the dirt underneath it.
This is where reading comes in as a “fundamental” practice in drag culture. To be insulted is to be recognized. As a perennial mini-challenge on Drag Race, “the library” is a space that honors queens’ ability to be critical of her sisters in a quick, perceptively humorous fashion. Particularly effective queens, like season two contestant Jujubee, can “read for filth” by isolating a queen’s flaws or weaknesses and critiquing them in devastating fashion.
The current cast of Drag Race includes frontrunner Bianca Del Rio, an insult comic with a classic Hollywood aesthetic. In an early workroom appearance, she refers to her punchlines and put-downs as her “Rolodex of hate.” What I especially like about this phrase is how it turns anger into an index. This phrase suggests that emotions have histories with their own root causes and stories. It also turns this particular negative emotion into a technology, a tool that can be used to navigate a variety of social interactions.
A “Rolodex of hate” sounds like a “structure of feeling,” a concept popularized by cultural theorist Raymond Williams to express how certain cultural experiences are understood through representation and felt in everyday life. But a Rolodex is a reference system that allows its user to refer back to pre-existing connections and associations. In this context, “Rolodex of hate” reminds me of what Heather Love refers to as “feeling backward,” or a distinctly queer experience or representation that speaks to subjects’ negotiations of negative or ambivalent feelings like nostalgia, resentment, self-loathing, shame, and despair. It also raises a question: what is knowledge’s relationship to anger?
This is the question that I have for the video to Zebra Katz’s “Ima Read.” I work for a university, so I was immediately struck by the clip’s location. First off, an empty school will always look like the setting to a horror movie. This is why you will never find me at a library after 7 p.m. But schools are already scary because they’re sites of learning. As a result, they enforce ideologies of knowledge. School is a source of power. That’s where I learned how to diagram sentences and solve equations. It’s also where I learned dominant historical narratives, literary canons, bad words, and political values that I would later challenge and undo … by staying in school. At school, teachers and students also learn how to communicate and socialize with their peers and each other. Such congregation can be difficult for subjects who are persecuted and endangered because of their differences and their inability (or unwillingness) to adhere to norms that are toxic in their restrictiveness. It can also be disorienting, particularly since students and teachers’ actions are subject to scrutiny but its source or intent is not always clear.
Apart from the video’s setting, I’m struck by Zebra Katz and Njena Red Foxxx’s lyrics. I’ve written elsewhere about the politics of negative reinforcement, using Azealia Banks’ “212” as an example. The rappers’ extensive use of the word “bitch” cannot be ignored, though we should recognize that the word has different meanings when it is activated by a woman or a queer man. But I’m also interested in its interplay with “college,” “knowledge,” “dissertation,” “classroom,” “outline,” “cohesive,” “lunchtime,” “first period,” and “thesis.” Schools circulate ideologies through discipline. We tend to associate “discipline” with official codes of conduct that sanction certain behavior and academic practices. Discipline also circulates through less formal means. Subjects are also disciplined by schoolyard fights, incriminating gossip, and withering glances. But sometimes, anger is coded through refinement. In a graduate seminar, you might say “I find the author’s argument problematic” or “I hear what you’re saying, but I quibble with you about …” Such niceties allow you to make your point, even if you’d rather yell and throw things instead. That tension is what I find most compelling about “Ima Read”; Katz and Foxxx appropriate scholarly decorum to use it as a weapon instead of as a euphemism.
I try to lead a simple, fulfilling life; anger is a part of that. Yoko Ono begins “Revelations” with the line “Bless you for your anger, it’s a sign of rising energy.” As a feminist, I am often furious about actions and events—however subtle, however seismic—where people and various -isms ingratiate themselves into cultural representations and everyday life in order to oppress and maintain the dominant order. Sometimes I just cry. This is why I’ve never understood how weeping is denigrated as feminine. I reject such binaries and how they devalue women and femininity by denying their connections to “masculine” emotions like anger. And crying is never a dainty, submissive act for me; it destroys my face. But depending on the circumstances, I also respond with confrontation, with inquiry, with silence. As Ono’s lyrics suggest, such energy has multiple potential outcomes. Anger is productive. It transforms. But what can we do with these energies? How can we use it to teach and what can anger teach us?
There’s a line in Ondi Timoner’s Dig!, a documentary about the professional rivalries between alt-rock groups the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols during the late 90s and early 2000s, that I keep turning over in my mind. In an early scene in the film, the Dandys are absolving themselves of influencing the BJM to relocate from San Francisco to Portland to initiate some sort of musical revolution. Demonstrating their corporate allegiances, the Dandys defer to their partnership with Capitol Records and the need to deliver on their contract by producing an album. In their minds, the revolution must be delayed until after they become successful in capitalist terms. Here, the Dandys cast themselves as ambitious, efficient, and functional. This is in opposition to the BJM, who are framed as undisciplined, excessive, and (self-)destructive. According to corporate logic, only one group can be successful. After that success is confirmed, then you can usher in the revolution and get your friends to squat in Capitol Records. Dandys keyboardist Zia McCabe delivers the definitive line. “We were being productive,” she surmises, thus suggesting that the BJM, who were unsigned and filtering out hordes of side players due to persistent, drug-fueled interpersonal problems, were unproductive.
I return to this line for a few reasons. For one, I’m still not sure how either band would define “the revolution.” I have a clearer take that for the BJM it doesn’t involve cowing to the music industry. Even then, however, BJM mastermind Anton Newcombe promises to make the employees at TVT a “shitload of money” when they briefly sign to the major indie. The Dandys take cues from their namesake, Andy Warhol, and flatten pop culture in order to shade it in with camp and irony. They certainly nail the first part, creating time-shifting pop music that sounds somewhat akin to what buying a CBGB’s shirt off the rack at Urban Outfitters feels like.
The film is invested in playing up the two groups’ differences. The filmmakers deliberately chose to film the BJM in Super 8, giving their narrative a lo-fi, retro feel that bears the grain of authenticity and blurs around the margins. The Dandys were filmed in 16mm, lending their story a crisper image quality that jibes with the group’s pop aspirations. But I’ve never been convinced that Dig! is a study in opposites. For one, I’m not sure that the class distinctions between the two groups break down as neatly as we can assume. Newcombe is represented as a product of a broken family, raised by a single mother in Orange County while his father medicated mental problems with alcohol. The Dandys are represented as “the most well-adjusted band in America,” the products of nuclear families with parents who invested in Intel. However, the BJM were managed by Dave Deresinski, whose father was an AIDS researcher at Stanford. By others’ accounts, McCabe grew up working-class.
Importantly, both frontmen are chasing a mode of 60s-era Romantic rock artistry that is dead, and may never have actually existed. As a result, both Newcombe and Dandys frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor have never seemed authentic to me. Newcombe’s propensity to riot, dress in white, and put on a faux British accent in his singing scans as slightly “realer” than Taylor-Taylor wearing cowboy hats, toting skateboards, and digging on vegan food. It comes to bear on their music. The BJM produce droning guitar hymns brimming with melody but bloated by hippie pablum about bad trips and wicked women. The Dandys produce an approximation of whatever might be selling—Britpop, psychedelia, 80s-revivalist glam—and slap some pun-driven lyrics about the counterculture or sex on top like bumper stickers on a VW Bug. And if Newcombe isn’t for sale, as he claims The Beatles and Taylor-Taylor were, then what decisions led to licensing “Straight Up and Down” for Boardwalk Empire? Appeals might be made to legitimation—the pedigree of the project, the artful use of musical anachronism, the belief that HBO isn’t television anyway—but is this fundamentally different than the Dandys’ licensing of “Bohemian Like You” to Vodafone? I’m not entirely convinced. Legitimation seems like an excuse, not an opposition.
I also return to this line because I wonder what it means for a woman, the only woman in the Dandy Warhols, to claim that the band was being productive. What does it mean for a woman to say that we were being productive? Both the Dandys and the BJM played with women. This creates an aura of progressivism through inclusion. It is meaningful for bands to be mixed-gender. It is powerful to see men and women play together and it creates the potential for shifting gender dynamics in the music industry. Men and women need to learn how to share space. Rehearsal space. Stage space. Recording space. Tour bus space. Meeting space. Promotional space. Publishers’ credit space. I see some evidence of that in both bands. In the film and in the commentary tracks, McCabe and former BJM member Miranda Lee Richards own their contributions to their bands. So I wonder what we do with Taylor-Taylor essentially casting McCabe for the Dandys upon seeing her working at a coffee shop. She had no musical experience at the time. Was he casting her because she looked so much like the archetypical alt-rock pin-up, the kind of girl whose features would take to piercings and hair dye? Does this then inform McCabe’s reception, as she was infamous in early Dandys live performances for playing topless? The same questions could be asked of former BJM guest player Sophie Guenan, initially cast as a Nico-type presence in the band due to her foreign-ness and willingness to play the cello. And of course we can’t overlook that the film was made by a woman working with two men who run their own production company and won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2004. The film itself makes no explicit comment on gender, but we could.
Based on the documentary and the commentary, gender seems most operative in the BJM when it calls the group’s hippie machismo into question. Percussionist Joel Gion is most often deployed for these purposes. Outfitted in oversize sunglasses and a DIY mod hairdo, Gion mugs and vogues through most of Dig! He delivers wry commentary and wordless asides throughout the film. When guitarist/bassist Matt Hollywood concludes a tour anecdote about being accosted by Southern homophobes with “Say what you want, redneck. I’m heading over to your girlfriend’s house,” Gion counters with “The embarrassing thing was, we were sucking each other’s dicks at the time.” Yet even he cannot escape such macho posturing, claiming in a deleted scene that there’s nothing wrong with going to a meeting with a female label executive smelling like another woman’s pussy. The Dandys fare better. McCabe is able to perform, record, and tour alongside guitarist and ex-boyfriend Pete Holmström without comment. Yet Taylor-Taylor still wonders excitedly if McCabe is going to flash Matt Pinfield for a taping at MTV.
Finally, I return to this line because I would like a clearer sense of what being productive means. Does it have to do with making products? Does it have to do with feeling as though you are effectively managing your professional time? Does it mean that you feel good about your work? Does feeling good about your work mean that you’ve made a commitment to not self-exploit? I wonder what it means to the Dandys and the BJM. I wonder what it means to Matt Stahl, whose chapter on Dig! in Unfree Masters prompted me to revisit the documentary. I wonder for my pre-liminary exams, which I take at the end of the summer (I have made my reading list available through my profile on Academia.edu and I’m also updating my progress on Twitter). I wonder for my dissertation, which will focus on the identity politics of music-based intermediary labor in the post-network era. As I saw Annie Petersen do with her blog the summer she took her exams, I plan on using this blog as a space to work through some big ideas for this larger project. One of those big ideas, reignited by McCabe’s line in Dig!, is puzzling through being productive in relation to positing distinctions between labor and work.
In Bodies That Matter Judith Butler uses the concept of the heterosexual matrix to aver that materiality is a product of discourse. This supports her intervening argument that sex is a product of gender. This inverts the perceived biological paradigm that gender is the product of sex. Butler claims instead that gender enacts the processes by which we understand sex as such (Butler 1993; if you’re lost, here’s a link that explains this argument with cats). With Butler’s identity-based furniture rearrangement project in mind, I maintain that the material conditions that allow for deskilling and affect to serve as products of labor are the result of gender, which leads to the ongoing historical practices of invisibility and inaudibility. My intervention will be to theorize the relationship between invisibility and inaudibility through considering the labor roles and relations of supervisors, licensors, booking agents, and promoters. By holding visual and sonic metaphors in tension, I hope to advocate for their industrial and textual audibility through considering their contributions as labor.
It is my belief that better scholarly attention is required to understand the shaping of music-based intermediary labor in relation to an intersectional approach to understanding gender—one that is operative with race, sexuality, class, and age—at this particular historical moment. In order to successfully prepare a pre-liminary response and dissertation on this topic, I also need to historicize these changes in labor practices alongside post-network convergence and post-feminist ideology and their influence on the shaping and contextualization of media texts, intertextual relations, and definitions of power and identity. Greater emphasis is placed on branding in order to differentiate between a host of competing networks, channels, user technologies, and reception practices. Much of this is also reflected in the cultural move toward post-feminism following the feminist backlash of the 1980s. Greater emphasis began to be placed on some tenets of feminism—particularly autonomy, agency, and choice—while trading away the movement’s collaborative, anti-capitalist inclinations in order to emphasize material wealth and individual achievement.
To offer an example, I am currently working on a research project on the multiple functions of music licensing—the use of permitted copyrighted music—on RuPaul’s Drag Race, a competition-based reality show on Logo devoted to finding the next drag superstar. Music licensing has always been a part of reality programming, though only in recent years has it become integrated into the packaging and marketing beyond providing extradiegetic atmosphere for the purposes of narration and characterization. Drag Race has become a tent-pole program for the cable channel, which focuses its programming and brand on LGBT-themed content. In the project, I combine textual and discourse analysis to map out particularly illustrative instances of music licensing during the program’s run to make larger claims about the show’s use of music for the purposes of (often normative, though negotiated) queer identification and interpellation.
I am using the program to analyze the term “licensing” from two different angles. First, I will look at how host RuPaul serves as a licensor of her own music, a role facilitated as much by her role as producer as well as through her distribution deals with iTunes and Amazon. I am also interested in how RuPaul’s Drag Race serves as a licensee, particularly for its lip sync contests. Notably, the increasingly contemporary (and expensive) song selections and the cross-promotion of guest judges licensing their own music for these challenges serve to make the work of licensing audible, suggest the program’s increased wealth and success, and make legible the work of cross-promotion and interpellation. In analyzing the role of the licensor and licensee on this program, I consider the political of power built into giving license on a competition-based reality program for an identity-based niche cable channel, as well as music licensing’s possible queer potential for Logo and Drag Race’s intended audience.
Roughly defined, work seems to be the product that comes out of labor, which then can be understood as the myriad processes that shape the ultimate creation of work. Labor is then extracted from the worker that can produce exchange value. Thus it seems as though the two concepts might be differentiated between each other through temporality. Labor is the seemingly present conditions around which work is understood as a product that has been created. I believe that making such a distinction is important. But throughout the semester, it has been difficult to pin down a clear definition because a number of scholars use labor and work interchangeably, particular when applying such concepts to studies in popular culture.
In Being Rita Hayworth, Adrienne McLean claims to intervene on the field of star studies with a feminist investment in the construction of celebrity as labor. Yet much of her analysis focuses on work, or the final product of Hayworth’s labor—films, interviews, press, and fan discourse (McLean 2004). This speaks to a methodological issue. Obviously, McLean relied upon such primary sources because she had limited access to Hayworth’s labor. She could not visit film sets or conduct interviews. She could not enact ethnographic or participant action research to get a fuller picture of how each interpersonal professional exchange or utterance of personal obligation was pieced together to create the processural context for Hayworth’s labor. This is certainly a temporal issue. Yet it is also a concern that continues to vex production studies: the matter of access. In this regard, Joshua Gamson seems to offer a fuller picture of celebrity and image construction as labor (Gamson 1994). But Gamson had access to celebrities, publicists, agents, marketers, and journalists to help in his construction. McLean “only” had access to textual products, which took the form of archival material, as well as trade discourse and fan zines. I worry that a privileging of the always already present-ness afforded by certain methodologies (and industry connections) might place scholarship in a hierarchy based on perceptual differences around defining and re-enforcing such a rigid distinction between work and labor.
Thus there are some stakes to properly applying these terms or using them interchangeability. What is lost? What is the intellectual crime when we use labor instead of work and vice versa? What are we not capturing? What can we not capture? Do we presume a difference, particularly when many authors use them as if there is no difference or might have to reframe their work differently in ways that create hierarchal privileges of industry access? Importantly for my purposes, why is this distinction important to understand work in relation to gender and labor in terms of gender? Arguably, by conflating the two terms, we may not fully recognize what is being extracted from the body and the mind. If work is the action that we do and labor is what is taken or pulled out of the action, then we have to somehow access the people who are doing this. Can bodies be seen as labor and commodity, if commodity is produced solely for its exchange value? Such a question particularly seems important when talking about gender, femininity, and identity, as women and girls tend to be (de)valued socially and professionally in those terms. Does gender then function as an axis along which to articulate labor? Once we start talking about gender as work, can we then see labor as operative? If work as limited and reducible, then labor has to be about the sociocultural processes that make work possible.
I wonder about labor’s relationship to gender. While women are the subjects of these books, the authors are talking about gender in multiple ways that leave the concept of gender open and not bound by essentialist notions that equate gender to women. Instead of reducing “woman” to an essentialist category, it is important to think through the ways in which “femininity” can be theorized as discursive in relation to gender. However, we must also be conscious of how sex is a material product of gender through the ways in which gender and sex are marked on the body, how they are operative in the ways in which labor is organized and laborers engage in interpersonal professional relations at their jobs, and through the work they are responsible for performing and how that work is discursively defined. In other words, Zia McCabe’s breasts matter.
This makes me reflect on Julie D’Acci’s Defining Women: The Case of Cagney and Lacey, one of the seminal works in the field of cultural studies. Many might unintentionally dismiss Defining Women as an extended case study about Cagney and Lacey. But the program seems better understood as a critical lens through which D’Acci interprets the ways that gender and feminism were defined through dialectic practices at a particular historical moment between the television industry, the critical and trade press, and the show’s audience(s). What seems particularly useful to feminist media scholars invested in a production studies approach to popular culture is D’Acci’s differentiation between femininity, woman, and women in her introduction. Applying Teresa de Laurentis’ definition of femininity as a “technology of gender” allows D’Acci to consider how institutions construct a subject of femininity, which provides space to consider how using “femininity” as a descriptor can become a site of struggle over what “woman” means (D’Acci, 7). She consider “woman” as the construction of that subjectivity, particularly defined as an essentialist category and perceived as a stabilized identity that the labor of production and consumption surrounding Cagney and Lacey allows her to problematize. Women, for D’Acci, seem to refer to people and their textual representations (D’Acci, 8-9).
Yet Defining Women differs from much of the media studies scholarship we have read on gender and labor because it is using a historical moment in television and media to map out a historical moment in feminism. Thus if Cagney and Lacey is used as a case study, it is mobilizing the program as a lens to say something broader about the negotiation of feminism at the level of textual representation, industry construction, and the discursive reception practices that gave it meaning as a result of advancements in liberal feminism in the second half of the 1970s and the resultant conservative backlash against feminism in the 1980s.
But it might be difficult to extrapolate labor from Defining Women. In my efforts to extend her definitions of femininity, woman, and women in relation to her application of Richard A. Peterson’s circuit of production model (production/text/reception/context), a series of questions emerge. Does “female” refer to the program’s production context? Does “feminine” refer to Cagney and Lacey as a text? Does “feminist” refer to the program’s intended audience? Can any of these terms be applied to the circuit of production model or would doing so essentialize these terms?
Part of the reason for the book’s difficulty might be its deceptive simplicity. D’Acci sets up a lot of the analytical work to be done by the reader. I perceive this as an opportunity. While she does not discuss labor directly, she does leave openings for possibilities for other scholars to talk about labor. For one, she offers her notes within the book as a possible model for doing similar research, as well as evidence that the book itself is a product of labor as a process. She also offers a number of examples that could be interpreted as labor. One of the central tensions in the book is executive Barney Rosenzweig’s turn toward developing this show. As D’Acci makes clear in her mobilization of meeting notes and interviews, Rosenzweig was clearly motivated by Cagney and Lacey’s commercially exploitable possibilities in an ephemeral cultural moment when liberal feminism was part of the zeitgeist.
However, this moment of inception and the commercial impulses undergirding the production have direct bearing over the productive negotiations that kept the show on the air during its run that are represented as labor through the work of letters and industry discourse left behind. The show was always under threat of cancellation and relied upon an active, vocal assemblage of fans who fought for its preservation while simultaneously challenging the show’s representation of working women and homosocial bonding within the constraints of both liberal feminism and prime-time broadcast television. We can see this through actress Tyne Daly’s continued resistance toward certain production and promotional decisions. Daly was vocal in wanting Cagney and Lacey to be more of an explicitly feminist show that caused her to feud constantly with Rosenzweig. However, because of Daly’s commitment to feminism, she was often at various promotional and political events that served to animate the show’s implicit feminist values through associating the program and its stars with people like Gloria Steinem, organizations like the National Organization of Women, and causes like reproductive choice. This identification with feminism became built into Daly’s labor. Such identity-based responsibilities recur in Candace Moore’s discussion of L Word cast members’ appearances at lesbian bars for screening nights hosted by Showtime and the Human Rights Council (Moore 2008). This is demonstrated by actresses Kate Moennig and Leisha Hailey advocating for fans to support commercially appealing political causes like equal marriage while also mobilizing and interacting with their fan base in order to lobby for the show’s continued existence.
Finally, I continue to return to an archetype that D’Acci invokes numerous times in Cagney and Lacey (D’Acci 1994). What do we do with the “go-getter”? This is a feminine archetype that D’Acci attributes to emerge out of advertising during the turn from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. Go-getters were defined as being productive, efficient, normatively feminine, and compliant with the ideological directives of capitalism in order to guarantee their own professional ascendancy and advancements. For D’Acci, the “go-getter” becomes an important model upon which liberal feminist narratives were built, including how programs like Cagney and Lacey represented professional women. For me, I wonder how the “go-getter” remains a model for how female industry professionals are expected to comport themselves in a post-feminist climate. This is particularly concerning because to my mind, the go-getter is a figure of accommodation. In this case, “getting” seems to imply fetching or acquiring something for someone else. Climbing up the corporate ladder suggests that what is being reached for is someone else’s approval and that mentorship and successorship conform to heteromasculine, patriarchal definitions of achievement. So is it a more feminist act to play the game or do we try to change the system by advocating for production practices and representations that do not reinforce patriarchal machinations?
Extending the go-getter archetype even further, how is interest created in a show like this? In the case of Cagney and Lacey, much of the promotion of the show centered on controversies mobilized by identity politics. Feminism and feminist viewership(s) were interpellated by a consistent focus on and representation of hot-button liberal feminist issues like partner abuse, incest, rape, and the glass ceiling. Rosenzweig appears to be stirring the pot in order to get people to pay attention in the first place. Is this exploitatively political or a legitimate feminist strategy? And what does it mean to center such concerns on liberal feminist ideology, embodied by archetypes like the go-getter, which seems to be more concerned with accommodating patriarchal definitions of professional success and social justice than other more resistive, radical models? As someone who studies how labor informs the popular music that is brought to television, negotiations with liberal feminism and post-feminism seem likely to extend beyond the visual realm of representation as well. For a start, such negotiations might help us to understand how and when gender is operative in Dig! both for the subjects in front of the camera and for the female documentarian behind it.
Close out the new year with my Antenna post on RuPaul’s Drag Race and sponsorship.
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.