Performing the Politics of Drag
ANDREW WALKER

In episode 6 of RuPaul’s Drag All Stars 2 (the one where Alaska infamously sends home Tatianna for a second time), RuPaul remarks during her critiques, “I marketed subversive drag to 100,000 million mother f*ckers in the world. I’m a marketing mother f*cking genius over here.”

RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 2 Episode 6 Trailer | Source: © OUTtv/YouTube

And that’s true. RuPaul’s Drag Race’s audience has increased dramatically since its 2009 debut, reaching nearly a million viewers during its ninth season premiere this past year. The show transitioned from its home on LogoTV to the more mainstream VH1, has sold out thousands of live shows around the world, and earned RuPaul herself an Emmy for Outstanding Host for a Reality Competition Program in 2016.

Even season 8 winner Bob the Drag Queen admitted to starting drag only after watching the show’s first season. Drag Race has launched the careers of more than 100 queens, giving them the platform and resources to perform full-time. Yet as the show pushes drag further into the mainstream, there needs to be a reckoning of what the show’s popularity means for drag and the LGBTQIA+ community at large.

Drag, obviously, is about more than just RuPaul’s Drag Race. Any person in a wig, heels, and clown makeup is brave and important to subverting gendered expectations, regardless of the fashion or precision of the look. But like Bob the Drag Queen, I also fell in love with drag after watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. Ru and the other queens taught me that drag can be funny and entertaining and liberating. And beyond that, drag can be one of our most powerful political tools, which means that it also can be misused, misconstrued, and misunderstood.

Cast of RuPaul's Drag All Stars 2 at the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards (Source: RuPaul's Drag Race/Facebook)

Cast of RuPaul’s Drag All Stars 2 at the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards | Source: RuPaul’s Drag Race/Facebook

That’s why the commercial success of Drag Race should give us pause. It injects a cash threshold into a form of queer politics and activism that should be accessible to everyone, not just those who can afford it. Giving drag queens fame and fortune is not bad. The LGBTQIA+ community will benefit from the visibility of such a subversive act of queerness, and drag brings far more good into the world than bad. But like any activist, drag queens and queer people need to be critical of our own intersectionality, careful to comment on and not perpetuate the gender binary, gay misogyny, unchecked capitalism, and queer political divisions.

Critiquing drag, drag queens, and the areas where drag has the capacity to fall short is an exercise of accountability.

Drag and Femininity

Drag, as performed by cis- gay men (who are, of course, not the only people who perform in drag), is a reclamation of the femininity ascribed to them by mainstream society. Drag is the ultimate performance of the limp-wristed sissy, a ritual of recognizing, internalizing, and reveling in the fact that homosexuals are not considered “real men.”

But we need to be critical of how drag queens — and gay people more broadly — form identity and culture around a claim to femininity. Drag queens were criticized by second-wave feminists for their satirical interpretations of the female experience. In feminist theorist Marilyn Frye’s The Politics of Reality, she writes, “Gay men’s effeminacy and donning of feminine apparel displays no love of or identification with women or the womanly… It is a casual and cynical mockery of women, for whom femininity is the trapping of oppression, but it is also a kind of play, a toying with that which is taboo.” Drag appropriates womanhood, and sometimes does so under only the guise of subversion. Drag has also been criticized as transphobic, especially due to the language and methods that surround the practice. For example, it was not until season 6 in 2015 that RPDR removed its episodic “You’ve Got She-Mail” joke when Ru would introduce that week’s challenge.

Sexist and transphobic language is hardly concentrated among drag queens. The affectionate use of female pronouns is abundant among gay men. Words like “sister” and “girl” are commonplace, but “b*tch” and “c*nt” are just as often used as terms of endearment. Gay men may feel they have access to these feminine words because straight people call them feminine. These words are part of a vernacular spoken by queer men (and shouted into microphones by drag queens) that engenders belonging, a marker of participation in gay (male) culture. In other words, language that is meant to foster inclusivity comes at the cost of prolific sexist slurs that perpetuate linguistic violence against women.

So is drag, which is rooted in what is meant to be a liberating embrace of ascribed femininity, just another symptom of gay misogyny? What right do men have to critique or comment on women’s bodies or how women perform womanhood? And how are we as a community critical of the language we use to build belonging?

Drag can be one of our most powerful political tools, which means that it also can be misused, misconstrued, and misunderstood.

I think in a lot of ways we are not critical enough — of our internalized sexism, or of the gendered, raced, and classed power structures within the LGBTQIA+ community at large. Under the mantle of queer oppression, gay (white) men can use their other privileges to dominate the direction of the movement, further compounding the marginalization of less privileged community members. When drag punches down at women and trans folks, it perpetuates the same harmful stereotypes ascribed to them by straight society — a collusion that is that much more sinister because it comes from a seemingly subversive fellow queer. Racist, sexist, and transphobic jokes, even from the mouth of a man dressed in women’s clothes, still reinforce the white supremacist patriarchy.

Yet in a lot of other ways, drag works to dismantle the patriarchy by disrupting masculinity — and the gender binary altogether. When masculinity is not performed the way that people expect, the standard of expectation is that much more diminished and societal notions surrounding “masculinity” are that much more expanded. Drag queens are often, but certainly not always, gay, cisgender men. Yes, trans women can be drag queens. Yes, drag queens can be gender-queer, non-binary, and every other gender identity. Yes, drag queens can be bald or bearded, boy-chested or “bushy-browed.”

RuPaul’s Drag Race – Category Is (Feat. Peppermint, Sasha Velour, Trinity Taylor and Shea Couleé) | Source: Pili Ortells/YouTube

Drag is about more than female impersonation and the appropriation of womanhood. Drag performance has the capacity to give visibility to the whole spectrum of gender, subverting the patriarchy under which people of all genders are oppressed and held to impossible, non-existent standards of “male” and “female.”

Drag and Capitalism

As many queer people (including RuPaul) will tell you, we get to choose our family. Some blood relatives may not accept queerness quite like other LGBTQIA+ people, and mentorship often plays a key role in queer relationships. Drag mothers pass down knowledge, skills, and supplies to their daughters. The “Houses” that compete in the kinds of drag balls chronicled in the celebrated and controversial documentary Paris is Burning function as alternative families comprised of a “mother” and “father” who guide their queer “children” through drag balls and life more broadly.

Paris is Burning | Source: SaneelGB/YouTube

To appropriate and subvert the family structure in this way is also to appropriate and subvert the basic economic unit. Familial ties afford you more than just love and affection. Kinship is legislated and taxed, expanded through heteronormative institutions like marriage and procreation, and located under a physical roof. When queer people are shunned by their families or denied the right to marry, they lose access to a source of income, tax credits, and lodging, in addition to community and belonging. The model of the drag “family” addresses more than just love and inclusion: it highlights the monetary gain afforded to heteronormative kinship relationships.

Beyond the drag family, ball culture — which is distinct but related to what we think of as modern drag — gives a glimpse into the ways in which drag is raced and classed. Ball-goers were (and are) often people of color, who compete in categories like “High Fashion Street Wear” and “Femme Queen Realness,” in which one performs the experience of being wealthy or “passing” as a biological woman. The awards for “realness” go to those who most resemble the “real” thing.

So is drag, which is rooted in what is meant to be a liberating embrace of ascribed femininity, just another symptom of gay misogyny?

However, it is difficult to walk into a category about labels without the money to afford labels. Race is often classed, as a result of the multiple structures of oppression and economic exclusion that specifically affect queer people of color. In her critique “Is Paris Burning,” Black feminist bell hooks criticizes Paris Is Burning’s white filmmaker’s framing of (black, gay, male) ball-goers’ pursuit and imitation of a “brutal imperial ruling-class capitalist patriarchal whiteness.” To hooks, the way drag was represented in the documentary is not only a pursuit of material and gendered “realness,” but is necessarily linked to how whiteness, capitalism, and patriarchy work together to oppress those without the racial, material, and gendered capital to participate in white society. On episode 4 of season 8 of RPDR, Chi Chi Devayne points out that it is hard to compete with the other queens who can afford more expensive clothes and more elaborate garments. While the show’s judges insist that drag is about creativity over cash, it is hard to deny that drag is inextricably linked to capitalism.

Katya Zamolodchikova (but your dad just calls her Katya), a RPDR season 7 contestant and All Stars 2 favorite, tweeted last year, “Drag is a parody, a satire, a send-up, a critique. The act of getting into drag is inherently a critique of clothes, identity, and behavior.” Katya implies that drag queens are in on the joke, on the forefront of critiquing capitalist structures. Of course, people construct their identities around clothes and behavior. But to critique the material ways in which we express ourselves — especially through those selfsame material means — is still a comment on capitalism. Though drag queens rely on clothes, makeup, and shoes to make their transformation, their drag persona is still a critique of how material things can shape their relationship with society at large. Just because it costs money to do drag does not mean that drag is necessarily unable to subvert, critique, and comment on capitalism.

Drag and Politics

A Drag Queen during the Stonewall riots (Source: Eyes of Ben Sher/Blogspot)

A Drag Queen during the Stonewall riots | Source: Eyes of Ben Sher/Blogspot

Drag is a political statement, rooted in a history of resistance and a reclamation of otherness. The use of our physical bodies has emerged as a key message surrounding discussions of activism and allyship within the public discourse among progressives. Just as we need to put our white bodies on the line to help protect our black and brown siblings from police brutality, we should also use our bodies to challenge what is considered gender- or heteronormative.

With its roots in second-wave feminism, “the personal is political” has come to describe modern social movements, from women’s to civil to LGBTQIA+ rights. Although the interpretation of the phrase is widely debated, it speaks to the inherent relationship between the personal experiences of oppressed groups and the broad structures that shape their oppression. Their existence is legislated, devalued, and politicized as just one side of a debate. The individual lives and bodies of members of these marginalized communities are in danger every day, exemplified by the 25 transgender people (overwhelmingly trans women of color) already killed in 2017.

Gayle Rubin's "Charmed Circle" (Source: Riseup.net)

Gayle Rubin’s “Charmed Circle” | Source: Riseup.net

Since Marsha P. Johnson and the Stonewall riots, drag queens, trans people, femmes, butches, and other non-conforming folk have pushed boundaries, challenging state-sponsored discrimination and violence. They have been the de facto and most visible leaders of the more progressive LGBTQIA+ agendas, yet were (and still are today) excluded from more conservative and respectable assimilationist activism. And don’t get me wrong — both kinds of activism are important. We need people in suits working through our institutions to change laws incrementally just like we need men in dresses representing what it looks like to be outside of what queer theorist Gayle Rubin would call the “charmed circle.” But as we critique our community’s activism, we need to remember that working through institutions affords you a certain amount of respectability and economic access that may not be afforded to those who do not pass as cisgender or heterosexual. In other words, we need both lawyers in courtrooms and drag queens in queer spaces to push our politics in the right direction — but generally, lawyers get paid a helluva lot more for their efforts.

Divisions in the queer community surrounding assimilation, visibility, and safety for queer youth have split the LGBTQIA+ movement before, and still exist today. While marriage equality was a huge victory for LGBTQIA+ rights, it put a lot of resources towards gaining access to a heteronormative and respectable societal institution sponsored by a state with a track record of oppressing its queer population. And while coming out has been a liberating experience for many, it has also been critiqued as a white, Western construct that leaves non-white and non-Western queer people that much more vulnerable to psychological, physical, and economic violence. These seemingly contrasting political agendas — marriage vs. free love or coming out vs. the down low — do not have to be mutually exclusive. But how we present our sameness and differences — both within the queer community and in contrast to straight society — is a matter of political choice.

RuPaul (Source: Giphy)

RuPaul | Source: Giphy

And that’s why drag is a form of activism. From the Shakespearian and vaudeville stages to the main stage of RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag subverts respectability politics by challenging the presentation of traditional, hegemonic masculinity. An active ritual of anti-assimilation, drag creates space for others to explore the spectrums of gender and sexuality and represents that it is okay to present as femme or butch — to revel in the stereotypically gay traits that we might otherwise try to suppress in order to blend in. Queer people can do drugs and have sex and dress like women, and they still have the right to demand civil rights, healthcare, housing, and respect. Drag is political, a queer cultural staple in a movement for and full of misfits.

Performing the Politics

Drag toes the line of critique and perpetuation — of the gender binary, of femininity, of capitalism, of queer history. When drag is a critique, it is a smart, powerful tool that makes observers question what a man should do, how a woman should look, and why they have those expectations in the first place. But when drag is perpetuation, queer leaders and allies subtly and insidiously support harmful stereotypes and societal norms. These things don’t happen at a conscious level. That’s what makes subversive acts like drag so powerful — and so dangerous. They chip away or reinforce cultural expectations over time without the active acknowledgment of the observer. Do not give a drag queen a free pass to be racist, sexist, or transphobic just because they are a drag queen.

“The personal is political.” Just being queer disrupts heteronormative expectations, and drag is an extension of this disruption. Because our lives are political, we are necessarily activists — and our activism must be intersectional. We have a responsibility within our own community to call out how other privileges — like whiteness, economic status, or maleness — compound the oppression of our already marginalized queer siblings under the pretense of liberation. Drag can be liberating for both the queen and her onlookers, but not when it comes at the cost of violence against women, transphobia, economic exclusion, or political division.

In the wake of the 2016 election, RuPaul described how she has always used drag as a political instrument of resistance. She recently crowned Sasha Velour the season 9 winner of RPDR, and as a Fulbright scholar, bald queen, and Judith Butler enthusiast, Sasha uses drag to explore gender and break down social norms. In Donald Trump’s America, the stakes of surviving on the fringes of society are that much higher, and the title of “America’s Next Drag Superstar” means that much more. Critiquing drag, drag queens, and the areas where drag has the capacity to fall short is an exercise of accountability. There is always more work to be done to subvert patriarchy, challenge capitalism, and advance progressive agendas. Drag Race has a key role to play in this new era of queer activism, as does its audience as commentators on the queer politics that are represented.

 





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