The time has come for RuPaul’s Drag Race to sashay away
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, David Shankbone
No doubt about it, I love drag. Even though I’d seen it before, I only really became fascinated by drag when my friends introduced me to RuPaul’s Drag Race. I fell in love with the show, and for about two years I went through life tongue-popping, greeting people by saying ‘hieeeeee’ and trying to learn to do a death drop (I still can’t do it).
Drag legend RuPaul Charles started his show in 2009, with its the eleventh season airing in June. Spin-off shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars and RuPaul’s Drag Race Thailand have been highly successful too. Over the years, the show has built a loyal and slightly cultish fanbase, with ever younger fans starting to admire the art of drag.
It is wonderful that the show became so popular, reaching mainstream media such as Cosmopolitan magazine and garnering fans all over the world. Broadcasting such an outspokenly gay show on national US television, and internationally on Netflix, is a great step towards the LGBT+ community becoming more accepted within society.
However, there are still problems with RuPaul’s Drag Race. To begin with, it has had a long history of transphobia. Until about season six of the show, the word ‘shemale’, a very offensive slur used to describe a transgender woman, was said in every episode. Another slur, ‘tranny’, was also used. As well as this, RuPaul caused controversy when he talked about season nine queen, a transgender woman called Peppermint, saying she would not have been allowed to compete after having breast surgery. According to RuPaul, it would take away what’s so ‘punk rock’ about drag. The show has since redeemed itself by halting use of slurs and welcoming transgender queens to recent specials. RuPaul has also apologised for the controversy. Yet, Drag Race still feels like a place where competitors are restricted by many rules and people’s gender remains an uncomfortable subject.
In the ten seasons of the show, not a single cisgender woman has taken part in the competition. In an age in which intersectionality seems to be the future, with spaces designed exclusively for male and gay audiences slowly disappearing,
it seems slightly old-fashioned to believe that a drag queen has to be a man.
RuPaul has argued that performing one’s own gender takes away the irony of drag. Does it, though? Many drag queens, like Trixie Mattel, Violet Chachki and Bianca Del Rio, do not perform as though they are real-life women. They dress up in an exaggerated, maybe idealised or doll-like version of a woman: they never even aim to look like a “real” woman. If a woman does this, sure, the meaning becomes different. Maybe it becomes more of a celebration of femininity than a performance of gender-related irony. But what the hell is wrong with that anyway?
Also, why aren’t there any drag kings on Drag Race? The most obvious answer to this would be that they’re too difficult to judge against drag queens. Are they really, though? The world of drag queens is already diverse, with pageant queens and comedy queens having wildly different reasons for doing drag. There are certain rules on RuPaul’s Drag Race (queens have to wear heels and corsets, for example), but isn’t the whole point of drag that there are no rules? That a man can dress up as a glamorous woman and that people will love it regardless of whether you are wearing heels or not?
Being a good entertainer, whether that is a singer, a dancer, an incredible makeup artist or comedian, is not defined by gender.
And besides, making all kinds of rules does not seem very ‘punk rock’ either.
The only drag that seems to be accepted on RuPaul’s Drag Race is the hyper-feminine, super glamorous drag RuPaul does himself. In the past, queens have been penalised for not wearing high heels, or even doing male drag. It seems absurd and boring, really, to have such a taboo-breaking show only present its audience with one form of drag.
The art of drag itself is about exploring gender, whatever that may be. If someone ends up at the hyper feminine version of drag, that’s fine, but it’s not the only kind. There is gender bending. There are drag kings. Really, there are hundreds of other fascinating things that can be done while performing gender, and it is time to give all forms of drag the attention they deserve.