By Darcey Page – Sub-Editor
‘Everybody say love’
The illusion of drag has come a long way. A big factor in this, is the rise in popularity of the popular American TV show, ‘Ru Paul’s Drag Race’, which is a centred around a competition between drag queens. It’s been running for 12 years with 13 seasons as well as a spin off show, and aims to bring more awareness to the complexities of the LGBTQ+ community.
As a Drag Race super-fan, I have watched the show develop from a pageant show for fiery queens into a political demonstration against right wing ideals. The concept of ‘men in wigs’ (term coined by drag queen Bianca Del Rio) has become the polar opposite to the discourse of right wing factions in American politics. The liberal left have thrown their weight behind drag: saying that it has the power to change the way we view the LGBTQ+ community, and created a pop culture phenomenon that is recognised globally. Ru Paul himself almost single-handedly brought the underground nightlife of drag to the mainstream and secured himself as one of the most celebrated personalities in America.
In the first few seasons of ‘Ru Paul’s Drag Race’, the show developed perhaps a dangerous stereotype of what it means to be a drag queen. However, in recent times it has promoted the 2016 Presidential election, the 2018 midterms, encouraged viewers to register to vote and constantly pokes fun at politicians. Furthermore, its emotional confessions from the queens has exposed what it means to be a gay man in America. It also brings out the geographical dimensions of gay rights with contestants hailing from less LGBT-friendly environments, such as Puerto Rico. It also has been able to expose the problems of intersectionality in the LGBTQ+ community. In the ‘Club Kid’ scene of the 1980s, young black men were not allowed in the first gay bars, nor welcomed into the so-called progressive communities emerging in New York and the West Coast. Ru Paul managed to highlight these problems through ‘Drag Race’ by explaining what it was to be gay and struggle with racial, religious and political tensions.
Drag itself has been lifted by Ru Paul, and by the sea of drag queens churned out by the show. It is now seen as a subversive and vibrant exploration of gender. The relationship between drag and gender performativity is expanding from just ‘female impersonation’. Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity is one of repetitive gender practices, enforced by stereotypes of men and women. Drag is able to bend these ideas and present the notion that gender is not binary, but an illusion of how we present ourselves to the world.
“This is not Ru Paul’s ‘Best Friend Race’”
So, all of this sounds great, but how did it become political? Why should we care? The importance of the influence of drag is that it has power to transform a social movement, and communities. However, this can be damaging when done wrong. There are inherent issues with a show that promotes love for everyone whilst belittling groups in their own community. It is almost no secret now that Drag Race is not a friendly place for transgender women. And yet it doesn’t seem to be properly addressed in the community. The notion of drag being able to be a unifying force against problems of homophobia has lost its lustre due to claims that it is only eligible for gay men. It is considered cheating if a woman was to dress in drag, despite it merely being a presentation of a chosen gender. The success and popularity of drag has taken away some opportunities for those in the trans community who already suffer from lack of employment and isolation from society. Transgender communities were not even accepted into any scene in the 80s unless they could ‘pass’ for female. Many transgender women were homeless and prostitutes. This is still the case for many today. The TV show ‘Pose’, set in 1980s New York emulates the hierarchy of the LGBTQ+ community in a world that already didn’t accept them. Ru Paul’s Drag Race appears to make this worse, being such an iconic part of the LGBTQ+ community and culture, yet still showing that even they have problems truly accepting trans people into an experience that should celebrate them. It is often the case that many transgender men and women began drag as the start of their transition. And yet there have only been 3 transgender contestants on the show; two of which only revealed this after they were casted.
‘Monica Beverley Hills’ was a contestant on Season 5 that was quickly removed from the show after she came out as a transgender woman. She was the first to do so and it was used for her confessionals on the show before leaving. She has spoken out about the comments made on the show and by former contestants. Other contestants have also spoken out, some more negative than others. ‘Aiden Zhane’, who is a contestant on the latest season of the show, was recently outed in the media for posts made online against trans communities. To make matters worse, a former contestant of the 2020 season, ‘Sherry Pie’, was disqualified from the race due to predatory assaults against vulnerable gay men; which should’ve been heavily investigated before the show even premiered. This has led some critics to argue that if the producers are so quick to cast a known sex offender, then why are they so against casting a trans contestant?
The issues of transgender politics are highlighted within these types of events. It sparks the question as to whether trans communities have indeed been ‘accepted’ by society, or whether we are still at the stage where the lines are blurred between what appropriate help is, and what is merely virtue signalling. Trans communities shouldn’t have to thank pop culture for ‘exposure’ in order to gain influence. Why is it important then to critique shows like Ru Paul’s Drag Race? In a world where LBGTQ+ communities are still struggling in today’s political climate, what develops is ‘token’ segments of LBGTQ+ life being projected into mainstream society. It offers insight into what it means to be part of that community, and what it stands for, however it is impossible to reduce entire communities and livelihoods to one or two pieces of pop culture. This is why although Drag Race appears to make waves for those still under prejudice, it needs to be checked to ensure that it does not exclude what it preaches to support.