What Follows as Drag Takes Center Stage?
Recently, my roommates and I have been watching RuPaul’s Drag Race religiously. A friend of mine’s girlfriend discovered the show on Hulu, and we’ve been addicted ever since. I’ll admit, when I first watched the show, I was surprisingly uncomfortable. I grew up in New Orleans where drag isn’t too uncommon of a thing. I had heard of Drag Brunch at The Country Club and walked past drag performance clubs in the French Quarter, so I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with drag in general. However, watching the show and being exposed to the performers male and female persona simultaneously was difficult for me to wrap my mind around. However, as I continued to watch the show, the dichotomy between the performer’s personas became less and less unusual. Once I got past my original discomfort, I began to see the contestants as whole people rather than just their performance persona. I imagine my experience with drag entering mainstream media is like many others. With the introduction of drag on popular TV (RuPaul’s Drag Race just announced that they will be airing on Logo and VH1), significant progress and challenges have been presented to the social gender paradigm and local drag cultures.
My experience with drag on TV speaks to the challenges it poses to the current social system of gender hegemony. According to Raewyn W. Connell, gender hegemony is the concept that social standards and practices enable certain gender groups to rise above others in social status and importance based on their gender performance. Within the gender hegemonic social system, Connell defines subcategories of gender with hegemonic masculinity dominating the social structure followed by subordinate masculinity, emphasized femininity, and marginalized femininity. Hegemonic masculinity is the ideal performance of masculinity and crowns the hierarchy of gender in society. Hegemonic masculinity is generally cisgender, heterosexual men. Subordinate masculinity encompasses individuals that are still male, but often includes homosexual men. On the other hand, femininity is divided into emphasized and marginalized femininity. Emphasized femininity includes cisgender, heterosexual females that comply with hegemonic masculinity, while marginalized femininity includes women who do not align with hegemonic masculinity and include homosexual women. While the gay men that predominantly perform drag would typically be classified as representing subordinate masculinity, they still possess the masculine advantage. Drag on TV overtly challenges gender hegemony by allowing drag queens an open space to alter themselves from the typical features of masculinity and adopt a female persona. RuPaul’s Drag Race, although it only depicts the contestants’ drag names, shows the contestants as both their male and female persona, allowing viewers to directly witness the transformation from male to female. The audience watches the contestants willingly surrender their upper hand as masculine individuals to assume the performance of femininity.
On the other hand, drag also reinforces gender hegemony by the way drag performers display femininity. RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants play into both hyper femininity and marginalized femininity. While some queens on the show like Kim Chi and Acid Betty take an alternative or artistic approach to drag performance, many others pursue a hyper feminine appearance for their drag personas. Contestants like Naomi Smalls in season 8 seek to embody hyper femininity in their personas, using their slim frames to sport idyllic hyper feminine clothing, wigs, etc. rather than pursuing an exaggerated female persona like many other drag queens. Drag queens depicted in the media often perform their persona in a way that highlights attractiveness and sexuality pleasing to men, a key component of emphasized femininity. Drag personas also represent marginalized femininity in that they don’t fully belong in emphasized femininity. While some drag performers specifically pursue the appearance of emphasized femininity and can’t achieve it due to their masculine features, other purposefully perform their drag personas as an entirely different form of femininity. RuPaul’s Drag Race includes drag queens that perform in each of these categories, reinforcing our original concept of femininity.
Drag performers also reinforce the male gaze that dominates popular media. Allen Farber explains male gaze as the inclination of media to approach work from the male point of view, which usually involves hyper sexualizing women. Under the male gaze, women in media are displayed as an object to be observed rather than active participant in the storyline. In film and TV, this usually involves women displayed on screen either in unnecessarily revealing clothing or shots focus on them and larger portions of their body than they do men. Drag performers often hypersexualize their drag personas in performances, especially now that shows like RuPaul’s have aired on popular media. For example, Roxxxy Andrews on RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 5 and All Star’s Season 2 emphasizes her “thick and juicy” (as she refers to herself) frame, often wearing more revealing outfits and accentuates her cleavage and legs.
As drag becomes mainstream media, progress and problems follow. From my experience watching the RuPaul’s, drag on mainstream media has served as an effective method of education. In my case, RuPaul’s allowed me to see contestants as real, whole people. I grew to better understand what drag is and how it relates to the individuals performing it. It also raises awareness for the LGBTQ community in general, as most of the contestants are gay men. There’s even been a transgender contestant on the show, Monica Beverly Hillz on season 5. The rising popularity of RuPaul has drawn attention to the network Logo, giving publicity to the LGBTQ community and revealing more of the complexities of gender and sexuality that have been largely ignored. In Katie Rogers’ 2014 article in the Guardian, RuPaul speaks about the power of the show to communicate with the audience and share the unique experiences of the contestants with people who wouldn’t have been able to understand before.
‘“We’re dealing with people who have been shunned by society and have made a life regardless of what anyone else thinks of them have decided,” RuPaul says. “It shows the tenacity of the human spirit, which each of us watching relates to. And we root for them. I think that’s what’s so captivating about it, seeing how these beautiful creatures have managed to prevail.””
Like RuPaul says, Drag Race has given contestants a platform, not only to share their unique expression of gender identity, but also a medium for telling their stories to an audience that cares to hear them. In this way, drag on mainstream TV has given freedom to a community that has endured significant social marginalization and ridicule while captivating and transforming the hearts of audience members who can now share their experience.
While there are many advantages to drag infiltrating mainstream media, other issues also arise. According to Tyler Coates’ 2013 piece in Flavorwire, drag made one of its first appearances in mainstream media in the documentary released in 1991 Paris is Burning, popularized when Madonna adopted “vogueing” from the film. Coates and Rogers describe this documentary as revolutionary in that, not only did it focus on the LGBTQ community, but also on the black and Latino ballroom drag culture in Harlem. Each of these communities had been under and misrepresented in the media thus far. However, current drag media focuses less on those communities and more on contestants that have the resources and ability to execute high quality drag personas. Coates argues that the contestants on RuPaul’s drag race represent an entirely different element of drag that involves outlandish costumes and artistic transformations rather than the “realness” associated with the queens in Paris is Burning. In addition, The Guardian article sites Coates’ piece, stating that the show “glosses over the class and race problems that the film Paris is Burning tried to illuminate.” Contemporary mainstream drag also diverts attention away from local drag performers, giving viewers an unrealistic and idealistic vision of what drag performance is.
Drag performance in the mainstream media seeks to enlighten audiences about the challenges of gender identity and self-expression, however, with this comes substantial trials that can distort and trivialize the struggles of drag performers that don’t enter the limelight. While Paris is Burning illuminates a unique perspective and community, shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race display queens of all different kinds, highlighting the vastness of gender performance while also perpetuating ideas about masculinity and femininity and excluding certain communities and representations of drag. In addition, drag performance on mainstream media often only accentuates the male gaze rather than challenging the industry’s male-dominated portrayal of gender. Taking all of this into account, drag entering mainstream media poses a larger question to its audience: what exactly is a man and a woman? With all of these different nuances in drag performance and its role in society, audiences are forced to reexamine their ideas of what defines gender and who belongs in those categories, if categories are even applicable anymore. As an avid RuPaul fan, I find I’m asking myself this same question, which could perhaps be the most valuable thing drag on TV has to offer society.