One of my all-time favorite movies is Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris Is Burning. The film explores New York City’s ball culture and profiled both up-and-coming and well-known drag queens who competed in balls at that time. Moreover, it deconstructs what drag (particularly in the context of the ball community) is all about, from race and class issues to chosen families and social hierarchy. The film also investigates the gender implications of drag and explores the different gender presentations and identities of the queens. For instance, though some use drag as a temporary escape, or as an exercise in performance, others view it as the most honest expression of their true genders. Or, as Venus Xtravaganza aptly explains:
I don’t feel like there’s anything mannish about me, except maybe what I might have between me down there, which is my personal thing.
When I saw the billboards for RuPaul’s Drag Race (now in its second season on Logo), I was simultaneously intrigued and worried. On one hand, images of gender nonconforming queer people are tough to find in media these days, so shouldn’t we embrace and celebrate those images when they do exist? But, on the other hand, Logo (though it is an LGBT-focused station) is fairly mainstream and appears to market itself toward broad demographics; with that in mind, how can we trust that the images of drag performers as featured on this show are as authentic as those presented in Paris Is Burning? Is this show an opportunity to really explore drag culture to its fullest and to really explore the fluidity of gender, or is it simply an excuse to watch catty queens snap their fingers and pull at each others’ hair? I decided to answer these questions for myself and watch the show.
After watching the first two episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race‘s current season, I found that I liked it much more than I had initially expected. I particularly appreciate how the show handles the issue of gender fluidity and the construction of gender. Though the contestants are consistently addressed by their persona names, we spend a large portion of each episode watching them in street clothes, presenting as men. Pronouns are used interchangeably, and the varying mannerisms, behavior and vocal inflections used by the contestants when they are presenting as men and when they are presenting as women appear entirely natural and seamless. It is as though each contestant embodies multiple genders simultaneously, which can be amplified or repressed depending on the situation. Before each challenge begins, RuPaul sends the contestants off with the words, “Gentlemen, start your engines, and may the best woman win.” That catchphrase really sums up the idea of embodying multiple genders at once; for someone to be both a gentleman and a woman is a radical idea, but it’s one that I love. The comfort with both man-ness and woman-ness is apparent throughout the show, and it’s the quality of the show I find most appealing.
The role that drag plays in each contestant’s personal gender construction is unique. During the character introductions in the season premiere, some contestants choose to solely refer to themselves by their persona name (in essence, owning that persona as their true identity), where as others introduce themselves by their legal names and reference their personas separately. Contestant Pandora Boxx greets her competitors with the salutation “Hey, fake ladies!,” creating an assumption that the contestants are really men who merely impersonate women. Later in the episode, however, Shangela expresses a more nuanced perspective on gender identity. Commenting on the sight of watching the contestants fight each other off for draperies, later used as fabric for costumes, she simply states, “There were no ladies on that set today. There were men running for curtains.” I take that sentiment to mean that, for many of these contestants, gender is something fluid and malleable; depending on the circumstances, one might be able to shift from presenting as a man or a woman fairly easily. Or, the comment might also reflect the duality of gender expressed by RuPaul’s aforementioned catchphrase. Either way, Shangela understands the different ways in which gender is constructed and presented on the show, and the acknowledgment is refreshing to hear.
My major concern with RuPaul’s Drag Race is that it goes for cheap laughs too often. (Granted, this is a criticism of which all reality shows are guilty, but that doesn’t make it defensible.) For example, at the start of each episode, before RuPaul meets with the contestants to discuss the upcoming challenges, the contestants receive a video message from the host, classified as “She Mail.” Though I understand the reference to e-mail, “she-male” is a highly derogatory term referring to trans women, and referencing such a term as a joke is downright offensive and transphobic. Considering the fact that people often misuse the word “transgender” when referring to drag queens (and vice versa — though some people may claim both labels, the identities are largely independent of one another), and considering RuPaul’s less-than-stellar reputation in the trans community, the reclamation of language really doesn’t work in this context. If this were a show by, for and about trans women, that might be a different story. But in the context of this show, “She Mail” is nothing more than a transphobic slur.
RuPaul’s Drag Race has the potential to be an interesting, groundbreaking show. It has the potential to explore the construction of gender and the notion gender as a performative act in a new way, and it has the potential to bring those issues to an audience that may not have previously considered such possibilities. But it also has the potential to fall into the trap of other reality shows and make a mockery of (rather than celebrate) its characters. The “She Mail” gag in particular makes me worry about the path this show may be on. Having not seen the show’s first season, I don’t have anything else to on which to base these judgments. Only time will tell what the show is able to accomplish. For now, I am cautiously (very cautiously) optimistic.
Have any of you watched RuPaul’s Drag Race? What’s your take on it?