In June 2016, President Obama designated the Stonewall Inn a national monument – the first such monument dedicated to the LGBTQ movement. While Stonewall is often remembered as the birthplace of the “gay rights” movement, the Stonewall Riots more accurately sparked the comprehensive LGBTQ movement as they were largely led by two trans women dressed in drag: Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. The “Rosa Parks” of the gay rights movement were both drag queens of color. They both later transitioned and came to identify as women. Drag is central to the larger LGBTQ movement’s history and activism.
Today, drag is often synonymous with RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality competition television show that aims to find “America’s Next Drag Superstar.” After the show moved from LOGO to VH1, the show’s audience base has skyrocketed. Season nine’s premier attracted almost one million viewers. The show’s audience has extended beyond its early niche status within the LGBTQ community to become well followed by a large number of young, straight women. Season nine winner, Sasha Velour, demonstrates drag’s newfound appeal by receiving coverage in Vogue.
Resulting from RuPaul’s brand, drag queens are now able to have successful careers as mainstream entertainers (with world tours to boot). The NYT even asks if this is “The Golden Age of Drag?” Drag’s new following has caused the troubling phenomenon of straight women increasingly encroaching on LGBTQ spaces in search of live drag shows. It also means a larger number of individuals are engaging with drag who do not identify with the LGBTQ community and may not understand its history. While drag’s acceptance by a larger audience is a promising reflection of the traction and success of the LGBTQ movement, viewers are often remiss in failing to engage with the political and critical status of drag.
Recently, “Queen Mother” RuPaul failed to account for the complexities and long history of trans women within the drag space. RuPaul hinted that trans women would be unwelcome on Drag Race when he said “you can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body… it changes the whole concept of what we’re doing.” This incident is by no means the first time RuPaul has been criticized for mischaracterizing the larger drag community. RuPaul has already been through an anti-trans controversy in 2014 regarding the use of the phrase “you’ve got she-mail” in Drag Race. “She-mail,” alluding to “shemale,” is a term that is taken to be incredibly disparaging in the trans community. LOGO eventually pressured RuPaul to remove the use of the term from the show. In light of such events, the line between entertainment and politics within the drag space has never seemed more contentious.
Undoubtedly, Drag Race has allowed drag to reach audience members it had never had the opportunity to access previously. However, there is no doubt that Drag Race and its non-LGBTQ fans might potentially be hallowing the significance of drag as an art form and political practice. Stripping away politics from drag has pushed drag to appear as an entertainment commodity. Drag shows are meant to be fun and many queens identify themselves as performers. However, as with any art form, the history of the form is imbued within today’s practice. Overly framing drag as a form of entertainment, RuPaul’s Drag Race is at risk of further distancing drag from its roots. Drag should serve as a politically engaged art form that continues to embrace its subversive mechanism as a means of critique.
Paris is Burning, a documentary released in 1990 by Jennie Livingston, brought conversations about drag into the mainstream. The documentary captured gay men, drag queens, and transgender women of the 1980s New York ballroom subculture competing in fashion shows, vogue dancing battles, and drag competitions with an immense diversity of categories. Look no further than the use of “yes queen, work”, “kikiki,” “throwing shade,” and “chanté you stay” by contemporary queens to see the influence the individuals featured in the movie have had on today’s drag culture.
American author bell hooks famously criticized the naïveté of audience members of Paris is Burning for characterizing the film as “amazing, marvelous, and incredibly funny.” hooks emphasizes the documentary as showing a portrait “of the way in which colonized black people worship at the throne of whiteness, even when such worship demands that [they] live in perpetual self-hate, steal, lie, go hungry, and even die in its pursuit.” hooks, almost twenty-years ago, importantly emphasized a disconnect between the underlying reality of the art form and the misconstrued entertainment value gleaned by outsiders. It seems Drag Race might now be suffering under the same phenomenon of mischaracterization – eliciting renewed criticism of the art form.
Judith Butler, Gender Studies professor at UC Berkeley, argued in 1990 that drag subversively “expose[s] the tenuousness of gender ‘reality’ in order to counter the violence performed by gender norms.” While many fans of drag embrace Butler’s analysis, her stance has not always been accepted by feminists. Just four years after Stonewall, founder of Lesbian Feminist Liberation, Jean O’Leary gave a speech where she read a statement on behalf of 100 women: “We support the right of every person to dress in the way that she or he wishes. But we are opposed to the exploitation of women by men for entertainment or profit.” O’Leary, reflecting on the context of what pushed her to take this stance, notes that while lesbians were trying to fight sexism, drag was “a man dressing up as a woman and wearing all the things that we’re trying to break free of… high heels, girdles, corsets, stockings, you know, all the things that were just sort of binding women.” O’Leary’s anti-drag stance is now seen as a missed opportunity to construct a feminist view of drag.
Mary Cheney, openly lesbian daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, demonstrated the unresolved tensions between drag and feminism that still exist today when she compared drag to blackface in 2015. Cheney’s comparison fails to realize the immense cultural influence blackface held at its height in the 1840s to drag’s still comparably low visibility today. In fact, blackface minstrelsy shows often included female impersonators in blackface. If anything, drag might be better viewed as reclaiming and redefining black femininity. Nonetheless, the fact that drag is perceived as misogynistic by some feminists reinforces the importance of politically active drag. Drag has been and should continue to be much more than the co-opting of femininity for entertainment and monetary gain by performers. Additionally, it seems drag is ripe to be reconcieved as both a feminist and LGBTQ art form.
Drag must be upheld as a politically active, provocative art form in addition to honoring its entertainment value. Miz Cracker, NYC-based drag queen and writer for Slate Magazine argues that “when drag performers make jokes about or cause discomfort around social norms, they do so with purpose, and they are doing their art proud.” While Jean O’Leary’s 1973 speech and recent criticism of RuPaul demonstrate case examples of LGBTQ in-fighting regarding drag, drag should be maintained as a tool for solidarity and a weapon for gaining greater acceptance. Miz Cracker herself represents this desire by stating that “when I perform for LGBTQ people, I have the goal – to cause discomfort that blurs, rather than sharpens, the lines between the groups within our community.” Miz Cracker aptly realizes that LGBTQ social and political issues should be probed within the community before the larger community is able to intervene. Drag is an ideal venue to highlight, provoke, and potentially resolve in-group discord so that the LGBTQ community can present a fierce, united front to hostile outsiders.
Provided drag’s increased cultural status and wider audience appeal, it is now ideally posed to continue the political and social interrogation upon which its legacy rests. No doubt, RuPaul has provided queens a mainstream platform previously unimaginable. However, Drag Race should not be allowed to limit drag’s conception to gay men performing as kitchy, femme queens. Beyond cable television, drag has increasingly accommodated a larger range of identities including alternative conceptions of drag: drag kings, female kings, and trans women. Ideally, Drag Race will follow suit and aim to represent a wider variety of drag.
Drag as an art form is reflective of the LGBTQ’s community embrace of frivolity and humor in light of oppression. Just because drag is fun and entertaining does not undermine its immensely crucial role in challenging cultural norms around sexuality and gender. Drag as an art form is meant to provoke and challenge, and its politics might not always be neat. The beauty of drag is that it presents itself as more of a question than as an answer.
Photo: “Roma Gay Pride Drag Queen”