Caught once again in a firestorm of controversy over transphobic remarks, it seems RuPaul and his reality TV empire continue to miss the point: Drag is not the performance, gender is.
In a recent profile in The Guardian, RuPaul tells journalist Decca Aitkenhead that he would not allow trans women to compete in “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and in a subsequent tweet appeared to compare the idea of contestants who had transitioned or were transitioning while competing on the show to athletes taking performance-enhancing drugs.
Nevertheless, Aitkenhead touts Ru’s radical credentials, pointing out his refusal, for instance, to play along with traditional gender norms or his insistence that identities are multiple and fluid. “I think identities are like value systems or currencies; there’s not just one,” RuPaul says in the piece. What both fail to see, however, is that much like money, gender is a social construct that only becomes real through our collective faith in its value. Pull back the curtain, and you see there’s nothing behind the act.
For anyone who has suffered through the impenetrable rhetoric of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble in a college course and come out on the other side convinced of her theory’s potential, the “Drag Race” phenomenon represented a moment of hope, if not an outright cause for celebration. I, like many fellow fans, desperately wanted RuPaul to be a champion for queer justice. However naively, I hoped the show would fuck with the scripts handed down to us by a patriarchal culture and usher in a new era of representation, free from the misogynist baggage so rampant in other TV shows.
“In the glamazon world of 'Drag Race,' it appears not everyone is invited to the playground.”
Don’t get me wrong; the “Drag Race” has been a trailblazer in many ways, not least of which is its critical success bringing the ethos of gay subculture into mainstream vernacular. It’s not uncommon to find straight male fans in bars talking about “shade” and yelling “Yasss, queen!” at the screen while watching the show alongside their gay friends.
Yet, despite its ability to uplift the viewer with a message of self-love and act as a force for good, RuPaul’s off-the-cuff comments on transgender people have disappointed us on more than one occasion. Through policing the boundaries of inclusion, he commits the type of symbolic gender violence that the show is supposedly rebelling against.
His claim in the same interview, for example, that “once you start changing your body... [drag] takes on a different thing,” exposes a highly limited view of drag’s possibilities — one that is ironically rooted in biology. Whereas Aitkenhead decries the “militant earnestness of the transgender movement,” it is RuPaul’s insistence on corporeal authenticity that is actually contradictory and diametrically opposed to the idea of drag. In the glamazon world of “Drag Race,” it appears not everyone is invited to the playground.
The central problem of “Drag Race,” and gender relations more broadly, is not one of authenticity and imitation, as RuPaul’s misguided comments suggest. Rather, it is the neatly dichotomized binaries that sustain oppressive gender systems. The artificial space between he and she, real and fake, biological sex and sociological gender is what needs to be challenged. If RuPaul were to employ this more expansive view of gender in his life’s work, contestants vying for a spot on the next season would be judged by the quality of their performance — their charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent, if you will — rather than their body parts.
“At its heart, drag reveals the ridiculousness of gender.”
The radical potential of drag is not that it destabilizes masculinity through simple role reversal. Men dressing up as women, in and of itself, can be as much in the service of misogyny as it is a challenge to dominant masculinity. Depending on the context, the performer could be mocking the frivolousness of femininity or celebrating its aesthetic appeal ― or doing both at the same time.
At its heart, drag reveals the ridiculousness of gender. It betrays its constructed nature and ridicules its restrictive power over us. Through hyperbole, drag parodies the parody, drawing attention to the fact that we are all constantly putting on a performance, whether we’re aware of it or not. When artfully done, drag serves as a reminder that gender is something you do, not something you are. In this way, it can offer us a way out, a vision of how to do things differently, while having fun with experimentation.
This is a point that RuPaul seems to understand to a certain degree. Take, for example, the oft repeated tagline from his autobiography Lettin It All Hang Out: “We’re born naked and the rest is drag.” In one simple statement, he manages to capture the entirety of Butler’s feminist project of identity subversion. Yet with his other hand he grips tightly onto an identity — however slippery it may be — with his contradictory stance that “drag loses its sense of danger and sense of irony when it’s not men doing it.”
While RuPaul may not be directly injecting feminism and queer theory into the commercial confines of cable television, the participants on “Drag Race” are. The response of contestants like Peppermint, Gia Gunn and Ben de la Creme, to name just a few of the voices joining the choir, have swiftly come to the defense of the trans community, reminding us of the vital role that the T plays in our movement for equal rights and social justice. The diverse bodies and identities represented on screen season after season have enlightened, educated and inspired a new generation of revolutionaries ready to remake the world in a more inclusive image.
RuPaul may be committed to a more rigid notion of what it means to be men and women in society, but he certainly does not have the last say on the matter. Intentionally or not, the show has started a cultural movement that will not be stopped, and radical ideas inadvertently permeate the entire “Drag Race” universe. Unsurprisingly, the queens sum it up best. As the inimitable Season 9 winner Sasha Velour reminded us in the music video for “C.L.A.T.”: “Gender is a construct. Let’s tear it apart!”
Zach is an administrator at a law school in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @zach_shultz.