RuPaul: Stereotype Propagator or Gender Revolutionary?
By Megumi Inoue
Image Credit: David Shankbone, via Wikimedia Commons
Chicks with dicks. Sluts with nuts. Genderfuckers. Fag hags. Belles with balls.
There is no end to the intensely intriguing play on words that the concept of drag queens provides. But what IS drag? The definition of drag can be as strict as "gay men who dress and perform as but do not want to be women or have women's bodies" (Rupp and Taylor, "Chicks" 114) or as loose as "the wearing of clothes of the opposite sex" (Moore 4) or even "an art form with no rules" (Hastings).
Recently, drag queens have gained attention in mainstream media, especially through the popular reality TV show, RuPaul's Drag Race (hereafter Drag Race). Now in its ninth season, the long-running show is a hallmark of not only queer entertainment but of competitive reality TV. On the season premiere of Season 9 (which aired on VH1 on March 24th, 2017) the show attracted nearly 1 million viewers (Petski). At the time of her writing (after Season 5), Norris, one of the essayists for The Makeup of RuPaul's Drag Race, writes that the show had been gaining a "wider, generally heterosexual cis female, audience." Edgar, also a scholar on RuPaul, coined Drag Race "the official reality television show for queer America" (135) regarding it a show holding significant impact on society's perspective of drag and the larger gay community. In Drag Race, typically about a dozen drag queens compete against each other through a series of challenges, which range from putting together an ensemble based on a theme (e.g. "apocalypse") to taking a polygraph test, to having a mugshot taken while in drag (RuPaul's Drag Race 10 Best Challenges). After a challenge, the judges pick the bottom two queens who will then "lip synch for their life" in a desperate attempt to remain in the competition. RuPaul will then choose one to stay ("Shante, you stay") and send the other one home ("Sashay away"). The ultimate goal of the show is to find "America's Next Drag Superstar." Through analysis of drag in modern culture and of Untucked: RuPaul's Drag Race Season Eight, I will argue that the portrayal of drag queens in Drag Race, although criticized for reinforcing gender stereotypes, actually promotes gender diversity and prompts the audience to change their perspective of gender from a binary to a spectrum.
The show may be viewed to promote gender stereotypes on three levels: (1) by narrowly defining the ideal drag queen; (2) by promoting unrealistic feminine beauty standards, and (3) by endorsing the stereotypical idea of "a gay man."
Stereotype Propagator I: A Narrow Definition of the Ideal Drag Queen
Edgar extensively critiques Drag Race's singular definition of a "successful drag [queen]" as one who is most "passable" as a woman: "In this show, the goal is not just for a man to perfect the appearance of a woman; rather, it entails the successful employment of multiple acts or qualities that illustrate femininity" (139). He notes that the queens are even "rewarded for overcoming their inherent masculinity." Edgar criticizes RuPaul's reaction at the failed attempt of a "tuck" (to make the penis and scrotum undetectable) for Jade, one of the queens on the show:
Jade's tuck fail and RuPaul's insistence that the ability to hide one's penis is a hallmark of Queenhood reveal the limitations of drag performance on the show. Rather than the queerness of mixing gender norms which illustrates that the individual is neither this nor that but both, we see that the form of drag that is rewarded is merely a reassertion of stereotypical gender performances that prescribes the shape and form of the Queens' appearances and behaviors. (139)
Edgar observes that RuPaul, by insisting that tucking be enforced, is pushing for the surface-level appearance of a "woman" instead of facing and appraising the fact that these are men performing as women. This singular definition of a "successful drag queen" and the appraisal of feminine qualities in the TV show strengthen the stereotypes we have about gender. Strings and Bui agree, "The participants are judged on their 'realness' or their ability to convince the judges that they look and act the part of a typical woman" (823).
This critique is especially prominent in light of the landmark documentary, Paris is Burning (1990), to which RuPaul makes references throughout his show (Edgar 136). The documentary captures life inside the world of drag ball culture in 1980s New York City. Here, drag contestants compete in a wide range of categories within drag from pretty girl to high fashion, Miss Cheesecake, luscious body, school boy or girl, town and country, butch queens, and more. In contrast to this never ending list of categories, RuPaul may be criticized for not promoting the various types of drag queens.
Although RuPaul may not explicitly identify and label the various types of drag queens, he can be considered "the curator for drag" (Queen's Commentary); his expertise effectively leads him to introduce different kinds of queens, "curating" them. Season 8 contestant Cynthia Fontaine Lee, for instance, talks about how RuPaul has reshaped the drag world by "telling us there is no comfort zone" and that the queens are allowed to "do whatever you want to." Bob, the winner of season 8, agrees: "In Drag Race it's OK if you don't look like a woman or do weird stuff like milk, I mean Acid Betty looks like an alien goddess creature and she was hired on the show." RuPaul, with decades of experience and knowledge in the drag world, hand picks which drag queen to show the world. The expansiveness of his queens are not laid out as in Paris is Burning but Bob and Cynthia argue that RuPaul does the important work of diversifying the drag queen world, one queen at a time, with regard to the openness of the audience.
It may be argued that insofar as the TV show selects a singular definition of a successful drag queen, it thereby cannot propagate gender diversity. However, the show's narrow definition of the ideal drag queen has largely to do with appeasing the audience. Schact writes, "How successful one is in performing a given gender or sexuality is always relationally dependent upon a situational audience of gendered and sexual others. It is through our interaction with these others that we come to experience ourselves as gendered and sexual beings" (163). The reality of the entertainment industry today necessitates the singular definition. The creators of the show are aware of the eye of the audience and conform the drag world to appeal to a greater number of viewers. The singular definition allows the audience to engage in the show easily as they are more comfortable with having the illusion of a complete woman instead of a woman with a visible dick. While the show is critiqued for its shallow, singular image of the ideal drag queen, in this particular setup of an exorbitant beauty pageant, having a strict image to strive for is inevitable. This aim, while it grossly simplifies the drag queen culture, appeals immensely to the mainstream public in introducing the concept of drag queens. It also makes it easier for the audience to follow on what makes a "good" contestant and increases entertainment value, helping the show reach a larger audience.
Stereotype Propagator II: Propagating the Female Body Standard
The embodiment of feminine beauty standards within the show raises eyebrows. Marcel argues, "RuPaul's Drag Race, like much drag in general, does hyperbolically reinforce many looksist, skinny, and hyper feminine, Barbie-Doll proportioned versions of what a female identity means." By packaging Drag Race as competition, Marcel argues, "The show also commodifies and thereby alters drag performances and performers." Alongside shows like America's Next Top Model (ANTM), Drag Race is criticized in its shallow concept of beauty. Norris writes that in both ANTM and Drag Race, "contestants either adapt to the expectations of the series or get sent home." Norris identifies these expectations as a glamorous, professional, "fish" (drag queens who are passable as a heterosexual woman) adorned with big wigs, haute couture inspired costumes, and flamboyant but sexy makeup. This expectation assumes that there is only one image of a real woman—one who is "sexy" with large bosoms and a cinched waist. Indeed, RuPaul's book, Workin It!, includes various passages on how to create the illusion of a large chest or working with proportions to create the idea of an elongated torso to mimic the ideal female body. Further, it includes a passage titled "In the real world, men love curves!" encouraging women to "Don't hide your curves!" and wear a corset as "That 34-26-34 ideal of the bombshell is what biologically hypnotizes men." This encouragement of alteration of the female body for the male gaze is indeed anti-feminist.
RuPaul is aware of the masculine domination of our society. He recognizes his show among those of entertainers who have challenged the divisions of our society (in his words, "blown the lid off culture's lunacy and hypocrisy"), viewing his show as one that challenged the masculine/feminine barrier for men:
[Drag queens] carry the burden of shame inflicted on feminine men by a masculine-dominated-society. Feminine behavior in a man is seen as an act of treason in a masculine culture, as opposed to in ancient culture that relied on drag queens, shamans, and witch doctors to remind each individual member of the tribe of their duality as male and female, human and spirit, body and soul. (Workin It!)
In this masculine world, men who dress like women are seen to be "downgrading" their gender. RuPaul, however, fails to explicitly side with feminists or attack the negativity of female beauty standards. Instead by encouraging contestants to become "fishy," RuPaul is pushing the idea that there is a singular ideal version of a woman and is attempting to create a copy of that ideal in drag. His reflection of societal beauty standards is superficial and by pushing this ideal onto men, RuPaul categorizes men under the umbrella of an "ideal woman."
On the other hand, it can be argued that by building upon gender stereotypes, using them and exaggerating them, Drag Race does the important work of illuminating some of the assumptions that we hold unconsciously about gender. Egner writes in the Journal of Sexuality: "through examining how gender boundaries are broken, we can examine how drag performers construct gender and sexuality and thus gain a better understanding of not only drag constructions but traditional gender constructions" (877). Drag queens first break down gender stereotypes, analyzing and understanding them in order to construct a gender that elicits responses from the audience. The show uncovers the stereotypes we hold instead of simply propagating them, offering us the opportunity to change our perspective.
Further, we should also consider the historical context of drag. Drag has long portrayed the feminine ideal (ironic that men dominate even the ideal of women). Drag is an activity that has spanned centuries and continents—across Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe, women have long been portrayed by men, often because it was considered inappropriate for a woman to perform (Moore 2). In Japan, Moore notes, men performing in Kabuki were known as oyamas and considered models for the feminine ideal, so that women often attempted to dress and act as oyamas did onstage. The intent of drag has long been to create the illusion of the perfect woman. The act of drag is fundamentally tied with infringing upon feminism as the male dominates and defines the female beauty standard. Drag Race's failure at promoting feminism may be inherent—drag is, after all, a product of the masculine world, and it is arguable how far it can be used to promote demasculinization and feminism. Its political utility lies elsewhere.
Stereotype Propagator III: The Endorsement of the Stereotype of a "Gay Man"
That Drag Race endorses stereotypes of a "gay man" is illuminated by Reich, a scholar exploring lesbianism. Reich, in examining lesbian history, notes, "Butche/femme has been a recognizable lesbian practice for a very long time," acknowledging the deep-rooted stereotype of lesbians having masculine characteristics. She even observes that some lesbians are embarrassed by this endorsement of masculine identity. Likewise, some gay men are embarrassed by the endorsement of feminine identity by drag queens. In a study conducted by Bishop, 118 men who identified as non-heterosexual were asked to complete a survey regarding drag queens to decipher how drag queens were perceived in the gay community. The study confirmed that participants with hyper masculine beliefs would associate drag queens with negative thoughts and attempt to distance themselves from the culture. Mainstreaming drag queens as a culture of the gay society can be seen by such participants to promote the stereotypical image of a feminine gay man.
The study, however, attributed such tendencies to femi-negativity, "the strategy of seeing someone's gender performances as "normal" or "abnormal" and serves as a tactic to isolate those who do not conform" often brought on by the masculine ideals of society (Bishop 556). Although this does not nullify the argument that drag queens promote the stereotype of a feminine gay man and negatively affect the gay community, it is worth noting where such negativity comes from. Overall, the study showed positive interpretations of drag queens even mentioning Drag Race as promoting the acceptance of drag queens within the gay community.
Having considered the three principal ways in which Drag Race propagates stereotypes—narrowly defining the ideal drag queen, propagating the female body standard, and by endorsing the stereotype of a "gay man"—we will next observe the portrayal of drag queens as gender revolutionaries. The work of Drag Race promotes gender diversity in four different ways: (1) by presenting diversity within the drag queen world; (2) by making "gray" roles of gender accessible to the youth and greater society; (3) by implying gender fluidity within an individual; and (4) by liberating identity.
Gender Revolutionaries I: Presenting Diversity
The very concept of drag queens places them on an unmapped territory of gender. The widespread understanding of gender as the dichotomous male vs. female leaves no space for those who don't fit squarely into these categories. Drag queens, as men who dress like women, strongly hold both male and female elements. They "emerge as an in-between or third-gender category in a society that insists there are only two" (Taylor and Rupp, "Chicks" 130) and "create their own authentic genders, suggesting that, rather than eliminating the notion of gender categories, we need to expand the possibilities beyond two or three to a whole range of possible identities." (131) Bailey, a scholar on the ballroom culture of drag, proposes four categories of sexuality that drag queens take form in:
(1) butch queens, who are biologically born male who identify as gay or bisexual men and are and can be masculine, hyper masculine, or feminine; (2) femme queens (MTF), who are transgender women or people at various stages of gender reassignment—through hormonal and/or surgical procedures; (3) butch queens up in drags, who are gay men who perform drag but who do not take hormones and who do not live as women; (4) butches (FTM), who are transgender men or people at various stages of gender reassignment or masculine lesbians or women appearing as men regardless of sexual orientation (some butches use hormones and have surgical procedures to modify their bodies). (Bailey 370-371)
Within the cast of season 8, all categories are presented. Bob the Drag Queen identifies the queens in these categories in the commentary of the season finale. On Acid Betty, "Best butch queen who's been on RuPaul," identifying her in the first category. On Bob herself, "Butch Queen! First time in drag!" (This title may be a reference to one of the categories in Paris is Burning. Bob refers to herself as a "butch queen up in drags" in the third category.) In addition, in Episode 1 we find that Cynthia Lee Fontaine has surgically pumped up her buttocks. Thus we conclude her as a femme queen. In season 8 alone, RuPaul has found queens from all categories laid out by Bailey.
Although on this particular season, it is not explicit whether the contestants have had surgical procedures for sex change, the show has featured contestants who are transgender:
The male contestants do represent a range of gender identities: from the four who after the show decided to complete a full medical transition to becoming women, to contestants who have had some surgical inventions such as breast augmentations or facial surgeries, to gay men who use drag as gender performance. (Marcel)
Marcel's observations show that Drag Race does not limit itself to the definition of drag by Taylor and Rupp of a gay male cross-dresser not desiring female parts. Instead it celebrates queens in various points of the gender spectrum.
The contestants are aware of their role in shaping the perception of drag queens that the audience has. The queens discuss what drag is in Untucked: Season 8-Episode 8. As Derrick Barry and Naomi Smalls converse about performance as an inherent and important aspect of drag, Bob the Drag Queen cuts in— "[drag is] blurring the gender line and creating art." The queens are incredibly invested in doing this. In Episode 5 of the same season, Acid Betty dons a pregnancy belly, embodying the epitome of the female essence. Beyond blurring the gender line, Acid Betty promotes the diversity of drag queens. As she is eliminated and led backstage to pack her things, she speaks of her goals in coming to the show:
There's a subculture of freaks who are, um, peripheral in the drag world and they're not really represented, and so I thought it was important that, um, an artist who is really bizarre and weird can be accepted as a real drag and taken seriously. And I just felt it important to show them that they too are somebody and could really do something and change the world.
As someone who felt marginalized within the sub-world of drag queens, Acid Betty sought to expand the definition of successful drag by participating in the show as a "freak." By representing an unusual drag queen, Acid Betty strove to inspire new and upcoming drag queens to pursue their individuality. Ultimately, this leads to making non-traditional genders accessible to the younger generation.
Gender Revolutionaries II: Drag Role Models
Like Acid Betty who strove to be a role models for other drag queen "freaks" and inspire the younger generation of drag queens, the contestants of the show become role models to youth who do not identify with the standard two genders. They become positive role models for youth who identify with a non-standard gender and lack the resources to understand and express their own gender (Marcel). The positive impact of the queens does not end there—the show, by mainstreaming gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals to society, promotes the normalization of the presence of the LGBTQ community. The queens take to heart the role of advocates for the LGBTQ community. In Untucked: Season 8-Episode 9, Chi Chi and Bob discuss standing up for gay rights. Bob had just shared a personal story of getting arrested after staging a demonstration for gay rights in Times Square. As she gestures to her ensemble (a black blazer sequined with pink roses over a white blouse and pink bowtie, black tights, high heels, dangly earrings, and a voluminous updo) she says, "I believe what I'm doing is a service to people everywhere." She implies that the act of dressing up in drag in itself is a positive statement for the LGBTQ community. The ultimate intention of the queens is to revolutionize the dichotomous gender perception and propel the LGBTQ movement forward.
The queens' goal is apparent in the works of winners after the show. Winner of season six, Bianca Del Rio, has been working on a movie Hurricane Bianca, and a TV show Not Today Bianca. In Hurricane Bianca, Bianca plays the part of a gay high school science teacher, Richard, who is sent to a homophobic town in Texas where "according to Grindr, the closest gay guy is 30 miles away" and "abortion is murder." Richard is outed by a colleague and fired to "protect the children from alternative relationships" (in this town, "man on man" is as wrong as "man on dog"). Richard, however, dresses in drag and comes back to teach as a Bianca, a woman, and wins "teacher of the year." As he accepts his award, he wipes off his makeup and reveals his true identity. The movie's message is pro-drag and pro-female. RuPaul, who plays a weatherman, announces the warning of a nearing hurricane (which also happens to be named Bianca) as Bianca arrives to the award ceremony: "Beware of storms with female names as they are perceived to be less threatening but are significantly more likely to kill you." Bianca, after winning Drag Race continues RuPaul's work in creating media that mainstreams the drag culture and produces role models of uncommon genders.
Like Bianca, Bob the Drag Queen, winner of season 8, says that he plans on a production that promotes drag queens. Although his documentary A Queen for the People (chronicling his rise to fame from the streets of New York to America's Next Top Drag Queen) has yet to come out, it will no doubt promote drag queens and strive to inspire young and upcoming queen wannabes. Through the works of queens who'd been on the show like Bianca and Bob, Drag Race is begetting a new line of productions that promote, diversify, and mainstream drag culture and gender variations.
Gender Revolutionaries III: Gender Fluidity
The show furthermore does work in providing an argument for gender fluidity. By switching between shots of queens in their drag attire and "normal" (male) clothes, Drag Race and Untucked (a spin-off of Drag Race that documents the behind-the-scenes interactions of the contestants) present the queens as persons who move across the gender spectrum (Marcel). For example, in Untucked: Season 8-Episode 9, following the scene where Bob and Chi Chi talk about Bob's speech on gay activism (where both were ornate in runway attire) we cut to Chi Chi talking to the camera in a blue-gray hoodie, no makeup, accessories, or anything associated with femininity. Beyond the show, RuPaul himself has implied gender fluidity by tweeting: "U can call me He, U can call me She, U can call Regis and Kathie Lee. I don't give a f%k." RuPaul states that both pronouns can be used to refer to the same individual. The use of both he and she is reflective of the drag attitude towards gender:
The vast majority of the time, the girls call each other by their drag names and use the pronouns "she" and "her". But not always. And there is almost no consistency, in contrast to the common practice in the transgender movement, between appearance and linguistic gender. (Taylor and Rupp, "Drag Queens" 4)
Taylor and Rupp note that this erratic use of pronouns is unique to the drag queen culture. The idea of using both pronouns is consistent with the show's use of male and female attire for one individual. RuPaul and his queens bring this idea of gender fluidity to the main screen and begins to break down this gender barrier that has long been embedded in language, the core of our culture. The concept of one individual moving between the gender matrix speaks to the larger idea that it is possible for the same person to be both genders at the same time (Marcel). In other words, it speaks to the idea that we are all neither simply male or female. We all, at any given point in time embody both male and female characteristics—Drag Race and Untucked make us aware of this and argues that it is normal to have both of these characteristics.
Gender Revolutionaries IV: Liberating Identity
In his self-improvement guide, Workin' It!, RuPaul considers drag as an act that liberates us, not only from societal standards regarding gender but also from our "identit[ies] in the material world," such as religion, skin color, politics, career, or marital status. He takes to heart the saying, "You're born naked and the rest is drag." With this quote he questions each component of identity that we all hold, provoking us to reconsider the things that define us by reminding us that these characteristics have all been constructed. RuPaul's intention in the show is to provoke us to reconsider our roles in society: "Drag queens are essentially making fun of the roles people are playing. And in doings so, 'drags' have become experts at parody, satire, and deconstructing social patterns." In an interview with McClelland, RuPaul states: "There's a certain genre of drag that is sanctioned and it's OK because they are saying to the audience, 'Oh, and by the way, I'm making fun of this,' but then there is the drag that I do, and my girls do, which is really taking the piss out of all identity." For the reigning Queen of the drag world and the creator of the show, the intent of drag is a powerful statement in stripping the labels we've grown accustomed to and ultimately challenging the identity we've been given.
Drag Race, though criticized for narrowing the ideal drag, being anti-feminist, and endorsing the "gay" stereotypes, succeeds in doing the crucial job of challenging society's perceptions of gender as a binary and mainstreaming the idea of gender diversity. In our current society where the concept of gender dichotomy still rules, RuPaul's approach is effective in pushing society to break the idea that there can only be two genders. Were the gender spectrum a palette of gradation from black to white, society operates with the two colors at the ends: black and white. Drag Race, by bringing drag to the mainstream does the crucial work of introducing the first shade of gray to the public and normalizing it. Of course, it doesn't reflect the countless shades of gray that lie between it and black or white, but it is the first step. It breaks the idea of a dichotomy and marks the beginning of an era where gender is understood as a spectrum that we are all free to move across.