Unlocking the Gates to RuPaul’s Queendom

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02-02-2021

When most people hear the word drag, they picture a particular aesthetic: the glitz and glam of fish pageant drag, the performance of feminine artifice by individuals assigned male at birth. Host of the now world-famous TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race RuPaul Andre Charles is a clear example, appearing on the main stage every episode in a bedazzled gown and stacked wig, a beacon of shining charm. But despite its host’s conformity to the mainstream drag world which aims to mimic white cisheteronormative womanly glamour, the show has attempted to display a variety of drag genres. Some of the most acclaimed queens’ styles have leaned towards horror, club kid, androgyny, and other niche genres.

“I don’t dress like a woman; I dress like a drag queen!”

RuPaul

Earlier this year, World of Wonder co-founders and creators of Drag Race, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, announced that future seasons of their award-winning show may be featuring trans and non-binary contestants. The show’s 13th season will feature Gottmik, a trans man, and the upcoming second season of Drag Race UK will include two nonbinary contestants. This came as a welcome surprise to many viewers, given that as recently as 2018 RuPaul has been known to gatekeep his drag queendom by suggesting that only cisgender men can be drag queens. He has made comments likening breast implants received by trans women drag queens to performance-enhancing drugs used by athletes, as if these bodily modifications mean they were cheating in some way. It’s an odd comparison, since performers often have no intention of disguising themselves as cisgender women. RuPaul himself has been quoted saying, “I don’t dress like a woman; I dress like a drag queen!”

Furthermore, RuPaul’s trans-exclusionary comments were particularly shocking against the background and history of drag as a whole. Sasha Velour, winner of Season 9, said it best: 

Born of Harlem ballroom culture, our modern concept of drag began as a performance space where gay men and trans women of colour, or really any gender varient or non-heterosexual people of colour, could escape the realities of the racism, homophobia, and transphobia they experienced day to day. As white gay men became assimilated into the mainstream world, modern day drag has become increasingly normative and whitewashed, losing its diverse background to appeal to the masses. This is especially true of gender variance in the spotlight (read: lack thereof). 

Drag queen Sasha Velour as Hollywood icon Marlene Dietrich, who was known for challenging gendered fashion norms and wearing suits. Image source.

Trans women have been nearly erased from the mainstream drag scene, although a few did compete on Drag Race prior to coming out or transitioning. Drag kings are also absent from popular culture, though they are gaining traction. Merriam-Webster Dictionary still defines drag as “entertainment in which performers dressed as members of the opposite sex caricature gender stereotypes through the use of often outrageous costumes and exaggerated mannerisms,” which ignores nonbinary performers and people performing their own gender, whether cis or trans. It’s also a definition which relies heavily on the spectre of biological sex, undermining the relevance of socialized gender as well as personal gender identity. 

As it strays farther from its crossdressing origins, drag becomes a brilliant charade of gender as a whole.

With greater inclusivity along the gender spectrum as well as in the types of drag being performed, the definition of drag itself is called into question. As it strays farther from its crossdressing origins, drag becomes a brilliant charade of gender as a whole. It turns our everyday performance of gendered roles (see Butlerian performativity theory) into an intentional form of art, deconstructing and reinventing the boundaries of gender. 

“Dearly beloved, we have gathered here today to get through this thing called All Stars“: Naomi Smalls’ Prince look from All Stars season 4. Image source.

The truth is that drag has always been androgynous. Early crossdressing queens exhibited the inherent androgyny brought about by a gender expression contradicting the body beneath it. However, what we are seeing today is a transformation at the very core of what drag is. For example, Sasha Velour is particularly known for their androgynous presentation during drag performances. Whether it’s the tailored-to-perfection tuxedo which Velour wore to emulate Marlene Dietrich, or the unapologetically Slavic trouser and tee ensemble that they wore on the main stage at Drag Race, Velour often upends notions of normalcy in both drag and fashion spheres, performing masculinity atop an engineered feminine exterior crafted upon a masculine body. 

Drag has always been androgynous.

Other performers have explored these ideas: All Stars season 6 winner Shea Coulée impersonated rapper Flavor Flav, in a performance that could be described as one more similar to that of a drag king. Naomi Smalls strutted the runway in a gorgeous Prince-inspired look. Katya Zamolodchikova turned Abe Lincoln into a gentry lady by gracing the stage in a half-and-half tuxedo ball gown ensemble. 

Even beyond impersonation, drag queens continue to amaze audiences. Yvie Oddly, winner of the 11th season of Drag Race, makes a charade of gender through their outlandish outfits which defy prescribed notions of gendered dress and presentation. 

There is something beautiful about the change these queens are making: they show the diversity of genderlessness. Without a history or existing notions of androgynous fashion, the performance of non-binary gender or agenderness is open to interpretation and innovation.

There is something beautiful about the change these queens are making. They show the diversity of genderlessness.

This drag revolution and the unconventional stylings of these queens correspond to a time in fashion in which we’re seeing a reshuffling of previously gendered garments–particularly when it comes to clothing associated with femininity, such as skirts and dresses. While this trend is by no means new, many masculinely-identified people have taken to wearing skirts and dresses, which, in a world that continuously subjugates femininity and feminine self-expression, is a bold move regardless of gender. While masculinity has long stood as the default, or the essentially androgynous norm, femininity is continually discriminated against in our patriarchical society. This is why trans woman are among the highest groups experiencing discrimination – the cognitive dissonance created by a transition from masculinity to femininity is overwhelming in a world where the masculine is the ideal. 

World of Wonder’s inclusion of trans and non-binary contestants in Drag Race is therefore radical and necessary. By allowing trans and non-binary people into the spotlight of mainstream drag and continuing to uplift androgynous performances, the show has potential to revive the safe spaces of Harlem ballrooms on a grander scale. It communicates to wider audiences that there is no one way to be queer.

Article by Alex Sklar.

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