Monthly Archives: February 2013

The Anatomy of C.U.N.T – An Analysis of RPDR Season 5, Episode 4

As with any “Drag Race” episode, looking at the eliminated contestant (in this case, contestants) allows us to draw conclusions about in which ways drag is most effective as an art form and medium. Season 5, Episode 4 marks a historic elimination – for the first time in Drag Race history, Ru deems neither of the girls worth saving, and instructs them to both “sashay away.” Although this is the show’s first double elimination, it quickly became apparent within mere seconds of the episode’s lipsynch – the reaction of myself, my show-watching partner and the blogosphere/social media sphere were identical: “They should both go home.” In my opinion, this is because both contestants committed major violations against the standards and art form of drag.

An underlying but major theme of the episode dealt with the notion of “idols,” especially pertaining to gay youth. Drag deals very much with the appropriation of feminine iconography, in the form of a combined preoccupation with self-presentation and image (in the process of transformation) but also in attitude and performance and thus, the image’s ability to be read or absorbed by an audience. In Butlerian terms, drag is not just “an imitation of gender” but additionally “it dramatize[s] the signifying gestures through which gender itself is established.” That dual responsibility – to imitate woman and “serve fish” while, in the parodic words of (flawless) Season 2 contestant Raven, simultaneously remain “a man in a dress” – wink wink – is perfectly summed up by Ru’s criteria for the next drag superstar: she must possess  “Confidence, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent,” exaggerating those qualities of a female star that are socially regarded as masculine, but she must also at all times remain “CUNT.” Thus, much of drag culture is seeped in the obsession with (and appropriation/imitation of) celebrity culture – giving “______ Realness,” where the blank is often a reference-able pop culture icon. What’s so important and integral to the drag mission regarding Realness is that it is, by definition, not real; it is imitative, and yet it invalidates the need for authenticity because it reifies the reality of imitation. The process of “becoming,” to borrow a de Beauveian phrase oft-referenced, by imitating those who already “are” is as much a part of Ru’s philosophy of transformation via self-affirmation/imitation as the mere transcension of gender is.

That was the journey traversed by the girls in this week’s challenge, via imitation of Ru’s journey. They put on a ballet, closely modeled after both Black Swan and Swan Lake, depicting in pairs pieces of RuPaul’s life from his childhood as a young black boy (during which he harbors an obsession with star and singer Diana Ross) through his struggles with fame and addiction in New York as a young performer and finally his mainstream breakthrough, wherein she not only is able to meet her idol but be within the realm of celebrity and success that she is.

It is here that Honey Mahogany flops fatally: she is chosen to portray Diana Ross in the ballet, big heels to fill not just for the star’s emotional relevance to Ru but additionally because Ross is such a looming figure in terms of drag idolatry and iconography, rivaled perhaps by only a few scarce others like Cher or Madonna. Many queens are seasoned and well-tuned in their Ross portrayals, but when Ru asks if this is the case with Honey, she timidly admits that “she’s been asked” but has no experience portraying the icon. Indeed, she completely is unable to capture the essence or energy of Diana Ross, which is a major factor (along with her penchant for pink caftans) in her elimination at the end of the week. It may seem trivial, but homage to women is indeed a large part of drag, not just in the imitative sense: also because, as Larry Gross explains on page 16 of his essay, gay youth “are presumed to be straight and are treated as such until we begin to recognize that we are not what we have been told, that we are different…[and] have little to go on [in dealing with that difference] beyond very limited direct experience with those individuals who are sufficiently close to the accepted stereotypes to be labeled publicly as queers, faggots, dykes, and so on….In the absence of adequate information in their environment,” and the absence of adequate adults to model for them roles including blended masculinity and femininity, many look up to these stars. For drag queens, honoring and homage through imitation – both of individuals and femininity as a whole – is a serious task.

Of course, this homage isn’t played “straight” (my apologies for the pun), but in a more queer sensibility, known as camp. That part of the equation is equally important and where we can look to the other eliminated contestant, Vivian Pinay. Pinay was chastised in last week’s acting challenge for not matching the over-the-top energy of her costars, the same problem she suffered from in this week’s ballet. She additionally was called out for looking too “pedestrian” on the runway, both weeks – indeed, I recognized her spike earrings from Episode 4 as a 5-dollar pair from Necessary Clothing, and my boyfriend remarked that her outfit this week “looks like you at the grocery store or something.” Vivian, however, claims that anything more over the top would interfere with her drag style, as she focuses not on theatricality, performance, or high-fashion, but something Drag Race has referred to sometimes as “female impersonation” or “fishiness.” “Fishiness,” a rather vulgar and possibly misogynistic term when you think about it, is the word the queens use to describe the essence of womanliness – the fishiest queen is the one who looks the most like a biological woman. It’s a separate quality from beauty, which is why it has a separate word – think back to androgynous queens like Raja from Season 3 or queens who are attractive but just still look a bit masculine in the face (pretty much anyone with a jaw) for examples of beauty that isn’t quite fishy. However, relying on fishiness has failed for many queens in the past. You wouldn’t bat an eye upon seeing Princess Tati from season 2 shopping or in Starbucks, but her wardrobe skills and overall performativity were lacking. Carmen Carrera had a body many straight girls would die for, even in just a bra and a thong, but she was eliminated (twice) for relying too much on her fishy sex appeal.

The reason why the fish factor isn’t a reliable tactic for winning drag race is because it’s not really a reliable tactic for an effective drag performance, either. That’s because merely passing for a biological woman deletes all of the tension and gray areas caused by active interplay between masculine and feminine. To put it in more plain terms, the importance of drag for queer identities…”[is] not so much about crossdressing as genderfuck.” (Clyde Smith, “How I Became a Queer Heterosexual”) As Queen Butler tells it on page 137 of Gender Trouble, “drag fully subverts the distinction between inner and outer psychic space and effectively mocks both the expressive model of gender and the notion of a true gender identity.” Half of what is being mocked with drag and camp, through methods of theatricality, is the fact that gender in itself, performed on a daily basis, is theatrical and performative. Drag is, again in Butlerian terms, a “double inversion that says that appearance is an illusion.” (137) If the illusion is successful, it becomes invisible, and thus the stylization of gender in a way that is pedestrian, unnoticeable, or not radical is merely a reification of binary-ruled gender performance rather than a subversion of it. That emphasis on “exaggeration” is so necessary to the work of drag because, through its “parodic context,” the “performative construction of an original and true sex” – that is, the work and performance that goes into the “being” or “becoming” feminine even for the most exemplary biological females – is brought into “relief.” (Butler, xviii) “Fishy” drag without camp, performance, or exaggeration acknowledges that “being a female…constitutes a cultural performance,” but it fails to acknowledge that that “naturalness” is itself “constituted through discursively constrained performative acts that produce the body through and within the categories of sex.” (Butler, xviii) Embodying the natural without thematizing it as parody fails to point out its irony and arbitrariness and reifies, rather than deconstructs, the very binary it claims to traverse. It is in this sense that Vivian Pinay terrifically failed at drag, even if she remains “the fishiest queen in the history of this show,” as she proudly proclaimed upon her elimination. She’s a great cross-dresser, she can pass for a woman, but that in itself is not genderfuck, and that is not C.U.N.T.

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Tips for reading a book quickly

Since you’ll be reading an entire book for your book review assignment, I thought I’d share with you some helpful advice about reading a whole book in a short amount of time. Check out the two links below:

How to Read Like a Scholar

How to Read a Book

To add my own advice for this assignment: context is key. When you write your review (and when I read it) the minute details of the book are not as important as how you situate the book within the context of our course. So when you read, be thinking about how the book relates to other readings we’ve done and ideas we’ve covered. Also be thinking about the specific questions I’ve asked you to respond to within the assignment description.

Be strategic – you’re reading this book as a means to an end – to prove that you understand the material we’ve covered so far and that you can use that understanding to critique new material you encounter. If you want to go through and read the book for the fine details and prose later on, you can! For now, read it with your end goal of writing a critical review in mind.

It’s Not Personal, It’s Drag

Season 5, Episode 4 of RuPaul’s Drag Race begins with a mini challenge to “turn back time, and bring the Funk.” The queen-testants are provided with large Afro wigs, and compete in a “Soul Train dance off.” Between watching clips from the dance-off, Jinkx Monsoon comments she was surprised to see “Honey Mahogany dances like a white girl.” In Lynne Joyrich’s “Epistemology of the Console”, she elaborates on the visibility of sexual identity (or lack thereof) through television productions, and how both scenarios contribute to stereotyped identities. she notes:

Not coincidentally, this demand [for LGBT] visibility also aims to make alignments between a politics of sexuality and a politics of gender and race – clearly an important goal, but troubling when articulated in this way, in that alignment based on the idea that sexual orientation should be made indelibly ‘visible’ as race and gender (supposedly) are carries dangerous assumptions, taking this visibility for granted and not acknowledging it as itself a construction. (17).

This is not meant to insist that Jinkx Monsoon’s comment toward Honey Mahogany was racist, (possibly sexist), or disaffirming of Honey Mahogany’s identity by any means. However, Jinkx Monsoon’s comment highlights the thesis of Joyrich’s essay, which is to say that societal truths (about identity) are shaped through knowledge imparted by television or other mediated images. Moreover, I’m referencing the combating stereotypes seen in television and film that repeatedly feature white women lacking a natural rhythm, that is expected of Black identity. Despite any ill-feelings from Jinkx toward Honey (#BedSheetLook), Jinkx’s comment about Honey’s performance uses a more playful stereotype to describe what he sees.

For the main challenge, the queen-testants are cast to star in an “Original American Drag Ballet” about the story of RuPaul’s life, entitled No RuPaulogies. As the two teams are being formed, both RuPaul and the other queen-testants are surprised to see Coco Montrese pick Alyssa Edwards as her first choice. Up to this point in the season, the audience is aware of the fact that Coco Montrese and Alyssa Edwards were once close friends, but had a falling out some years ago at a separate drag competition. Coco openly mentions that Alyssa’s strength is dance, and she would be a great asset to Coco’s team.

With lessened hostilities between Coco and Alyssa, the audience learns more about Alyssa’s struggle to gain acceptance from her father. She mentions she was unable to have the “traditional father-son relationship” because of her father’s criticisms towards her passion for dance and art. She explains how music and dance were her tools to help cope with pressures growing up, and her father’s disinvestment felt like he rejected Alyssa’s desire for happiness.

Honey Mahogany shares a similar experience to Alyssa’s, and explains that after her parents found a picture of Honey in drag they sent her away to Africa. Honey doesn’t include details on being sent away, but she does mention that being gay has given her a different perspective than what she imagines as a traditional straight experience.
In Larry Gross’ “The Mediated Society”, he explains that sexual identities are self-identified, so sexual minorities “are rarely born into minority communities in which parents or siblings share [their] minority status” (13). Both Alyssa and Honey’s stories shed light on what Gross’ explains in his writing, as both their respective families were troubled by their child’s sexual identity, and distanced themselves. Alyssa’s story describes how finding comfort with her own identity was at the cost of a relationship with her father, while Honey explains his visible sexuality as something that hindered potential relationships, in addition to added turmoil with his immediate family as well.

Alyssa’s portrayal of “The Evil Ru” in No RuPologies, helped him in win his first main challenge, while also providing him safety from elimination next week. With Vivienne Pinay and Honey in the bottom two, they are called to lip sync for their lives to Britney Spears – I’m A Slave For You. In a sad twist of fate, both Vivienne and Honey are sent home in the first ever double-elimination of Drag Race history because they’re unable to impress the judges.

During Untucked, after having been eliminated Vivienne explains that she knows she possesses the skill to be successful in drag, and the other queens competition distracted her. Vivienne justifies her inability to get along with the other girls and comments that, “sometimes drag queens take on personas because they’re not happy with themselves”. There are many ways to interpret this statement, but I wonder how exactly this affects someone’s drag, since drag is always intended as a performance. Furthermore, we finally get to see the moment replayed every week during the Untucked intro when Alyssa says, “It’s not personal, it’s drag.” Granted, as audience members we know that Alyssa won this week and Vivienne was eliminated, however, Alyssa’s statement was confusing, considering this episode explains how (dance and) drag were very important to her growing up and also led to her profession as a choreographer. Jagose’s book Queer Theory: An Introduction explains the constructions for gender and sexual identity to be very limiting. Maybe the point I’m completely missing from Vivienne and Alyssa’s statements is that the visibility for explanations about drag and drag culture through television are so limited, and trying to understand them is unnecessary.

— NP

Tagged , ,

Reading Questions Week 5

Ron Becker, “Guy Love: A Queer Straight Masculinity for a Post-Closet Era?” (121-140)

  • How has the heightened visibility of gay identities “made it possible to envision alternative ways to think about straight masculinity”?
  • What does it mean to say that gay has become a “cultural identity” in addition to (or instead of) a sexual identity?
  • Do you think we live in a “post-closet culture”?

Halberstam, “What’s That Smell? Queer Temporalities and Subcultural Lives” from Queer Youth Cultures

 

Halberstam, “An Introduction to Female Masculinity: Masculinity without Men” from Female Masculinity (1-43)

  • Why do you think Halberstam uses “the bathroom problem” as a case study for the social issues faced by gender-variant individuals?
  • How does the elasticity of the categories “men” and “women” help to sustain a binary notion of gender, according to Halberstam?

Kindle Commerical

Today I saw the new Kindle commercial, after class. I thought it was interesting, as we touched upon how many commercials with positive gay undertones or issues rarely are in the mainstream adverting realm.

http://www.hrc.org/blog/entry/new-kindle-commercial-features-warm-breezes-gay-twist/

Recent essay on Gay Black Tele(in)visibility

I wanted to draw your attention to this essay that ties in nicely with our discussion of representation of queers of color on television.

“The Cancellation of Don’t Trust the B and Gay Black Tele(in)visibility” by Alfred L. Martin

What is Martin’s argument about the portrayal of gay black men on television?
Do his observations differ at all from what we saw in Sender’s documentary, Off the Straight and Narrow?
Do you think it matters that the actor portraying a gay black man actually was a gay black man? Why or why not?

Boy Drag

In the latest Episode (Season 5, Episode 3) of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the contestants are split into two teams and asked to create an episode of Children’s TV. One needs only to look at the world of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (and perhaps the subsequent off-camera life of its star, Paul Ruebens) to see that Children’s Television is a highly queer medium. Even if lacking for representation of queer characters, the aesthetic of successful television for young audiences (zany, bright, full of life) seems perfectly in-line with that of the Drag World as represented by RuPaul and the dragtestants.

Before broaching the main challenge, the queens come down off of last episode’s elimination, in which Monica Beverly Hills reveals that she is, in fact, a transgender woman. Season Three contestant Carmen Carrera also identifies as transgender, and currently lives as a homosexual woman, but this reveal happened after the completion of her time on Drag Race.

What’s more miraculous than Monica’s actual coming out in last week’s episode was her persistence in this one. Her transgender status is not mentioned at all through the course of the episode, except for a few supportive words from her colleagues as they “untuck” after the reveal. While Monica does identify as a woman, she also identifies as a drag queen– interfacing with both her gender performance and a more outwardly performative, but presumably divorced, form of performativity. In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler writes,

“As much as drag creates a unified picture of ‘woman’… it also reveals the distinctness of those aspects of gendered experience which are falsely naturalized as a unity through the regulatory fiction of heterosexual coherence. In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself–as well as its contingency. Indeed, part of the pleasure, the giddiness of the performance is in the recognition of a radical contingency in the relation between sex and gender in the face of cultural configurations of casual unities that are regularly assumed to be natural and necessary.”  (taken from Jagose, 85-86)

Therefore, using Butler’s guidelines, Monica’s performance as a drag queen would/should have no restrictive relationship to her gender identification. Monica’s female-ness and her drag persona are two different things–at least, ideally.

At the end of episode 503, Monica finds herself sashaying away. Is this because she is, according to her own identification, a woman and not a man performing as a woman? Not at all. At least, not explicitly. Monica was kicked off this week because she simply was not up to par. Her performance in the children’s television episode was flat, and the attempt she made to lip-synch for her life was pitiful. Simply put, she did not seem to want it. And maybe, all told, she didn’t.

It’s especially interesting that a transsexual queen would be kicked off in the same week that another contestant–the gay, cis-male Alaska– would be chastised so heavily for performing in “Boy Drag”, as the judges went on to call it. Alaska was the leader of a team that inarguably produced a better mini-episode of Children’s TV, mostly by dint of unapologetically channeling Pee-Wee Herman. Alaska’s choices may have been derivative, but they were right for the assignment. However, because Alaska appeared in male presentation, she was shunned by the judges for not meeting the show/competition’s basic tenement: the performance of drag. “But I am in drag,” Alaska innocently retorts to Ru’s criticism. He was just in drag as a little farmboy. Boy being the operative, and problematic, word. In his costume, Alaska did not have breasts, did not don a wig, and was not presenting as female. But he wasn’t quite presenting as male either– meaning, at least, he was not presenting as himself. So why exactly was this not drag? Or How exactly was it drag? It was a performance of gender (the confused, pre-pubescent gender of underdeveloped and overly-curious young boys, perhaps) that was not specifically male, but was still divorced from the performers daily, natural gender performance. Sounds like drag to me!

Alaska ultimately pulled it together in her final runway look, and was safe from further judge scrutiny, leaving the other questionable queen on the chopping block. Women– and in this category I include cis-identifying women and transwomen, can certainly engage in the act of drag. But when we think of the constructed (and perhaps problematic, but accepted nonetheless) term of “drag queen”, a gay man fucking gender by performing as a man other than himself hits the mark more than a woman trying to be a woman while in the process of trying to be a real woman. Maybe one day, further into her transition and more firmly on her own two feet Monica will be able to perform drag beautifully. I’m truly inspired, personally, by her story and courage, but I think she needs to find herself as a woman before she can find herself as a queen. As for Alaska, she has most definitely found herself as a queen, and can therefore cross and fuck gender lines in the name of stellar performance.

 

 

Draggle Rock

In this week’s episode of RuPauls Drag Race, “Draggle Rock,” the contestants are first paired up with one another to create “daughters” from dolls as the product of two queens in a Junior Drag Superstar Pageant. Descriptions for the daughters include one child’s catch phrase, “you’re not my real dad and you never will be.” They are then split into two teams to produce a children’s show with a secret word, a how-to lesson, and a social message.

Conflict ensues when Alaska shows up to his shoot in a so-called “male drag,” that is, “out of drag.” When the queens are asked to dress up, it is always in female drag—males dressing as feminine and “fishy” as they can. Whether intentionally or not, Alaska has opposed the standard definition of drag, by wearing clothing that would be identified with the male gender. In “Untucked,” Jade even claims, “I don’t think its fair that we can just go out as a boy, we’re here to be drag queens.” This makes me think about our discussion in class when we asked if it is fair to play around with and manipulate gender. Is it fair for Alaska to flow back and forth between a drag female and drag male? Even more so, is it fair for all of the contestants to act as men part of the time and female during the rest of the time?

This week’s runway show is what best exemplifies using parody to mess up and step outside what Judith Butler calls “regulatory fictions”—gender is not an essential truth, but rather a product of society’s way of thought. In the runway show, each contestant is acting out an exaggerated female persona, therefore performing “gender trouble,” using performance to muddle with categories of gender. Phrases are thrown out by the judges, such as “Madonna reborn again,” “Barbie girl in a Barbie world,” and “Bed, Bath, and Beyonce” in order to describe the success or failures of the contestant’s outfits and personas as feminine and “fishy.”

In Lynne Joyrich’s “Epistemology of the Console,” she “tries to understand how TV comes to know sexuality, how it comes to construct what we even count as knowledge about sexuality” (17).  RuPauls Drag Race seems like a good introduction to knowledge about specifically drag queens and their sexuality. Their gender identities are the main focus, as opposed to their sexual preferences, which are mentioned sporadically throughout each episode. This is one example of what Joyrich describes as “maybe re-envisioning categories in ways that allow us to see differently” (19). Furthermore, we see that some of the drag queens prefer men who are males not in drag, while others like better other drag queens. For example, in this week’s episode of “Untucked” an attraction is growing between Roxxxy and Detox. I really do believe that the show contributes a great deal to the reconstruction of gender binaries, and to the breakdown of equating gender identity with sexual identity and practice.

-Sam

Reading Questions Week 4

Gamson, excerpts from Freaks Talk Back: “Why I Love Trash” (2-27); “Truths Told in Lies” (66-105)

  • Gamson says he identifies with “the misfits, monsters, trash, and perverts.” Why does this make daytime TV talk shows an attractive subject for him?
  • How does Gamson’s discussion of queerness on TV talk shows complicate the idea that visibility in mainstream media = social progress for minorities?
  • How might TV talk shows “muddy the waters of normality,” in Gamson’s words?
  • Why might the talk show imperative to “be true to yourself” be incompatible with the ideas of gender and sexuality advanced by queer theory? How do talk shows disrupt the idea of a single, universal truth about gender and sexual identity?

Sender, “Queens for a Day” (131-151)

  • What does Sender say about debates around whether Queer Eye is good for gay visibility? What kinds of questions does Sender find more interesting?
  • How do changing economic conditions result in shifts in constructions of gender and sexuality, according to Sender?
  • How does camp function in Queer Eye? What identities and social categories might the show ironize and destabilize?

Reading Questions Week 3

Gross, excerpt from Up from Invisibility: “The Mediated Society” (1-20)

  • What are some of the ways in which the experience of minority sexual identity differs from that of other kinds of minority identities (e.g. racial, gender, and class), according to Gross?
  • How can we understand camp as a mode of queer resistance for gay men?

Joyrich, “Epistemology of the Console” (15-47)

  • Why do you think Joyrich wants to move beyond the question of visibility vs. invisibility in considering representations of queer sexuality on television?
  • How do the “therapeutic discourses” of television create a unique place for sexuality in this medium (in contrast to film, for example)?
  • How do television programs illustrate the idea that sexual identity is distinct from sexual desire? Can you think of examples that do this?