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.