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.