RuPaul’s Drag Race is an interesting example of queer media because it blurs the lines between different identities, and as a result, shows the viewer that people do not neatly fit into a single socially constructed category. This is evident in the most recent episode, Scent of a Drag Queen, when Jinkx Monsoon revealed that he had a crush on Ivy Winters. What I find most interesting about the show is that the contestants are interviewed as “male” without the extravagant wigs, makeup, and costumes; however, they refer to one another by their drag personas. It is almost confusing at times because when Jinkx, out of drag, reveals his romantic interest in Ivy, he uses the name Ivy as opposed to Dustin. It plays on the idea of queerness because drag is more of a performance and caricature of femininity than an actual identity and it is clear that Jerick (Jinkx) is interested in Dustin (Ivy), not the character he performs, yet this line between performance and identity becomes difficult to distinguish for the viewer. Perhaps when one performs as a drag queen for so long, it actually does infuse itself with his identity and becomes a component of his being, and maybe this is the point that RuPaul was trying to make in this episode. Often times, queer people perform so much – typically trying to pass for straight – that this performance can become an internalized and naturalized aspect of our character. In other words, we forget we’re performing.
As Judith Butler explains in Gender Trouble, what makes drag so effective at exposing the constructed-ness of gender is that it is an exaggeration of everything that our society associates with traditional femininity. Drag is a theatrical, bold, and over-the-top way to express the idea that a biological male can play the part of a female just as well, if not better, than a biological woman. And in my personal opinion, this would be more effectively portrayed on Drag Race if the contestants were not referred to by their drag names when not performing. In line with Butler’s ideas, it is necessary to dramatize the disparity between the natural state of the individual and the transformation that occurs when undergoing drag in order to expose that gender is rehearsed and performed. It is something that we learn, not something that we are born knowing. I think this idea is best represented in the episode when Alyssa is doing her commercial for the fragrance “Alyssa’s Secret,” and reveals that her secret is that she is a man. Our society so readily associates gender identity with genitalia that it becomes humorous for Alyssa to utilize this idea in her commercial. Her “secret” is that she is performing gender and that she is an “inauthentic” woman.
When watching the matching challenge during this episode, I began to wonder if doing drag has anything to do with being gay. Does performing as a woman coincide with sexual orientation? The show definitely seems to clump the two together as the challenge is very focused on sexuality when the entire concept of drag has nothing to do with that. Every contestant seemed to be distracted by the hot guys undressing – and it made me wonder if there are straight or bisexual men who perform in drag that go by unnoticed or are automatically assumed to be gay. It’s an interesting idea to me that when one who is physically male performs as a woman, he is almost always performing as a heterosexual, ultra-feminine woman. Could he perform as a lesbian? Could he perform as a butch woman or does that defeat the purpose of drag? When does it become too confusing? It seems like the entire world of drag is a “cult” much like gender is – exclusive to gay men, and occasionally to straight women. The language that the queens use on the show is associated with the gay community as “gay lingo.” Surely, if a straight man said “No T, No Shade,” or stated that he is “Serving Fish,” most would assume he was gay. The words themselves have nothing to do with who he has sex with, however, they are so deeply engrained in our contemporary gay culture, especially through the show, that it almost seems as if they are specifically reserved for gay people. Even during the episode when guest judge Joan Van Ark says “No T, No Shade Hunty,” it is met with laughter because it does not sound genuine coming from the mouth of a straight woman. It sounds contrived and awkward, although endearing.
Overall, this episode really reminded me of our discussion about how consumerism is built into gay culture. There are products we associate with men and products we associate with women. From those categories, there are products we associate with straight men and gay men, and products we associate with straight women and lesbians. Anything we buy says something about our sexual orientation. This can be specifically said about fragrances. Which fragrance a gay man or a straight man decides to buy will largely be determined by how the fragrance is marketed. For example, the advertisement for Marc Jacob’s Bang features the designer sweaty and naked, with the perfume bottle covering his privates.
I can imagine that this ad was very popular among gay consumers, but many straight men would be apprehensive about buying Bang because of the homoerotic undertones of the ad (not only is there a sweaty naked man, but the man happens to be gay himself). In the episode, the contestants have to figure out how to target a fragrance not for men or women, but for drag queens. And although this challenge is mostly intended for humor, it raises some interesting ideas brought up by Gross, Sender, and Hennessey. When creating an ad for a product, the advertisers have to think about what it means to be a straight men (if the target audience is straight men), what it means to be a lesbian (if the target audience is a lesbian), and so on. In this challenge, the contestants had to figure out what it means to be a drag queen. The commercials that were successful in the eyes of the judges (Alaska’s, Detox’s, and Jinkx’s) were dramatic, funny, and outrageous – and these traits are exactly what our society believes drag queens to be. The more conventional perfume ad routes taken by contestants such as Ivy were unsuccessful as she was ultimately eliminated for lack of originality. The episode was hard to gauge as a viewer because I couldn’t reach into the television and smell the scents they created myself so I had to base my opinions solely on the performances. But it seemed like to the judges, the scents the queens concocted were of little importance compared to how they marketed the scents. That idea is pretty much what our entire consumer-driven society is based on.