Drag Is Not For Sale (Response to “Drama Queens”)

In CP’s original blog post on Season 5, Episode 9 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, entitled “Drama Queens”, the author poses “Drama” as a manufactured element used to “heighten entertainment while also educating the audience about drag as a subculture.” CP uses the argument between Coco, Alyssa and Jinx about the merritts of “Pageant” drag versus “Comedy” drag to question the ethics of bifurcation within subculture. Ultimately, these queens are all societal others, and yet from their very inclusion in drag culture they are instantly “othered” from the pre-supposed binding agent of their gay male identity. I’ll admit my ignorance up front, as I haven’t seen past seasons of the show, but this sort of argument immediately got me thinking about the rejection of drag performance and culture in the gay male community. I think it’s both riveting and smart when the queens bring their love and sex lives into the show (more on that in a minute,) and I’d be super curious to see the narrative of a queen who was performing in spite of an unsupportive partner or gay life awaiting her on the other side.

A subculture, it seems, is necessarily formed on the notion of protecting the “others” who are members of said subculture from misunderstanding or even potentially harm from the larger community. Certainly, the mostly black and latino participants of Ball Culture as seen in the film Paris Is Burning are seen coming together in a space where they can enact and embody performance that they could not in their daily lives due to the rigidity of gender roles in their “home” spaces, as well as the basic un-viability of personal expression under the socioeconomic pressures that most of them withstood. To be the people that those queens really were was a fight for their lives, and the enemies were clear ones.

Who is “The Man” when thinking about the queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race? Is it the straight world? The one that rejects the entirety of Logo TV? Is it the gay world, that prizes either extreme masculinity or total femininity, but nothing in between? Is it the rest of gay television, with assimilationist tropes and narratives into which Drag only fits as a punchline? Or is it the very culture of Drag itself? Is Drag a subculture, or is it a club? The language and codes used by queens in the spaces seen in Paris Is Burning was brought into being not only as a stylistic choice, but as a strategic mode of performativity. Language, like gender, had failed these people and with a new approach to gender so too came a new approach to language. Many of these codes have been appropriated by the queens on Drag Race, as well as non-drag gays and some cognoscenti straights (not to mention the marketing team at Logo.) With this proliferation of a once rarified term comes a (literal) whitewashing that can potentially divorce the term so far not only from its original meaning but its original deployment so that it doesn’t really mean anything different from it’s straight term, and to use it either becomes a totally uninformed speech act, or one to simply demonstrate purchased or purchasable membership in a club. If you download enough media and pay close enough attention, you too can find your way to fabulousness and drag glory without doing any of the hard work. What was once rarefied due to the dire straights of the people who “made” the term will become rarefied again, as a way of demonstrating who is cool enough (and has the time/space/resources to be cool enough) to know how to say what when. This subculture, then, becomes a club, and not a club formed out of necessity.

You once could only join the club out of desperation. And sure, once you got there it was cut throat, but now you can only join the club by being cut throat, by being marketable. By making drag mediated, it is made marketable, and that marketability gives these queens visibility, which is great, but that visibility also turns them into products, which shifts who it is we see, what they do to get there and, ultimately, how the stories of an incredibly complicated and wide-ranging subculture are told. This last bit is something that should be thought of long and hard and all the time. It is the most important question in the world. Unfortunately, television’s impulse (and this is changing, but change is slow) is to tell stories in the most digestible way possible. If drag is to remain imperfect, allow for the possibility of Queer Failure, as discussed by Jose Muñoz in his book Cruising Utopia (a mode of making art/telling stories that doesn’t subscribe to normative/capitalistic values of success,) then it is essential for it to not be boiled down, for Drag Race to continue to diversify and queer the bodies it shows and rewards. Aesthetic wars can be sexy, but only if we get heated up by the knowledge that whichever side we’re on is not actually more valuable or more right than the other, that all ways of approaching drag are just that, approaches. The comedy queen and the pageant queen are both strategies, and ultimately the strategies are less important than the results. The winner of RuPaul’s drag race, simply put, should be the one who does the best job of fucking gender. Maybe in that fucking of gender comes the fucking of what it means to be any kind of queen or any kind of woman or a woman or a queen or a queer at all.

-Ken

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