drag’s cis-male problem
After RuPaul’s controversial comments about female drag queens, we look into drag’s continued problems surrounding.
It's unquestionable that the popularisation of drag among the mainstream today is down to Mama RuPaul. There will be many who tut at this, but few who can genuinely rebuke the claim: it was stiletto first that RuPaul brought her clan of queens to the Main Stage—and stream—back in 2009, puncturing a hole in the bubble of reality TV, and filling it with drag queens.
Aside from being genius television—here a show took on all the nail-bitingness and producer-forced drama a reality fan could wish for—RuPaul's Drag Race has offered us an education about acceptance, sisterhood, difference and self-love in an alternative, non-Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants kind of way. For eight seasons now the reality show has debunked ill-informed myths about the realities of life as a female impersonator, myths that have followed drag performers around forever. Each season has given us a diverse look at male gayness, too—also a first for mainstream broadcasting. Rupaul has provided a platform for gay men, who do drag, to have a voice and personality on television beyond the remit of Jack from Will & Grace; as people now recognised for their art and their point of view. And, hence, this has lead to a mainstream recognition of drag, in 2016, as cis-gendered gay men who impersonate women.
Rupaul has provided a platform for gay men, who do drag, to have a voice and personality on television beyond the remit of Jack from Will & Grace.
It's a start, but that's also roughly where it ends. So Drag Race, while being responsible for the aforementioned manifestations of mainstream acceptance of a particular style of drag, has instated a somewhat damaging binary upon the drag world itself. A binary that consists of a) the 'successful', cis-male drag queens who uphold and 'achieve' the Western beauty ideals placed upon women, and b) all other manifestations of drag that access the art form in any other way.
This is a suspicion that Ru's most clued up viewers have been courting for a while, but it wasn't until RuPaul tweeted, in response to a fan, that women who want to perform female drag should apply to Miss Universe, that even the slight hope of a more diverse line-up of queens was fully quashed by the Queen of queens herself.
Victoria Sin, one of London's most fascinating female drag queens, said "watching RuPaul's Drag Race I'm very aware I'm watching a show that features, and has only ever featured, cisgendered men (except Monica Beverly Hillz who came out as trans on the show and was eliminated in the next episode and Sonique, who revealed her trans status in the reunion episode of Season 2) who act out, according to Ru, womanhood, in a world where real, lived, trans identities and non-binary and queer female identities are underrepresented."
Yet again cis-men win out. If RuPaul is the gatekeeper to mainstream drag recognition, this view means that men get to be celebrated in a queer and artistic way in the mainstream for their impersonation of the female gender, while women only have one option for the exploration of their own gender in mainstream space—which is the incredibly misogynist, archaic world of Miss Universe.
Ru is not just a queer informant, but also a queer hero for so many. Now for so many queer women, female drag queens, gender non-conforming queens, transpeople, trans queens, drag kings and everyone who is not simply a cis-man impersonating a woman, RuPaul's opinion is both a de-validation of their entire identities and art forms, and a confirmation of so much of the criticism and no-platforming anyone who is not a cisgendered man receives on the queer scene. Patriarchal privileges can infect the most queer of spaces, and RuPaul's opinions genuinely have influence over so many of us who lack the array of heroes that those in the mainstream are afforded by simply not being queer.
Without women, cisgendered male drag queens would have nothing to perform and parody.
Cis men gain earning potential and a form of mainstream acceptance—because of opinions like RuPaul's—while the 'less digestible' set are barred because of their birth sex and gender, or the way they feel comfortable expressing their gender, which is ironic for a show that preaches 'that we are all born naked, and the rest is drag'.
"The suggestion that parody is beyond female capability is upsetting but hardly surprising," Hatty Carman, bio-girl and punk band front woman, says. "When, in the expansion of new frontiers, have cis-gendered men ever sought to acknowledge the labour of women? Despite leaning heavily on our ideas, innovations and emotional support, we remain insignificant -- the fag hag or the non-ironic beauty queen. In a scene dominated by gay men, it is hardly helpful that my irrelevance has been confirmed."
The truth is that RuPaul's Drag Race—and the drag queen for that matter—wouldn't exist if it wasn't for the existence of the female gender, and all of its constructed labels. Without the vagina, and the opprobrium and limitation women have received because of being born female, cisgendered male drag queens would have nothing to perform and parody.
But how do queer performers even begin to access success, if they are barred from the mainstream who provide it? 'There are two ways to measure success as a queer performer, when your craft is paying your bills and/or when you're getting your work to the audiences you want to. Mainstream fame is a distant dream for so many, I just want to do what I love,' says Holestar in response, one of London's most iconic female drag queen.
RuPaul has given the gay male, and queer community, huge amounts—and Drag Race, and certainly Ru herself, deserve their place in our LGBTQIA legacy. The problem is that we can't stop with cisgendered gay men as the only acceptable form of gender expression and performance in the mainstream. And while, yes, it is not up to Mama Ru to fight the fight of all the minorities who fall beneath the queer umbrella, it is certainly unhelpful—for one of the few who gets to hold said umbrella—to push people out from under it. As queer people, we should be punching at everyone who is out to get us, and not at each other. Perhaps as the generation who have grown up on RuPaul's Drag Race, it is up to us to take Ru's views and do a bit of a review. We should look at how we support each other, especially those who are not white, cisgendered men, on whatever part of the queer scene we are on; and—although it sounds radical—recognise that Ru's views are certainly not gospel.
Text Tom Rasmussen
Press shot from RuPaul's Drag Race Season 8