The thing is, here’s the thing.
I *LOVE* RuPaul’s Drag Race. It is incredible entertainment. It has thrust the art of drag into homes all over the world. It has made celebrities out of so many of my friends and sisters. It has taken our language and made it universal. (YAS! comes to mind immediately). It has challenged concepts of what drag is and what it can be. It is and has been a force in popular culture. For many, it has defined what drag is.
Hear the Podcast
Jasmine Masters, a contestant on season 7 of Drag Race, published a video last week that got me thinking. The title of the video “RuPaul’s Drag Race Fucked Up Drag” certainly grabbed my attention as I was casually scrolling through Facebook. She makes some valid points. And while I agree with some of it, there are points made that maybe deserve a counterpoint. Look, I have no dog in this fight. Well, that isn’t true. I actually do. All queens do. At least any queen performing and making a living off of the artform. If nothing else, it is a healthy conversation, right?
The constant question that seems to be raised and the conversations that I hear so much…”What is drag?” Jasmine really hits this point home in her video of what she thinks drag is and what drag is not. But how do we actually define it? Is a queen required to wear pads? Should they be painted for filth? What about nails? And that sickening jewelry set? The second we start putting parameters on living, breathing art is the moment that it becomes dull. It would lose it’s shine. It isn’t art. Perhaps the McDonaldization of drag? Cookie cutter. Without our edges in drag, we would never have Leigh Bowery, James St James, Charles Pierce, or even RuPaul in our herstory. We all come from somewhere and something. Our experiences are different. Our inspirations are vast. From club kid to pageant queen, why would we want to limit what is as colorful as that rainbow flag we proudly fly?
Has Drag Race changed drag? Of course. It would be silly to say that it has not. Every spring, after a couple of episodes of the new season has aired, new queens start coming out of the woodwork to try their hand at the art. And sure, many of them come out looking like their favorite queen from the show. During season 4, it was the Sharon Needles effect. New queens became focused on the “creepy” aesthetic”. Season 5 was Alaska. New queens really rallied around the long nails, teased blonde hair. Season 6, Adore. After her season, new queens found themselves wearing cut-off denim shorts, combat boots, and their favorite tee’s shredded within an inch of their lives.
When I started drag, I didn’t have this kind of show to draw inspiration from. I was pre-Youtube painting tutorials, body contouring lessons, and the “where to get your shit” videos. I learned to paint from queens working in the shows at my local bars. My idols were Lady Bunny, Varla Jean Merman, Erika Andrews, Maya Douglas, and my drag mother Virginia West. I learned from watching old VHS tapes of pageants and seeing a queen do something that completely blew my mind. THAT was my schooling. But, just because my education is different from today’s queen doesn’t mean they are not getting schooled. So many of these new queens are taking inspiration from their idols just like I did fifteen years ago. What is wrong with that? For the first two years of my career, you couldn’t tell me I didn’t look like Lady Bunny (even though, looking back, I realize that I never did). When I started, I drew my look from those queens. And then, after being lucky enough to work and learn more and more, I began to craft my own look, drawn from my own inspirations. A dash of Paul Reubens, a smidge of Jackie Beat, a hunk of pageantry education, a little bit of Janice from the Muppets, a dollop of Disney, and Mary Poppins in particular, and a lot of my boy self entered into who the character of Nina would become.
But that is my aesthetic. I don’t think I would be able to wear a bra and panty set as a costume, for a variety of reasons, but just because Alaska does it doesn’t mean she is wrong. Regardless of the cost of her outfit or what her outfit consists of, she is going to put on one hell of a show. She will entertain. Does she need bangles and pads to do that? No. Because her talents don’t lie there. Conversely, I can say that I have seen plenty a queen in my time spend all the money in the world to perfect their look and then get on stage and have the talent of rock. The argument that queens need to be padded, gowned the house down, and painted for filth just doesn’t hold water. Especially if they get on stage and can’t even remember the words to their song – be it lip sync or sung live.
It all comes back to that proverbial “IT” factor. Not everyone has “it”. What that “it” is is hard to explain…but you know as well as I do that when you see someone that you can’t take your eyes off of because they are controlling the crowd with their performance….that is “it”. You can’t buy that. Some would even argue that you can’t learn that. I don’t know where I stand on that issue other than I do know when I see amazing talent.
The pageantry conversation. Go with me on this for a moment. Drag pageantry and Drag Race are very similar in what they do. Both are molding contestants. Pageants, for the most part, are molding contestants into a symbol of excellence for a specific system. Be it Miss Gay USofA, Continental, Gay America, Entertainer of the Year or beyond, pageants are teaching their contestants the ins and outs of what it means to be a professional in this business. You learn tricks and tips with makeup, costuming, hair, accessories, and how to cultivate interpersonal relationships with other contestants, promoters, formers of that system, and the reigning queen herself. Drag Race in its way is doing the same thing. It just has the power of television behind it. That kind of power not only molds the contestant in strong ideals and concepts, but the viewer can’t help but be part of that process. So, of course, for queens not even featured on the show it will have a residual effect, and they’ll want to liken themselves to what they see on TV. Queens across the country have been molding themselves into what is accessible to them for years. But, like anything in life, you can only be taught if you want to learn. You aren’t going to graduate with a degree, hunny, if you can’t make it to classes. The same holds true for art of drag.
Michelle Visage once said to me that Drag Race is a boot camp. The process behind the filming and production of the show goes fast. It tests your endurance mentally, physically, and emotionally. That sounds like my personal experience with Entertainer of the Year. While I can prepare for the categories in front of me, I can’t control the judges’ view of me. Nor can I anticipate how the competition will go or who will show up. It is a roller coaster, with many twists and turns on the way. Any one who has done it can’t deny that.
Other points. Old school versus new school, Drag Race queens versus “local” girls – it just seems to be another way to divide us. I look at Drag Race as a chance to see what I can learn and see what a newer generation is doing. That is the same thing I do when I attend a national pageant. I am fifteen years into this game and I still try to treat it as “what can I learn?” I am not too proud to say that sometimes I can get a lesson from an 18 year old who is just starting out. It reminds me of the hunger and the drive to want to succeed and be the best I can possibly be. And I grow from that. And, conversely, I know that I can help shed some wisdom on the world of drag for a new girl too. It is never about right or wrong. We all have different views and different aesthetics but that doesn’t mean one is wrong and one is right.
In my opinion, what is really fucking up the world of drag is people losing sight of the big picture. We aren’t looking at the entire forest. People focus on one tree. This one Drag Race tree in this case. You can’t deny its power, you can’t deny its impact. But when you throw your hands up in the air and say that Drag Race has killed the game, you are forgetting about all those queens who keep their drag scenes going – fostering new talent in their cities and towns, and continuing to grow and challenge their audiences with performances. You are allowing yourself to get outraced by The Race.