Start your engines, and may the best blog-entry win!
Get your queens on, cause I am about to embark on a mini-recap of RuPaul’s Drag Race season 2. There is one simple reason for that: I just watched it within the last few days. Why now? Another simple reason: Could not before, could now. Ha.
For all of those unfamiliar with RuPaul click here or just keep in mind that s_he is probably the most famous drag queen in the U.S., having had considerably more media exposure in the late 1990s. But then there is also Drag Race on the logo channel (and there are other shows s_he’s doing, like DragU).
The premise of Drag Race is fairly simple: A bunch of drag queens are assembled and in XX-next topmodel fashion they compete for the title of “America’s next drag superstar” (and some prizes, of course).
I’ll use this post to write some about what I liked and what I didn’t concerning the show and try to finish off with some commentary on the whole issue of reconciling drag queens with ideals of feminism.
I massively enjoyed season 2 of Drag Race. Which is kind of a surprise, cause I did not expect it to be as interesting. A few months back, when I caught some clips and saw the contestants I was not overly thrilled, but having watched the entire thing I was impressed with the queens.
The major highlight was the top three, or even the top five, or also just the winner. Ha, confusion! There it strikes again. Okay, in order: While Tyra Sanchez, or rather the guy creating her, seemed to be some bitchy prick most of the time and kept me thinking that picking him_her as a winner set a terrible example for all the kids watching (hi kids!), I have to admit: s_he turned it out every fucking week. Stunning looks, awesome performances. And dedication, heaps of that. Plus, now that I watched the reunion show and having seen Tyra Sanchez and her softer side, I’m all forgiving and stuff. Having said that, how incredible were the top three anyways? Apart from Tyra, Raven with her deliberately non-sparkly persona and über-bubbly Jujubee were drag queens with undeniable star potential. And to make matters even better: Pandora Boxx and Tatiana were strong contestants too. Funky personalities and gorgeous looks, just what you expect.
A major surprise is how similar I think the top three this season is to the the top three of season one in my head (Bibi, Nina Flowers and Ongina – even though Ongina didn’t come in third). Dontcha think? Maybe there is a universal pattern that really is the key to getting in connection with the creator of all things alive and whatnot, but maybe it’s just a fun coincidence or statistically inevitable because good queens always come in triplets of black ultra-divas, ice-queeny showgirls and Asian power-cupcakes.
A major turn off this season (again) was how dudes doing drag seem to believe they have to be super-bitches throughout their entire life. Granted, it’s reality TV and they were probably all really nice and loving people. I am just constantly surprised at how easily these people get bitchy and catty out of no reason. Then again, it was incredibly nice to see that they are for the most part able to overcome this. Now, I am not the forgive and forget type. I hold a grudge. I wish I didn’t, but I do, it is hard for me not to take things personal and letting go of that. So I am always happy when I see people who are able to forgive and forget, to overcome their differences and all of that.
Major blah were all the mini-challenges (really? Like: what’s the point? Besides product placement…) and the judging panel. RuPaul obviously is the center of attention when it comes to panel, and s_he is usually the only funny one (and I was really surprised how witty and funny s_he was all the time). The celebrity judges, even my beloved Kathy Griffin, were just extremely boring and Merle and Santino, oh my, at least they have a job. Blah were also all the lipsynch for your life songs. I swear, none of these songs seemed even remotely acceptable for lipsynch performance by a drag queen. Either I am so out of touch with the whole drag culture (which admittedly I am) or these were just poor song choices albeit personal favorites of Ru.
I was majorly sad so see that once again the big queens were underrepresented. I mean, I see so many big drag queens, are there so little talented ones? I can hardly believe that. While Mystique Summers was kind of amusing, she was also kind of a one-trick pony. I’m still hoping for more diversity in body types.
I cannot hold it back any longer now: I was so rooting for Jujubee to win this thing. Though I kinda already expected her not to, she was my favorite. The wit and humour she brought to every situation, coupled with this incredible self-awareness and fearlessness of touching upon topics that were very personal and sad made me laugh and weep and want to hug her_him. Personality wise, s_he was a total winner. I accept her_his third place though, cause when it comes to the whole drag part, Raven and Tyra really took it to another level.
So, off to the social commentary we go. I remember a little conversation I had a few years back about how drag queens don’t really perform in favour of feminist causes versus gender-studies-legend Judith Butler hailing the subversive powers of drag.
Obviously the latter makes some good points. Drag queens call into question the assumption that femininity is inextricably linked to biological sex (if we think of this as existent) and present us with varying degrees of border crossing between male and female gender.
The queens of Drag Race certainly do that. This second season we saw all the queens un-drag-ed as boys/men in their interviews and the host RuPaul sporting a major moustache in the reunion show. At the same time the show revolved around padding your hips and breast and shoulders and bring the funky on in glamorous nightgowns and massive wigs. On top of that we had a contestant (Tatiana) who took it to a level where it was hardly discernible that she might not be what she seems to be, and we furthermore had the revelation of contestant Sonique in the reunion show that she really is a woman, psychologically for now, physically in the future. What this season lacked unfortunately was a ladyboy a la Ongina from season 1, who really brought the glamour as a persona that mixed up assumptions of masculinity and femininity without falling into the put-a-wig-and-make-up-on routine. But then again, we had Ongina in season 1, so Drag Race as a series delivers in diversity (not to mention the diversity of ethnic background with people positioning themselves as white, black, Latina, ghetto, asian, transnational and a hundred things in between – this alone deserves honorable mentioning IMO).
The critique that I encountered a while ago, was that drag queens really undermine feminism because they put emphasis on style and sexuality, reinforcing thereby traditional female “areas of expertise”. This position has some valid points, in that we do not encounter drag queens on Drag Race who don’t change their appearance and say: so now, I’m a woman. It is a TV show after all, catering to standards of reality-TV in that contestants are expected to bring some kind of standardised glamour that is heavily influenced by Hollywood notions of how big your breast, how shiny your hair and how flawless you make-up has to be. Yet at the same time, I’d argue, drag is a performance, not reality, but a deliberate heightening of aspects found within reality, taken to a new level and subverted along the way. Subverted in that emphasis is put on the fact that a drag queen might look like a stylized doll, but is really a man underneath who had to shave off his beard first.
The context in which drag culture takes place is one that is defined almost exclusively by questions of sexuality and sexual orientation, thereby making it hard to escape the sexualized nature of performance and demeanour. Furthermore we have to keep in mind that drag queens are by and large NOT transgender people: Many of them do not intend to step out as a woman and convince you that they are just your regular girl next door. The deliberately take on a role that pursues a specific purpose – commentary upon what a human being is able to transform him_herself into and upon how assumptions directed at looks and gender-performances can be unsettled and overthrown by performing a persona and gender that is but a mere illusion.
Having said all that should make clear, that I do not think that drag queens contradict ideals of feminism, however, I would also like to add that this doesn’t mean that they are all fighting for the feminist cause. Because after all we should not fall into the trap of confusing the performance with the performer. While the performance might subvert gender assumptions and norms set by a male dominated heterosexist social structure, the male performers behind the drag queens might still hold on to sexist or even misogynist views themselves. I don’t assume that this is the case with many (especially the misogynist part), but having witnessed throughout Drag Race season 2 how bitchy and catty some of those boys can get, all the while thinking that this is proper queen behaviour, we should keep in mind that we are dealing with individual human beings. They probably fight for feminist causes in ways we haven’t even thought of before, but they might still make mistakes and confuse the performance of gender attributes with a natural order. Thing is, we’re all just human, right?