Okay, you guys, I’ve hosted a lot of author posts at Writing from the Tub for various blog tours and this post you’re about to read is my all time favourite. You all know how much I love me a RuPaul’s Drag Race marathon (case in point, here and here) and the lovely Kate Scelsa only went and wrote me an incredible post all about why she loves it so much. My exact response upon reading her post?
Anyway! I won’t keep rambling, so I’ll hand you over to Kate:
In my young adult novel “Fans of the Impossible Life,” my character Mira quotes the quintessential RuPaul quote to her friend Jeremy: “We’re born naked, and the rest is drag.” Of course, this is after she’s put Jeremy in a crushed velvet evening gown and full makeup.
Jeremy is the less out of Mira’s two close gay male friends, and this scene in the book is a little bit of a test for him. Mira is making a space for Jeremy to be outrageous, to embrace a part of himself that he hasn’t before.
When I was editing FANS, I had an interesting conversation with my editor about what happens after this scene. Sebby, the object of Jeremy’s affection and the other best gay friend of Mira’s, comes over to hang out with the fully dragged out Mira and Jeremy.
“Would Jeremy be embarrassed for Sebby to see him in makeup?” my editor wondered.
I had to think about this. I had set Jeremy up as a timid character, inexperienced and shy, and here was Mira literally forcing him into outrageousness. Would he be comfortable with it?
I had a long conversation with my good friend Aaron about this scene. Aaron is a performer, writer, and producer who is also very clever and has very kindly read many drafts of FANS (You can see me and Aaron discussing the term “gay best friend” on my video blog here: https://youtu.be/fiy1AAuvLrg)
I call Aaron again now to remind myself of what we said back then when I was still editing.
“It’s potentially a very empowering mask,” Aaron says, after he has answered the door for the Thai food delivery guy. When he says this it makes me think of another post I’ve written this week, about the artist Nick Cave, and his head-to-toe costumes that bestow a kind of shamanic power on the wearer.
“It’s risky for Jeremy,” Aaron says. “Sebby and Mira are treasure hunters, and this is a way for Jeremy to show that he is worthy of Sebby’s attention.”
We talk about the ways in which a cis male person might be made to feel vulnerable by being seen as feminine, and what the implications of that are for ideas about femininity, and the power that can come from claiming that part of yourself.
“It’s a way to feel beautiful,” Aaron’s boyfriend AK says in the background. And I feel like I could talk about what exactly “beauty” means in this context and what the currency of beauty is until the end of time, but they have Thai food to eat, so I let them go.
Sitting on my couch watching old episodes of Drag Race on mute, I’m trying to figure out how to articulate why I think this show is asking so many interesting questions about what it means to take on that mask, and why some people aren’t on board with it.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, Drag Race is a reality competition show for drag queens. It’s like Next Top Model meets Project Runway. It’s outrageous, glamorous, hilarious, inappropriate, and endlessly entertaining.
I don’t have a lot of patience for the criticism that drag queens have come under recently. In my mind, a man choosing to embrace the feminine (even the superficially feminine) is a radical act, and it’s telling that there isn’t something as shocking that goes the other way. A drag king is not challenging sacred cows of gender the way that a drag queen is. Women have been wearing pants for a while now. Women have fought for this, because we are fighting to take on the rights of the dominant culture. Let’s wear pants, let’s vote, let’s gain control of our reproductive rights, let’s share the housework. Let’s become CEOs. Let’s run the world. Of course these are things to be fought for when you are the one at a disadvantage in the power dynamic.
So what does it mean then for the dominant gender to take on the role of the less dominant? Is it exploitation? Mary Cheney has compared drag to blackface, saying that it is a parody of femininity, one that is exaggerated to the point of the grotesque. Some transgender activists feel it makes light of their own struggle, and that being able to put on and take off an identity at will is a kind of privilege that inherently disrespects that identity.
I had an interesting conversation with another friend about the controversy around the documentary “Paris is Burning,” which is about the New York drag ballroom culture in the eighties, and a clear predecessor to Drag Race. The subjects of the film are mostly poor, queer, men and trans people of color, and the director was a queer white woman. This is one of my favorite films of all time, and I hadn’t known that there was some feeling on the part of the drag ball community that Jennie Livingston had exploited her subjects by making this successful film.
This is a whole debate unto itself (one that has been debated in plenty of other places), but I was complaining to my friend Justin that it offended me that there was no feeling from the people who had a problem with Livingston that they felt any sense of solidarity between these queer men and a queer woman.
“They are taking on femininity in their performances, and yet they don’t accept a woman, even a queer woman, as a part of their community,” I said. “It’s cut and dried misogyny. They want the feminine, but not the female.”
Justin looked at me for a minute while he thought about this, then he said, “Yeah, but what’s really feminine, anyway?”
This was a totally frustrating answer. I had been hoping to argue with Justin about this some more. But this completely shut me down.
“Oh right,” I thought. “What is feminine anyway?”
And of course you can answer that question by saying that what is feminine in this case is that which has been ascribed to women, dictated to women. High heels and dresses and makeup.
But I find it so much more exciting to let my brain stop and sit with Justin’s question for a little while.
What if it actually were all up for grabs? What if nothing was off limits? What if the things you wore and the way you acted and the way that you performed could be as outrageous as you wanted it to be?
This is what Drag Race is to me. Watch a bunch of episodes in a row, and suddenly the traditional trappings of femininity become up for grabs in a way that I find thrilling, because it means that they belong to no one, and no one gets to say how they get used.
The show is not without its problems. One of the more heart wrenching things to watch isqueens who obviously come from a disadvantaged socio economic background finding themselves out of place around the queens who can afford nicer clothes, who know how to present a more polished version of themselves. But even this is a fascinating anthropological look into drag culture. There are many kinds of queens – club kids and pageant queens and theater girls – they come from very different backgrounds and they don’t always get along.
This last season I was outraged by the pick for the winner (I only began to understand other people’s passion for their sports teams when I started watching Drag Race) SPOILER ALERT – because I felt that she had been glorified for her ridiculously tiny waist and not much else (sorry, Violet fans, I just don’t feel it). This to me felt less likecommentary on the extremes that women are asked to go to in the name of traditional beauty, and more like an actual taking on of unhealthy body ideals. I’m fighting against women being expected to have twenty-inch waists, now I have to fight for drag queens too?
I put on another episode while I finish writing this. It’s Season four, episode five. “Snatch Game,” where the girls have to do their best celebrity impressions. There are so many girls to love on this season. There’s big girl ex-con Latrice who won Miss Congeniality.“Party City” spooky girl Sharon. Consummate pro Chad Michaels. And perfect mean girlvillain Phi Phi.
Maybe in the end Drag Race is just a really gay, catty, silly show with a bunch of bright colors and goofy catch phrases. But this show started in 2009, a year after my wife and I got married in Massachusetts, only able to make it legal when the state decided to do away with a residency requirement that was based in an old anti-miscegenation law that Governor at the time Mitt Romney had brought back up to keep out-of-state gays from getting married there.
This was also a year after the only thing Joe Biden and Sarah Palin agreed on in their vice presidential debate was that gays shouldn’t be able to get married. The ONLY thing.
So I know there will be a time when we don’t need Drag Race anymore, when things about it look dated and uninformed. But to me it serves as a marker of where we are right now, and I have to say it’s a hell of a lot further than I expected us to be. Every day it’s a miracle to me that we live in a world where boys can wear makeup on TV and I get to write a super gay book.
Drag Race gives me hope, is what I’m trying to say.
And please, always remember:
Kate Scelsa is the author of the young adult novel “Fans of the Impossible Life,” out 9/10 from Macmillan in the UK and 9/8 from HarperCollins/Balzer+Bray in the US. Kategrew up in New Jersey, went to school at Sarah Lawrence College, and now lives in Brooklyn with her wife and two black cats. She spent much of 2002-2013 traveling theworld with theater company Elevator Repair Service, performing in their trilogy of works based on great American novels, including an eight hour long show called “Gatz” that used the entire text of “The Great Gatsby.” Kate is currently collaborating with her dad, the legendary free form radio DJ Vin Scelsa, on “The Kate and Vin Scelsa Podcast,” now available on iTunes and SoundCloud.