Friday, April 7, 2017

Sexism Is A Drag

Let me start by saying that I love love love RuPaul's Drag Race. It's the kind of show that should probably be a guilty pleasure, but I unabashedly tune in religiously every Friday. Drag Race has a bit of a niche audience, which is to be expected for a reality show about drag queens. The premise of the show is that fourteen drag queens compete in acting, singing, comedy, design, and other assorted challenges to become America's Next Drag Superstar. Whenever I talk about the show with people that don't watch it, I always get asked the same question: do you think Drag Race is maybe a little sexist? Whether or not drag is sexist is an extremely complex question in my opinion. Drag, as an art form, is not inherently sexist. Drag queens become women because they love femininity and a good number of the queens on Drag Race have questioned their gender identity or identify as trans. What is sexist is the idealized aspects of femininity some queens deem essential to drag. With that being said, RuPaul's Drag Race is a surprisingly feminist show. Womanhood is celebrated without being overtly objectified and any stereotypes the show perpetuates are clearly satirical. However, the some of the queens on the show promote sexist idea's of what makes somebody a woman.

Image result for roxxxy andrews runwayOn every episode of RuPaul's Drag Race (RPDR) there is a runway portion in which the queens are given a theme and have to walk the mainstage in outfits that they have either made or prepared ahead of time that meet that theme. Because they are representing high fashion women, the queens are sexualized, often wearing skin tight and racy clothing. The camera often lingers on their fake breasts and the judges make quips about their outfits that, at times, can sound like cat calling. With that being said, the queens dress the way they do because it makes them feel good about themselves. They show skin because they enjoy feeling like sexy women. In fact, for a show so heavily rooted in fashion, RPDR is shockingly body positive, bigger queens often show as much or more skin than the thinner queen. And in all eight seasons, I don't think I've ever heard a judge say "you shouldn't wear that, you're too fat." Furthermore, the way men are sexualized on the show is just wild. While the contestants themselves aren't overtly sexualized out of drag, you just can't ignore the Scruff pit crew. The pit crew is a group of muscular young gay underwear models that are brought out to help with mini and maxi challenges throughout the season. The pit crew is so blatantly sexualized and objectified it's almost funny. They never speak, they’re only ever in underwear, and they’re often referred to as props during acting and photoshoot challenges.

Stereotypes of women are often portrayed in the show, usually in the context of acting or comedy challenges. Bitchy teen queens, the asian tiger mom, or, most commonly, “ghetto fabulous” women are all fair game. However, the queens do those characters as satire, overdoing them to the point where they just cannot be taken seriously. For example, Kennedy Davenport’s “ratchet” character in the episode “Spoof! (there it is)” is so completely overdone and hammed up that it could not be taken seriously and was clearly meant to poke fun at RuPaul’s roots. Many of the queens criticize how some black queens immediately go to a ghetto character if they need to be funny, but more times than not those characters feel like they're being done to poke fun at the stereotype, not to promote it.

Image result for adore delano all stars entranceOne of the only real issues that can be found with Drag Race is the ongoing debate over what defines drag. Drag, in essence, is men portraying women. Now there are all types of women, so naturally there should be all types of drag, but there are a slew of queens that believe that drag has to represent a very particular brand of femininity. They regularly shame other queens for not wearing press on nails or high heels and embracing androgynous drag. The issue here is that not all women like wearing fake nails and heels or being hyperfeminine. Recently on RuPual’s Drag Race Allstars 2 (a reunion season in which past contestant who did not win compete again) one queen, Adore Delano, was singled out for her style of drag. Adore has based her drag on the girls she was friends with growing up because that is what she finds beautiful. That means wearing braids, wearing ripped up jeans and tshirts, and embracing the chola aesthetic. She has been criticized for her style probably more than any other queens which is ridiculous because her execution is pretty much always flawless. She’s never called out for her craftsmanship, it’s always that she’s lazy and can’t be bothered to put on a dress. With that being said, the fans of the show
react really well to queens like Adore that chose to represent women that aren’t pageant ready. Adore has consistently won either first or second in every fan favorite vote since her season in 2013. And if Adore doesn’t win Katya Zamolodchikova, another totally original queen, does. Katya based her character off her Russian teacher she had back in Boston, refuses to wear heels, and is unafraid to look ugly, even sporting a half burnt face during a season reunion episode.

While stereotypes and sexualization are present in the show, Drag Race does it in a light hearted way, stereotypes are mocked, not promoted, and while the queen often sexualize themselves, the show sexualized other men much more. And while what defines drag is up for debate, the show tends to promote the idea that drag is whatever you want it to be, not some narrow caricature of a very particular type of woman. Drag Race is pretty much the only show if it’s kind, drag is still very much separate from the mainstream and the show’s host, RuPaul, has said on multiple occasions that drag will always be counter culture. However, whether or not gay men can treat women like sexual objects like straight men do and if so, is it as bad as when straight men do it is a question that does need to be addressed. It’s one that is present in Drag Race and is present and overlooked throughout popular culture today.

1 comment:

  1. I think this was a really interesting analysis because when circumstances are as dramatic and fabulous as a drag show it is easy to overlook dramatic and problematic portrayals of women but they still matter. There is so much empowerment associated with Drag Queens and it so important that that is recognized but I also agree with all of the other points you brought up.