Feminist Futures: Misogyny in RuPaul's Drag Race
RuPaul’s Drag Race is a cultural phenomenon by which several established drag queens all compete to become ‘America’s Next Drag Superstar’. It involves the contestants partaking in various challenges that can include them singing, acting, or designing and creating garments to present to the judges on the runway. Enjoyed by millions of women across the globe, the show prides itself on exhibiting an image of strength and female empowerment – the many different styles of drag all epitomise what it can mean to not only be a woman, but to be human: freedom. It is the pinnacle of permissive society, where anyone can be whatever they want.
However, the fundamental inclusivity of drag itself has been tarnished by RuPaul’s misogynistic belief that drag is at its height when it is a male-only art. In an interview with Decca Aitkenhead for The Guardian, RuPaul was asked whether he would allow a biological woman to compete on the show. He responded, “Drag loses its sense of danger and irony once it’s not men doing it, because at its core it’s a social statement and a big ‘F-you’ to male-dominated culture. So for men to do it, it’s really punk rock, because it’s a real rejection of masculinity.” RuPaul is essentially arguing that men doing drag is gender-seditious, while women doing drag is gender-conforming. Men should not only have the birth right of irony and parody when it comes to gender identity. It is inherently misogynistic to suggest that only men can explore and critique patriarchal gender roles – the patriarchal gender roles that dictate the way women can express themselves. Additionally, a whole other dimension to the world of drag that is being ignored are drag kings – with RuPaul’s Drag Race gifting drag queens with the visibility they deserve, the same recognition needs to be given to drag kings on a global scale if RuPaul wants drag to reach the masses and be a true “’F-you’ to male-dominated culture.” In an interview with Jezebel, Goldie Peacock, a Brooklyn drag king, says, “We certainly have a lot more legwork to do in terms of telling people that [drag kings] exist and what we are, just because we don’t have a reality TV show that already tells people that.”
In the same interview for The Guardian, Aitkenhead eulogises RuPaul’s persistence in “staying abreast of subcultural developments and finding a way to embrace even those he finds confronting.” Yet, literally just prior to this when asked if he would accept trans contestants on the show, he can be quoted saying, “Probably not. You can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body...it changes the whole concept of what we’re doing...”
This is entirely contradictory and ill-informed as there are a multitude of definitions for what it means to be trans. Being trans is not exclusively about the physical transition, so to deny trans people access to Drag Race on these grounds is hugely trans-misogynistic. Furthermore, his comments ignore the thousands of trans women that have impacted drag culture massively: Hungry is a trans drag performer who has built a large following on social media for her outlandish looks that take inspiration from Björk. For performers like Hungry, drag provides a space in which exploring their gender identity is safer and legitimised. By telling these performers that they cannot compete on Drag Race, RuPaul – a pioneer for freedom of expression – is essentially telling trans drag queens that their drag is invalid.
It cannot go unsaid that RuPaul’s Drag Race is beginning to open its doors to trans contestants: in its ninth season, the show introduced its first openly-trans contestant, Peppermint. Her inclusion on the season was sold as revolutionary, but, arguably, she was used in a tokenistic way, only there to make the show look trans-inclusionary. At the time of her appearance on the show, Peppermint had not undergone any physical operations – this barely made her eligible. Yet, male-identifying contestants such as Detox – who appeared on the show’s fifth season – and Trinity Taylor – who joined Peppermint on season nine – who have received a plethora of different body-enhancing treatments, such as silicone implants, were accepted onto the show without question. For example, during Detox’s season, she lists that she has received plastic surgery for her ‘ass, hips, cheekbones, pecs, jawline, brow bone...everything except [her] nose, [her] kneecaps and [her] big toe.’ There is nothing wrong with having these treatments, but this undeniably underlines a gender-conformist view in RuPaul as if excluding trans drag queens were to do with the body enhancements, there are many male-identifying drag queens that have competed in the past that according to that logic – shouldn't have.
Finally, this article would be incomplete without mentioning the fandom that Drag Race has accumulated over time. In every season of the show, there will be at least one queen that fits the ‘fish’ category; a ‘fish’, in drag terminology, refers to a drag queen that greatly resembles a biological woman. On the show, the queens that fit the gender-binary mould the best tend to receive the most support from the fans – for example, during the show’s seventh season, queens such as Pearl and Katya that fit Angela McRobbie’s archetypal slim blonde female amassed millions of social media followers and post-show gig sell-outs, while talents such as Ginger Minj and Tempest DuJour from the same season receive nowhere near the same level of love, despite the diversity Drag Race markets itself heavily on social media now, so they promote the queens that look good – this is deducting from the primary principle of drag, which in RuPaul’s words is supposed to be ‘a big F-you to male-dominated culture.’ But yet again, he is contributing to this. The show’s influence on social media has created an expectation amongst fans that a queen must be wearing nails, must have pretty make-up and must be in heels to be a good drag queen. This parallels the patriarchal view in society that this is how a biological woman must present herself in order to warrant any kind of respect.
While there are certainly issues with RuPaul’s Drag Race, it should in no way subtract from the outstanding impact it has had on mainstream culture. Look at Paris is Burning, for example – this documentary is a sensitive exploration of the ball culture of New York City in the 1990s, even being nominated for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2016 for being “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant.” Paris is Burning chronicles the lives of artists from all walks of life, including drag legend Pepper LaBeija, and the film still received criticism from feminist author bell hooks that it perpetuates the idea that white femininity is the ‘right’ gender expression to aspire to. Ultimately, RuPaul’s Drag Race is still a TV show following the lives of people that have historically been ostracised from society, offering them a platform to showcase their individual art. For a show that is so male-dominated, it still receives an overwhelming reaction from women who say that the confidence exhibited by the drag queens on the main stage has translated into their lives, giving them a similar rush of confidence. The problem is not the competitors, but the institution that the show has evolved into; RuPaul has built a marketable image for the show which is the shock of a male-to-female illusion (often joking that him and his contestants are just “men in dresses”). This definition of drag is heavily restrictive, and, again, ignores the contribution that trans artists have made to the art of drag and can continue to make if they are welcomed onto Drag Race.