Pop Culture Ru-Wind

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Words || Lydia Jupp

Imagine if America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway were the same show, add a healthy splash of Drag Queens and you’ve got RUPAUL’S DRAG RACE (RPDR). What started as a group of Drag Queens fighting for the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar and the approval of the host – RuPaul, probably the most famous Drag Queen to date – has bubbled over into more than 100 Queens having their time on the main stage, three spin off shows, and multiple annual drag conventions. With its tenth and most recent season finding its home on VH1, DRAG RACE has virtually become synonymous with mainstream Queer culture.

DRAG RACE sees a group of insanely talented, charming, and hilarious people putting together out of this world looks in amongst witheringly honest confessionals, challenges, inside jokes, and bouts of impromptu singing. However, perhaps the greatest part of all of this is that the people you see on the screen are unabashedly and unashamedly Queer, and that RPDR is first and foremost a consistent celebration of Queer art, expression, music, bodies and friendship. For many Queer people RPDR offers an opportunity to spend an hour engaging with someone like them, and for others it may be the only chance they have to experience Queer culture.

More than Rupaul’s Best Friend Race

Well, Tamar, if you’ve ever watched the show, you’d know that DRAG RACE goes well beyond a reality competition and has used its platform to explore the dark moments of Queer culture and the Queer individuals on the show. In the course of the show, Queens have tearfully discussed eating disorders, HIV+ statuses, drug and alcohol abuse, and sexual assault. We have seen in depth conversations within Season 10 of the effects of religious conversion therapy on Dusty Ray Bottoms. In Season 9 the Queens discussed the recent Orlando massacre and the loss of members of their community. We’ve even seen Kim Chi discuss the difficulty in addressing her queerness and involvement in dag with her conservative Korean family.

The Queer community often places emphasis on the family you choose for yourself. This extends into DRAG RACE as the contestants rally around their fellow Queens, supporting them whenever required. DRAG RACE presents its audience with authentic Queer representation; it gives people a chance to see Queer individuals as shades of pigment rather than blocks of colour. We are happy, lonely, confident, fucked up, exhausted, weird, multitude containing characters like every other human being on this planet.

Not just ‘Men in Wigs’

That being said, DRAG RACE is not a completely pure world, void of all trouble. It has a few problems, one of the biggest ones being RuPual himself. The veteran Queen went on record earlier this year saying that he wouldn’t allow a trans woman, who had started transitioning to compete in the show, saying that he believes it would give them an unfair advantage. Further tweeting that “You can take performance enhancing drugs and still be an athlete, just not in the Olympics.” Peppermint, a trans Queen who shared that she was transitioning during the filming of Season 9, claimed during her guest spot on the podcast, NANCY, that RuPaul told her she would never get another gig if she continued to transition. Despite this statement, Peppermint has gone on to have a successful drag career, and begin a broadway show while transitioning. What becomes apparent here is that Rupaul’s famous phrase that “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag” clearly doesn’t apply to trans women in Rupaul’s eyes.

The phrase itself calls upon Judith Butler’s theory that gender is a performance that each of us acts out every day: the clothes we wear, the people we talk to, even in the way we use our words.’ Everyday gender is as much of a performance as traditional drag is, and the fact that Rupaul wants to exclude trans women from this is rubbish. Although later apologising on Twitter, citing that he was learning from his community everyday, it is interesting to note that RuPaul was born into the world of drag through New York’s ballroom scene, and is excelling in a field virtually created by trans women. For him to profit off their labour only to exclude them is hypocrisy in its finest.

Don’t Poke the Bear

In light of The Vixen, whose drag performances address the intersectionalities and politics of being a Queer person of colour, race is once again emerging as a bigger issue discussed on the show and amongst its viewers. Following arguments with Eureka and Aquaria, two caucasian Queens of the most recent season, The Vixen was undeniably painted as the villain of the season and a continuation of the angry black woman narrative. This tension is justifiably a result of the resentment The Vixen felt towards those Queens. With fellow Queen of colour, Asia O’Hara, concisely identifying the core of the issue being that “every time in her life she’s had to take a back seat to someone that has more privilege than her. All of that anger has been bottled up in her and [she is] channelling it at Eureka.”  Is The Vixen handling it the wrong way? Yes. Do I understand where The Vixen is coming from? Absolutely.

In the reunion episode of Season 10, RuPaul waited all of 10 minutes before asking The Vixen why she reacted with such hostility in her interactions with white Queens, failing to address the bigger issue at play: that white Queens, Eureka especially, were using their whiteness to paint themselves as the innocent Queen who simply made mistakes, while The Vixen was the angry black villain of the season. Rather than ask Eureka or Aquaria why they behaved that way towards The Vixen, RuPaul asked why The Vixen got angry while standing up for herself. The Vixen pointed out, “everybody’s telling me how I should react but nobody’s telling her how to act.” The reunion culminated in The Vixen doing what people had been telling her to do all season, standing up and leaving the interaction rather than causing a fight.

Perhaps what is worse Asia’s attempt to stand up for her friend by asking RuPaul why she hadn’t intervened. RuPaul lost her usually calm demeanour and shouted “look at me, damn it, I come from the same place she does!” It became apparent that in order to bring DRAG RACE up to the standards it claims it meets, RuPaul needs to engage in discussion about the nuances of race today, rather than those of the 90’s. RuPaul is not as radical as he once was, but who can blame him? He’s found comfort and popularity in not being as vocal in addressing the racial issues of drag and queerness, and to do so would be making himself look difficult or hostile – just as The Vixen appears on his show.

Has Rupaul’s Drag Race F*cked Up Drag?

The consequences of the lack of discussions such as these reproduce themselves outside of the main stage, particularly in a social media driven world. The Queens with the most following on social media – Trixie Mattel, Sasha Velour, Alaska Thunderfuck – are all caucasian, and have found even more success than the Queens of colour who have been around for most of the time DRAG RACE has been on air, such as Shangela. Fans of the show have doled out racial slurs and death threats via every known form of social media to black Queens, especially after they’ve eliminated a fan favourite, such as Kennedy Davenport with Katya on Season 7 and Nina Bonina Brown and Valentina on Season 9. Recently Asia O’Hara, finalist of the 10th season of the show, noted that someone had threatened to burn her for being black, highlighting not only the racism apparent on social media but triggering a traumatic experience from when she was 11, and a group of boys attempted to light her on fire.

It almost seems as if no Queens are safe from online or social media based abuse, with Eureka, the self-proclaimed elephant Queen receiving a myriad of hatred online for “focusing on her status as the big girl” and promoting unhealthy eating habits: an ideological continuation of the fatphobia within Queer communities and the importance of a body positive message.

At face value, DRAG RACE is a beautiful community of people who find shared joy and family in the talents of Queer artists, but some of that community tongue popping and oh honey-ing are the same people who feel justified to send death threats to Queens of colour simply for excelling in their field, or shaming the Queens for their weight. Until DRAG RACE addresses the problems, I don’t know if I can call them my family anymore.

But everybody say love, right?