Drag Race, Gender, and Guilty Pleasure TV

Torinn Fennelly - April 16, 2017

I was lucky enough to attend a liberal, racially diverse high school that was primarily attended by people who identified as girls and served as somewhat of a safe haven for LGBTQ+ individuals. It was routine to hear even freshmen discussing issues of gender identity and sexuality over brown-bagged lunches. So, when I was sixteen and someone recommended that I watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, I was excited. As an avid fan of Cheaters and Jersey Shore, I was thrilled by the prospect of a campy, superficial reality show that still managed to align with my political values and discuss issues I was interested in.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed when I finally did watch the show. Instead of the cathartic, progressive reality show I’d hoped for, I found myself offended and confused. Drag Race seemed to be nothing more than an inflated version of Real Housewives — but in lieu of the endless series of birthday parties and charity dinners that serve as the backdrop for the women of Bravo to scream and throw fake legs at each other, there were crassly-named challenges (“Snatch Game”) and deliveries of “she-mail,” a now-defunct catchphrase of RuPaul’s (the term was dropped in 2015 after controversy about the fact that it is used as a slur aimed at transgender people). As for the queens— I’d expected characters and performances that would challenge societal expectations for women and provide a satire on the feminine experience in patriarchy. Instead, I found that the queens were mere caricatures of conventional femininity — all long lashes and pageant curls — hurling “bitch” and “whore” at one another. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I couldn’t get past my aggravation that not only did the queens reinforce patriarchal standards, they celebrated each other for adhering to them. To compliment each other on their femininity, the queens tell each other they look “fishy,” a term used to describe someone who “convincingly resembles a biological woman,” according to the RuPaul’s Drag Wiki, and refers to “the scent of a woman’s vagina, which is colloquial likened to the smell of fish.” I didn’t understand how people felt comfortable listening to this kind of essentialist, sexist language. It was infuriating to watch people, who live their lives as men, make fun of the beauty standards women feel they must abide by, employing language that has historically been used to silence and devalue women.

I tried talking to the people I knew who watched the show about the issues I had with it. No one seemed to understand where I was coming from. Women I knew who were ardent feminists fiercely loved the show and didn’t understand my discomfort. The most thoughtful response I received was that, for many gay men, drag is empowering. I understand this argument — for men who are criticized, humiliated, and killed for displaying feminine traits, it must seem like the ultimate rebellion to embrace and exaggerate those qualities. I also can’t ignore the fact that, for many people, especially young people, a show like Drag Race may be the only representation of queer people in the media they are exposed to. This is indicative of the lack of realistic narratives centered on queer people. There needs to be a larger push for mainstream stories that go beyond the typical, “coming out of the closet and immediately falling in love” trope that is so commonly displayed, on the rare occasion a queer person is featured in a film or TV show. Not only are these stories stale, but also in many ways, they only serve to further dehumanize queer people by reducing them to one attribute. It is necessary to generate narratives of characters who are complex, substantial, intelligent, and queer.

Even after acknowledging this, though, I still could not shake my issues with the show. I looked online to see if other people felt similarly and was surprised to find that, as of 2014, there was not a lot of accessible discussion about the sexism on the show or in drag culture. The tide is starting to change now, but even present critiques of the show still leave much to be desired — many articles end by absolving the show because RuPaul successfully brought gay culture into the mainstream. That is certainly a fear worthy of acknowledgment, but it does not excuse the show’s rampant sexism. It doesn’t help that RuPaul has been notoriously bad at receiving criticism. A 2014 episode of Drag Race featured a segment where contestants had to judge based off of pictures of body parts whether those photographed were “female” or “shemale.” The episode led many people to call out the show's transphobia, to which RuPaul replied, “I love the word tranny,” and claimed the network was responsible for the removal of phrases from the show. RuPaul has undoubtedly made progress for the LGBTQ+ community, but his understanding of gender is outdated and his refusal to stop using defamatory language is reprehensible. I think RuPaul views this issue as a matter of free speech, when it is really an issue of solidarity and respect. I understand the urge to say whatever you want, but there should be a greater rationale behind the language you use and the shows you present other than, “I don’t care that this makes other people uncomfortable, I like it.”

I was met with this same attitude when I pointed out the show’s blatant demonstrations of sexism and transphobia to people I know. I don't necessarily think it is wrong to watch this show or any other piece of media that does not completely align with your value system. Life would be empty if we renounced everything that was transphobic or supported the patriarchy, because these prejudices are so heavily ingrained in our society. However, I think the primary issue comes when people try to argue that a show like Drag Race is not sexist or transphobic. It does a disservice to the greater issue of equality to say that something is progressive when it is not. I love wearing makeup and going to frat parties, but I would be hard pressed to argue that either are feminist, since they both contribute to the idea that women are meant to cater to men.

Recently, one of my best friends pleaded me to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars 2 with him. All Stars has the same premise as Drag Race, except all the contestants have previously competed on the show. After my initial protests, I reluctantly agreed, hoping it would be an opportunity to better articulate my problems with the show. I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed it. I thought it was a lot of fun and I was excited to see what was going to happen each episode. Most of the contestants were funny and talented. I found the built-in relationships between all the contestants to be really compelling and their banter to be charming. I especially liked Katya Zamolodchikova, the Russian persona of Brian McCook who says things like, “I don’t jump for joy, I frolic in doubt.” I found Katya’s frank admissions about anxiety to be endearing and thought all of her work was genuinely challenging and artistic. Though McCook was obviously still pushing a caricature of womanhood, Katya felt like a compelling, human portrayal of a specific type of woman I recognized. Watching Katya reminded me of how I first felt when I saw one of my favorite movies, Tootsie. The women portrayed by McCook and Dustin Hoffman in the film are clearly meant to be performances of gender, rather than portrayals of the lived experiences, but they still feel genuine and seem to exist outside of the male gaze. Even though McCook and Hoffman are men masquerading as women, their work still seems to contribute to a larger, more varied representation of the feminine experience. How could that be a bad thing? I thought that, after All Stars, I had resolved my issues with drag.

In December, my friend asked me to go along with him to a drag show, starring some of the former queens of Drag Race. I agreed, figuring it would be a fun night out with my friend and that I would see performances similar to that of Katya’s work. Instead, I was only reminded of my former issues with drag. One queen came out and performed an alternative version of Santa’s Baby. In this version of the song, the singer is not flirting with Santa in hopes of finding her Christmas tree trimmed with Tiffany’s. She’s been date-raped by Santa and is now pregnant with his child. This was exactly the kind of drag that I had initially been so offended by — a scenario in which men profit from the negative, lived experiences of women and write it off as mere self-expression. Worse than the performance itself was the audience’s reaction to it. It was truly disheartening to see a community of predominately, supposedly progressive people laughing at such an insensitive performance that was so clearly rooted in misogyny.

After the show, I’d decided I was through with drag. I tried tuning into season 9 of RuPaul’s Drag Race — I tried to write a standard review of what many think is just another superficial reality show — but I couldn’t. When I watched the first episode of season 9, I was confronted, once again, with thirteen queens dolling out the same brand of catty drag that is so typical of the medium. Merely recapping the show isn’t anything you couldn’t read on Vulture and it certainly wouldn’t contribute to a larger discussion of the way gender is treated in our society and its various subcultures. It is rare for writers take up the task of criticizing the misogyny in drag and, though I think it is a discussion worth having, I understand why people shy away from it. It is somewhat controversial to critique drag and I would argue that this points to a more nuanced issue concerning the close alliance between feminists and the LGBTQ+ community. Feminists and the LGBTQ+ community both fight for equality for all people and many of the issues discussed by both communities pertain to sex and sexuality. However, shared causes should not equate to blind allegiance. So often discussions about the alliance between feminists and the LGBTQ+ community, particularly when it pertains to the relationships between women and gay men, devolve into a pissing contest about who is more oppressed. I would imagine it is difficult for men whose own oppression is rooted in misogyny to admit that they are complicit in maintaining patriarchy, just as it is difficult for straight women who believe they are progressive for having “gay best friends” to realize that they are using these men as accessories.

Carlos Fuentes, a well-known Mexican novelist and essayist, said that criticism is a form of optimism and I couldn’t agree more. It is hopeful to believe that things could be better, to fight for improvements. There needs to be an open dialogue between communities — a dialogue that does not consist of shaming people or abandoning allegiance and, instead, supports the greater promotion of equality. Now more than ever, it is important that we encourage each other, as well as check and double-check our own biases. There is so much division in our country, we must be willing to take constructive criticism into consideration and actively support each other.

Torinn Fennelly

Torinn Fennelly is a junior English major and Philadelphia native. In addition to writing for the Moviegoer, Torinn works at the Marks Family Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and is a staff member at the Penn Review. Torinn enjoys writing fiction, visiting museums, and watching Mad Men in her spare time. Some of her favorite filmmakers are Sofia Coppola, Steve McQueen, and Billy Wilder.