Professor Monique Tschofen
7 April 2018
The Art of Drag
Entertainment has always been created in order to let the viewer escape. It diverts the attention from individuals demanding lives. This has allowed people to use it as an outlet for a variety of different reasons. Most societies are not use to seeing entertainment that critiques the societal norms around them. In the LGBTQ community the need for a voice to disrupt heteronormative ideals became very important. I will ask how the show Ru Paul’s Drag Race combats traditional heteronormative ideals which shows how gender is performed. This show is essentially a critique of mainstream ideals that everyone is expected to perform every day.
For a variety of reasons drag has been considered to be controversial. Those that are not in the LGBTQ community usually do not understand its purpose. As they question as to why someone would dress in the opposite sex. Transgender people are not considered to be in drag, as drag is a performance that is made for entertaining. It is a persona that may be different that the individual normally identifies with. “Not all drag performers are gay (or straight) men creating female personas. Some are transsexual women, born with male bodies” (Daems, 16). Transgender people are able to perform drag whether it is the opposite sex in which one identifies with. One of the key aspects in distinguishing a drag queen is that they do not try to blend in and fit into the gender norms as most transgender people do. For example, a drag queen is a female persona, in which most of the times are dramatic and the goal is to look exaggerated. The goal is not to blend in and look like a regular woman. This is also done through costume as it partakes in aspects of Hollywood starlets. This also applies to drag kings, which are male personas. The make-up, hair, clothes, and attitude would be based on beauty ideals but also not to the extent in which it is subtle. Lady Gaga has said she experiences with drag as at time she did not want to be herself. One can see that the extent of the costumes in drag are similar to the theatrical one’s Gaga wears. This definition is confusing to most as many believe that you have to be a gay man in order to consider yourself a drag queen. The goal of drag for those partaking in it is to disengage with your identity and take on another one. The goal is to be over the top. This is done through a transformation of personality, language and appearance. Although drag is can be done by anyone, it has a strong history in the LGBTQ community.
A voice that interrupted the heteronormative expectations that oppressed and shamed these people was needed in the LGBTQ community. Drag queens symbolized the disruption of these ideals. This made drag an important part of this subculture. “Historians have noted, drag queens and ‘street queens’ participated actively in the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion in New drag queens have played a headlining role in pride parades” (Hillman, 155). Making this persona a key component in rebelling against heterosexual norms. “Both drag queens and drag kings embody resistance to the gender structure and heteronormativity” (Rupp, Verta, & Shapiro, 278). The reason this community needed to break the barriers in terms of heterosexual norms was because many people in the LGBTQ did not exactly fit into the binary of either feminine or masculine. Some were androgynous, where some women were masculine, as well as some men were feminine. Heterosexual norms shamed and oppressed these people for not fitting into the idea of how a man should act, and how a woman should act or be. Gay cultural persons in the twentieth century such as the effeminate man known as the “fairy” and butch lesbian in the 1950s, created images of gender a key component of homosexual identity (Hillman, 156). Gender is something that cannot be put into a box. As it is something that can be hard to stay true too as there is no absolute gender. The LGBTQ community was one of the biggest groups that knew this. Gender is something that in constructed and performed. As seen in many cultures across the globe. These gender- bending styles may have been liberating for gay activists, spurring a broader questioning of gender and sexual roles (Hillman, 157). Some may think that drag queens main purpose was for entertainment, and although this is an important aspect of this persona. It also has a political message behind it; which was to question these gender roles. Some also view drag queens as controversial and radical, as they see it as a mockery of women. But in fact, they are not mocking women but rather the system that states what is appropriate to act as one. Others also feel as though these glamorized the gay experience as a fun one, which is misleading from the truth. “Liberationists appropriated drag as a symbolic statement against gender norms, others saw drag as exacerbating stereotypes of “effeminate” homosexual men (Hillman, 159). To which only those who do not fully understand the history of this community, and the marginalization that it has gone through will think so. If you overlook the message of the drag queen’s importance it is easy to think all drag queens are gay men. But the purpose is to question the idea in which it means to be a man or women. As the heterosexual community was oppressing anyone who didn’t fit into the gender binary. Many academics have established that gender is a social construction that has changed over time. Which is why Ru Paul’s Drag Race is important, as it gives this liminal identity a platform and voice.
Ru Paul’s Drag Race is a contest in which drag queens are able to compete for the title of becoming Americas drag superstar and win $100,000. This is done through challenges, and whoever is bottom two has to “lip sing for their life.” The judges on the panel including Ru Paul get to choose who will continue in the competition. Being on the show already drastically changes the contestants lives as they become LGBTQ famous. As they are able to tour the world and perform in gay neighborhoods around the world. Many receive hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram and twitter. The craftsmanship in drag takes a lot of talent. As the queens are expected to sew and create a variety of different costumes that are original and polished. Meaning paying attention to detail. What is also interesting to note is that most drag queens will have a persona they would like to stay true to. Such as the drag queen Valentina likes to perform drag with a Latina flare, as she feels her culture is underrepresented. Many other genres of drag queens also are seen, there is pageant queens, artsy queens, comedy queens etc. All in which go through the challenges with their own take.
Ru Paul’s Drag Race is subverting our ideas of mainstream TV, as the show was based of Tyra Bank’s Americas Next Top Model. Although it is can be seen as a parody of it, it deals with a variety of important political and social issues. As the show disrupts the social expectations that society has for gender ideals. The show breaks barriers in a number of ways. It challenges the heteronormative ideals that one is socialized every day. But it also lets you into each person’s journey of being homosexual or transgender. The way that this show disrupts these heteronormative ideals is RuPaul’s Drag Race presents both the male bodies and female personas. It does this through, costume, performance, mannerisms and language as it mocks, disrupts and challenges these heteronormative ideals. Before every challenge Ru Paul will say “Gentlemen, start your engines, and may the best woman win!” Using both gender binaries in the same sentence which in a sense creates a political statement. This is another way in which the show critiques heterosexual norms. The contestant’s comments to the camera are usually done out of drag. “This results in visual and discursive tension and underscores the dual gender personas of many drag performers” (Daems, 15). Allowing the viewer to compare before and after comparisons of the drag queens in both genders.
The drag queens are almost never referred to as their male name, and always use their drag name. The drag queens also use female pronouns when they are in their drag form but will switch back to male pronouns when they are not. The other drag queens will also do this with each other. Although this seems confusing, after watching an episode of the show it is easy to follow. This is one of the many ways techniques that Ru Paul’s Drag Race critiques heteronormative ideals. As most users will question it, which can open the conversation on gender. It is also interesting to see how performing a male gender can easily be transformed into a female gender. This image from season nine of Ru Paul’s Drag Race shows one of the drag queens, Valentina, in one of the starting stages of transitioning. This is another technique the show subtlety uses that show you how gender is a construction as the contestants are able successfully represent both traditional genders.
This image shows Valentina with half shaved eyebrows. Drag queens do this in order to easily cover them, so that they are able to draw on more dramatic, feminine ones. This is usually done with glue as it flattens the eyebrow which is then concealed with makeup, and powder; to fully hide the eyebrow. Valentina also has a cap on her head which will allow her to wear a wig. Also showing the transition between genders. It is interesting to note that although Valentina in the begging stage of her drag there are certain aspects the viewer can relate to real identifying women. Such as many women with thinner eyebrows will fill them in. Although these concepts are different it connects that gender is performative.
In the image above, the viewer is now able to see a more androgynous figure. As Valentina has created her face to have more feminine features, with make-up and contouring. The viewer is now able to see a new figure emerge as her male eyebrows have been transformed into female eyebrows. Majority of drag queens also wear fake nails, or paint them, which adds to the detail that they are expected to embody. There are many layers of drag that have been added over the years. Such as the complexity of make-up and costuming. But the political message still remains intact.
In the finishing stage of drag, the viewer now sees the figure of Valentina the drag queen. As the viewer can see she looks nothing like her male persona. This shows that gender is performative, as a body is a blank canvas until it is spoken into a certain meaning. By this it shows that these male bodies are male because they were socialized into adopting the construction of a male gender. “What constitutes the limit of the body is never merely material, but that the surface, the skin, is systemically signified by taboos and anticipated transgressions; indeed, the boundaries of the body become, within her analysis, the limits of the social per se” (Butler, 179). As through make-up and hair some of the males can be unrecognizable as they transform into drag queens. Which leaves the viewer this the question and in awe as what it means to truly be a certain gender. Although there is a liminality about drag queens and they differ from those who identify as being a woman. It is important to note how the show critiques the truth of gender, as the Drag queens are able to transform themselves into a completely different persona. As stated, the show does this through a variety of aspect, language and visual images being one of the most important aspect in disrupting heteronormative expectations of gender.
The reason in which the show is so successful at this as because it has a variety of ways in which it entertains the viewer. In Laura Mulvey’s essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, she states how pleasure can get viewers to understand ideologies through pleasure. This can relate to drag show, as it disrupts the heteronormative ideals but does it in a pleasuring way. Emerging the viewer into aspects that are seen in many other common platforms. Drag as a variety of genres that relate to other popular entertainment fields. Such as fashion, reality TV, acting, and dance performances. Ru Paul drag race also embodies these aspects such as through the costumes, make up, personality, drama, creativity, and performance of the drag queens. These aspects allow for you the characters to have a full rounded representation of these personas. Allowing them to completely disassociate themselves from their male bodies and allowing the viewer to as well.
These entertainment genres have allowed the show to have ten seasons. It has also become bigger as many people that are not in the LGBTQ community are starting to watch it. The viewer forgets that there is a subtle social critique as this allows the viewer to adopt the new norms of these people. It allows for a breaking down of barriers throughout watching the show. It in a sense allows for a new way of the socialization of gender. This would be even more effective if it was on a larger network, as it would be able to reach a variety of demographics. Drag symbolizes the oppression and violence that the LGBTQ community has face, in spite were able to rebel in hope for showing the truth behind sexuality and gender.
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.
Daems, Jim. The Makeup of RuPaul’s Drag Race: Essays on the Queen of Reality shows. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2014.
“Drag Makeup Tutorial: Valentina’s Latina Glam | RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 9” | May 2017, YouTube. April 3rd, 2018
“Good Morning Bitches” Ru Paul’s Drag Race Season 9, March 2017, Netflix, N.p. March 31st, 2018.
Hillman, Betty Luther. “‘The Most Profoundly Revolutionary Act a Homosexual Can Engage in’: Drag and the Politics of Gender Presentation in the San Francisco Gay Liberation Movement, 1964–1972.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 20, no. 1, 2011, pp. 153–181. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40986358.
Hurley, Nat. “Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990).”ESC: English Studies in Canada, vol. 41, no. 4, 2015, pp. 15-15.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44.
Rupp, Leila J., Verta Taylor, and Eve I. Shapiro. “Drag Queens and Drag Kings: The Difference Gender Makes.” Sexualities, vol. 13, no. 3, 2010, pp. 275-294. http:// journals.sagepub.com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/doi/pdf/10.1177/1363460709352725