Life in Drag: Examining the Gender Myth Through RuPaul’s Drag Race
RuPaul famously reminds her twitter followers that “you’re born naked and the rest is drag.” But, perhaps there is more truth than humor in her statement. Heteronormativity and societal gender roles create a strict binary along which men, women, and those who identify as neither, tip toe around from the time they begin to conceptualize gender at a young age. Societal definitions of masculinity and femininity naturalize gender and project it as a rigid component of one’s identity. However, philosophical and sociological theories render gender a social construct and position gender roles as socially conceived behavior. Judith Butler, in Gender Trouble, describes gender as “an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts,” the effect of which is produced through one’s stylization of one’s body (Butler 179). RuPaul’s Drag Race reinforces the notion of gender as a construct through drag queens that give hyperbolic and exaggerated performances of femininity. The queens provide the ultimate gender performance to “enact and reveal the performativity of gender itself in a way that destabilizes the naturalized categories of identity and desire” (Butler 177). Thus, RuPaul’s Drag Race challenges the authenticity of gender as an absolute, fixed trait of one’s identity and portrays it as something to be imagined and performed.
Gender categorizations generally relate to the way one talks, dresses, walks, and so forth. Thus, RuPaul’s Drag Race uses drag to revolutionarily deconstruct such categories and dismiss gender normalties. In each challenge and task given to the contestants, the drag queens competing in the show must change and adapt to different contexts. Vital to their femininity is a malleability and fluidity that allows them to retract or project a different female character for each challenge. That fluidity is reinstated by the manner in which the queens separate their day-to-day personas from those they perform on stage. RuPaul uses interchangeable pronouns to regard the queens, often calling them “gentlemen” and “ladies” in the same breath. This linguistic characterization of the queens rejects any assertion that gender must remain a stagnant component of one’s identity. In episode eleven of season six, “Glitter Ball”, the competitors refer to each other using female pronouns like “she” and nouns like “girl” before they dress up as their drag characters. In referencing one another through a feminine lens, while outwardly dressed as men, the queens prove that the constraints of one’s gender association need not correlate with their perceived external gender performance. More so, they iterate the notion of gender as a fluid and changeable component of one’s identity, a component not integrated with one’s sexual anatomy or identity. Consequently, the concept of drag is often unpalatable to heteronormative audiences who conflate sexual anatomy with gender. Judith Butler addresses this when she explains the distinction between the performed gender and the anatomy of the performer as “three contingent dimensions of significant corporeality: anatomical sex, gender identity, and gender performance”(Butler 175). She further explains the resulting dissonance between sex and performance, sex and gender, and gender and performance that arises when the anatomy of the performer is already distinct from the gender of the performance (Butler 175). So, when RuPaul dawns a wig but keeps her penis, she reveals “the distinctness of those aspects of gendered experience which are falsely naturalized as a unity through the regulatory fiction of heterosexual coherence” (Butler 175).
In accordance with the notion of femininity as a performance and versatile aspect, and not the entirety, of one’s identity, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and drag culture in general, reinforces the difference between being a woman and being feminine and, in its own distinct manner, highlights the difference between embodiment and performance. Jordan Stein, in “You Better Work; or How to Tell Friends from Faux: On RuPaul’s Drag Race,” defines this difference as the idea that “regardless of the body with which one is born…one could enact the conventions of masculinity or femininity.” This idea rests the importance of gender on external actions and outward performances. Likewise, Judith Butler asserts that “gender…can never be fully internalized; the internal is a surface signification, and gender norms are finally phantasmic [and] impossible to embody” (Butler 179). The whole idea of such fluidity and, more so, choice in how one chooses to externally position one’s self on the gender spectrum is essential to the underlying framework of drag culture and the tasks and challenges presented in RuPaul’s Drag Race.
If, as Judith Butler posits, “cultural values emerge as the result of an inscription of the body, understood as a medium,” RuPaul’s drag queens utilize their bodies and manipulate them as their medium of choice to challenge societal mandates of femininity (Butler 166). The queens regularly add padding, makeup, and self-enhancements to perform a specific characterization of exaggerated womanhood. They redraw their eyebrows and accentuate their lips to achieve a particular state of femininity, one that they define on their own terms. What is interesting, however, is the variation in the stylization that they all ultimately employ. While Bob the Drag Queen from season eight may choose to employ a more minimalist look, Naomi from the same season chooses to portray a more glamorous persona. Even still, the identity they choose to portray is no less a part of them than their redrawn eyebrows. For, as Stein points out, many cisgendered women alter their appearances as well to achieve a certain portrayal of femininity. It seems that RuPaul, perhaps inadvertently, drew this parallel between the drag woman ‘s experience and that of cisgendered women when he tasked the queens with the challenge of emulating and portraying their mothers in episode eight of season eight.
Drag walks the fine line of embracement versus parody and does so in a way that reappropriates the stigma gay men often face in reaction to their performances of femininity. The queens are often tasked with overtop challenges that somewhat parallel to the task of performing a palatable depiction of the female narrative. More so, these acts are repeated weekly and seasonally, as goes the cyclical nature of reality television. RuPaul’s Drag Race’s cyclical nature projects gender as an act, a performance to be repeated and ritualized. “This repetition is at once a reenactment and re-experiencing of a set of meanings already socially established; and it is the…form of their legitimation” (Butler 178).
Another noteworthy component of RuPaul’s Drag Race is the visibility that comes with such repetition. The rigidity of societal gender roles may be likened to the panoptic surveillance described in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. The manner in which societal ideals of masculinity and femininity mentally imprison men and women mirrors the Panopticon, a symbol of the disciplinary society of surveillance, one that encages individuals through the trap of visibility. For, “in the context of prisoners…the strategy has been…to compel their bodies to signify the prohibitive law as their very essence, style, and necessity” (Butler 171). It is for this reason, trans men and trans women experience hate crimes at an alarming rate, and it is for this reason many countries outlaw homosexuality as a punishable offense. RuPaul’s Drag Race flips the script and challenges the repression, inferiority, and shame that comes with the dismissal of gender roles and channels that into outlandish performances filled with humor and passion, and most importantly choice. Each queen comes to the show with her own identity and while some rely more heavily on glamour, and some on comedy, all queens share the same push to reject external characterizations and exert their own definitions of themselves and who they are.
The impact of a show that does not focus so much on gender authenticity and reinforce the constraints that box both men women into a particular reality, is liberation. As Stein iterates, “to spare authenticity is not to avoid authentic liberation, authentic feminism, and authentic performances of women’s agency.” Drag performance allows vital room for a discourse of femininity, one that continuously strips away at societal conventions and mandates of what true womanhood is. The end goal of RuPaul’s Drag Race is not a mere model for aspirational femininity. In fact, we see this when season eight’s Derek is critiqued for forming his drag identity as an exact replication of Britney Spears. Drag culture is one that surpasses imitation and reality; it is a category of its own, fixated in the crevice of society that allows a freedom from norms and inflexible expectations. Drag “moves the conception of gender off the ground as a substantial model of identity to one that requires a conception of gender as [a] social temporality” (Butler 179). It is what Stein frames as a “performance of hyperbole, of attenuated glamour and dramatic display” that can be constructed to fit any way one wishes to frame one’s self. Ultimately, RuPaul’s drag race aims to promote self-love and self-acceptance that does not rely on societal prescriptions.
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Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge, 1999. 162-91. Print.
Murray, Nick, dir. "Glitter Ball." RuPaul's Drag Race. Logo TV. 28 Apr. 2014. Television.
Murray, Nick, dir. "RuPaul's Book Ball." RuPaul's Drag Race. Logo TV. 25 Apr. 2016. Television.
Stein, Jordan A. "You Better Work; Or, How to Tell Friends from Faux: On "RuPaul's Drag Race"." Los Angeles Review of Books (n.d.): n. pag. 28 Jan. 2013. Web.