The Politics of (Drag) Dancing: RuPaul’s Girls Go Mainstream

On Drag In Public

 

“It’s not personal; it’s drag.”

– Ms. Alyssa Edwards

 

“I get my makeup tips from RuPaul,” says Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the current matriarch of Baltimore, Maryland. “I watch his ‘Drag Race’ show in freeze frame so I can get good tips.”

When the mayor of a major U.S. City can share such easy-breezy chit-chat about RuPaul in the lifestyle section of the Sunday paper, you know something’s gone mainstream. In this case, it’s drag.

Drag goes back…way back. As a mainstay of Western theater since the 1600s,  prior to that, drag performativity appeared in religious and indigenous tribal cultures worldwide, since before we began thinking of drag in as we know it.

The word “drag,” once shortened stage directions for “dress resembling a girl,” (thanks, Shakespeare!) has in our lifetime transitioned from taboo to “fabu.” Since it was illegal for females to perform in historical productions, guys were forced to work in drag (just imagine their absolute creative freedom and luck!).

As for the words “drag queen,” those first appeared in print in 1941. Yet even then, drag queens weren’t akin to LGBT royalty, and the phrase had a much more pejorative, dismissive ring to it.

In our very recent history, doing drag and being a drag queen was anything but trendy. Gay men and transgender people rejected drag artists, feeling drag performers prompted too much attention toward LGBTQ folks who were trying hard to assimilate—much tin he same way we see butch lesbians and so-called “radical feminists” rejecting transgender individuals, tethered to the idea of cultural “scarcity,” and perpetuating the very fears they seek to squash.

Embracing drag is still relatively new, overall. Now, drag’s less of Maury Povich or Springer “otherness” experience, and more of an ANTM “teach me glamour” experience.

It’s happened gradually enough…as typically occurs on meeting drag queen royalty, first folks are shocked or disgusted, then they react strongly (positive or negative), then comes amusement, then finally, a combination of enchantment, deification and acceptance. All the while, these reactions weigh in on a wide spectrum of attraction. These artists are gorgeous, and even in “skag drag,” our culture is attracted to difference, yet hard-pressed to admit it.

Moving from hated to elated, the renowned drag artist RuPaul, had a similar popularity trajectory.

RuPaul wasn’t the first drag queen to rise to prominence (see: Sylvester, Warhol’s featured Factory drag queens, Divine, Lady Bunny, Miss Coco Peru, and many others). But, RuPaul was the first Drag Queen/Supermodel Glamazon to cross over. No one does drag quite like him, keeping it classy, enjoying multimedia international exposure, and educating as much as he entertains. He has yet to be displaced or overthrown.

While longtime drag queen artists such as The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have been the most activism-driven queens, drag has long been an underground “phenom,” and has continued to influence and drive culture from the margins.

Drag royalty such as Chad Michaels and myriad impersonators doing Cher, Barbra, Liza, Diana and the like used to make most of their money in Vegas or resorts, in private shows for select celebs, or in underground or lower-profile LGBT clubs and bars.

Drag queen acceptance has finally become a part of our lexicon, with more and more Hollywood stars from Sally Jesse Raphael to anyone who’s made guest appearances on RuPaul’s various shows since the 90s continually co-signing, legitimizing drag in the mainstream.

We see this on a daily basis as Vanessa Williams and Solange Knowles light up their Twitter accounts, “Yes Miss Thing!’ing up the Internet and snagging queens to do their makeup for them. All the while, if Amanda Bynes even tries it with an anti-drag ding or a diss, her vitriol is shut down “with a quickness.”

So okay, UK Royals, you can have your royal baby. That’s all fine and well. We’ll keep our drag queen royalty and crown them happily—thanks ever so much.

Make Dat Money: Drag Is An Art And A Job

 “Scam money don’t make money, but freak money do.”

re:  “RT @LionsInMyHead: how do I make quick money Ru?”

– RuPaul’s recent tweet

 

Yes. Drag is popular entertainment, no doubt. Dressing up in drag is still, however, an entirely political act, onstage and off.

Queens such as Mykki Blanco, Heidi Glum and countless others continue to expose the horrible ritual of “drag-fag” bashing that’s still all too customary.

Though drag is often performed for laughs, drag changes lives. RuPaul’s Drag Race alone does indeed change the life course of formerly underground performers who might have have had very different realities. Though non-Drag Race performers have complained that RuPaul’s girls demand more money and steal their jobs, Drag Race’s popularity increases the value of drag art in general. If you’re listening closely, RuPaul continues to advise all drag performers to take advantage of this open door while it’s still open, warning us that the tides could change at any time, and likely will change.

Massive props are due to RuPaul, the ultimate drag mother, as before he created his “RuPaul’s Drag Race” empire and spinoffs (“Drag U,” “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars,” “Untucked,”), he insisted that all the girls on his show would never be the overall the butt of the joke for the program. Even his sisterly contemporary Lady Bunny said reality show producers approached her, forcing her drag sisters to be more bitchy and awful to one another than they would be in real life. (http://www.tgforum.com/wordpress/index.php/tvocalizers-lady-bunny)

RuPaul’s Story

As an actor, renowned drag queen, model, author, and recording artist, RuPaul rose to the ranks in the early 1990s as one of the first major drag queens to appear on mainstream TV and in movies, nabbing a major label deal with Tommy Boy Records. His chart-topping single “Supermodel of the World” just celebrated its 20th anniversary.

RuPaul’s career began where many queens’ careers remain: in underground clubs, gigging from town to town, not knowing where the next bit of money would come from. Though RuPaul jokes about tricking on a regular basis (he doesn’t profess this was his reality), sex work is common for many queens trying to pay the bills between gigs.

Not Just Cat Fights: Sisterly Drag Controversy

“You can call me he. You can call me she. You can call me Regis and Kathie Lee; I don’t care! Just as long as you call me.” – RuPaul

Despite the ease and fluidity with which RuPaul moves back and forth between appearances in and out of drag, rigidity in drag community still exists. There’s still a solid line of demarcation between drag performers and transgender or transgender-appearing individuals.

Publicly, RuPaul continues to make it crystal clear: he does drag for money, not for kicks, not for getting off. Traditionally, drag queens have staved off extended scrutiny or harassment with this through-line whether or not it’s true for them in private. Contemporary queens break even those taboos, playing with kai-kai (drag queen on drag queen) sexual role play much more (see: “Let’s have A Kai Kai” video). Even if such gender play’s done for titillation’s sake, it forces us examine and get rid of discriminatory ideology that makes little sense. It forces us to find drag queens doubly sexy.

Drag culture saw to blooming in the 70s, but it was much more exoticized. Though RuPaul himself began with a “genderfuck” aesthetic (playing with gender assumptions), his drag evolved into glam-specific artistry, and he demands that his drag mentees follow suit.

Genderfuck artists rarely make the cut as RuPaul’s Drag Race winners. (Winner Raja Gemini is an extremely high-glam model, hence was able to win with genderfuck presentation in tow).

Such glam-only strictness is a blessing and a curse in terms of drag performance. It took many years for drag queens to begin to accept transgender folks into the fold, since there’s a stigma surrounding doing drag for pleasure, rather than just for money, let alone even having sex in drag, or wanting to present as a woman. Thus, even in community, there’s a clinging to a “sissy for pay only” mythology. So even effeminate gay men cling to the elusive myth of butch superiority.

The issue here is not whether or not drag artists derive pleasure from the act, but has to do with defensiveness around it, not wanting to be confused with cross-dressers who are generally (at least in terms of the psychology field) straight men.

Drag performers themselves are still slowly warming up to the idea that there are trans performers among them—performers who are becoming more and more fearless about coming out as trans.

Regardless of the inner workings of drag art and commerce,  drag’s here to stay.

You’ll find a list below of some of the RuPaul’s queens (and others, non-affiliated) who have hit the big-time, including early drag queen forerunners enjoying newfound popularity.

Drag Queens Redux – New Royalty and Real-Life Residuals:

* Tyra Sanchez – Featured appearance, Spiritualized’s “Hey Jane” video

* Raven – Featured appearance in MDNR’s “Feed Me Diamonds” video

* Continued mainstream TV and film guest spots with Willam [spelling is correct, “Willam”] and Shangela

*Sharon Needles’ music collaboration with Ana Matronic (Scissor Sisters)

*Jinkx Monsoon’s off-Broadway success (“Hedwig,” “The Vaudevillians,” and more)

*Carmen Carerra’s trans-consciosuness raising appearances on “Cake Boss” and “What Would You Do?”

*Coco Montrese – Guest judge, “Toddlers and Tiaras”

*Alyssa Edwards’ new production deal (RuPaul producing)

*Latrice Royale’s redemptive story (escaping history of jail time, enduring popularity in spite of her confessed past)

*Newfound popularity for artists (many who are no longer with us) like Divine, Sylvester, Candy Darling, the “Paris Is Burning” cast,“Wigstock” the movie, Drag City DC

*Drag performers joining cisgender female trophy girls at awards shows for MTV,  Logo TV

*A brand new Battle of the Seasons U.S. Tour starring past Drag Race winners

*Popularity of YouTube celeb franchises like “Sh*t Girls Say,” Chris Crocker,” Gregory Gorgeous

*Celebrities like Jared Leto and James Franco, rocking cover spreads in drag to little or no controversy

*Continued drag inclusivity and exposure in international art exhibits, Vogue magazine cover shoots, music productions, mainstream art/fashion photography and so much more.

Now, there are even “spinoffs of the spinoffs” on YouTube, including popular drag webcasters CMaddoxBitch and the Throwinshade girls.

The list goes on and on: you would think these appearances are low rent. You’d be wrong: earning legit, non-club gig coin means these performers (including YouTubers) enjoy residuals, more mainstream attention, and a wider opportunity for promotion and distribution (read: income).

The biggest weave snatch of all has to do with RuPaul, informing people in all media outlets possible, all about the many Hollywood actresses (and yes, actors) who glue, tuck, primp, make up and doll up more than you’d ever know. The entertainment industry has always cashed in on selling dreams and creating illusions.

That’s why, even when it seems like it, the art of drag ain’t just no joke.

Don’t get it twisted: just like CMaddoxBitch says, the real winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race, every single year, is RuPaul.

Have you ever dressed in drag yourself—you kings and queens, you? Why…or why not?

2 thoughts on “The Politics of (Drag) Dancing: RuPaul’s Girls Go Mainstream

  • August 16, 2013 at 5:13 pm
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    So glad you gave The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence a shout-out! We are #Dragtivists!

    Reply
  • August 16, 2013 at 5:41 pm
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    As a huge fan, all I can say is that I’m so very proud of all of them. They are all inspiring in unique and dynamic ways. Power to the Queens who make the world a more interesting place by a long site.

    Reply

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