Okay, so this title may be slightly deceiving but I maintain there is some truth in it. Today, amidst writing out invoices, cleaning my flat and generally feeling a bit unenthusiastic about life – I decided to watch ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ for the first time. I know, the first time ever! It’s a scandal. I knew it would be something I enjoy (it’s reality TV, it’s larger than life and it’s full of fabulous, beautiful drag queens) so I don’t really know why I haven’t watched it before. It’s one of those ‘so little time, so much on netflix’ things, I guess. Either way, today I sat down for the first time ever to watch it and guess what?
I fell in love.
Starting on season 2 (because that’s the first season on Netflix UK) and I didn’t really know what to expect. I enjoy reality TV (like most British people, I watch ‘Bake Off’ religiously) but I hate ‘The Voice’/’X-Factor’. I don’t like to watch shows which viciously rip apart contestants personalities and talents, just to gain more views. Clearly, ‘Drag Race’ is very much about performing, beauty and dressing to impress. I wanted to enjoy it, but when the show appeared to be a phenomenal experiment in judging people on face value – I didn’t know how I could.
Fortunately, I was very very wrong. In the first episode, we are introduced to a group of new drag queens, ready to claim the title of Drag Queen Superstar. They are all competitive, motivated and incredibly glamorous. There’s the expected cattiness, the challenges which are reminiscent of ‘America’s Next Top Model’ and the nail biting eliminations. On the surface, it all seems very fake and shallow, but when you scratch a little deeper – ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ is actually quite a lot more than that. In fact, I’d argue that ‘Drag Race’ is a fantastic endeavour to break down cultural stereotypes in a very mainstream, very popular television show. This may sound like I’m laying it on thick – it’s just a TV show right? Trust me, there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Firstly we have a group of men that, for money or for love and sometimes both, like to dress up as women in their spare time. Apparently, the word drag has been used to describe men who dress as women from as early as the 1800s – so it’s not a recent phenomenon. Secondly, and this is something that touched me a great deal, it is not a show about men pretending to be women. ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ is about drag queens competing for the title of Drag Queen Superstar, and they are incredibly careful throughout the show to enforce the difference between this and being transgender (feeling as though you are born the ‘wrong’ gender).
The men in the show speak about it several times, expressing how they enjoy being men and enjoy having a different persona as their alter-ego. In the reunion at the end of the second series, Sonique reveals that in the months after the show ended, she realised that she is actually a woman and has begun hormone therapy. She comes out as transgender at the reunion and, of course, is congratulated and supported by her fellow contestants. RuPaul even talks at length about the difference between being transgender and being a drag queen. It is a super important distinction to make, and talking about it on a popular show such as ‘Drag Race’ brings these issues into the spotlight.
Second only to this is the unconditional support and love that RuPaul himself and the queens give each other. Sure, there’s enough catfighting and bitchiness to go round but that is the very nature of competitive reality television – for better or for worse. One of the most touching moments in season 2 is where Michael Steck (Pandora Boxx) talks about his attempted suicide when he was a teenager. Unable to confront his feelings about being gay, combined with stigma from his peers – Steck felt like many, many young LGBTQ people feel today. When Steck reveals this to his fellow queens, they share their own stories of their youth together. The conversation gave me (at least) a sense of shared experience and any LGBTQ youth watching, they may have felt a little less alone in the world. To be able to share these stories, and to see these men come through their worst times is a great message to young people everywhere. One day things will get better.
‘Drag Race’ also understands where the LGBTQ movement has been, and where it is going. In one episode (Golden Gals), the queens are matched with an older man who they must transform into a glamorous drag mother. They reflect on the differences between the generations of gay men, and how their drag mothers fought for the queens to have the opportunity to do this on television now. It was heart-warming, and a reminder that equality and acceptance were actually achieved in our lifetimes (and we are still pushing for them now).
What ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ does best though, is the complete rejection of heteronormative conventions. It’s self aware of what it is – part comedy, part talent show – and it plays on this combination beautifully. You’re a man and you want to wear a dress? Okay, now do it better than anyone else! The men are seen in and out of drag throughout the show, RuPaul is seen in and out of drag. It feels normal, because it is normal. The underlying message of ‘Drag Race’ is that biology has very little, nothing in fact, to do with gender. Gender is performative, we can make ourselves feminine by wearing a dress and heels, and we can make ourselves seem masculine by drawing on a beard. Our attitudes, our thoughts, our personalities have nothing to do with what is between our legs.
The entire notion that men shouldn’t dress up or dance or wear pink is obsolete; gender is highlighted as a social construct. I know it sounds like something straight from the mouth of Judith Butler, but I think she would revel in ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’. RuPaul reminds us that the most important thing is that we love ourselves (because how the hell are we supposed to love anyone else if we don’t?) It’s a stupidly simple message, but one that we need to hear more often.
On a personal level, RuPaul has taught me that it’s okay to shave my armpits, buy make-up and wear that dress I was saving for a ‘special occasion’. I can look whatever way I choose, and I can still be a good feminist. He’s also taught me a hell of a lot about contouring, but I’ll save that for another day.