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Friday, June 18, 2021

Commentary: RuPaul’s restrictive drag culture

“RuPaul’s Drag Race” propelled drag into mainstream media, but it has fallen short as new forms of expression counteract restricting expectations

“RuPaul’s Drag Race” is indisputably a great piece of reality television and competition show, as proven by the show’s 19 Emmy wins and 29 total nominations. Not only has drag queen RuPaul Charles’ show been met with incredible success and popularity in its original form, but it has also quite literally taken over the world with multiple international spin-offs, All-Stars seasons, yearly conventions and much more. Now that it is clear that drag is fully settled in mainstream media and entertainment, we have to ask if the media we are consuming is holding the art form back or letting it grow. 

RuPaul and what appears to be his drag empire have been consistently followed by controversy and ridicule, ranging from critiques on the editing of the show to recent questions about the source of RuPaul’s authority over the biggest force in drag culture right now. The TV show host, singer, self-proclaimed “Supermodel of the World” and apparent oil fracker has most notably come under fire for some remarks pertaining to why he would not let either trans or cisgender women compete in his drag competition. His reasoning was rooted in some incredibly outdated views on correlations between gender, gender expression and strict adherence to what is now so clearly a defunct binary in drag (and the world at large for that matter). While RuPaul has since apologized for his remarks, and most recently has cast the show’s first openly trans contestant, his vision of drag and his show continues to create an incredibly rigid box for what—in the real world—is an entirely fluid art form. 

RuPaul continues to view the core of drag as solely the act of dressing up in an overly feminized fashion and continues to emphasize the importance of some shift between the performers’ presentation out of drag and how they look in character. More often than not, this sadly works to reinforce a gender binary, at least in terms of presentation, or what it means to “embody femininity” as a drag queen. The most prominent example of RuPaul’s limited vision of drag constraining some of his own show’s contestants is with the drag queen Ginny Lemon on the U.K. version of the show. Lemon and Bimini Bon Boulash, another contestant on the show, spoke openly about being non-binary and viewing their drag as their purest form of creative expression, a way to play with people’s expectations of how they should dress. 

When it came time for Lemon to strut the runway on the show, they stayed true to their personal, often androgynous, campy and loose-fitting outfits. On multiple occasions, RuPaul and the judges had something to say about Lemon’s presentation, and essentially forced them to choose an extremely feminized and sexy look consisting of a pink bodycon dress, hip pads, and a breastplate—something Lemon was not entirely comfortable doing. The problem here is not that RuPaul encouraged a contestant to step outside their comfort zone, but rather that he could not accept Lemon’s unconventional drag style and the range they showed within that—with body hair showing, an un-cinched waist and entirely theatrical makeup. 

This is not to say that there are not queens who found success on Drag Race who go out without altering their entire bodies to create RuPaul’s favorite “female illusion”—it just so happens that they all have a few similarities. These queens are most often (I am currently unable to find an exception) thin, tall, hairless and essentially present like runway models (i.e. Violet Chachki and Naomi Smalls)—an established form of androgyny that RuPaul can accept in drag. 

RuPaul’s Drag Race has done so much to introduce millions of people, regardless of their gender or sexuality, to the art of drag, and the passion and talent it takes to be a drag queen. However, after almost 13 years, it’s high time to ask for a more contemporary representation of this creative community. Since the show aired in 2009, drag has changed drastically, and it is hardly fair for RuPaul to impose his own vision of what drag “is” (as if it was one singular thing) on queens who are coming up with entirely novel and often much more fluid ways of expressing themselves. Old-school rules simply do not work when the game has completely changed, and RuPaul should accept these changes and adapt his show accordingly, or allow for a new perspective to step in. 
Written by: Angie Cummings — arts@theaggie.org

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