Is There Room at the Table for Queer Women in The Rupaul's Drag Race Work Room?
When I was deeply immersed in some Marie Kondo therapy the other night—you know, where you touch yourself to see how much joy you can spark—my mind wandered, as it does so frequently and frantically, to think ponder the things in my life that truly do spark joy for me in a meaningful way. Caught up in a post-manic-depressive phase, I have found myself relying on one of my most foolproof mental health aid-supplements—absurdist, formulaic reality television. These past few weeks and even months, the drug of choice in this category has been Ru Paul’s Drag Race.
And I pondered fondly (not to be confused with fondling ponderously…eh? Eh?) all the things about the show and the preponderance of ludicrous, talented, and eccentric queens that have graced the 10 Seasons (and four All Star Seasons…or three All Star seasons if you’re Latrice Royale) that spark joy in me. Jinx Monsoon’s uncanny Little Edie. The lip synch to end all lip sycnhs to “This Will Be” by the OG leggy bitch Dida Ritz. Endless Alyssa Edwards-isms and wondering if there will ever be a drag king named Rigor Morris. Lil Pound Cake. Whatever the fuck Naomi Smalls did with her body in the last episode of All Stars 4. Saying my best Tatiana “Thank You” to straight people. Kim Chi’s snatch game of Kim Jong-un’s fictional sister. Katya doing anything. But as I thought I mused upon these moments and this show that actively sparked joy for me, and thought about the space I made for it my life, I could not help but wonder (because I can’t let myself have one fucking nice thing ever) about what space there was for me, as a queer woman, in the show’s paradigm and universe.
It would be easy to write-off a discussion about the place queer women have—as fans of the show and perhaps even relative to a larger scope of drag—in the universe of a show like Drag Race by saying “just watch and shut up” or “absolutely don’t watch, period.” I do not want a show to have as much meaning and joy for me (and people I care deeply about in my life and community) and not engage with it, and not engage with what it means to be a queer woman watching it. So, I’m fucking going to (sorry bout it). As devoted as I am to the nostalgic premise I’ve based this blog on—and by and large would like to adhere to, particularly given that my infatuation with the past somewhat distracts from my debilitating dread about the ever-more-apparent End of Days situation we now are all in—it is equally as important to me to examine queer media and queer topics that are actively happening through the lens of what has impacted queer history and my disfigured, queer, mushy-porridge brain. And while there are arguably 69 other shows, films and media situations that I could discuss other than RuPaul’s Drag Race, a show which conspicuously has an absolute paucity of queer women, there is something vital to be said about this fantastic show that has created legacies, language, and infinite referentiality that also serves as a remark for the queer experience as a whole. And to paraphrase the words of Katya Zamolodchikova and Trixie Mattel “I’m going to talk about whatever I want—because it’s my blog, and not yours.”
It is necessary to address the elephant in the room (and not just the disturbing live action Dumbo remake, which is a kind of drag in and of itself, to be honest). Drag Race has an incorrigibly and inexcusably checkered history of racial bias, perceived racial favoritism, and outright racism from the show’s enormous fanbase. The show is undoubtedly remarkably resplendent in contestant diversity (which, of course, reflects the wildly diverse, phenomenally POC-dominated world of drag), with queens of virtually every racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and religious background filling the show’s docket. However, the show’s thin, cis, Caucasian stars (Alaska, Katya, Trixie, Aquaria, Violet Chachki, Alyssa Edwards, Sasha Velour, Courtney Act, Miss Fame and PEARL, REALLY? PEARL? PEARL IS A FUCKING LOBOTOMIZED NOODLE, I DON’T CARE IF HE’S HOT HE IS AWFUL) all have enormous social media successes, each enjoying IG circulations of one million or more followers that frequently and far surpass queens of color who were contestants and winners. Only one African-American queen (Bob the Drag Queen), three multiracial queens (Naomi Smalls, Bianca Del Rio, and Adore Delano), one Asian queen (Kim Chi), and one Latinx queen (Valentina) have one million plus followers on Instagram. This shockingly small fraction of the majorly diverse array of over 100 queens who are rabidly followed on social media, coupled with the fact that the show’s fans are consistently cited for egregious racism, and queens of color being frequently labeled with racially-charged attacks of bad attitudes (Tyra Sanchez, Coco Montrice, Shea Coulee, Nina BoNina Brown, etc.) and white queens being labeled as “eccentric” or “quirky,” all work to mar Drag Race’s reputation significantly. Building upon this, the world of Drag Race is further besmirched by the dubious at best, problematic at worst relationship the show—but more specifically, RuPaul—has with the transgender community. Despite the show being a safe-space of sorts (a safe-space with a filter of martyrdom for coming-out-narratives), RuPaul’s comments about participation and inclusion of trans women in the show have cast a cloud of negativity on a show that is already easily attacked for reinforcing certain binaristic standards. The comments are particularly counterproductive when considering the continual challenges to gender expectations the show presents and upholds, the preponderance of queens who identify as gender-queer or gender-fluid, and the relatively strong presence of trans women (and trans, POC women)—Sonique, Carmen Carrera, Stacey Layne Matthews, Kenya Michaels, Monica Beverly Hills, Jiggly Caliente, Gia Gunn, and Peppermint (who competed as a trans* woman). And while scores of queens very vocally and doggedly advocate and demand equality for their trans* sisters (as they fucking should), I would be remiss to not acknowledge some of the more troublesome areas in Drag Race’s legacy. Moreover, I encourage fans and skeptics of the show alike to continue to actively be vigilant of, question and challenge racism, sexism or legacies of transphobia whenever they may arise (and listen to podcasts like "Alright, Mary," "Race Chaser" (hosted by my life-partners and show alums Willam and Alaska), "Squirrel Friends Cocktail Hour," and "What the Tuck"--all of which embrace a rabid love for the show while attacking the show's worrisome elements).
There is also the elephant in my own room (and not just the small one I keep seeing in my room because I took a Benadryl) that should be addressed of my own fraught relationship with drag in general. Having only dealt with drag performers and drag environments that fostered both predatory behaviors and rhetoric/performances that frequently denigrated women and trans* women for the sake of comedy and illusion. To be frank, I found most drag fucking offensive, reducing cis women to anatomical and archetypal tropes, and often erasing trans* and queer women. And so I was reviled at the thought, for a while, of paying any sort of attention to Drag Race, despite the show’s astronomical popularity with my gay male and cis, straight female friends. But my gradual softening with age—and my relocation to the hometown of the only queen that ever sparked my attention before I cared about the show (and, no, I won’t apologize for loving Sharon Needles—because I too am beautiful, spooky and stupid)—gravitated me towards the universe Ru Paul created and the queens evolved. And I still hold many of my concerns and misgivings about the way femininity and female physicality are construed in and drag and on the show (FOR EXAMPLE PLEASE FOLLOW ALASKA’S CONSTANT URGING TO ABANDON “FISHY” IT IS SO FUCKING ANACHRONISTIC AND MISOGYNISITC PLEASE STOP), my utter passion for the show has taken flight majestically like Asia O’Hara’s butterflies (oh, wait, wrong metaphor).
But there is a unique predicament that I experience being an excruciatingly self-aware queer, cis, female fan of Drag Race. The show, obviously, has no scarcity of gay male fans; and the second most ravenous fanbase of the show is, unanimously, straight, cis women (this is very clearly reflected in the show’s regular and guest judges). Hetero cis men are by no means as vocal or obsessive in their appreciation of the show, but they certainly occupy a designated space within the Drag Race paradigm—as judges, guest judges, members of the over-fetishized Pit Crew, fans, and objects of seduction for a number of the queens. Where, then, is the space that queer women might foreseeably inhabit in this show’s universe; what, if anything, can queer women gain and contribute to the dialectic surrounding Drag Race. Or are these too neurotic of concerns, and should I, as a queer women, just enjoy the thrill and carnal pleasures of a spectacularly produced show, and squeal internally at the rare moments of Queer Women Referentiality that sparingly pop up—like Katya’s brown Power Dyke Power Suit in Season 2 All Stars, or Sasha Velour’s Judith Butler Snatch Game rehearsal in Season 9 (and the Snatch Game performance of Marlene Dietrich…and really just everything Sasha Velour did--the bitch went to Vassar, after all).
I am, of course, not just going to idly do that, because if I don’t try to obtrusively insert myself into a grander dialogue and ponder the importance of my place in a paradigm, the depression trolls come hobbling out from underneath the bridge in my brain and start clubbing the last bits of my serotonin to death. I am also not going to simply accept that the show is “not meant” for me in the critical sense, nor is my attempt to situate myself and queer women within the show’s world an attempt to appropriate or colonize the show’s essence that is integral to the gay and queer men. Symbolically, Drag Race is deeply significant in how it represents and seeks to ameliorate (whether consciously or not isn’t always clear) a disconcerting schism that exists in the LGTBQIA+ community between lesbians, queer and bisexual women (cis and trans*) and gay/queer men (overwhelmingly cis). Glaringly, from everywhere to gay bars, marches and rallies, and other queer spaces, a tradition of disregard, exclusion and malcontent has dictated much of the relations between gay men and queer women, often resulting in queer women’s absolute erasure and queer female sexuality being utterly sanitized or trivialized. Drag Race in some ostensible ways carries on the separatism and erasure at the expense of queer women that very noticeably takes place at drag shows in gay bars.
And yet, in very distinct and meaningful ways, the show—and more specifically the queens—actively subvert this fracture by continually transgressing the expectations of what style, femininity, gender performativity, and generally dismantling patriarchal constructions and enforcing of binaries. Where straight cis women can revel in the endless skills, charm and buffoonery of the queens, as well as appreciate the incredible work ethic of the queens as they fully commit to their drag, queer women can watch with a mutual and unique understanding of the intellect, necessity and drive behind many of the queens that informs identity even more than performance. The seamless and purposeful transmutations of fashion, posturing, behavior, style and presentation that go into so many of the queens essences and aesthetics in and out of drag (I’m thinking of queens like Milk, Nina BoNina Brown, Aja, Raven, Thorgy, Adore—but really, in many ways, all of the queens) transcend costumation, and speak to something that resonates profoundly with my experience as queer woman (and I think many other queer women). Moreover, the fantasy elements and the love of all things obsessively-retro and brilliantly-referential quality that is so crucial to Drag Race, speaks to the gay and queer experience—and is so deeply intertwined with the things I have clung to in my queer coming-out and self-assertion—that it seems unfathomable to me that a queer woman could not find some relatability in the show. The glorious fist-fuck to gender norms, fashion norms, identity norms, behavioral norms, etc. that is seasoned with a flair for the nostalgic and camp speaks so profoundly to the universal queer experience.
There is also something fascinating that happens to me, as bisexual woman, that allows me to find a space in the Drag Race paradigm and universe that I think is heartily encouraged by certainly the queens and probably the show (as a text open to interpretations and readings, darling). When I watch Drag Race and consequently become enthralled with the queens (and their social media outputs), I am able to explore the complexities and, at times, ineffable facets and nuances of my attractions. Sure, I can love the fashion, the D-R-A-M-A, and the unendingly hilarious talking heads. But I also have developed a keen awareness of how wildly attracted I am to Trinity Taylor as when she’s in full drag (especially when she taps (or tucks) into her avant-garde style), and how I would absolutely fuck Katya when she’s in full drag. I can get gagged over the assortment of queens and also develop intense crushes on Naomi Smalls (who, from what I understand, has an anatomy that is in no way, shape, or form petite), and Milk, and Morgan McMichaels (I don’t know how to explain it) and Adore Delano and Shea Coulee when they’re out of drag. I watch the show with a comfort and appreciation for my attraction to queens like Sharon and Valentina and Aja and Sasha (wow, am I season 9 whore?) in and out of drag—in a completely visceral, earnest and non-fetishistic way—and what that means about my sexuality, and my bisexuality, and the qualities and aesthetics I find myself attracted to. A show as unique and specific as Drag Race allows an interaction and exploration with my bisexuality and the multi-dimensionality of my queerness that I do not actively get to examine and be intimately in touch with on a regular basis (and haven’t engaged in since the end of high school and college). The show’s function as safe space not just for appreciating and learning about niche culture, fashion, and living for dramatic fuckery/bufoonery, but also to let otherwise unrealized or unarticulated facets of sexual attraction and interest flourish makes the show a distinctly special space for me as a queer woman, and I would contend (and hope) for many other queer women.
As I incessantly point out, so much of my interaction with queer texts, queer media and the things which I have shaped my queerness, queer entertainment and queer icons are complicated and even problematic. I do have to contend with the potentially ghettoizing and problematic facets of Drag Race—most noticeably the dearth of queer women. But there is too much good—in the life-giving absurdities and talents of the queens; in the ways in which I can articulate and explore my sexuality—in the show, and the chance to carve a unique place for myself, as a queer woman, in the show’s paradigm. And maybe with enough Charisma Uniqueness Nerve and Talent, there can be a shift in the popularity, glorification and proliferation of non-cis* male dominated drag—female drag, genderfuck drag, trans* men thriving in female drag, etc. Realizing and actualizing the dimensions of queerness in the show's universe is important and, I believe, invited. And to be clear, it is just as important for queer women, if they feel so inclined, to not participate in or actively resist the show. But I derive a certain, unrivaled joy in using my love for the show as a way to forge a place as a queer woman in the show's universe and the dialogues about the show, whether bitches like it not. What is more, watching the show with my gay friends and being part of the fanbase provides an opportunity to be part of a queer space--and with gay bars closing and the meaning of queer/gay identity being frequently appropriated by straight culture, this is a tremendously special and significant opportunity. And I'm going to keep gagging over the fashion, the shenanigans, the lip synchs, and the queens while asserting myself as fiercely as ever to be the unflinchingly brazen queer woman I believe the Drag Race paradigm encourages me to be.
(And hopefully, with therapy, I can address my epiphany that when I am drunk or manic, I am..Laganja Estranja. Watch out y'all, here comes MAMA with a whole lotta TRAUMA, OKURR?)