Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Is RuPaul's Drag U Gender Essentialist?

Anyone who knows me even a little bit knows that I really love drag, and that I feel the need to have a television in my house primarily so that I can watch RuPaul's two shows on Logo, RuPaul's Drag Race and RuPaul's Drag U. The first is a traditional competitive reality show - start with 16ish contestants, eliminate one or maybe two a week until a finale between three or four contestants, with the winner being declared America's Next Drag Superstar and getting cash and other prizes. It's fun, entertaining, and I live for it when it's on.

Drag U, while also competitive, brings in three different women every week, and each will work with a previous contender from Drag Race to win a bio-drag competition. In other words, these cis women (at least, all have identified as such so far) will not be dressed as drag kings, but as drag queens.

Often, the storyline goes that these are women who need a confidence boost, which is tied with getting back in touch with their feminine side. Showing them that they can, in fact, walk in heels and pull off a look involving outrageous eye makeup is meant to push them out of their comfort zone. It looks like they have lots of fun, and they volunteer to go on the show, but there's something about it that I've been having to wrestle with: Is Drag U gender essentialist?

It all ties back into the performativity of gender, I guess - in most cases on the show, the women aren't really "performing" femininity before they get Dragulated (they aren't into makeup or fashion, they might work in traditionally masculine jobs like construction, maybe they're just tomboy-ish) and, presumably, they learn how to do so better after being made to look like drag queens. Not like feminine women - like drag queens. But drag was never meant to be a wholesale performance of femininity either. Drag is over-the-top, almost always humorous, and frequently an artistic expression. Men who perform as drag queens may or may not have feminine aspects to their out-of-drag personality, but while they're using cues of femininity in their drag performances, they aren't trying to "pass" as women most of the time (I say "most of the time" because I can't possibly know what's going on in any drag queen's head at all times).

So, Drag U is kind of confusing to me. As someone who really wants to learn to be a drag king, I totally understand the desire to engage in drag. And the over-the-top draggy-ness of the womens' presentation at the end - and the fact that they are put up in drag by cis male drag queens - doesn't read to me as prescriptive feminization the way many television makeover shows do it. In fact, I think this is a cheeky play on other makeover shows: there is no expectation that the women will hold onto the makeup and clothing they got in the show (unlike in What Not to Wear, which Kyrie has eviscerated here). Rather, it's the sense of confidence, that they can do something silly like wear enormous heels and head pieces and lip-synch to Diana Ross or whatever and come out of their shells, that is meant to be the take-home point. And I'm guessing that women who would find even the most playful and temporary performances of drag-type femininity oppressive would avoid going on this show, so there's certainly a selection bias here. Besides, they can go back to their everyday lives and be who they were before going on the show without the sense that they're letting people down by gaining weight back or not wearing clever little day-to-evening ensembles to work.

At the end of the day, these women are proving one of Judith Butler's points about gender: that all gender is performative, and therefore all gender is queer. And they got to hang out with a lot of fabulous drag queens while doing it.

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