In general, I’m not a fan of reality television. I haven’t seen a great deal of it, but what I have seen, I mostly don’t like. I don’t like the forced drama, the histrionics or the way in which the production teams so obviously edit materials to tell the story in the manner in which they choose. These shows seem very far from actual reality and seem designed to bring out and highlight the worst in humanity. That being said, I have a confession to make: I love RuPaul’s Drag Race!
For those of you not familiar with it, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a reality show on which drag queens compete to become “The Next Drag Superstar.” I first became acquainted with the show a couple of years ago when I was very ill for an extended period of time. I was sick enough that I couldn’t do much beyond lay on the couch and watch TV. I had watched every sitcom rerun in which I was remotely interested (and several in which I wasn’t) and I had watched all the political television I could stomach. I was sick, miserable and bored. One day, while checking my cable menu to see if Buffy The Vampire Slayer was on, I noticed Logo (a cable channel targeting an “…audience of gay trendsetters…and a straight audience that wants to be ahead of the curve”) was having a RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 1 marathon in preparation for the debut of its second season. I had been seeing commercials for the show for the last several weeks while watching Buffy and it seemed like it might be interesting (or at least better than watching the same episode of Frasier for the third time), so I thought I’d give it a shot. I was immediately hooked and continue to be so to this day.
The show is delightfully snarky and uses a wink-wink nudge-nudge style of self-awareness coupled with clever social media marketing to create an in-on-the-joke feeling for the audience. Unlike the small sampling of other reality shows I’d seen, this one didn’t seem to take itself too seriously.
In each episode, in order to showcase the contestants’ talents, Ru gives the men challenges in which to compete with an admonishment “Gentlemen start your engines and may the best woman win!” At the end, the two last place competitors “Lip Synch For Their Lives” and the loser is told to “Sashay Away.” Throughout each show, along with the different elements of each challenge, the competitors’ transformation from regular everyday person to his drag queen persona is highlighted. The queens run the gamut in terms of style…there are glamour queens, pageant queens, showgirl queens, traditional queens, campy queens, androgynous queens, punk queens and queens that defy definition. It’s really great. And these performers are more than just pretty faces; they possess a variety of additional talents too – some make their own costumes, some are choreographers, some dance, some sing (one of my favorite queens, Pandora Boxx, just came out with a new song and video titled “Nice Car! Shame About Your Penis!” and it is hilariously awesome) some are actors, some do impersonations and the list goes on. With these big personalities and their impressive array of talents, this show never fails to entertain. But for all of that, what really interests me the most about RuPaul’s Drag Race is the manner in which the show puts a spotlight on the realm of gender.
Let’s go back to the basics for a moment. Gender is a social construct; it involves what a given society says it means to be male or female; i.e. what is defined as masculine or feminine. Gender norms are different from place to place. For example, what it means to be female (or what is considered “acceptable feminine behavior”) in the US isn’t the same as what it means to be female in Saudi Arabia. Also, gender norms can change over time. One radical example of this occurrence happened here in the US during the WWII era. Prior to the war, for the most part, rather than work outside the home after marriage, when it was economically possible, society dictated that women should stay at home and be wives and mothers. However, that drastically changed when the men went overseas and a labor shortage was caused by their absence. The American government engaged in a concerted propaganda campaign to quickly change female gender norms and convince the American public that it was the patriotic duty of its women to go out and work in the factories, shipyards and defense industries. Remember Rosie The Riveter? The norm for expected behavior for many women across the country was suddenly different. (Of course, the government also expected those same women to give up the pay, autonomy and other benefits that came with those jobs when the war was over and the soldiers came home, but that’s another story.) So, the overall point here is that there’s nothing natural or inherent about gender…it’s all based on society and culture and, in the present day, RuPaul’s Drag Race illustrates that point beautifully.
As I mentioned before, during each episode, each man’s transformation from regular everyday person into his drag queen persona is shown. Viewers see the queens, shaving, applying elaborate make-up (a process with numerous, time consuming steps), padding (creating and positioning pads around the hip area), styling wigs, cinching corsets to help create an hourglass figure (it also seems duct tape and plastic wrap are also sometimes a queen’s best friend on that front), tucking (getting the–ahem–manly bits out of the way), costuming and accessorizing. It seems like a positively exhausting process and all to create the illusion of being female…or, more specifically of having perceived feminine attributes. And the queens do it very, very well. They skillfully put on all the traditional (and often nontraditional) trappings and mannerisms of femininity to such a degree that it’s difficult to tell they are men. (Please note, during the actual competition, all of the contestants have self-identified as men.) They do it so well that many queens have mentioned on the show that they are often mistaken for biological women when out in the general public in drag.
So the conclusion? For me, RuPaul’s Drag Race has managed to do two things, one of which was nearly impossible. First, it not only made me a fan of a reality television show, but a fan of a reality show that makes me think on a regular basis. I would have never thought that possible! Second, this television program uniquely demonstrates the purely social and cultural characteristics of gender which are regularly ignored. People too often think of gender and all that’s associated with it as being something produced by nature as opposed to nurture, as something that’s built into us and can’t be changed. (Girls are no good at math? Well, that’s just biology! The reason there aren’t more women in high level executive positions? Well, I’m not seixist for not promoting her, women just aren’t made for that kind of thing! Men can’t be nurses…they just aren’t nurturing enough! I’m not buying her the toy truck she wants for her birthday, girls should play with dolls! My son wants a doll? No way, he should play with trucks!) RuPaul’s Drag Race shows that if a group of guys can expertly don and shed the window-dressings of femininity that are dictated by the norms of the gender binary, it demonstrates in a concrete way that gender is just that…window-dressing and is nothing innate or natural at all. If that is true, then gender, or the lack thereof, can be whatever we decide to make of it.
Written by Nicole Wander