ON THURSDAY NIGHTS over the last few months, you could find me, along with half a million other Americans, on a couch watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” If you haven’t tuned in, it’s a reality show that pits professional queens against each other in a series of challenges designed to showcase queenly skills, including style, humor, dancing, and sass.
The message of the show — that we can love and embrace each other no matter who we are or what we love — may sound canned out of context, but when positioned squarely in the gender snake pit that is society these days, it’s also hugely poignant.
So in RuPaul parlance, I say amen to that.
Still, watching drag, I must admit, has always made me a little uncomfortable.
For one thing, I was never 100 percent sure that my drag enjoyment was coming from the purest place: I felt a certain guilty pleasure in watching men strain to walk with dignity in heels; men wrangling with padding and thongs and plunge-necks; and men grappling with bumps and bulges where there weren’t any bumps and bulges before. As someone who was once pregnant, girl, I hear you.
Shapeshifting is not as easy as it looks.
And then there was the smug satisfaction in knowing that that great set of tatas was an illusion, along with the cackle-sharp cheekbones (contouring . . . blessed!), patrician noses (highlighting, honey), and lips like overripe tomatoes (in which the actual lip-line plays no role, ditto the brow line).
But more importantly, something about the gender roles felt off. Historically, drag is entertainment by men for men, with queens coopting an exaggerated male view of femalehood to uproarious laughter. Was it okay to chuckle at an all-too-easy version of womanhood (instantly conjured via makeup, wigs, and heels), one that denied the complexity of the female conundrum?
Of course, I did have great empathy for the men who have spent their lives defending who they are and what gives them pleasure. Out of the limelight, queens have been targets of horrendous violence. Bravo that they finally have champions on the mainstage, complete with corporate sponsorships and spinoffs.
But as a woman, and as someone watching with her 17-year-old daughter, I had questions.
In RuPaul’s world, men are expected to become women, or a rather, a strict version of woman that fit a uniquely gay (well, mostly gay) male standard. RuPaul even opens each competition with the line: “Gentlemen, start your engines, and may the best woman win.”
Competing queens have generally gone to outrageous lengths to capture that bizarre and problematic femininity. Beyond the question-mark eyebrows, cotton candy hair, and seriously deep tucking (look it up), they would also undergo a character metamorphosis. Even if their voices changed not a wit, their female alter-egos became louder, sassier, and, notably, bitchier. There’s a lot of jaw-drop smiling (who does this?) revealing huge capped teeth and tongues that seem to operate of their own accord.
Something about the makeup and clothes and heels seems to release a special kind of male-supercharged hostility. We laugh at an unfettered and outrageous version of female, but one that could only be played by a man, at a time when female presidential candidates carefully walk a strong but not too threatening line.
Part of my concern was that the queens embraced tired, problematic tropes while knowing that they could step out of femalehood whenever they cared to. They could be the bitchiest bitches, the sassiest sex kittens, but they got to keep their male eyebrows instead of plucking them out (thanks to the creative use of gluesticks), and they stuffed bras instead of getting implants. They could model as women in Vogue editorial spreads, but walk out of the photo studio with their male identity intact.
‘See, I’m doing my best to raise a girl in a time when what a girl is can be fluid, but also dangerous.’
Womanhood was something they could wear, when convenient.
But of course, for the most of us, that’s not a possibility.
Watching the queens next to my daughter, I thought about the demands made on me, and even more so, on her. How do she and I, for example, process the time we went out to dinner with a close gay male friend of mine, and, when she sought affirmation in that teen girl strong-but-not-strong-way, his advice was that she wear more makeup?
Of course, feminist questions have been expertly explored over the decades by women much smarter and more attuned to the issues than I am.
But as a woman and mom of a teenage girl, I would like to just put it out there, once again, that this stuff isn’t getting any easier. And watching queens rolling around on the stage like the supersexualized late-teen Brittany Spears provokes thoughts about girlhood and womanhood.
See, I’m doing my best to raise a girl in a time when what a girl is can be fluid, but also dangerous. We’ve got Handmaids protesting abortion laws in Alabama at the same time that 37 drag queens are featured on as many covers of New York magazine.
And while I salute abortion protestors and queens alike — yes, it’s a triumph, and yes, I do tear up when I think about how far we’ve come, maybe — I also have to contend with this young person who’s trying to process some very banal realities of womanhood in 2019.
I constantly wrestle with the question, When is it appropriate to define experience through gender and when is it not? I have to suppress memories of misogyny and sexism and unfair pay I’ve tolerated throughout my life when I’m trying to empower a daughter who may or may not be the victim of sexism in her own high school classroom from her teachers. Worse, that her very attempts at achievement may at some point hold her back in real life because she was born a girl.
This is complex stuff. But I’m still rooting for empowerment. For signs of change.
And strangely, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” this season offered a catharsis.
The winner this time around wasn’t the typical exaggerated femme-icon. It was a queen named Yvie Oddly.
Throughout the season, Yvie presented herself as “other.” Her defining principle, which I originally dismissed as gimmicky, was weirdness, not femaleness. At one point, she wore a styrofoam orange as a hat. Her presentation occasionally seemed forced, in-your-face odd, overly art-school, not glam. Where was she going with this, judges sometimes wondered aloud. What was she thinking?
Yet because Yvie’s appeal was divorced from gender, in hindsight, I realize that that’s what the show’s producers valued the most about her. Yes, she was outrageous, but far from the retrograde “trashy” female created by establishing queens such as Divine (as much as I love her).
So good news: Even drag is evolving.
Yvie Oddly (and Jovan Bridges, the man behind the character) offers a new way forward, a post-gender vision of drag, one powered by creativity and a willingness to wade into the vulnerabilities and power in all gender norms.
On the couch next to my daughter, I could see the realization wash over both of us as Yvie was crowned: Maybe womanhood has evolved (or become complex enough?) that laughing at caricatures of problematic female tropes no longer plays well to a general audience.
If this is true, then maybe things are looking up. And if so, I will say amen to that, too.Rachel Slade can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @rachelslade1.