If you haven’t watched RuPaul’s Drag Race yet, you’ve definitely heard of it or seen RuPaul’s pristine mug coiffed for the gods in a Netflix thumbnail image. Inspired by the drag balls of Paris Is Burning in Eighties New York and challenge-based reality shows, Drag Race challenges our notions of what it means to express yourself, gender stereotypes and perceptions of the LGBT community at large. This year’s Season 9 was the most watched season of all time.
For me personally, I’ve always been a showgirl at heart. When I was a child I would perform for no one but myself, twirling an umbrella, singing to a pretend audience in twenty-act plays and was mortified when caught. I was either ignored, or called up on my silliness. Somewhere along the road reality hits and you tend to lose your voice in embarrassment, especially growing up as a little girl. Being a bit of a weirdo and being told to be quiet all the time eventually makes you do just that. For women, it’s almost a bad thing for you to be dramatic or over the top. Drag Race lets you live vicariously through fearless performers that have never had it easy but are the best at what they do and come out the other side with a sense of humour. It’s one of the most feel-good environments, this world has been fabricated to show the stunning, the sickening and the vulnerability of real people who have made drag their lives.
For the last few months, my Saturday morning was like Christmas morning, with a ritual of letting the dog out and getting back into bed with a coffee for the week’s show.
So why are we gagging over it so? Why do we idolise queens and follow them around all year to other local shows?
Drag Race is absolutely a form of escapism. Personal story time:
I’m channelling an inner performer every time I watch these queens live their true selves. It’s not something we’re always able to do with full time work that may not be in the area we always dreamed of, or studied for, while we’re trying to be our best selves with the tools we have now. Drag Race isn’t projecting this image of perfection, it’s messy and shady and real but the production value is glorious. We identify with drag queens more than we ever would with America’s Next Top Model or the winner of X Factor because drag feels more real, down-to-earth and accessible. Drag is what you make it. For an hour you feel like this is somewhere you belong, where you get to be your artistic self without any of the backlash, self doubt or fear of failing. There are dreams some of us let go a long time ago, or are struggling to achieve now, and Drag Race revives those dreams and serves them up on a magical sequinned platter.
The sense of community it creates is incredible, not only for the contestants but for those of us watching. People come together for viewings, to discuss the latest episode or their favourite queens. There’s a family you get to be part of for a minute. We identify with queens based on their personalities and back stories as we would with any character you love, but drag personas’ stories tend to go a little deeper and their creases more exquisitely cut.
“Gender is a construct, tear it apart.” – Sasha Velour, C.L.A.T.
Drag Race has always been about mocking society’s view of gender, RuPaul has said in interviews that it’s not just about dressing up like a girl but shapeshifting, presenting something ‘other’ to the world than what society instructs you to be. There is something incredibly powerful and liberating in that, as there is to the fact that RuPaul doesn’t get into drag unless he’s seeing green. Honey, it ain’t that serious.
This year’s winner Sasha Velour, the first artsy intellectual winner, is also the first queen to opt for solely bald looks as her signature style in homage to her late mother, and win. With her screaming, unibrow and devastating outfits, Sasha truly is one of the more unconventional winners we’ve seen yet, if you can say such a thing about a drag reality show. I’m obsessed with the Middle Ages, and I fell in love when she came out in the medieval unicorn outfit for the Gayest Ball Ever challenge. I clutched my dog and roared when she whipped off her wavy ginger wig revealing a waterfall of rose petals in the final. It was the theatricality I didn’t know I needed. Sasha shows us that a ‘weird’, studious queen who doesn’t present as typically ‘feminine’ can win based on talent, kindness and believing in your own brand. Millennials, take note.
Society needs it.
While transgender women have also competed on Drag Race, this year’s runner-up Peppermint was the first queen to compete as openly trans and continues to use her platform for activism and to spread awareness. As a society, we need to lose our preconceived notions on what gender should and shouldn’t look like. With suicide rates so high among young men particularly in this country, we can’t afford to keep enforcing any one particular idea of masculinity or femininity. We live in a society where women are stared or jeered at (more) for wearing an unusual lipstick shade or item of clothing, and men are bullied for being themselves.
Drag Race makes us better women*.
Drag Race makes us better at trying out lewks, provides inspiration and pushes you to go further. A guest judge once told my all-time fave Raven of Season 2 ‘I think you could teach me how to be more of a woman’, to which Raven replied ‘I’m a man in a dress.’ Raven has changed the face of makeup completely, from her classic ‘beige face’ and overdrawn contour, to her black eyeliner and sultry nude lip. I will not hear that it was Kim K who made nude a thing. Raven is now Emmy nominated for doing the makeup of RuPaul herself for Season 9. Could you imagine her LinkedIn?
Drag Race looks have absolutely ‘come through’ to mainstream society, because they are are fun, stunning and hark back to a time before we forgot what serving face really was.
*anyone with an inner queen
Drag Queens vs Bio Queens
For me, Sasha and Peppermint symbolise the changing attitude towards something that was already never mainstream. These queens aren’t just ‘dressing like girls’ but one is in fact a woman, and the other defies female stereotypes. They’ve been performing and have been themselves for years, but only this year made it to the final. We’re getting sick of social norms and expectations and injustices, and this unrest has paved the way for queens like Sasha and Peppermint to rank so highly in popularity. Apart from the obvious fact that they are incredible at what they do.
The majority of contestants so far have been gay men or transgender women. The drag community have coined the term ‘fishy’ meaning to present as a convincing woman (which I’m not a huge fan of), but drag kings, women dressing as drag queens or ‘bio-queens’ as well as the many other forms of drag, don’t seem to be accepted yet. Sharon Needles, winner of Drag Race Season 4 and who I want to be when I grow up, once made the point on Twitter that until you’ve run for your life in heels, you can’t lip-sync for your life in them either. I understand her point, but there seems to be a weird amount of negativity towards bio-queens trying to express their creativity in a similarly unforgiving space. In any case it’s definitely a talking point to open us up to other forms of drag and understand varied types of performance. Every queen has their shtick, from Violet Chachki’s burlesque routines to Bianca del Rio’s standup, and the same is true of any performer.
At the end of the day, Drag Race was intended as a platform for a specific group of people to compete in their profession. It’s not inclusive of all genders or identities, but it was never sold as such. It’s not RuPaul’s job to fix the world, but he’s doing a hell of a job at brightening it. While not everyone can compete, everyone can enjoy, and use it as inspiration to build their own stage. As Sasha said in her acceptance speech ‘if you want to be a queen, make your own goddamn crown!’
We’re going to have to be our own queens instead of worrying what other people will think of us. Easier said than done, but it’s something I’m trying to live every day through small personal victories, starting with this blog.