Lashing Out: RuPaul and The Art of Drag
Originally published in the July issue of Fenuxe magazine, on newsstands in metro Atlanta now.
Drag feels everywhere now, but we still haven’t reached the saturation point. Alongside hip-hop culture, which carries its own wealth of history and struggles for mainstream acceptance, both it and drag tell a narrative through-line that parallels American culture as a whole. In perhaps the most uncertain time in history, it’s stabilizing, motivating even, to see minority communities band together to express themselves in the most authentic way possible. This can only be done through art.
Hip-Hop music and culture have had a stronghold in mainstream media for decades now, but drag particularly has hit a stride in recent years. The rise of the current presidential administration in America alongside RuPaul’s Drag Race’s move made from minor-league channel LOGO to VH1 has created this perfect storm of perhaps hyper-awareness of drag culture in the public eye. Straight people are being exposed to and gobbling up RPDR, and more power to it! There’s no doubting the significance RuPaul has personally had in lifting the artform from metropolitan clubs and live venues to mainstream media but drags sights are set higher than that.
With a deep history leading back to Shakespeare, drag (stemming from DRessing As a Girl) has taken many forms, from being a necessity in theatre to a part-time hobby for gay men to express themselves through the confines of modern society to the hyper-theatrical pop personality competition it’s become.
Through social media, music, and television, drag has extended beyond simply dressing up as a woman and putting on a show. Thanks in no small part to Drag Race, drag has become a competition of vocal performance, dance, fashion design and construction, make-up, improv, and all-around congeniality. Your fav could never.
Honestly, it’s exhausting to see drag stars perform, because the great ones effortlessly perform as a one-woman pop star production, and there’s a stark underappreciation of the queens who do it well while no one’s noticing. This leads to a drive to stand out in other ways, like in comedy, drama, or mythology.
Drag is reality TV with a sugar rush. It’s astounding simply how much work is left to the queens themselves and the amount of understanding of celebrity, self-awareness, and performance necessary to pull it off. Perhaps one of the greatest criticism of Drag Race is how little the focus is on simply pulling off such feats week-by-week, instead focusing on catty manufactured drama and semi-predictable reality TV beats, often exasperated by RuPaul’s intentionally repetitive brand-awareness.
More importantly, and more noticeably, is the unpacking of personal struggle and adversity every drag queen is faced with, which leads to a weird dynamic between the contestants and mama Ru. Oftentimes, he tasks herself with the role of Ryan Seacrest, Simon Cowell, and Oprah. RuPaul plays host, therapist, and judge oftentimes in the same breath and it leads to a very strange dynamic between him and the contestants. Is Ru a mentor, a fan, or an icon to impress? The contestants are confused, and the constructed nature of reality TV and competition shows clouds all the hats (or in this case, wigs) RuPaul puts on every episode. After 10 seasons, I’m personally hopeful some of these roles are rectified in the near future because there’s so much good that can come from intimately and honestly unpacking some of the adversities in the queen. The themes are universal to all genders, races, and sexualities, but under the guise of congeniality and competition, one has to wonder if the setting is appropriate.
To discuss drag culture in 2018 necessitates such lengthy discussion of RuPaul’s Drag Race, but hopefully, that won’t be the case for long. There are so many, potentially unlimited facets of Drag and gender expression. We haven’t reached a saturation point in the slightest. Locally, there’s an exploration of that saturation point with many bars establishing their own shows, all in competition for THE drag show in Atlanta, but there simply isn’t one yet. And maybe there won’t be just one. Drag is for everyone, and as long as we maintain the themes and purposes of the art and sport, we may be in for the first truly and authentically queer space in mainstream media. All of this begins though when you hand that dollar to the local queen performing their padded ass off.
Tyler Scruggs is a writer and musician living in Atlanta with his partner Mark. When he’s not churning out internet content, he’s paying too much for coffee and buying movie tickets week in advance. Feel free to validate him on Instagram (@Scruggernaut), Twitter (@TylerScruggs), or on Scruff (you’ll know it when you see it).