More than just Drag Race: Talking Art and Queer Culture

RuPaul’s Drag Race just finished its twelfth season. Since its start in 2009, the reality competition series has also seen five spinoff seasons (RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars) and four foreign adaptations (in Thailand, Canada, the UK, and Australia). While it’s true that Drag Race has made queer culture visible to straight audiences on a massive scale, it tends to present a very watered-down version of gay history, drag, and gender expression, with RuPaul coming under fire in recent years for his refusal to accept transgender queens, cisgender women, nonbinary performers, and drag kings as contestants.

Despite drag’s long history of transgender performers, Peppermint was the first contestant to come out as transgender during season nine of Drag Race and has criticized RuPaul’s treatment of trans performers.

The 2010s certainly saw a proliferation of drag into the mainstream, which certainly makes it easier now to discuss queer culture with a wider audience, but shows like Drag Race are one small part of a very larger conversation about drag and gender. Thinking critically about gender often requires, on one hand, abandoning our preconceived notions about what gender itself is, and on the other, recognizing that gender is something that we need to think about— the assumption that gender is “common sense” actively harms those who present their gender differently.

When talking to a broad audience about my research, then, Drag Race might provide a good way to start a conversation about gender history and gender’s role in art; it should be recognized as a jumping-off point, but not the end of the story. For example, if we understand, as Drag Race frequently seems to posit, that performers are men who put on makeup and high heels to play the part of women, at what stage in the process of getting ready does the man stop and the woman begin? Is the performer really as separate from the character as we would like to believe? And what separates the drag queen applying makeup from the “average man” putting on a tie to go to work in the morning? Thinking about drag, reductively defined as a “man dressing as a woman,” actually offers a good jumping-off point for both understanding drag as a more complex phenomenon and questioning gender altogether.

In the future, I would like to go into academia, to do research but also because I’m very interested in teaching. I expect to have students from different disciplines and backgrounds, so in order to properly do my job I need to know how to teach about my field in an accessible manner. I am also very interested in academics like David Graeber, an anthropologist who writes books with the intention of making his research available to wide audiences and enacting social change. I think academia can do a lot of good, but I also think that some scholarship is inaccessible for no good reason.

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