I love RuPaul’s Drag Race. This puzzled my husband at first - “Since when have you been interested in drag queens?” Well, since about always; my first published story has a drag queen in it. As time has gone by, I’ve been looking at why the world of drag fascinates me so, so that I can explain it better, and I think that, for me, it’s about gender performance.
So a little bit about gender performance, by which I mean that gender is indeed a thing that we choose to perform. We are taught how to perform gender from a very young age. I started ballet classes when I was four. I was doing department-store runway modeling in third grade. I had long blonde impeccably styled hair; I remember brushing it backstage before a recital sometime in elementary school and knowing that it had to be perfect. I did not own jeans; I was the only person in my fifth-grade class picture in a dress and kneesocks. My parents were very, very invested in coding me as female, with all of the cultural implications involved.
My adolescent rebellion was visually interesting. Lots of trenchcoats, combat boots, deliberately unflattering haircuts. I grunged myself up quite deliberately.
Well. Adolescent rebellion is generally ‘nuff said. But also, sexual assault.
RuPaul has a new show; it’s called RuPaul’s Drag U, and in it, previous Drag Race contestants perform dragtastic makeovers on what they call biological women. (Nod to the fact that science is more complicated than that; I am using the show’s terminology because I’m talking about the show). Unrelated to anything else: the opening credits of this show look like the Lisa Frank folders I had in elementary school came to life. I want to go to Drag U and frolic with rainbow unicorns. I’m just saying.
On the very first episode, “Tomboy Meets Girl”, one of the contestants was a rape survivor. She used to dress girly, but after her rape, she switched to baggy jeans, oversized t-shirts, no makeup; she desexualized herself as much as possible.
This should sound familiar to anyone who went to high school with me.
There are many reactions to rape; no one reaction is universal or right or wrong. But this is a common one, and I bet it’s not the last time it shows up on Drag U. It’s a common one because of what society tells us about gender and sexual assault. In brief:
1. Rape is something that happens to women.
2. Rape is not something that happens to men or people who look like men.
Both of these things, of course, are totally wrong. Yes, rape happens to women more than it happens to men, but visually coding yourself as more masculine is no cure. Rape is not a thing that happens exclusively to pretty or gender-conforming people.
But it can feel safer to hide your body. Temporarily. Even though it does not actually make you any less likely to be raped. Society tells you it is safer, and we are so hardwired to obey society.
So I spent years deliberately coding myself as less female. I’m genderqueer to begin with, so this was not a huge mental shift. I went from bad haircuts and sullen glares to Oxford shirts and vests to jeans and T-shirts. And eventually, after many years, I got back to skirts and dresses. I’m equally comfortable now in menswear or a Trashy Diva dress. It depends on my mood. It depends what gender I’m choosing to perform that day.
And as someone who is aware that she is choosing to perform gender, I am fascinated by drag queens. They do the ultimate gender performance - most drag queens are cisgendered gay men, so the genderqueer element isn’t generally there. This is a group of men looking at our society’s set of standards for gender performance and saying “What is feminine?”
And they come up with so many different answers, from Nina Flowers’ severe androgyny to Jujubee’s va-va-voom to the queens who do their best to look naturally female.
What is feminine? What does a woman look like?
The women on Drag U are not going to do stage drag in their real lives, most likely. But what they take from the experience is that question: What does it mean to be female? And the answer: It’s up to you.
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