That is what I have been asking myself a lot recently. Not all Drag is misogynistic and hateful (I know redundant), but RuPaul’s drag race lost me when the fish dish slams started in the first episode of Season 6. Very quickly I was brought back several decades, to experiences of the term “Fish” being used in my direction as an insult. The most dramatic was when a pitcher of beer was dumped over my head accompanied by “Fish’s not welcome here” when in a gay bar with friends playing pool. Honestly, I thought we had moved on.
Drag is complex and while I appreciate many presentations of drag performance, it is time to unravel and extract the misogyny from the art form. I wish the very talented and clever RuPaul would help facilitate cultural progress in the presentation of drag and quit making women the punch line of misogyny. In my slightly reworked quote by Tangerine Jone “I’m weary of having our bodies or gender be someone’s punchline or costume” pretty much sums up how I feel on the subject.
While Drag Race is assisting in braking stereo types of sizeism and ageism in drag (mirror of what every woman faces in day to day life I might add). Drag Race fails to address the misogynistic foundations found in drag culture and only perpetuates it into the 21st Century.
I thought I would explore the complexities of Drag by looking at is how people discuss Black Face through a rewrite of a review by Michael Upchurch of Donald Byrd’s “Minstrel Show Revisited” (which I sadly missed), and by “Black Lash Blues” written by Tangerine Jones in response to a recent performance of Black Face in New York at The Slipper Room.
My version of the Michael Upchurch review:
RuPaul’s vivid, volatile ‘Drag Race’ misses its mark reenforcing female stereotyping.
Put on a mask of your own accord, and the effects can be liberating. Have a mask forced on you, and you may feel you’re trapped in a lie, an insult, a challenge to your very identity.
In RuPauls season 6 “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” that double-edged mask is Drag Face .
For much of the show, from behind their makeup’s hideous Drag-slick guise, RuPals’s contestants pick at one of the flashpoints of American society: Drag misogyny .
On the one hand, their drag-face is a cringe-inducing reminder of an embarrassing chapter in American entertainment history. On the other hand, it so completely obliterates the identity of the contestants that it leaves them free to milk and expose the grotesqueries of drag misogyny for all they’re worth, but without irony and only displayed in earnestness.
RuPaul’s contestants use every theatrical tool in the toolbox — dance, song, monologues, docudrama— in this revamping of a Beauty Pageant, a questionable event in and of itself that deserves ridicule and commentary, but RuPaul’s Drag Race only adds insult to injury in the objectification of women taking it to a whole new level of misogyny, though succeeds in breaking ageist stereotyping of the contestants.
Serving as the connecting thread for this volatile mix is triple-threat RuPaul who, as the show’s trickster-like emcee, sings, acts and werks up storm. With a sickly smile and a twinkle in her eye, she slyly makes her audience complicit in the dubious antics on-stage. Picture Joel Grey in “Cabaret,” translated to the charged atmosphere of American racial divisions and stereotyping, and you’ll have some idea of what RuPaul is up to, but only feeds the fire of misogyny.
She’s in good company. Gia Gunn takes on multiple roles — “Gia’s brand of drag is serving fish, attitude and sass while dripping in jewels, sequins and stones. But will her sharp tongue wow or wound the judges?” , while Joslyn Fox “An adorable ditzy small-town queen, Joslyn never met an accessory she didn’t like” do stellar work in dance and mime, as women respectively.
The showbiz history facet of the production is as important but lacks societal critique, and some passages are not so much indictments as archival explorations. RuPaul himself, in drag-face and serves up one of the most comical set pieces with a drag-style parody of high fashion culture.
RuPaul’s missed opportunities in the show include dragging racial, ethnic and sexual jokes and put-downs out into the open early on but all land in misogyny, with the odd result that some of the drag-face dance routines that follow, with their showbiz razzmatazz, come almost as light relief.
Sometimes the slurs themselves are intended as the joke. In one tour-de-force turn, Gia Gun strings them together so cleverly and devilishly that they become a kind of zesty barbed poetry.
On the choreographic side, the show incorporates everything from tap-dance to waltzes. Kicks, cartwheels, splits and back flips figure in the action, too, along with the fleet, rugged partner-work and kick-ass choral movement that are Byrd’s trademarks.
One gripe: The sound on opening night (Mio Morales’ nightmarishly witty score) blared too loudly at first, overwhelming the performers’ voices at times.
Otherwise, “Drag Race,” running close to three hours, is epic in ambition — and so extraordinarily varied that it never gets dull.
My rewrite of Tangerine Jones‘s “Back Lash Blues” from 21st Century Burlesque, inserting Drag Face where Black Face was used, and female where performer of color was used, and misogyny in place of racism.
“This past Friday, a sideshow performer named Rush Aaron Hicks made the decision to perform in Drag Face at New York’s most well-renowned neo-burlesque palace, the Slipper Room. I did not see the act in question, but witnessed Hicks’ inane defense of his choices and participated in an online discussion that contained James Habacker’s initial private response to the community in a closed forum (read his public response here). A discussion that I cannot post in this article out of respect for the privacy of all who participated. Needless to say, it de-evolved pretty quickly.
It all makes me tired. Really tired.
I’m weary of having these conversations several times over. I’m weary of the assumptions and inferences that performers who are female are oversensitive, bitter, histrionic or tilting at windmills of imaginary misogyny. I’m weary of being told my response to someone’s passive misogyny is aggressive or graceless. I’m weary of having our bodies or gender be someone’s punchline or costume. I’m weary of hearing the First Amendment invoked incorrectly and in defense of some complete and utter madness. I’m weary of claims of censorship being used as a shield to avoid being accountable for the creation and promotion of incredibly lazy and offensive art. I’m weary of armchair allies who do just enough to save face, but too little to affect real change. I am weary of a community that claims inclusion and diversity as the party line, but doesn’t back it up with anything of substance.
I am not easily offended. I love truly provocative art and the way it knocks the wind out of you, forces you to look at it and feel something. I don’t believe that we shouldn’t look at our humanity in its entirety. I think it’s part of our job as artists to include it all- the joy, the pain, the truly appalling. We hold a light up to it and lay it bare for others. We tell the truth.
The truth in this instance is that the drag community has a problem with misogyny and how it treats its women. I know it’s hard to hear, because it’s 2014 and we’re supposed to be past it, but it’s true. This most recent incident and the ensuing backlash highlights the issues we have as a community in dealing with misogygny and demonstrates that diversity is just talk. It’s so disheartening that it takes an extreme case for my male peers to be inspired to move to address or acknowledge what women have been saying for years. And even now that we’re at that point, there’s massive amounts of blame-shifting, denial and lack of true accountability.
While drag has claimed diversity, the underlying message that it sends to women is “You are only welcome here if you know your place.” We are expected to show up, smile and put on our best impression of your fantasy of women. We are told to forgive the grotesque jokes and caricatures of our gender. We are asked to be representative for all and educate on gender when there is years of dialogue, critical thought and analysis readily available at your fingertips. When we speak up or push back, we are admonished for our tone, decorum and lack of proper gratitude.
I started performing drag because I was interested in the ways that women have historically used entertainment and spectacle as means of resistance, subversion and expression in the face of dehumanization and exploitation. I wanted to continue that legacy and exercise the freedoms that they’d fought so hard to obtain for me and continue paving the way for authentic expression. Drag Face and misogyny is a part of that legacy and one I haven’t ignored in my work because of its impact in the iconography of women. The facepaint may be gone, but female performers still struggle with the tropes and narratives drag left behind.
Drag Face is a part of history. It has a root in American theatre and representative of the violence of misogyny. When it pops up in popular culture, and, believe me, it still pops up, it is usually used to lampoon and degrade women. It is a deliberate denial of our humanity, beauty and voices and a symptom of the larger problems we have regarding misogyny. It has popped up before in both burlesque and drag communities and was met with the anti-censorship defense, belittled as a non-issue and swept under the table. Same with really offensive cultural appropriation. Yet producers wonder why they don’t see more female performers on their stages.
I was scheduled to perform in a show at the Slipper Room at the end of the month and I’ve cancelled my performance. I know other female performers have also followed suit. I refuse to be complicit in the illusion of diversity. My integrity is worth far more than that. We have to be who we say we are. We have to hold ourselves and each other accountable for our actions and inaction. We have to do better and be better.”