Why Drag?

It seems like drag is permeating the mainstream more than ever before. Almost daily, I encounter a meme or quote from the drag world, RuPaul’s Drag Race in particular, and I have definitely caught at least one straight male friend of mine using Drag Race GIFs unwittingly. Drag and LGBTQ lingo have entered into standard colloquial slang: expressions like ‘shade’, ‘beating [one’s] face’, ‘bye Felicia’, and even ‘hunty’ have been thrown around liberally, especially on the internet. What is it that makes drag such an enigmatic reference, and most importantly, why are people catching onto the immense entertainment value of this gender-bending art-form just now? 

                                                                                                                          So GIF-worthy!

Of course, one of the main proponents of this integration is the well-known, yet niche TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race, which enjoys a cult following and recently switched networks to VH1, exposing it to a much larger and diverse audience. Within the show, drag queens compete to become ‘America’s Next Drag Superstar’ and follow in the footsteps of the magnificent RuPaul, the queen that is closest to being a household-known drag persona. 

Nevertheless, RuPaul himself claims that drag will never become mainstream, despite his internationally successful single Supermodel in 1993, and leading The RuPaul Show, his own TV talk show from 1996, amongst many other achievements. But how much weight does such a statement carry when drag queens dance on the stage of the VMAs with Miley Cyrus?

RuPaul’s nineties success also produced this brilliant shot of him holding Frances Bean Cobain (Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love’s daughter) with Dave Grohl and Kurt, a.k.a. two thirds of Nirvana

In many ways, RuPaul is right: the legacy and practice of drag will always be subversive and challenge mainstream culture because that has been its main purpose and legacy. Yet, drag is essentially a heightened form of gender performance and therefore integral to all of our everyday lives. Putting that everyday performativity of our class, gender and personality within an entertainment setting through cross-dressing is subversive because it encourages us to reflect on our own engagement in rigid structures and to realise that we all do drag in our own way. Drag therefore dismantles cultural binaries by making us more conscious of them, and robs them of their power by ‘abusing’ them. Being gay, as well as femme in general is already seen as a threat to masculinity, so owning one’s otherness is extremely empowering.

Drag allows people to be fierce even if they are underdogs. It comes as no surprise that a lot of drag personas contain an element of the superhuman and omnipotent. The higher the wig, the closer to God, honey! Violet Chachki, the winner of Season 7 of Drag Race, describes her persona as a ‘genderless superhero’, while Trixie Mattel paints herself like a Barbie doll or toy to highlight the absurdity of how manufacturers perceive femininity.

Because of drag’s visibility and willingness to dismantle symbols and power structures, it’s no wonder drag queens have been representing the gay liberation front and general LGBTQ community so strongly. The Stonewall Riots of 1969, which helped spark the gay rights movement, were initiated and lead by drag queens and transgender women of colour. No pride is complete without drag performances and queens provide comic relief.  Drag is, after all, entertainment above everything else.

The fun bit comes after the dismantling has been done. What makes drag so enigmatic is the way it interacts with pop culture by referencing and satirising it. Used by a group of historically marginalised people, it is an act of survival and resistance to appropriate the language of popular culture. In RuPaul’s Drag Race, a show that aims to represent a variety of facets of drag and pay homage to drag history, queens are encouraged to apply their knowledge of pop culture intelligently and savvily to their comedy and performance. Part of why drag is so enigmatic is because it combats hardship with humour. Celebrity impersonation, cult-like fandom of pop icons and the art of lip-syncing are the basis of drag’s witty and often ironic interaction with the mainstream.

At the same time, drag queens and wider LGBTQ communities have created their own universe using slang (throwing shade), humour, cult movies (think Divine in Pink Flamingos), dance styles (Vogue) and legendary personalities. The fact that pop culture is now referencing drag is interesting because it shows that the process has come full circle. 

Beyond dismantling pop culture, drag has been and is still a refuge for individuals who feel they cannot express their individuality authentically within mainstream culture. The documentary Paris is Burning by Jennie Livingston shows beautifully how empowering drag can be to those who reject or do not possess ‘passing privilege’. It follows the ballroom scene of 1980s New York and revolves around pageants, where people from different ‘houses’ or ‘families’ compete with one another within different categories of drag. Many of these categories allowed people to live their phantasy lives in performance, ranging from ‘executive’ or ‘military’ realness. The ballroom was a space where dreams could be lived, which drag enabled.

The symbols of gender performance and the representation of the underdog through drag will always be the legacy and tools it uses to fascinate. Celebrating expressiveness that challenges the norm is useful for both entertainment and fostering a sense of self-awareness. It is these little acts of resistance that keep all of us strong and preserve our expressive voice: a fact which is becoming increasingly more important as we face an upsurge in regressive politics.

Drag is about the power of expression, identity and personality. It’s about becoming larger than life, but with the healthy awareness that in the end it’s all ‘just’ drag. As RuPaul says, ‘we’re all born naked and the rest is drag’.