Lessons about science and politics from RuPaul
I've long been a fan of RuPaul who made the art of the drag queen mainstream and as such served on the frontline of LBGTQ rights.
Also drag queens are magical. At the same time that they challenge the socially created boundaries between gender ideas and of sexuality they also embraces a type of uber feminism residing in the land of Disney princesses, mermaids and unicorns. Hooray for pink and purple taffeta and rhinestones! So mainstream is the modern drag queen that an oped writer in the FT op-ed recently commented on their allure especially to biological girls and women. Drag queens, speculates FT's Susie Boyt, embody a state of self acceptance and confidence while being in a hyper state of femininity that many women and girls can only dream of mastering.
Boyt's theory describes my conflicted self as I choose conference attire. Will anyone take me seriously in a pink fit and flare? Can I wear red without seeming pushy? Black slacks and a button down is so drab... And one may think that academics, as teachers and mentors of twenty-somethings and purveyors or new ways of thinking, are supportive and accepting of many ways of living in the world. But as professionals, I find academics very conservative in what they expect from their colleagues: no sudden movements, no bright colors and no unusual life experiences. The only way any distinct personality trait is favorable is if you are already famous for it and bring in lots of positive press. That is, you must go full magical drag queen or choose a reasonable pants suit.
In any case, I'm drawn to RuPaul headlines and enjoyed watching early seasons of Drag Race.
Somewhat recently, a spat arose between RuPaul, Twitter fans, and a former contestant on Drag Race, Peppermint. The matter touched on politics, the trans community, issues of science and technology and decision making. Hence this post.
It started with a RuPaul interview with journalist Decca Aitkenhead with The Guardian where RuPaul explained that he considers the art of drag as very political,
“Yes! It doesn’t have a political agenda in terms of policies in Washington. But it has a position on identity, which is really the most political you can get. It has politics at its core, because it deals with: how do you see yourself on this planet? That’s highly political. It’s about recognising that you are God dressing up in humanity, and you could do whatever you want. ”
Indeed, identity is a core aspect of public politics. It's how people understand themselves in relation to the greater society and thus, their sense of belonging and ideas of us and them.
At this point Aitkenhead, as the Vox pointed out, gave RuPaul a loaded question based on the journalist's perceived "contradiction between [RuPaul's] playfully elastic sensibility and the militant earnestness of the transgender movement." RuPaul follows the reasoning,
“Ye-es, that’s always been the dichotomy of the trans movement versus the drag movement, you know,” he agrees carefully.
Aitkenhead continues, "What I can’t understand is how transgender women can enter a drag contest. Last year RuPaul’s Drag Race was widely acclaimed for featuring its first openly transgender contestant, called Peppermint – but if transgender women must be identified as female, how can they also be 'men dressing up as women'?"
RuPaul sees drag as challenging the very root of heteronormative gender identity,
We are wearing clothes that are hyperfeminine, that represent our culture’s synthetic idea of femininity.
Aitkenhead then placed the matter in a specific decision making context: who is eligible to compete as a drag queen on Drag Race. More specifically, would RuPaul allow a biological woman to compete on the show?
Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it, because at its core it’s a social statement and a big f-you to male-dominated culture. So for men to do it, it’s really punk rock, because it’s a real rejection of masculinity.
Mmmm. It’s an interesting area. Peppermint didn’t get breast implants until after she left our show; she was identifying as a woman, but she hadn’t really transitioned.” Would he accept a contestant who had? He hesitates again. “Probably not. You can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body. It takes on a different thing; it changes the whole concept of what we’re doing. We’ve had some girls who’ve had some injections in the face and maybe a little bit in the butt here and there, but they haven’t transitioned.”
The answer ruffled feathers because there are some subset of transwomen that are also active drag queens. So, RuPaul's political understanding of the meaning of drag queen in society conflicts with the trans vision of it.
It appears two separate issues are at stake. One is identity politics and how individuals challenge social norms. A woman dressed in drag challenges norms of appropriate dress but not gender norms. I man dressed in drag challenges both.
The second issue is one of fair competition. Does a woman, biologically female or trans, have an unfair advantage in the art of drag? In a Twitter comment RuPaul argues that she does,
That set up uproar because people disliked the idea of performance enhancing drugs in sports being likened to gender hormone therapy for the purposes of gender reassignment. The intent behind the usage of the technologies is different.
While the intent is different the competitive context demands rule making and in turn decisions about who is and is not a) a drag queen and b) fair competition.
While Olympic sports has many layers of rule making defining very specifically what game is being played it's less clear in drag queening. To my knowledge there isn't an international organization establishing rules and regulations of the art of drag. And we are all likely better for it.
However, RuPaul and his controversy makes clear that drag queens are (inherently?) political symbols. I'm under some impression that the art of drag enabled many men the opportunity for a socially acceptable context to dress and act in very feminine ways that was otherwise inaccessible in the pre-trans technology era. As technology advanced and society changed, the trans community has grown as compared to the 90's and 2000's when drag queens rose to stardom.
As political symbols the art of drag means different things to different people and for different reasons. Though collectively many groups love drag queens. Defining the drag queen in hard and fast terms to enable fair competition will inevitably result in fierce social value conflict because, as RuPaul made clear, at the heart of the drag queen is a statement about identity and humanity.
Mired in messy political conflict is a tough place for a lighthearted game show such as Drag Race. This could be the beginning of the show's end.