Do drag queens, once considered tacky, offensive, or just plain wrong, deserve to be considered artists? Like all art forms, drag has developed to a higher level of form, particularly in the past 20 years. Gone are the days of unattractive men with bad makeup and ill-fitting dresses; professional queens now resemble supermodels, pop stars and quite often real women (just look at Courtney Act).
Drag is a high performance art, and should be considered as such. It combines fashion, bodily transformation, and complex facial reconstruction to create an aesthetic of a gender. This is mixed with performance, music, sometimes dance, and quite often, conceptual ideas or shock tactics to create a rounded persona. I should note that within the term ‘drag’, I include the subcategories of drag kings, faux queens, gender-benders, and general club kids.
The timing of this article is crucial, as a drag revolution is beginning across the world. Amazingly, this apparent ‘renaissance’ of drag culture can be attributed to a once cult reality television show: RuPaul’s Drag Race. The show is currently airing its sixth season, and is experiencing a sudden, but deserved, mainstream success. The man, or rather woman, behind the show, RuPaul, indeed the world’s most famous drag queen, has changed the face of the art form since her manifesto song Supermodel (You Better Work) back in 1992.
The alumni of the reality show are now conquering the world, from power girl group DWV (who have amassed 40 million views on their YouTube songs), to potential Victoria’s Secret model Carmen Carrera and Broadway star Jinkx Monsoon. Last year, Occidental Collage in Los Angeles, revealed that they will now offer a course in RuPaul’s Drag Race, demonstrating the show’s remarkable impact on popular culture.
This impact is now crossing the Atlantic, with British television executives vying to create a UK version of Drag Race, and a programme entitled Drag Queens of London beginning this month. It seems that now queens are a lucrative investment. Yet beyond television, the impact of Drag Race is immense. The show has an army of devoted fans and has inspired thousands of amateur queens around the globe to slip into heels and a dress, including myself and dozens of my friends. But it is the message that RuPaul’s Drag Race promotes which is most significant. Unlike many ‘cut-throat’ reality shows, Drag Race values camaraderie, self-love, and above all, empowerment, which resonates with all members of the public, not just LGBT individuals.
Drag had its first mainstream success in the UK during the 80s and early 90s, where camp humour and gay culture became accepted and popular with the public. It seems rather remarkable that such figures as Danny La Rue, Cupid Stunt, Dame Edna, and Lily Savage were British television regulars and popular with the young and old in an era that, by today’s standards, was still backwards in terms of LGBT rights. Across in the states, RuPaul heralded the first wave of drag in the early 90s, which coincided with a period of increased liberal values (which has been repeated in Obama’s presidency). Ru’s pretty face and family-friendly persona helped propel him into the homes of all Americans, who found him less threatening than previous shock queens, such as Divine.
Yet why is doing drag so offensive and controversial for so many people?
Heterosexual men may find cross-dressing offensive, or should I say, confusing to their sexuality. For a man to be as beautiful as a women, or perhaps even more beautiful, is shocking, and many people struggle to accept challenges to gender roles and heteronormativity. Society loves to put people in defined boxes of male or female, but drag refuses to be categorised this way and blurs the gender lines.
Furthermore, is there a stigma attached to women’s clothing? Women can freely wear supposedly ‘male’ items of clothing, yet when a man does the opposite, it is considered immoral. Drag queens empower femininity by empowering female clothing. Sadly, even some gay men dislike drag queens, arguing that they reinforce stereotypes and suggest that all gay men act in a feminine way.
Ultimately, drag is about becoming a different persona, freed from the confines of society’s concepts of gender, class and sexuality. It is liberating for both the queen themselves and their supporters, who can be inspired by their charisma and nerve. For me, doing drag and becoming Rujazzle (with the Jazzle Sisters) is my main creative outlet, my escape, and my fascination.
We are now in the second wave of drag domination, yet like all art forms, drag will continue to go through periods of fame, and then underground again. But for now, enjoy the extravaganza and go put on a pair of heels: it will make you feel invincible.