RACISM'S A DRAG:
Drag Culture and Embedded Racism.
By Milla Sutton | 18th September 2020
CREDIT: FRANCIS LIGHTNINGHEART DRAG/PHOTOGRAPHY.
So you’ve been in lockdown for a few months. You scroll through Netflix’s recommended shows and notice a thumbnail of a woman with great, curly brown hair, bold makeup, wearing a shiny dress. The text on the image reads RuPaul’s Drag Race. Intrigued, you click on the icon to find out more.
Drag racing? Like the sport?
No not quite. RuPaul’s Drag Race is a reality show that has risen in popularity in recent years and has become representative of drag culture all around the world. Consequently, drag performers, like myself, have entered the mainstream culture — but at a cost. The contributions of Black people, especially Black transwomen, in drag and ballroom culture, where the popular dances and phrases shown on RuPaul’s Drag Race were first popularised, are often ignored. With fans associating ‘tongue pops’ and dance moves like ‘death drops’ with white drag queens, said queens can easily become successful without giving Black culture — from which these ‘trends’ have originated — its rightful due.
RuPaul, the show’s creator and host, often shares messages of love and positivity; however his show has a proclivity to demonise people of colour to generate drama. These contestants, who are edited post production to be the “villain” of the season, receive inadequate support to deal with the negative backlash generated. What’s more, when contestants challenge racial bias, instead of it tackling the issue, it becomes another moment of irresistible drama — with the real issue becoming sidelined. As a viewer of the show and a person of colour myself, I have reached my limit with watching microaggressions become racist attacks on the show. If I do tune in, it is only to discover new talent and be inspired by the contestants. Unfortunately, the drama within the show follows the unkindly-edited queens as fans and viewers are often unable to divorce these constructed characters from the queen’s humanity — all of which translates to a lack of job opportunities for performers of colour.
CREDIT: FRANCIS LIGHTNINGHEART DRAG/PHOTOGRAPHY.
As a drag performer, I see this in drag lineups in popular London bars and truthfully, I avoid nights that exclusively platform white drag performers, or only drag queens. London has its fill of fantastic drag queens, kings, and things (the term often used for performers who don’t identify as a queen or king), but they’re not always given the chance to grace the stage. While certain bars and producers uplift different types of drag and marginalised voices, we still don’t get the same opportunities as those who fit the “Drag Race mould” do. This means that drag queens must have an exaggerated hourglass figure, wear wigs, and, preferably, be a cisgender white male; drag kings should bind their chest, wear a packer, and remeber that — hey, they’ll still “never be as entertaining as a queen!” Although drag is supposed to be about breaking gender boundaries, performers who don’t fit into these narrow requirements are made to feel that they don’t belong.
Since worldwide lockdowns began in March, many performers have taken advantage of the growing movement of drag online to create more inclusive environments — some exclusively spotlighting minority talent or gender non-conforming performers. The importance of these shows have also been underscored in the wake of the global Black Lives Matter protests, which erupted following the death of George Floyd in May. Chicago’s celebrated Black Girl Magic, a live performance show hosted by Rupaul’s Drag Race Season 10 contestant, The Vixen, has been influential since it began in November 2016. During lockdown, the show has since moved online and notably features only Black performers of different gender identities and drag styles, showing that there is a necessity for championing the talent of this demographic — one that RuPaul’s competition should be advocating for as well.
In the U.K., drag shows also went online, and many established drag performers created their own online shows or had connections to join others. Due to the lockdown, I had missed many open mic opportunities where I could have made connections or gained enough knowledge to start my own show. Nevertheless, I was determined to find a platform suitable for my performances. Ultimately, the only shows I was accepted for were hosted by people belonging to minority groups. Burmese queen Emi Grate’s A+ The Pan-Asian Drag Revue was where I had my debut on Twitch, and drag king Bee Jamming’s Instagram live show RUSH. I was able to create content knowing the cast and viewers would understand my motivations, especially when including “political” topics such as racism into my performances.
These shows are important for representation, as they are safe spaces from tokenisation in predominantly white lineups. It also provides drag show producers with casts available for their shows, batting away any excuse of “but we couldn’t find any!” My hope is that digital drag has provided an example of racial inclusivity which can be recreated on live stages, as we gradually return to in-person spaces. “Rupaul’s Drag Race” is not representative of all drag, and drag fans, performers, and producers of shows must demand for inclusivity. We must ask for a diverse cast with people of colour, transgender people, disabled people, and different kinds of drag.