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There’s more to drag than Drag Race

RuPaul argued that drag is more radical if you’re a man, but it’s simply untrue

RuPaul’s Drag Race has without doubt brought drag into otherwise conservative homes around the world, but it’s fair to say the contest views the artistry through a narrow lens. Sure, the show boasts glamour, athletics and entertainment, but there’s a lack of desire to truly push boundaries and represent the experimental direction that IRL drag scenes worldwide are increasingly moving towards.

RuPaul’s legacy and impact cannot be understated, but a series of controversial comments made in a Guardian profile last weekend showed just how far behind he really is. Nestled between his comments on the “radical” origins of drag and how the art form is a “big f-you to male-dominated culture,” Ru basically argued in the interview that women in drag aren’t as “radical” as their male counterparts. The irony is obvious – drag itself has become a male-dominated field, and neither Ru nor his iconic franchise are doing anything to challenge this.

Peppermint was the first queen to begin the race as an openly trans contestant. Not only did he argue that she “hadn’t really transitioned” at the time because she hadn’t had breast implants, RuPaul also said he “probably wouldn’t” let a trans contestant who had undergone gender confirmation surgery compete. “You can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body”, he is quoted as saying. He has since issued an apology online, stating that trans communities “are heroes of our shared LGBTQ movement” and that he is continuing to educate himself.

A willingness to take accountability is positive but in a time of endless, insidious debate about trans womanhood, the interview felt mistimed at best, harmful in reality. It bears repeating: Trans women are women. Some choose to undergo surgery; others choose not to undergo surgery; many more simply can’t afford treatment due to crippling costs. Trans identities are varied, a fact which Peppermint herself explained in a response published by Billboard: “No one has the ability or the right to define your womanhood, manhood or transness, but you.”

Peppermint goes on to commend the apology, but his words still reinforce the ongoing transphobia in queer communities worldwide. Dazed’s LGBTQ editor-at-large Shon Faye wrote about this discrimination back in 2016, while also highlighting the crucial differences between trans and drag: one is an identity, the other is a performance. The two should never be conflated, because trans womanhood is not performative. But, ironically, RuPaul’s Drag Race itself has proven that the two identities can intersect, by casting numerous trans queens, some of whom came out during their time on the show and others after.

That’s not to say that the show, with its emphasis on glamour and hyper-femininity, is in any way representative of the disruptive brilliance bubbling up in local drag scenes around the world. Step away from Drag Race and into your local bar and you’ll see that artists – some trans men, some women, some non-binary – are taping, padding and morphing their features into twisted parodies of gender.

“The last year has also seen a spike in visibility for drag artists whose work transcends gender entirely, calling into question what it even means to look human”

The last year has also seen a spike in visibility for drag artists whose work transcends gender entirely, calling into question what it even means to look human. Hungry – the visionary responsible for Björk’s dazzling Utopia cover – uses pearls, paint and optical illusions to create a wildly ethereal aesthetic, whereas Nick Knight muse Salvia uses editing software and prosthetics to create alien-esque looks way more interesting than conventional glamour, but it’s unlikely they’ll find their way onto Drag Race any time soon.

It’s a shame, largely because Ru’s assertion that men in drag are more ‘radical’ is, well, false. A reactionary hashtag, #MyDragIsValid, demonstrated this, with scores of women, non-binary performers and trans men using the opportunity to showcase their artistry and rally against the idea that drag is an art for men only. ‘I love to be a womannnnnn!,’ wrote Amber Cadaverous, a Birmingham queen whose aesthetic is a fusion of goth, punk and genderfuck, whereas Twitter user @themarcollectiv seized the opportunity to drag up for the first time: “(People) of any gender can do drag, even trans guys,” he wrote.

The insanely intricate, boundary-pushing looks to be found online highlight just how out of touch Drag Race really is. Despite RuPaul’s own, seemingly inclusive motto, “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag,” the show has never featured a cis woman, whereas previous contestant Willam even took the opportunity to highlight just how rigid casting policies really were: “We all know in our drag community that if casting knew you were trans, you’d be disqualified,” he tweeted.

“The idea that men in drag are somehow more ‘radical’ may have made sense decades ago, but things have changed”

A lack of diversity on the show means a crucial missed opportunity to discuss the ongoing misogyny in queer spaces. The idea that men in drag are somehow more ‘radical’ may have made sense decades ago, but things have changed: various women in drag have explained that they are heckled, sneered at, and insulted by men in queer spaces, while the prevalence of misogyny in gay clubs can’t be ignored. These women are often called invalid and even accused of appropriation. But drag belongs to nobody. It has no sex or gender, and that’s the point: it is the art of subverting, twisting, and fucking with gender to highlight that our identities are all constructed. It’s an intellectual piss-take – one which should be open to all.

In fact, for many performers nowadays, hyper-femininity isn’t the goal. The goal is to fuck with perceptions of what a ‘woman’, or even a ‘person’, should look like by exaggerating visual ideals.

Drag is political – but is it not even more political for women to create their own piss-takes of ‘femininity’, a construct placed on them without approval? Are cis male drag queens really still ‘punk’ if they’re also giant misogynists and transphobes? The answer is no. There’s a world of radical creativity bubbling under RuPaul’s feet; women, non-binary and trans performers are not only pushing drag into new, exciting realms, they’re also fighting the insidious rhetoric that their expression isn’t valid. Drag Race should still be appreciated and celebrated for what it is – palatable, light-hearted entertainment – but it only takes a step into your local queer bar or a scroll through Twitter to see that there’s more innovative drag artistry to be found off-screen.