Pin It
Drag Race
via BBC

This week’s Drag Race UK reveals a spectrum of attitudes towards women

As RuPaul’s British iteration approaches the final, a runway chat with Baga Chipz highlights how critical reflections must be made in the art form that claims reverence for women

What is the relationship between drag and women? This was a question Drag Race UK examined this week in its main challenge. The standard narrative is that gay men who become drag queens tend to be largely inspired to express their femininity by their reverence for mothers, sisters, aunts and other female family figures in childhood. This regular challenge inverts that – the queens instead had to transform their mothers or sisters into drag queens who mirror their son or brother’s own interpretation of femininity.  

The challenge resulted in a deeply revealing examination of the spectrum of attitudes towards women that drag contains. It can be a knowing, shared joke with an audience about the increasingly complex world we find ourselves in on questions of sex and gender – like with Divina, who gave herself a baby bump to mirror her sister’s real pregnancy on the runway. The usual corseting required was out of the question for the mum-to-be. The Vivienne – who last week gave the comedic performance of the series in her advert for ‘Dripping’, a bottled water brand that promised vaginal lubrication – shows an exceptional aptitude for understanding how to play up the humour of being a woman character without making fun of actual women. This week, she displayed affection and respect towards her mother both in their warm and laughter-filled conversation and in the regal styling she chose for the catwalk. 

It also revealed how, in an art form that claims reverence for women, there can also be an astonishing pass given to casual sexism. None of us can know from an hour of edited television what Baga Chipz’s relationship with her mother is like and I have no interest in patronising them on that. Here’s the thing, though: I’m not sure their relationship matters.  Watching a man in drag criticise the body of the woman who gave birth to him on the basis of her age was deeply uncomfortable. It was uncomfortable in the same way as Baga’s Amy Winehouse ‘tribute’ in episode one, which seemed to just be more of the same tabloid misogyny she was subject to throughout her life, was uncomfortable. Her mum may not have minded her put downs, but many viewers did. I hope Baga will reflect critically on some aspects of how this comes across from a person who earns his livelihood by impersonating a woman.

“In the world of Drag Race, the art form is all about men’s self expression. Women, where they do appear, are simply icons and muses”

In many ways, Baga’s sexist blindspot is a metaphor for the show itself. It’s a question which rears its head again with every new season of Drag Race where all the queens were assigned male at birth (by which I mean cis men, maybe a trans woman if she shuts up about being a woman and lets everyone think she’s a man). Drag Race UK, like its American cousin, has been rightly criticised for having no women, no trans men, and no nonbinary people who were assigned female at birth as actual contestants. The only women who have ever appeared on RuPaul’s Drag Race are trans women who didn’t declare their gender identity while auditioning, and Peppermint, a trans woman who RuPaul later indicated was accepted because she had not yet undergone significant medical transition. 

In the world of Drag Race, the art form is all about men’s self expression. Women, where they do appear, are simply icons and muses: think Cheryl nodding her glossy extensions while namesake Cheryl Hole tearfully told her she was an inspiration. Even Michelle Visage – the one woman with a degree of power and influence in this franchise – is a sharp-tongued, elegantly contoured tower of strength. We don’t get to see queer women striving and fucking up and talking about what it’s like being a lesbian in the UK in 2019 for the BBC’s large audience. Cheryl Hole and her lovely sister, whose relationship was cute and charming, spoke about how she had taught her older brother how to do makeup in the early days of his drag. Cheryl acknowledged that her sister’s own form of Essex hyper femininity was itself a kind of drag.

It feels like the show knows women have more to give its audiences and the art form than it allows, but refuses to surrender the male-focussed formula it achieved success with. It’s ironically more sexist than The Apprentice

I’m sorry Cheryl went, but I predicted it – I feel this show has been lacking in subtlety about who the final three would be since the beginning. I think Cheryl Hole – always the bridesmaid, never the bride – may turn out to have the biggest career explosion of all after this series. The queer community loves an underdog, and her humility and ability to laugh at herself alongside the fact she’s actually a nightclub queen means she’ll rake it in on the live show circuit. Good luck to her.