A drag queen is an individual who is biologically born a male and presents oneself in female attire while behaving in exaggerated feminine gender roles. Individuals perform drag for various reasons including entertainment, self-expression, comfort, creativity, and to make either political or cultural statements. In RuPaul’s Drag Race (RDR), a reality competition television series with the goal of finding “America’s Next Drag Superstar,” the culture of drag is gamified through a series of challenges requiring participants to sing, dance, lip-sync, act, and sew, while presenting themselves in the best combination of dresses, wigs, and makeup. RDR demonstrates the legitimate forms of drag and is presented as the official reality television show for the LGBTQ community (Edgar, 2011).
Gamification can be characterized by the use of game design components in non-game settings and emphasizes self-improvement through both tracking and actionable feedback (Whitson, 2014). Individuals are critiqued by a panel of judges, including drag superstar, RuPaul himself, at which time one individual is given positive reinforcement by being named the challenge winner, while another is eliminated and ultimately sent home. This process continues until one individual remains and is named “America’s Next Drag Superstar”, which has the potential to provide the winner with marketability and a platform to forge a career in the music industry. The gamification of drag through RDR defines normative approaches to being a drag queen that oppose the principles of hegemonic masculinity while simultaneously reinforcing the ideals of hegemonic femininity perpetuated in sports.
In an interview with NY Times about drag, RuPaul claims, “We queens take on identity, and it is always a social statement. It’s all nudge, nudge, wink, wink … we’re mocking identity. We’re mocking everyone.” To successfully make a mockery of identity and perform drag, the focus must largely be on the technologies of transformation. Such technologies include the concealing or “tucking” of the penis, the padding of the body to resemble feminine curves, the tricks of make-up, and the aesthetic arrangement of clothing (Moore, 2013). Individuals are also expected to transform their movements and the way they speak in a manner directly in line with stereotypes of femininity.
The Show’s Format
RDR begins with a “Mini Challenge” that varies from episode to episode requiring challengers to showcase their style, creativity, and personality in an effort to gain an advantage during the “Main Challenge” (Moore, 2013). After the top two performers are identified and provided with positive reinforcement, a winner is named and given an advantage for the upcoming Main Challenge. The large-scale Main Challenge involving some type of performance in front of a camera or live audience, requires contestants to entertain by either acting, singing, modeling, or constructing specific outfits, and is subject to critique during the “Final Runway Show” (Moore, 2013). The Final Runway Show, taking place in front of the panel of judges, demands participants to sew and coordinate a combination of clothing, makeup, and wigs that are inspired by a particular pre-determined theme.
As a result of the contestants’ performances during the Main Challenge and Final Runway Show, feedback is provided by RuPaul and his panel of judges who determine the top and bottom three. The top three are applauded for their successful performances while the bottom three are condemned for their lack of showmanship. Those who are in neither the top or bottom three are deemed safe, but are reminded by RuPaul that safe is not enough to become “America’s Next Drag Superstar.” Based on the data and feedback provided, gamification promotes greater self-governance and a new care of the self (Whitson, 2014). In this case, the safe contestants are at a disadvantage since they fail to receive any actionable insights on how to improve, while those in the top and bottom three are equipped with greater knowledge as a result of the tailored feedback provided to them. After a winner is announced, RuPaul identifies the bottom two contestants who will perform in the show’s penultimate, “Lip-sync For Your Lives,” requiring individuals to lip-sync and dance to a pre-determined musical number in opposition to one another (Moore, 2013). The individual who outperforms the other is declared the winner of the battle and is told “shantay you stay”, while the loser is asked to “sashay away,” and is eliminated from the competition altogether.
The Opposition of Hegemonic Masculinity
In an interview with Mercury News, RuPaul states that “Drag is very nuanced in its expression of rebellion against the male-dominated culture … for boys to denounce masculinity is a true act of rebellion.” RDR directly opposes the ideals of hegemonic masculinity perpetuated in sports through the reversed gender roles assumed by the male contestants and the greater potential of success for those who embody more feminine qualities. Hegemonic masculinity pressures individuals to conform to dominant masculinity that emphasizes: (a) binary views of gender; (b) patriarchy as essential; (c) heteronormative relational practices; and (d) biologically determined behavior (Khan, Goddard, & Coy, 2012). The displays of masculinity that are most rewarded in sports are characterized by heterosexual males behaving in ways that are directly in line with the gender roles assigned to them at birth on the basis of their biological sex. In sports, violent, aggressive, and anti-sensual assertions of heterosexual masculinity are normalized (Waitt, 2010). RDR opposes this greatly since the contestants are predominately made up of CIS gender homosexual males who actively choose to perform opposing gender roles and are rewarded for such behavior. Similar to the quadrennial Gay Games, RDR provides a space for participants to perform their identities in ways they see as challenging to heteronormativity (Waitt, 2010). While the presence of masculinity in sports is highly regarded, the absence of it in RDR is essential for contestants to be successful.
Femininity is widely deemed unfavorable and associated with a lack of the skills required to successfully compete in sports. This greatly opposes the qualities that are deemed valuable and necessary for contestants to portray in RDR. In sports, males are commonly perceived to be at an advantage as result of their greater testosterone levels, muscle mass, and bone structure (McClearen, 2015). Although sports consider the presence of such qualities advantageous to performance, the absence of these very qualities is crucial for the successful performance of drag. Since RDR contestants are assigned with tasks that demonstrate various femininities, such as sewing and choreographed dancing, normatively feminine individuals are given greater casting privileges (Vesey, 2017). Those who have typically feminine skillsets and features are equipped with an advantage and are more likely to be participants. Since the goal of drag is to behave and look like a woman, the more feminine features and qualities a man embodies the more likely they are to successfully pass as a woman. While physical indicators of masculinity are rewarded in sports, in RDR indicators of femininity are highly valuable and are the ultimate determinant of a contestant’s advancement. Despite femininity being celebrated, aren’t there any other aspects of femininity that can be presented and rewarded besides stereotypes linked to women as homemakers and entertainers?
The Reinforcement of Hegemonic Femininity
Although portrayals of femininity are essential in RDR, the feminine ideals contestants are expected to display reinforce the same stereotypical perceptions of women that have long rendered them inferior in sports. An article from Medium claims that many drag queens receive inspiration for their names and character traits from popular culture. Since the media largely portrays women as bitchy, catty, and slutty, such unflattering stereotypes are widely presented in RDR. Through the feedback provided by the judges of RDR, contestants and viewers are taught to resort to exaggerated stereotypes when determining what it means to be a woman. This reinforces a troubling position for women whose participation is perceived as limited in various social spheres as a result of the rigid identities they are expected to perform. Drag performances reveal that gender is inessential but continue to reinforce the hegemonic gender order through exaggerated representations of femininity (Brown, 2001). The unflattering qualities and stereotypical representations of femininity perpetuated by RDR keep women firmly positioned in front of the male gaze and stand as the basis for why they construed as subordinate in the sports.
In addition to the rigid displays of femininity, RDR fails to account for a significant segment of the drag community represented by women. “Drag Kings”, a fixture in the culture of drag, are typically gay women who dress up and perform as passable versions of men. Such performers are entirely unrepresented by the show, which signals that RDR and the culture of drag is a “boys club” and is in line with the hegemonic gender order found in sports. In media coverage surrounding sports, female competitors are seen as women first and athletes second with an emphasis often placed on their looks (Heywood & Dworkin, 2003). In RDR, the same is true since females are completely disregarded as competitors but continue to be presented by stereotypes and their appearances through the show’s performances. Through inflexible compliance with conventional norms of femininity and masculinity along with the male embodiment of femininity, drag performance continues to perpetuate a masculine hierarchy (Brown, 2001). Since the only competitors deemed fit to participate in RDR are males, this further reinforces notions of the hegemonic gender order that emphasize patriarchy and biological males as superior. They say imitation is the best form of flattery, but if it results in the continued marginalization and lack of inclusion of women, how empowering can it really be?
Through the feedback and reinforcement provided to contestants on RDR, non-racialized forms of femininity are often positioned as superior to its racialized counterparts. After appearing on RDR, contestants have an opportunity to create their own music and promote products from a range of gay-friendly brands. In terms of marketability, many light-skinned and white contestants were better able to forge music careers after competing on the show than those of color (Vesey, 2017). This signals that representations with an emphasis solely on exaggerated femininity, free of indicators of race are likely to be more palatable to audiences. In a 2011 interview with the NY Times, when speaking about Raja, the winner of RDR Season 3, RuPaul claimed, “He will sell things. That’s what we do here. We sell and endorse products.” Raja, being from an Indonesian background is lighter skinned and comes across racially ambiguous, allowing him to connect with a greater range of audiences and thus greater marketability.
Those contestants on RDR who are seen as a distinct race as a result of their accents or darker skin tones are often encouraged to “race it up” by the judges (Strings & Bui, 2014). RDR Season 3 contestant, Alexis Mateo, who is from a Puerto Rican background, for example, was consistently expected to perform as a stereotypical Latina and rewarded for it despite wanting to portray various white women from popular culture (World of Wonder, 2011). Such contestants are limited by their race and are deemed “inauthentic” when they attempt to step outside the “racialized-box” created by the judges. Why must individuals in the drag community be further divided by race when they are already under considerable scrutiny for being different? The greater marketability and palatability of lighter-skinned individuals is also evident in sports. Three-time WNBA MVP, Sheryl Swoopes’ coming out coverage was erased of her race and was comfortably consumed by White audiences as a result of her feminine demeanor, stable relationship, and lighter skin tone (King, 2009). Despite both Raja and Sheryl Swoopes’ sexual orientations being in opposition to heteronormativity, they are still celebrated and deemed redeemable through the erasure of their racial identities.
A Look Inward
How can the hegemonic gender order and the marginalization of women be challenged in RDR? Perhaps the show ought to provide greater representation of drag kings by including female contestants who impersonate males to help shed light on the peculiar ways of masculinity. In addition to this, more diverse and empowering portrayals of both masculinity and femininity should be rewarded that liberate viewers and demonstrate that there is no singular way for men and women to perform their identities.
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