LIKE MANY OTHER GAY BOYS who loved to read books, I loved Virginia Woolf. The first time I read Mrs. Dalloway was in high school. I was too dense to fully wrap my head around those long, lingering sentences, but I liked the way they felt, how they moved inside me. I thought, of course, that Clarissa Dalloway was a kindred spirit from another era. I understood how the most ordinary thing could feel like everything. The distinctions between reader and writer and protagonist grew indistinct; I was Clarissa, who was maybe Virginia, too.
This triangulation structures The Hours, a film based on the Pulitzer-prize winning book of the same title. It’s a movie filled with the ambition of its literary foremother, but with the artistic sensibility of a Hollywood producer (read: Oscar bait). The internal drama that unfolds so well in Woolf’s prose becomes overbearing and tinny within the context of Hollywood narrative cinema. Rather than capture the quiet ache of its female protagonists, the film presents three interlacing case studies of the female hysteric.
I had downloaded a grainy bootleg version of the movie off Limewire, not soon after I had read both The Hours and Mrs. Dalloway. I was captured by the extravagance of the movie, its overwrought sense of drama. I watched it repeatedly on my computer with the silhouettes of audience members bobbing across the bottom of the screen. There was one scene in particular, one that never occurs in the book, that I loved. In it, Nicole Kidman attempts to run off to London, and her husband catches her at the train station, bringing her back home to “eat Nelly’s dinner.”
I could recite every single line of the scene, imitate every inflection in Kidman’s voice as she fights with Leonard, her husband. I loved how her protracted nose drew your eye inside of her face. I loved the sibilance of her esses when she said “custody” and “imprisonment” — and most deliciously “interests.” I loved the intractable language: “I choose not the suffering anesthetic of the suburbs, but the violent jolt of the capital.” I loved the turgid swell in Philip Glass’s score when the scene began to resolve itself. And most of all, I loved the way her voice scraped along in a whisper before she thundered: “I’M DYING IN THIS TOWN.” I would erupt into giggles. I still do.
Even though I did not have the words to name it, this was the first time I had watched something as camp. Susan Sontag wrote that camp was a sensibility, a way of making sense of the world. Meaning, a thing does not need to be intended as camp in order to be read as such. An analysis of Art Nouveau, she wrote, “would scarcely equate it with Camp. But such an analysis cannot ignore what in Art Nouveau allows it to be experienced as Camp.” Camp is not just a genre or an aesthetic, but more importantly, a way of understanding art. Moreover, camp can be “a private zany experience of the thing.”
My own mimicry of Virginia Woolf came not from a place of cynicism, but adoration. I loved Virginia Woolf. I loved Clarissa Dalloway. And as a little queer Korean boy living in St. Petersburg, Florida, I fixated on New York City in the way she must have done with London. I felt, with the acute sense of drama particular to teenagers, I was dying in this town. I’m not sure I could have loved a movie that would have rendered a “realistic” Virginia Woolf; she was too singular and too personal for me to fall in love with someone else’s version. That the movie failed so wonderfully only seemed appropriate. It was fitting she turned tragicomic, as though only then could I hold her inside of me.
I have often thought that if I were ever a drag queen, and more specifically that if I were ever a drag queen who was a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race, I would play Virginia Woolf — or rather, Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf — in the Snatch Game episode when the contestants don their very best celebrity impersonation. (Others I have considered: Björk and Song Liling from M. Butterfly; the latter of which is really just a camp version of Cio-Cio San from Madama Butterfly). The segment is a spoof of the 1960s game show, Match Game where two non-celebrity contestants try to “match” answers with the celebrity panel. Snatch Game reverses the dynamic, with celebrity “contestants” (who are actually judges) trying to match answers with the “celebrity” panel (who are the drag queen contestants). Their portrayals run the gamut of the gay man’s canon, from popular icons like Cher and Diana Ross to those with a twist like butch Alicia Keys. RuPaul, out of drag and in a suit, plays host.
I imagine myself sitting on the top row where I can get a good look at the more derivative queens, invariably portraying some pop star — a manic Lady Gaga, a bland Katy Perry. I shoot them withering glances while rolling a case of cigarettes. RuPaul strolls out lean and lithe in a bright green Prince of Wales check suit with a matching tie in a fat double Windsor knot, the studio lights casting a soft sheen on his head. I scratch at my bird’s nest of a graying wig, and when I feel nervous, I rub my hands together before shoving them into the pockets of a long peasant dress. I don’t know if they are my nerves, or Virginia’s.
RuPaul: “Here’s how the game works. I ask a question and our celebrity panel fills in the blanks. And you give an answer you think will match. Let’s play!”
Behind us the sequined blue curtains would sway to the blasts of the air conditioner.
RuPaul: “Slutty Sally is soooo slutty that when she opens her legs “blank” falls out. Virginia? What did you write down?”
I jerk my head towards the camera and squint long and hard. Then, flipping the blue notecard, I reveal my answer: STONES.
For the uninitiated, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a reality TV show that premiered in 2009 on LogoTV. It takes the form of a classic reality competition show; a dozen or so drag divas compete to become “the next drag superstar,” which really just means that they are trying to become the next RuPaul, the one drag queen who had the media savvy to sustain a commercial brand. She came up through the club circuit, not the ballroom scene in Harlem (made famous by Madonna and the House of Xtravaganza with their introduction of “voguing”). Still, the success of the Xtravaganza children helped pave the way for RuPaul’s 1992 debut song, “Supermodel (You Better Work),” which refashioned the same ballroom argot for mainstream pop. The single eventually led to a contract with MAC Cosmetics and her own talk show on VH1. It is an enviable career for anyone, but wildly so for a drag queen.
RuPaul’s success has hinged on his ability to curate drag for mainstream taste, and Drag Race is an embodiment of that ethos. Within each episode, there is a mini-challenge and a main challenge that measure whether a queen has the chops to become the next RuPaul. In keeping with ball style, the queens throw on heels and wear something sickening (meaning, so fabulous it makes you sick) down the runway, usually as part of a theme like “post-apocalyptic couture” or “executive realness.”
The hallmark of drag, that is, its referential dexterity, is present on the level of language. For instance, RuPaul constantly reminds the contestants that the winner is the one who has charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent — or “cunt.” It becomes a fun game to listen for the words that come before and after the phrase, such as “raw charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent” and “I hope your charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent are all warmed up,” and so on. RuPaul’s video messages arrive with the same thrilling announcement, “Oooh, girl. You’ve got SHE MAIL.” In one mini-challenge, the queens take turns “reading” one another, aka “throwing shade,” aka taking a razorblade to your flaws. Jujube from season two was a master of this: “Tyra honey,” she would drawl, peering over plastic sunglasses. “Was your barbecue canceled? Cuz’ your grill is FUCKED.”
The challenges pull from every cultural reference available. The queens perform a ballet of RuPaul’s life, shoot trailers for Drag Queens in Outer Space: From Earth to Uranus (and its sequel), lead 1980s workout videos, and turn heterosexual dads into their pregnant drag sisters. They sing, dance, and wrestle as the “luscious ladies” of the WTF — Wrestling’s Trashiest Fighters. In a riveting duel to the death, RuPaul tells the bottom two queens, “The time has come. For you to lip sync. For. Your. Life.” Welcome to the Thunderdome: 12 gentlemen enter, one queen wins.
If drag is about references, what then, is the original referent? Well, on its face, it is often a woman tinged with tragedy: Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Whitney Houston. But woman, in this sense, is both literal and metaphorical; she is an idea, an aspiration. Season four winner Sharon Needles said she was not interested in “pretty.” In a camera confessional after participating in a wet T-shirt contest, she said, “I never want to create a character that someone would want to fuck. I like to mock sexiness.” Her archrival, Phi Phi O’Hara represented a side of drag that valued fishiness (dragspeak for femininity), glamour, and beauty. But however hard Phi Phi pursued the original referent, it was, as Derrida would say, always deferred.
Drag is heavy on the signifiers: the vast constellation of accoutrements — the jewels, the gowns, and the walk — that eventually constitute Woman itself. It is this performativity, the grotesquerie of gender that is always part of the joke. Through exaggerating signifiers, drag suggests that no signified exists. The joke, it seems, is on us. We might feel that our sartorial choices are more natural, but they are still attempts to approximate an ideal. In an appearance on the Geraldo Rivera show in the early 1990s, RuPaul told the audience, “You’re born naked and the rest is drag.”
Sontag advocated camp on the basis of its ability to “find the success in certain passionate failures.” Through drag, we understand that gender has failed, and that it can be beautiful.
The idea that not every spectator directly identified with an on-screen character had been taken for granted in early film theory. It really wasn’t until second-wave feminism that the belief came under scrutiny. In her essay, ”Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey said movies were constructed around a “male gaze.” This was a difficult admission for her because of how much she loved the movies. Feminism lifted the veil and forced her to see just how patriarchal Hollywood was. Once she saw it, she couldn’t un-see it.
Even though black feminist bell hooks criticized Mulvey for her white bourgeois perspective, she too prescribed a political reading of film, which she called the “oppositional gaze.” For her, the pleasure of watching came from the pleasure of critique. Both women marked a time in feminism concerned with excavating the political from the cultural, and judging cultural productions against an ideological standard.
This perspective comes, I suspect, after a certain politicization occurs — the moment it becomes apparent how many stories of the queer, the colored, and the female are told not by them, but by others. In John Stahl’s Imitation of Life, bell hooks addresses Peola, the young black daughter of a maid who could pass for white:
“We cried all night for you, for the cinema that had no place for you. And like you, we stopped thinking it would one day be different.”
Watching can be more than pure acquiescence or resistance. It is complicated, dynamic, and fraught. It may very well be that a new Hollywood blockbuster reinforces repressive gender roles, but it doesn’t mean that in watching it — or even loving it — our engagement is a straightforward slingshot to identification. Watching is a complex interplay between our own subjectivities and the narrative on screen. We aren’t just listless viewers, nor are we impenetrable monoliths. Just as we work our way into narratives, they also have a way of working their way into us.
In The Devil Finds Work, James Baldwin recalls watching old Hollywood movies as a child. Bette Davis was one of his favorites. He could see his own frog eyes in her “pop-eyes popping.” Her ugly beauty connected with the ugliness he felt as a child, a child of his mother. Watching Bette Davis, he describes how “when she moved, she moved just like a nigger.” In The Women, Hilton Als’s identification as a “Negress” led him to “the dark crawl space” of his mother’s closet where he would put on her stockings under his clothes so that he “could have her…near [him], always.”
This is the circuit along which camp operates. Gay men are not the purveyors of camp simply because of an “aristocratic posture” that Sontag believed characterized “homosexuals.” There may be an affectation of class, but it is rooted in a deep longing to seize control of the dominant narrative. José Esteban Muñoz calls this act “disidentification”: “to read oneself and one’s own life narrative in a moment, object, or subject that is not culturally coded to ‘connect.’” Disidentification is different from identification in that it is indirect, askew. “Disidentificatory performances opt to do more than simply tear down the majoritarian public sphere,” writes Muñoz. “Disidentification uses the majoritarian culture as raw material to make a new world.”
In an episode titled, “Ru Ha Ha,” the queens do a standup comedy routine. One contestant, Shangela, struts onto the stage dressed in a leopard pantsuit and a long fur coat as “Laquifa, the PNP: the postmodern pimp ho.” She accessorizes with garish stereotypes: big, gold jewelry, a floppy purple hat trimmed with chartreuse feathers, and silver shoes where her feet hang off the edges, because she says, the recession has made times tough. “Yes I’m still a pimp, but I’m also my own ho,” she quips. Drag, here, is about power: a way of claiming a narrative that has otherwise left you for dead.
This way of seeing the world, eating it up, is what constitutes the “look,” or your drag. Your perspective is reflected through your clothes, performance, and persona. Drag personas are often constituted of deeply personal references. In a lunch over orange tic tacs, Jinkx Monsoon told RuPaul about enduring her mother’s alcoholism. Her drag, which sometimes has the scent of mothballs clinging to it, is a way of “making peace with a dark childhood and make light [sic]of the disheveled kind of crazy, kooky mom.” At the Gramercy Theatre in New York, she performed “I dreamed a dream” from Les Misérables as Little Edie. This conflation of tragic women was completely incongruous, and yet incredibly fitting, and so very Jinkx. Her look (way of viewing the world) constitutes the look (her persona).
“In a ballroom you can be anything you want,” said Dorian Corey, one of the elder voices of Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary on the ballroom scene, Paris is Burning. “You can erase all of the mistakes, all of the flaws, all of the giveaways, to make your illusion perfect.” This was true for whatever look you were going for, whether Marilyn Monroe or a major company’s CEO. What mattered was that if you could convince your peers of this illusion, then maybe it could be true.
Often desire coincides with what everyone recognizes as the good life: fame, beauty, wealth. In Paris is Burning, Octavia St. Lauren went on model castings and photo shoots in pursuit of the good life. She wanted to be on the cover of magazines and she wanted everyone to know her name. She dreamed big. “I believe that there’s a big future out there with a lot of beautiful things, a lot of handsome men, a lot of luxury,” she said.
The desire for good, rich, and beautiful things has always been part of drag. This assimilationist impulse may run counter to what some have romanticized as drag’s “radical” critique of gender norms. But both have existed, side by side, and will continue to do so. It is not inaccurate when RuPaul calls her drag queen contestants her “children.” RuPaul’s Drag Race is a new house, one that fits squarely within a gay movement that has turned its focus towards the most assimilationist of causes: marriage. For better or for worse, RuPaul has ushered in a new era of drag, one that hopes to capitalize on the desires for wealth and fame expressed in Paris is Burning. The real kind.
There are moments when the show is powerfully still, when the edges tremble. The contestants are getting ready for their runway presentation. They stand in front of lighted vanity mirrors, half-naked with pads stuffed in their pantyhose, contouring their faces and adjusting their wigs. Conversation strays to their personal lives: their families, loves, and struggles. They talk about prison, addiction, homelessness, and suicide. Some are estranged from their biological parents, and some have loving ones, but all call their drag mothers and sisters, family. More than once a queen will say how drag saved her life.
One of the most memorable RuPaul moments came midway through the first season. The queen is Ongina, a petite Filipina diva with a tattoo of a Japanese anime princess on her right arm. The challenge winner becomes a spokesperson for Viva Glam, which donates all of its sales to MAC’s AIDS Fund. Ongina stomps down the runway wearing a sheer and shredded black dress under a fringed military jacket, signature headpiece (this time a black bow) on her bald head. Her makeup looks bad, but it doesn’t matter because, honey, she looks sickening. Guest judge and former Calvin Klein model Jenny Shimizu tells her, “I had the same feeling I had when I first saw Naomi Campbell walking down the runway: a savage beast.”
After she wins, Ongina collapses on the stage in tears. She tells them how meaningful this win is for her. She had been HIV positive for two years. She didn’t wanted to say anything on television because her parents didn’t yet know, but she couldn’t keep it inside any longer. “You have to celebrate life and you have to keep going,” she says between gasps. “And I keep going.”
As a queer Asian American male, I had, up until that point, never seen myself on screen. Asian men, queer or not, have a long history of invisibility. I looked everywhere for someone who looked like me, felt like me. The obvious visual representations, the ones that told me, “This is you,” were worse. I remember watching the American version of Queer As Folk, when Emmett Honeycutt shows off his new Japanese boyfriend. He didn’t speak a word of English, but instead, repeated the word “kane,” which Emmett learns in an anti-climactic deflation, means “money.” The Asian guy was just another money boy. I understood then that caricature was really just another form of absence.
Ongina was the first queer Asian American man I had ever seen on television. But it is a mistake to say I saw myself as her, or anyone else for that matter. What I saw was an understanding of what it means to live a queer and Asian life. What I saw was the same look. The look that returns your gaze, unblinking. The look that says: I am here. I survived.
Long before I had read Mrs. Dalloway or watched The Hours, I practiced another scene:
It is summer and I am in my dining room, surrounded by a pile of clothes I pulled from my mother’s closet: pants, sweaters, blouses, and bras. Outside, the afternoon sun is a searing white, but inside the house is cool and dim. I am six, maybe eight, and home alone.
I tie the clothes together, arm to leg and leg to arm, and I make big strings, draping them around my father’s chair. I keep adding until the chair is fully wrapped in clothes, a multicolored chrysalis. Then, I get down on my hands and knees and worm my head through the tunnel of fabric until I am standing upright, with my back against the back of the chair.
This is Cinderella at her lowest point, her moment of ruin. She has spent the day mopping the floors, sweeping out the chimney, and dealing with that mean old cat Lucifer. She has her heart set on going to the ball, but it is too late: she has nothing to wear. When she climbs the creaky wooden stairs to her room in the attic, her animal friends unveil the dress they made from her stepsisters’ discarded clothes: a pink and white gown with straps and pretty little bows. She puts it on and hurries downstairs to catch a ride in the carriage. That’s when her stepsisters see her.
They are mad with jealousy. They lunge into Cinderella — clawing and tearing at her dress. I do the same. My hands grab at the clothes and fling them in wide arcs around the dining room table. Cinderella begs them to stop, crying and screaming in futility.
Cinderella is in pieces. She runs out, cries and cries and cries. I am on the floor; my palms and knees feel itchy against the rug.
Then I get up, gather the clothes, and do it again.