You Better Work; or, How to Tell Friends from Faux: On "RuPaul's Drag Race"

Gender performance and the politics of pretend in 'RuPaul's Drag Race'

By Jordan Alexander SteinJanuary 28, 2013

    You Better Work; or, How to Tell Friends from Faux: On "RuPaul's Drag Race"

    AFTER THE JUDGMENT comes the performance. Each week on RuPaul's Drag Race, one of the two lowest scoring drag queen contestants is eliminated from the competition. In a last-ditch shot at redemption, RuPaul commands these queens to “lip-sync for your life!” What follows is a collaborative performance, improvised to a predetermined song, in which the “bottom two” queens fight a nonverbal battle for the judges’ attention. All contestants lip-sync, but many also dance — a few perform gymnastics, some shed wigs or clothes. A sorry few crack under the pressure. In these moments, any humor in the imperative to “lip-sync for your life” evaporates, as the audience becomes acutely aware of the high stakes binding glam and gloom.

    Though typically edited into just two-minute segments, the drama of these lip-syncs make them the most memorable and celebrated aspect of a show whose commitment to campy exaggeration has made it nearly ubiquitous among queer and queer-loving US mediaphiles. In one standout performance, season three contestant Manila Luzon, frocked in a Big Bird–inspired yellow feathered gown, gesticulated theatrically and drew cross-eyed faces to the up-tempo syncopations of Donna Summer’s “MacArthur Park.” During season one, contestant Tammie Brown failed to learn the words to Michelle Williams’s “We Break the Dawn,” and awkwardly (though determinedly) danced her way to elimination at the behest of celebrity guest judge Michelle Williams. Near the conclusion of season three, one episode away from the finals, contestant Yara Sofia stripped out of a handmade paper gown and collapsed, sobbing, unable to continue with Patti LaBelle’s “I Think About You.” And in the spin-off series RuPaul’s All Stars Drag Race, season two finalists and All Stars teammates Raven and Jujubee, now forced to compete against one another, hugged and wept through a wrenching rendition of Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own,” mascara-tinged tears gliding down their cheeks toward their furiously working, wordless mouths.

    No small part of the power of the lip-syncs comes from their refusal to comply with a near culture-wide mandate that associates imitation with fakery. Elsewhere in US media discourse — from the Grammy-revoking scandal of Milli Vanilli in the early 1990s to the more recent controversies surrounding Ashlee Simpson’s 2004 SNL performance, Britney Spears’s 2009 concert tour, or Beyoncé’s national anthem at the 2013 presidential inauguration — lip-syncing seems to pose a unique threat to what passes in the hyperproduced, multi-billion dollar recording industry, for authenticity. The cultural and industry value placed on actually producing one’s own vocal sounds is tellingly evident in the upswing of films over the last two decades that organize a narrative crisis around karaoke scenes: My Best Friend’s Wedding, A Life Less Ordinary, Duets, Lost in Translation. All these films use karaoke as a device through which characters recognize and negotiate complex feelings and desires. Though these feelings have little to do with whether particular characters can sing, their narrative significance seems predicated on the fact that they try. Despite being kissing cousins with karaoke, lip-syncing is rarely granted comparable dignity as a narrative device, and Drag Race is singular in its weekly demonstration of just how much authentic work goes into successfully imitating someone else’s singing.

    The scandal of lip-syncing — and, by extension, of drag — is that while it does seek to negotiate complex feelings and desires, those negotiations make comparatively little aspiration to authenticity. Only when lip-syncing is called something else (like, in the case of Milli Vanilli, singing) does it stop trying to remind you that it is always already theater. And like this self-conscious theater, drag is a performance of hyperbole, of attenuated glamour and melodramatic display. Its world is not reality, and its genre is not realism. Instead, drag aspires for what queens usually call “realness”: an imitation, whose success as an imitation does not depend on being misrecognized for the so-called real thing. It is therefore a mistake to imagine that a drag queen necessarily wishes to be, to dress, or to look like a woman. Instead, her aim is to represent an extreme femininity. Pace Archibald MacLeish, drag should not be, but mean.

    The difference between being a woman and being feminine is, by now, an old chestnut of academic feminist theory. Since at least the late 1980s, many academic feminists have postulated the difference between embodiment and performance. The idea is that regardless of the body with which one is born (its shape, its genetics, its plumbing), with enough work and finesse one could enact the conventions of masculinity or femininity. Sure, a man might have to pluck his eyebrows to achieve a soft, feminine look, but so do many women. Academic feminists wanted us to see that gender is made up of an ongoing series of performances, rather than naturally stemming from the raw materials of our bodies. As explosive as this argument about gender performance was when it was new, 20 years later it seems to be a point that Drag Race contestants understand intuitively. They engage in the art and the play of realness in a way that makes this theoretical proposition go entirely without saying. (And no contestant, as far as I am aware, has ever professed a degree in Women’s Studies.) Drag queens are performance artists, and gender is their preferred medium.

    This discussion so far perhaps makes Drag Race sound more intellectual than it is. I certainly won’t deny that the pleasures of watching Drag Race include boorish comedy, trash talk, and the kinds of barbed derision that the show itself has taught much of America to call “throwing shade.” But I want to suggest that something else is at play on Drag Race as well — something that is not being theorized or even really explored, so much as it is being worked through. In the background, behind the dramatic resolution of a staged conflict between strangers with a shared dream and occasionally bathetic executive functioning, Drag Race viewers can glean the resolution of one of the most profound conflicts of the 20th century. What we’re witnessing is the realignment of action and idea, whose split was rarely so painfully felt as in the late 20th century’s debates over feminism.


    Feminism is usually defined as a collection of principles that advocate the social, political, and economic equality of women and men. It is an excellent idea. It is not, however, an idea that has translated seamlessly into practice. Western feminism’s so-called “first wave” concentrated largely on women’s suffrage and enfranchisement. Building on these advances, the origin of what’s called “second wave” feminism is often taken to be Betty Friedan’s 1963 diagnosis of “the problem that has no name.” Her bestseller, The Feminine Mystique, detailed the ways that women do not find automatic fulfillment in the socially-sanctioned tasks of homemaking and child raising. Ten years on, the problem without a name had become a household word, and by 1972 the Equal Rights Amendment was poised to enshrine a guarantee of women’s equality into the US Constitution. It proved, however, to be an idea whose time had not yet come.

    Significant opposition to this symbolic pronouncement of equality between men and women arose from the differences between women and other women. While more conservative discourse focused on the value of women in their professional and domestic lives, within progressive circles, feminists argued about the social values of sex and pornography. Queer women debated gender roles, politics, eroticism, and human nature both amongst themselves and with heterosexual feminists. Soon the movement expanded to include more voices from people of color and various sexual orientations. By the time I was taking Women’s Studies classes in the 1990s, feminism was a political minefield, and feminists continue to call for more intersectionality, more voices, more discussion. In retrospect, it’s clear that the conflicts within feminism had many galvanizing effects. But I was an idealist. I wanted big, bold, liberating theories, and I assumed that they would necessarily have even bigger, bolder, more liberating manifestations. In those years, arguing about feminism tended to leave me with a heavy heart.

    It took me many years to learn that “idea” isn’t a verb. The word shares a distant etymology with “vision,” as both are derivative of what we see. But generally speaking, Western languages figure a discrepancy between thinking and doing. When ideas are the outcome of actions, they tend to be paired with a familiar set of verbs: by reflecting, considering, imagining, debating, I arrive at an idea. But when you switch it around, and ideas are points of departure rather than outcomes, the number of potential actions associated with ideas increases exponentially. Executing an idea could entail almost any action, could utilize nearly any verb. This open-endedness betrays an uncomfortable truth: it can be remarkably difficult to put principles into practice.

    My 1990s self failed to understand that we may subscribe to ideas that we do not know how to optimize from moment to moment. This ignorance results in all kinds of unevenness. A half-century after the rise of second wave feminism, women work more, but they earn less. Women have educations and pursue careers, but they are also expected to have families and raise children. More women work in skilled jobs, but precious few in the upper levels of corporate or political management. Women can become professional athletes, but usually run in separate heats or play in separate leagues. Women have access to highly effective contraceptives, but nearly half of all pregnancies in the US are unplanned. Many women desire the opportunities that feminism advocated, but many more demur from calling themselves feminists. In short, the uneven ways feminist ideals have been put into practice mean that contemporary US culture harbors a lot of contradictory notions about the women who, feminism reminds us, make up half of it.


    Into this unevenness Drag Race intervenes. But its intervention is less a challenge to the lived contradictions of feminism than a weird, poignant embrace of them. Asking contestants to perform femininity, the show (perhaps unwitting, but nevertheless consequentially) gets them to engage with the contradictions of being a woman in contemporary US culture. Arguably, Drag Race is uniquely suited to this engagement, even amid a wide range of styles of femininity (and indeed, a variety of styles of femininity are regularly performed on the show, across episodes and repertoires: from campy to gothic, pageantry to genderfuck, glamorous to country, teenybopper to matronly). The show’s privileged metric of realness does not require that biological women perform femininity, while at the same time it does require that femininity be performed to a degree that jives with some recognizable exaggeration of existing cultural norms. What counts as “realness” owes quite a bit to the culture’s concepts of what women are –– in all their varieties and contradictions.

    By privileging such imitation over other styles of performance, Drag Race creates a world that puts practice before theory. Drag doesn’t precisely begin with an idea that has to be applied, so much as it begins with a performance (a look, a style, a theme, an event, an attitude) that has to be repeated. In that repetition there will inevitably be variation; no performance is ever the same twice. But the fact remains that, as a performance genre, drag emphasizes action, recollection, and repetition. (The stated aim of the show is also about repetition: to crown the next drag superstar.) The kinds of repetitions that drag emphasizes are similar to the processes Sigmund Freud famously associated with what he called “working through,” the idea that some difficult experiences can’t be understood at the time they happen; instead, people will only slowly become conscious of them, often through various kinds of metaphorical or phantasmatic reenactments. Working through must take place before we can have a conscious idea of why we’re acting a certain way. Healing difficult experiences requires putting practice before theory.

    And indeed Drag Race contestants are working through all kinds of difficulties with their performances. Mixed into episodes every season are bits of interviews and voice-overs, through which audiences learn why these queens got into drag. Their embrace of performing femininity allowed some to explore sexuality, to find community, to connect with family, to overcome addiction, to rehabilitate. For many, drag performance is a means of working through and dealing with the pains of trying to live an ordinary life. But as much as Drag Race adumbrates the workings through that stand behind some of the queens’ performances, at a more macroscopic level, the action of dressing in drag and performing in relation to the cultural standard for femininity also creates the occasion for a more general kind of working through. These performances of femininity display some of the contradictory outcomes that have emerged as feminist ideas were put into uneven practice, and as in Freud’s model, they do so without a conscious idea of why anyone is acting this way.

    Perhaps the most recurrent site for these contradictions within the world of Drag Race is the unstated but regularly reasserted assumption that being a woman requires more than looking good. Of course, the queens do often look (in the show’s parlance of high praise) absolutely sickening. But to succeed in the world of Drag Race, a queen has to be more than beautiful. The challenges she faces from week to week test to see whether she is intelligent, funny, and confident; whether she can impersonate celebrities while still being true to herself; whether she can be glamorous on the printed page and on the red carpet; whether she can sew but also dance, charm but also bitch, speak up for herself but also take direction; whether she takes pride in her community and its history; whether she can be in control and also roll with the challenges. A drag queen has to be unique, just like everyone else. But backwards and in heels.

    To be sure, some of these contradictions and incoherencies are the stuff of reality TV, whose goal is to produce good TV, not self-actualization. But it is worth recognizing an intersection in the Venn diagram that relates reality TV stars and the inheritors of second wave feminism. It’s no accident, for example, that the phrase “more than just a pretty face” retains perennial currency in US entertainment culture. The contradictory demand to be beautiful but also more than beautiful has been adopted by female entertainers as different as Phyllis Diller, Shania Twain, and Peaches. The embrace of this platitude provides these women with a way of navigating the contradictions of a sex/gender system that, for them at least, has been financially lucrative.

    There is a very long and complex history of women making money by selling women (and sometimes men) the idea that it’s hard to be a woman. Nevertheless, there are advantages to watching biological men enact the cultural contradictions of femininity. For one, such imitation can actually lower the stakes of the performance. Watching women fight about what it means to be a woman could be painful — in the way that many reality shows about weddings often are. To spare authenticity is not to avoid authentic liberation, authentic feminism, and authentic performances of women’s agency. Drag Race, or drag in general, is not a sufficient cure to the structural sexism of US culture. Far from it. But Drag Race does provide its viewers with the opportunity to watch sensational performances of femininity in which women’s lives, women’s happiness, and women’s burdens are not at stake. The appeal of Drag Race, then, is in the ways it strips bare the conventions and contradictions of womanhood. It doesn’t solve the problem so much as abstract and re-envision it. Drag Race isn’t really a critique, but it clears space for one.

    I’ll be the first to agree that the contestants’ embrace of femininity does not free them or others of the cultural contradictions of womanhood. Drag Race is hardly utopic. But it serves as a subtle reminder that as universal a human experience as wearing clothes is, it's one that can be conducted with dignity and consequence. As RuPaul herself intones at the end of every episode, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?!” This repeated ritual with the Drag Race televisual universe, this rhetorical question, prompts us to recognize that our ideas may always be out of sync with our actions. Indeed, the value of an action like learning to appreciate yourself can be measured through sense and experience — quite apart from any elaborate ideas we may have about what we’re doing. And so, while we wait for the real critique to crystallize, and while we work to make the big liberating idea finally realize itself in practice, we can find some small solace in the fact that we may be working through the consequences of difficult experiences whether we know it or not. In drag as in reality, we all pull on our pantyhose one leg at a time.


    LARB Contributor

    Jordan Alexander Stein teaches in the English Department at Fordham University. He is co-editor of Early African American Print Culture (U Penn Press, 2012) and a contributing writer at Avidly.


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