When RuPaul, self-proclaimed supermodel of the world, said, in 2014, “we are all born naked and the rest is drag,” people exactly understood what RuPaul meant. Gender is a performance. It is not something we are born with but something we stage everyday.
Drag is essentially an action. It shakes up all rigid definitions of gender and sexuality, parodying the stereotypes of feminine and masculine. By performing a separate identity that can be put on and taken off, drag performers expose the artificiality of conventional gender roles. This becomes pretty obvious when you watch Drag Race where performers take off their makeup, their wigs, and their padding to expose their non-drag bodies, allowing the audience to understand how the idea of a ‘natural’ gender is just an illusion. The world of drag is quickly changing to a more nuanced view of bodies and gender. Previous stereotypes regarding weight have been discarded and Plus Size Queens, as well as critical discourses regarding fatphobia, are given more airtime. Although drag performers reinforced stereotypical images of what it means to look like a desirable “woman” or “man” in the 1960s, the artform is now developing into a more fluid artistic expression of gender and bodies.
With the rise of RuPaul’s Drag Race (RPDR) to fame, the queer artform is now a mainstream cabaret for all to enjoy. RPDR centres on the ability of contestants to market themselves and various products and services. Welcome to drag capitalism. By assimilating into capitalist society, does this dampen drag’s subversive potential and restrict some drag performers to the fringes? Well, yes and no. The commercial nature of reality television results in the commodification of queerness. However, Drag Race differs from previous representations in mainstream media of drag queens and members of the queer community in general. Rather than being the butt of the joke, the show allows the queens to tell their own story, thereby challenging traditional gendered and sexual discourses.
In recent years, the change in mainstream drag has led to a move beyond the rigid understanding of drag as “woman impersonation” and towards a more diverse art form for queer and non-queer people alike. Historically, transgender people were excluded from the mainstream drag community but the transformation of the drag scene towards a more expansive and gender-bending space has generated inclusion for all kinds of performers. However, a question that remains when viewing the world of mainstream drag is: where are the drag kings?
Drag kings are people, usually women, who dress and perform as entertainers in more masculine drag. But why have they been confined to an underground existence? Is even the way we think about drag gendered? Within the context of drag, it seems the patriarchy still plays a role. But drag kings acknowledge change is already here – there are more effeminate drag kings, genderless drag kings, people who play with their makeup, costumes, music, dance, art, and so many more.
Not only does the performance of drag serve as a form of queer representation, but drag queens use their platform to spread awareness of socio-political issues as well. The artform of drag has always been a political one but what we see now is an increase in activism. Alongside their jobs, drag performers engage in spreading messages on and off the stage. One such example is Bob the Drag Queen, who was arrested in 2010 for demanding marriage equality and now has gone on to host the podcast Sibling Rivalry with drag sister Monet X Change. The platform of drag performers can be used as a means of resistance and as a tool for raising awareness of social inequalities facing queer people, especially queer people of colour.
Drag has moved towards using creativity to show ambiguous presentations of gender and to deconstruct the gender binary. This powerful form of self-expression is a vehicle for change but also serves as a form of unapologetic emancipatory self-love. Isn’t it so much better to experience the full spectrum of gender instead of placing yourself in a box?