Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Why RuPaul's Drag Race is important TV

Yes!   Seriously!

I know what you're thinking;  How can RuPaul's Drag Race - a  realty tv show where drag queens compete to become "America's next drag superstar" - be anything more than frivolous television?

Sure, on the surface the show is fun and frothy, hosted by renown drag queen RuPaul.

It's like a cross between America's Next Top Model and Project Runway as the competitors complete creative challenges and transform themselves into their drag personas under different scenarios.

I can't profess to have seen every episode.  In fact, I often end up watching episodes out of order and from different seasons as it's currently on both SBS and Foxtel.  

Initially, my friend and I were fascinated by "where all the bits went" (so to speak), but now we've become addicted to the show itself.  (I know we're a bit late to the party given the show first started in 2009)

And while I might be reading WAY too much into it, it's got me thinking about how the show challenges what society told us about men and women;  how they both should act, behave and the roles they should play.

To be honest, I've never really given drag much thought.  I didn't really understand it and what it was trying to "achieve".

But what I find the most interesting with this show is the concept of drag itself and what it means to be a woman in our society.

You see, it still seems to be the case that women can look like men and society is more or less ok with that.  But for a man to dress up like a woman is generally not ok.

There are those who will protest that drag is "repulsive" or "unnatural" (an overused word at the best of times).  But you would have to question why there is such a strong reaction to someone simply dressing as a woman (quite a natural phenomenon in itself)?

RuPaul herself offers an explanation: "We as humans find it easy to categorise people so that we know who to feel comfortable with them; so that we don't feel threatened.  If someone falls outside that categorisation, we feel threatened and we search our psyche to put them into a category that we feel comfortable with".

Even today, Australian shows will still have "blokey" men dress up as women (usually as "punishment" if they lose a bet) because it is degrading and humiliating.

You have to ask: is that because they think being a woman is degrading and humiliating?  That you are something less to be feminine?  Have you ever seen a show where the losing female competitor has to dress up as a man?

On RuPaul's Drag Race, these men proudly transform themselves into the female personas they have made for themselves.  They don't find it degrading or humiliating.

Interestingly, as some have said, they find it liberating.   Dressing in drag was/is a way to escape (momentarily) their lives and the baggage that comes with it.

It reminded me of a story I read about a recent Broadway play called Casa Valentina.  Based on a true story, it's about a discrete venue in the early 1960s for hetrosexual men who enjoyed dressing up and acting as women. For them, dressing up and acting like a woman for the weekend was a way to escape the strict gender roles society had defined for them at that time.

Watching these drag queens "sashay away" or "lip sync for your LIFE" makes me ponder the gender roles we still have.  But I'd like to think shows like this help to loosen these, just a little.   After all, I couldn't imagine a show like this being on television a decade or two ago!

To quote the eloquent RuPaul one last time:
"Every time I bat my eyelashes, it's a political statement.   The drag I come from has always been a critique of our society, so the act is defiant in and of itself in a patriarchal society such as ours.  It's an act of treason."

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