Trixie Mattel is the winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars 3. There is a certain irony that Brian Firkus’ perfectly executed parody of plastic, mass-produced womanhood (Barbie) seized the crown in a reality TV-show franchise that has “Barbie”-fied the art of drag: taking a staple of underground queer nightlife and turning it into a basic cable commodity perfectly positioned for the all-important suburban white girl market. It is an irony that one cannot help but think that Firkus must see. His website proudly proclaims “Keep out of Reach of Children.” His non-Drag Race work, including a one-woman show (Ages 3 and Up) and a folk album (Two Birds) reveal a dark and brilliant talent, with an inordinately keen awareness of the ways of the world. (“Mama Don’t Make Me Put on the Dress Again” is a painfully beautiful reflection on show business worthy of Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton.)
An inside joke with glitter and sequins.
There is a certain justice to this winner: In this heist of American culture, outsiders can suddenly claim their pop culture-beating heart and the real financial rewards that come with it. It is the ultimate triumph for the art of drag: the creation of an illusion that is satire and yet shockingly real. It is a beautiful homage to mainstream values and norms that shamelessly and hilariously repudiates them in a way that is clear to the knowing. It is an inside joke with glitter and sequins.
And yet, like any private pleasure suddenly elevated for public consumption, drag is experiencing not a few growing pains. Earlier this month, RuPaul, the grande dame of drag’s mainstreaming success, sparked controversy when he told the Guardian that he would “probably not” allow transgender women who had taken steps to medically transition to participate on his show. That interview was just one of a series of missteps for the show and its host concerning trans issues. The Guardian interview also dug up other long-term resentments and disagreements fluttering under the surface of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the mainstream success of drag, including the place (or lack thereof) of cis women in the show and the larger world of drag and racism in the show’s fandom.
While it would seem that the approval of a VH1 reality show probably should not matter to what is ultimately an artistic pursuit, the fact is that the economics of RuPaul’s Drag Race matters in a big way. A coveted spot on the show’s lineup is, for all practical purposes, the only way to turn drag into a full-time occupation. You can’t keep anyone from doing drag, but if someone wants to pay rent with drag, Drag Race is the only game in town.
The economics of modern drag is something not lost on any queen existentially barred from the hallowed workroom. This includes Courtney Conquers, a Toronto-based hyper-queen (that’s a cis woman in drag), whose transformation from Lady Gaga fan to drag queen charts much of the path of contemporary drag. In her case, it includes a Masters thesis on Lady Gaga and, through social media, a keen awareness of how the gender revolution is playing out in the general population. She told me the message of drag is, “You can literally be anything you want to be regardless of your physical being on this earth.” Yet she readily admits that the show and its success have created a two-tiered drag world. Bridging this divide is a huge part of the work that Conquers does with collaborator Ja’mie Queen West through their popular “Drag Coven,” a sort of Youtube– and Instagram-supported Dead Heads of Drag.
But Conquers and Drag Coven are not just bridge builders. They are part of what might be seen as a revolt against the Drag Race empire from drag’s inner core. One that could not just save drag, but maybe save us all. RuPaul’s Guardian comments were met with not a little opposition from “her girls.” A number of former contestants who have later come out as trans women spoke out against their former judge. They were joined by their cis counterparts, among them last year’s winner, Sasha Velour, who used the opening of her sold out Brooklyn “Nightgowns” show to yet again repudiate RuPaul’s remarks:
Trans women, trans men, AFAB — which is Assigned Female At Birth — and non-binary performers, but especially trans women of color, have been doing drag for literal centuries and deserve to be equally represented and celebrated alongside cis men.
A chorus of voices, both from the show and its fandom and beyond, took to social media to denounce “Mama Ru” in a sort of reclamation. One man did not own drag. One show could not and would not define it.
The backlash might just be the best thing that’s happened to the art of drag since Drag Race sashayed on to the scene. Because you know whom would not have done great on RuPaul’s Drag Race? Leigh Bowery. You know who is among the greatest drag artists of all time, perhaps the greatest? Leigh Bowery. That is not to say that Drag Race has not had a plethora of talented performers, even revolutionary ones, not just among its contestants, but among its winners as well (Mattel and Velour, for example). But it also is not good for drag to be commercially dominated by a single brand.
Our historical epoch is one of chaos. The climate is collapsing along with liberal democracy. Fearful old ideologies, once thought entirely defeated, are re-emerging from Poland to Tennessee. At the same time, old categories of identity and belonging make increasingly little sense. While it might seem ridiculous that a TV show about makeup and costumes could have anything to do with this, the art form it features absolutely does.
Drag is, ultimately, about knowing who you are, what society thinks of that and making humor, beauty and art from the mess of it. It’s a radical form of self-naming and self-reclaiming that has been brought to the masses in the surprising form of reality TV. But if drag is going to give its fullest gift to the world, it has to grow bigger than the show that elevated it to basic cable. That means knowing when the guru is wrong and saying it. It also means that everyone else, the vast majority of us who neither contour nor sparkle, should get out there and find and support drag beyond the TV show. To help you (as part of my ongoing efforts to improve all your lives), here are five places to start. (And note: I tried to write those two-line hypes, but it sounded insincere. Really, just go to the links. These are brilliant artists you have to see. No catchy praise from me necessary.)