To be an Asian American fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race is to embark upon a fraught journey. A longtime fan, I started watching the show during Season 3. That 2011 season saw Drag Race’s first and only Asian American winner, the multitalented Raja, and boasted Manila Luzon as runner-up.
Since then, every year I await the cast announcements with bated breath. I wonder if an Asian American queen will be a part of the competition. If so, I wonder how she’ll fare on the show and — more pressingly — how she’ll capitalize on her Asian identity. Will she portray a stereotype of her heritage? Will she venerate her culture’s traditions? Or perhaps, like many artists, she’ll land somewhere in the middle, deploying Orientalist stereotypes alongside deep homages to the motherland.
This January, I sat on a Brooklyn couch watching Manila mouth her way through Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know?” on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, Season 4. The winner of each episode’s lip-sync eliminates a contestant via hidden lipstick. The other Asian American queen, Gia Gunn, seemed ripe for elimination. I was quaking in my boots — coincidentally, the week’s runway theme. This wasn’t just any episode: it was Snatch Game on an All Stars season. For the uninitiated, the Snatch Game a recurring mini-challenge in which the queens showcase their celebrity impersonations. Think Game 3 of the World Series, or the Ac 2 opening number: make-it-or-break-it time.
Earlier in the episode, Gia Gunn turned in an off-color performance as Jenny Bui, Cardi B’s Insta-famous nail technician. “I don’t know that much about Jenny,” Gia said in her confessional, “but what I do know is how to impersonate somebody who is fresh off the boat and that can do good nail for you.” I was nervous about the pan-Asian accent she donned at the end of the clip.
My fears were confirmed in the opening moments of the Snatch Game: Gunn intoned, “Harro Ru! Konichiwa!” After the episode, Bui posted on Instagram, “Unfortunately that’s not my accent, and the only thing off the boat is the ‘fresh’ tilapia that you are allegedly serving.” It was a fishy affair to say the least.
Orientalism in drag is alive and well, in part due to extant orientalism in pop culture. During Season 8 on RuPaul’s Drag Race, there was a Madonna-inspired runway. Four of the eight remaining queens sported red kimonos, referencing “Paradise (Not For Me).” Among them: Korean American queen Kim Chi. Then Thorgy Thor. Then Naomi Smalls. And don’t forget Derrick Berry! None of the latter three queens have Asian ancestry. (Neither, I might add, does Madonna Louise Ciccione.) Since Orientalism is an accepted aesthetic in the worship of female pop stars, it is an accepted aesthetic in drag.
This phenomenon is complicated by the racial and gender politics embedded in both Asian American and gay culture. As C. Winter Han writes in Geisha of a Different Kind, “the ways that Asian men are depicted in various media not only robs them of masculinity but presents them as being sexually undesirable to both men and women.” The long media tradition of emasculating Asian men can trace its roots directly to anti-miscegenation legislation and xenophobic immigration laws.
These politics influence Asian American queens’ performances on Drag Race. Han remarked in a 2016 interview that “Asian characters were heavily racialized in ways that the other contestants weren’t, and more importantly, the show rewarded the Asian contestants the more they Orientalized themselves, particularly with Manila Luzon.” On her original season, Manila won challenges in which she performed her Asian-ness. She sported cheongsams, deployed pan-Asian accents, and shuffled across the stage swinging nunchucks in the “Jocks in Frocks” episode. Other queens of Asian descent have followed similar paths, including Jujubee on Season 2 and Yuhua Hamasaki on Season 10, not to mention Gia Gunn.
These queens have also given us funny and poignant moments of representation. At the beginning of her All Stars season, Gunn gave a beautiful Kabuki performance informed by years of training in Japanese dance and theater. Jujubee gave us the meme “I want fried chicken now,” as authentic an Asian American sentiment as any. Yuhua referenced Asian horror films in her reunion episode look. On the Snatch Game episode, Manila took her to task for her botched performance. “You went to a place that was dark; it made me angry,” she said, showing growth since her original season.
During Season 8, Kim Chi executed runway looks inspired by anime and Korean culture, including a stunning personal take on a hanbok. Her finale episode featured an original lip-sync with a Korean verse: “Fat, Fem, and Asian.” The song reclaimed three weaponized words in the queer community. It was a hilarious, baldly political take on labels in our “accepting” community:
On the current season of Drag Race, I was thrilled to see two Asian American contestants, Soju and Plastique Tiara. Queens of Asian descent often get eliminated before their time. This season, Ru told Soju to “sashay away” on the first episode. We’ve yet to see how Plastique Tiara will fare. I, for one, am rooting for her.
Respectful queer representation is not exactly the backbone of American media. Asian American representation is scarce. Queer Asian representation is a true rarity, and so I watch Drag Race. I cheer for every queen of Asian descent, in spite and because of the lengths to which they go to win.
Back in Brooklyn, the Whitney lip-sync ended. Manila won. She pulled her elimination lipstick from her bodice and chose to cut Gia Gunn, the only other Asian American contestant on the season. “I’m sorry, girl,” Manila said as she advanced in the competition. “Love you,” Gia responded. A call-and-response mantra if there ever was one.