When Sharon Needles, winner of season 4 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, wore blackface to portray the titular host of the US reality show, the queer community took offense. And rightly so. An entertainer celebrated for her acts of patriarchal subversion had become, in that instance, notorious for her act of racial oppression. But how was Mary Cheney, the Republican, lesbian daughter of former US Vice President Dick Cheney, to know the difference between the two when she happened upon the trailer for Drag Race’s upcoming seventh season? Says Cheney, after viewing the clip:
“Why is it socially acceptable—as a form of entertainment—for men to put on dresses, make up and high heels and act out every offensive stereotype of women (bitchy, catty, dumb, slutty, etc.)—but it is not socially acceptable—as a form of entertainment—for a white person to put on blackface and act out offensive stereotypes of African Americans? Shouldn’t both be OK or neither? Why does society treat these activities differently?”
Cheney certainly has the right to be offended. But she needn’t be. Society treats these activities differently because blackface has a history of oppression, while drag (within queer culture, as opposed to the Shakespearean iteration) does not.
Fair is fair, though. If one were to reach for any truth in Cheney’s statement, one would look not towards the practice of drag but within a recent strain of its vernacular – one widely disseminated through Drag Race. “Fishy”, one of the show’s most prominent phrases, is used to mark a queen who visually embodies a ‘real’ woman. Despite being a positive term in the drag community, it undeniably carries ugly, misogynistic connotations. With that being said, Drag Race has a history of owning up to its shortcomings and correcting them.
Midway through its sixth season, producers listened to the voices of trans people who were rightly offended by the phrase ‘she-mail’ – used to signal a message from RuPaul to the cast – and cut it from all future episodes. One hopes that, as the show enters its seventh season, it continues to hold itself to its own inclusive credo.
However, since Cheney is concerned only with the cross-dressing act itself, her argument remains misinformed. She mistakes ‘act[ing] out every offensive stereotype of women’ to the reflection of gender normativity through a fun-house mirror. Indeed, drag is subversion first, entertainment second.
It’s a shame that Cheney couldn’t deduce this from the very trailer she viewed. Take one of the cast members featured, Trixie Mattel: all blonde hair, impossible curves and deliberately full-on make-up, she epitomises the patriarchal demands of modern women. Even her name is a satirical nod to the plastic fantastic idealism of the Barbie doll. But there’s more to it than that.
Trixie has spoken openly about how her name is also partly derived from a derogatory nickname given to her by her father, which brings me to my most important counterargument: drag is emphatically socially unacceptable, but not in the way Cheney sees it. Shows like Drag Race have certainly given the art form a mainstream platform, but the act of cross-dressing remains a social taboo. To be a drag queen in a heteronormative world is to put oneself in danger, especially when one’s aesthetic is as exaggerated as Trixie’s. There’s no room for marginalisation, precisely because drag queens are themselves a marginalised group – even within the queer community.
It’s telling that Trixie has booked shows in London even before her first appearance on Drag Race has aired. The capital has a reputation for producing some of the most subversively feminist drag in the world – most notably at the Black Cap in Camden, where Trixie is scheduled to perform as part of the Meth Lab club night. She’ll be in good company. Meth, who starred in the series Drag Queens of London, is the drag queen curator of the bi-weekly drag cabaret event, home to her troop of campy queens, genderfuck queens, drag kings and cis-gendered women parodying drag queens. Her events are fearlessly lewd but celebratory and inclusive – and certainly not offensive to women. Jonathan Ross, smelling Drag Race’s transatlantic success, recently bought the rights to a UK edition of the show. If he’s able to find a channel willing to air it, I guarantee that its promotional trailer would be full of queens such as Trixie, or Meth and her family – queens as committed to dismantling the feminine stereotypes ascribed to women as they are to those ascribed to themselves, as men. I’d like to see Cheney try to find fault with that.