What Paris is Burning and Rupaul's Drag Race can teach us
Queer culture is a broad spectrum that encompasses many different subcultures including the leather culture, bear culture, and drag culture. Two sources that have helped to define drag culture are undoubtedly the movie Paris is Burning and the TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race. These two pop culture icons help those who would otherwise only see drag queens at a gay nightclub to understand more about drag culture and forms of gender expression that they may not be familiar with. This film and television series covers gender performativity, nonconformity and the roles of race and gender in gender expression.
In Paris is Burning, Dorian Corey explains “realness,” a concept very important in drag culture. He defines it as “to be able to blend. [...] If you can pass the untrained eye, or even the trained eye, and not give away the fact that you’re gay, that’s when it’s realness. The idea of realness is to look as much as possible like your straight counterpart.” Realness is not only when homosexuals are trying to appear straight, but it also applies to drag queens who are performing as women. When a drag queen walks at a ball or on a runway, they wish to appear as true as possible to what they are performing.
The simultaneous divide between drag performers and transgender people and their overlapping features can be rather confusing for some. As RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Peppermint explains, “there’s a lot of people who think that drag queens are not trans and shouldn’t be. And there’s a lot of trans people who think that drag queens have no place in the trans community.” Peppermint, speaking as a trans drag queen, notes that both the cis and trans communities often believe that transgender and drag cannot be combined. That is a common misconception. The truth is that anybody of any gender can be a drag queen. This false idea that drag and trans cannot overlap may be due to the fact that the modern drag scene has become predominantly homosexual male performers. With this gay male dominance and the marginalization within the queer community itself, there are often issues of transphobia and discrimination against trans people within the drag community.
Paris is Burning and RuPaul’s Drag Race also illuminate the issue of social class in the show. Many queens underestimate their ability to perform to their fullest when they come from a lower socioeconomic status. When contestant Chi Chi Devayne explains that she is bankrupt, Michelle Visage tells her “you don’t need money, girl. That’s never an excuse.” The importance in drag is whether or not somebody can make a garment and work it to exude realness, not if somebody has the money to purchase the best garments. Most often during the Harlem balls, the people walking the ballroom aren’t rich or wearing designers, proving that purchasing expensive clothing is not the key to great drag.
In RuPaul’s Drag Race, there is a large racial divide. The white/Asian queens name themselves “The Heathers”, and they name the Latina/Black queens “The Boogers,” insinuating that they are prettier than the Latina/Black queens. In one challenge, Manila Luzon, who is of Filipino descent, chooses to perform a stereotypical Asian character. Some of the queens thought it was pretty racist. One black queen, Shangela Laquifa Wadley, took particular offense, saying that Luzon was acting as part of a culture that she was not. Alexis Mateo responded “She is not acting, she is.”
Despite divides of class and race, drag performance remains to be an important cultural art form for the queer community. Drag helps to teach others about gender expression and gender nonconformity, and should aim to do so in a way that is always inclusive to gender nonconforming individuals as well as race and social class.