Breaking Bad. True Detective. House of Cards. This year’s Television Critics Association Awards saw some seriously high calibre shows recognised with the accolades they deserve. But sashaying triumphantly to the tip of everyone’s tongue was a slice of cultural critique that the Hollywood Reporter described as an “historic win”: the utterly fabulous RuPaul’s Drag Race.
For the uninitiated: RuPaul’s Drag Race is a cult TV show, about to enter its seventh series, in which beautiful women compete for a highly-prized modelling contract. So far, so standard TV viewing. The difference is that these girls are not your usual TV beauty contestants. They are drag queens.
The result is a glorious pastiche of the “Next Top Model” franchise. In the typical modelling-competition format, young women are dissected in front of a hostile panel, with every inch of their bodies assessed based on its conformity to an impossible standard. Slender girls teetering on the brink of eating disorders are told sneeringly to consider “plus size” careers – then berated when their body-hating escalates into self-destruction. These are places in which “female” and “beautiful” are rigid definitions and any deviation, whether natural or deliberate, equals humiliation.
In RuPaul’s world, absurdities like these are blown apart. Here we see femininity constructed and deconstructed and reconstructed again, in a vibrant carousel of autonomous – and above all, joyful – expression. We see contestants slip easily between roles and definitions, sometimes “he,” sometimes “she,” sometimes divas that storm the stage in self-determined glory, “lip syncing for their lives”. We see gender for what it is: a performance.
In one brilliantly meta episode, drag queen contestants are assigned a “butch” female partner that they must teach to mimic their persona – showing them how to apply make-up, walk in heels and, essentially, how play a “woman.” It’s frivolous viewing, but there’s a serious message at the core: no one is born knowing how to perform their gender. Expectations of womanhood (and manhood, for that matter) are not innate, they are learned, passed on to sometimes dubious apprentices by those that have cultivated the skills. It is no more or less ridiculous to watch someone learn to perform a role that has been arbitrarily assigned to someone else.
As the contestants assemble their own interpretations of female beauty, we watch this performance of gender literalised before our eyes. But perhaps most intriguing is the shifting nature of these identities. One moment, contestants are lazing in boyish jeans and vests, daydreaming about the character they will make today. The next, they are strutting in the character’s shoes and clothes and skin, expressing a part of themselves through their creation, before peeling it off and becoming someone else again, whenever they choose. “Give [a man] a mask, and he will tell you the truth,” said Wilde. But these girls choose their own masks, and they decide what’s true.
In a world where children are taught to exist within their pink/blue box, where Gaga-esque challenges to gender norms are disparaged as provocative sensationalism, RuPaul’s Drag Race vividly exposes the fallacy of sexual dichotomies, offering instead an image of gender identity that is fluid and empowering. Most of all, in an antidote to a beauty industry that punishes, shames and cajoles, it makes the whole performance of gender, of sexuality and of beauty raucously, joyously, unabashedly fun. And for that – ladies, gentlemen and everyone in between – we should all be grateful.