Reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race has developed a cult following by combining both entertainment and educating a new generation on a rich aspect of LGBTI history. Drag Race has educated a new generation on the different styles including pageant, comedy , horror; celebrity inspirations, the creativity of design, and the tradition of lipsync. The strength of this show is the connection of past and present. Drag Race borrows heavily from Paris is Burning, a documentary on drag ball culture in 1980’s New York. Drag Race relies on drag ball language and concepts such as Throwing Shade, Reading, and Voguing; the engaging and ultimately tragic story of Venus Xtravaganza; and an acknowledgement of class roots and ethnic diversity in New York drag culture.
Recently though, that same strength has now got Drag Race under criticism from transgendered activists and allies over the segment “Female or Shemale”, where contestants chose from pictures of people to determine who were “biological” or “psychological” women, or “female” or “shemale.” Understandably, people were offended by a term synonymous with sex workers and pornography, and RuPaul and Logo Channel soon released a statement committing to a more inclusive attitude towards transgendered people. However, the debate also brought to the surface long-standing grievances regarding language used in Drag Race, most prominently “fish”/ “fishy” to describe more feminine queens, the use of the pun “You Got Shemail”, and RuPaul’s use of the word “tranny”. The social media battle between those who believe Drag Race is transphobic versus those who dismiss concerns as oversensitive leaves little room for dialogue – a common downside to anonymous, 140 character social media communications.
As a rule of thumb, the best voices are usually those who speak of personal experiences, in this case transgendered people themselves. One is from Judy Virago, a woman of trans-experience who expresses distain for the segment and speaks to person experiences of perceptions of her gender. The second was from transgender activist Andrea James who, though personally against the segment, accuses some activists of controlling all standards within the trans community and intolerant of differing arguments. The third is from two former Drag Race contestants who are transgendered, Carmen Carrera and Monica Beverly Hills, who issued statements that criticised the segment, spoke proudly of Drag Race, and called for a more trans-friendly message and culture on the show.
Because of the broad dissent into tribal sides, there has been a lost opportunity to explore the suitability of language and terms in a public arena, of which there are several important considerations.
Firstly, the context of where RuPaul came from and what informs his drag must be understood in that language wasn’t offensive then, even arguably among transgendered people.RuPaul began as an Atlanta punk drag queen and star of the 1980’s B-movie Starbooty, later adopted “hooker drag” in late 80’s New York, then finally supermodel drag persona of the 1990’s with the hit single Supermodel – which I remember as a 9 year old as part of a weekly primary school exercise mix. RuPaul came from a different scene where the term shemale was considered a more acceptable term. Indeed, the United Transvestite and Transexual Society, founded in America 1973, named it’s official publication ‘Shemale’. Others also that the terms “shemale” and “tranny” came from pornography.
The treatment of RuPaul reflects how society often wrongly rejects people by their actions rather than give context. Usually, we give exception to our parents or grandparents through understanding context, but not to others. While RuPaul is not untouchable, his contribution to reintroduction of the art of drag and the inclusion and support for transgendered contestants should be recognised rather than ignored to make a point. If Drag Race shows more sensitivity in the future then the show has evolved, which is good.
Secondly, there is a false debate on whether ironic reclaimation of derogatory terms “shemale”,“fishy”, and “you’ve got shemail” are acceptable humour. This was also raised last week during the fallout over Stephen Colbert’s tweet on whether White Americans can use irony to satirise Asian American experience on their behalf.
Those activists who reject the use of all these terms on Drag Race as transphobic cannot reasonably demand the elimination of ironic re-approrpiation. The re-appropriation of offensive words and insults is commonplace, notably with ‘queer’. The real debate should be who can use these terms and the intent. If a transgendered person uses the word “tranny”, a gay person “faggot”, or lesbian “dyke” to describe themselves or peers of the same identity in a positive, affirming sense, this depends on mutual consent between all involved in the conversation. If it’s agreed, it’s group culture; if not, it’s more respectful to maintain group harmony. In a public space, if the language is controversial, better not to.
The same permission would be required for close friends of a different sexual or gender identity. I’ve personally given permission to close straight friends to use the word “fag” towards me in an affectionate manner, just as I’ve similarly used the word “breeder”.
In this case, the uproar over the use of “shemale” means it was wrong, but given the lack of opposition, the terms “fishy” and “you’ve got shemail” are currently within the realm of public acceptability.
Thirdly, the issue being falsely framed/ implied battle between sexuality and gender, rather than a debate within drag culture. Many transgendered people take part in drag, and the art itself could be seen as an expression of a broader concept of gender as well as sexuality, with a touch of campy vaudeville. Drag is not something owned by either side, but a collection of cultural norms informed by experience and subject to standards to be debated.
In fairness, perhaps this debate is driven by feelings by the transgender community of another marginalisation of their experiences both in society and within the GLBT movement. After the Stonewall Riots in New York in 1969, the Queer movement push for legal and social changes to end discrimination, however transgender concerns were marginalised in favour of the gay rights movement because gay rights concerns were largely within the context the acceptance of sexuality, not gender identity. Gay marriage and adoption are more about sexuality, not gender. Even now, I imagine in Western countries where battles for sexual equality are gradually being won, a feeling of “mission accomplished” rather than a refocus towards a broader concept of gender identity. Within drag, this is a debate for cultural norms.
The legend of the Stonewall Riot tells that a drag queen threw the first bottle that helped set off the riot, which was then led not by the political activists, but the young street kids and hustlers who – after a raid at the Stonewall the week before – could not endure yet more police brutality. This last aspect is especially telling insofar as peoples’ daily experiences matter. Listening to these experiences informs what is considered acceptable social interaction, whereas name-calling, and narrow minded dismissal of concerns and people as the sum of their mistakes ultimately achieves nothing. Drag is one of those rare areas where sexuality and gender can meet. Better to use it converse rather than play politics.
Update: Drag Race has now announced that it will no longer use the term “You’ve Got Shemail”. Given that the main opposition was to the “Female or Shemale” segment, an interesting move that has probably now made the term publicly unacceptable.