Beyond the Glitter: Has Mainstream Media Distorted the Art of Drag?

Viewers of the drag-centric show RuPaul’s Drag Race were in for a surprise when the show announced that the 13th season would reclaim the airwaves in January 2021. Many fans believed that the pandemic would have prevented the production of the famous drag reality competition. Naturally, they were ecstatic about the new season – but there was something more. This season made history by having its first transgender male contestant who would be competing for $100,000 and the coveted title of America’s next drag superstar. The winner of the season was announced yesterday.

This may have been a historic first for the show, but is it so for the drag community?

A former contestant of Drag Race, Trixie Mattel, explored the history of the word “drag” in a 2018 article published in Them. According to Mattel, “Since the 19th century, the term drag has been embraced by those who play with and redefine the concept of gender.” Mattel adds, “This definition (of drag) probably originated in the theatre of the late 1800s, where male performers wore petticoats to perform as women. Their petticoats would drag on the floor, and so they referred to dressing up as women as putting on their drags.”

But there is so much more to drag than just gay men ‘crossdressing’ as women.

Outside the Drag Race spotlight exist countless drag queens and artists who are not cisgender men (men who were assigned male at birth). Many of them are transgender women, cisgender women and non-binary folks.

There are also drag forms other than the popular ‘drag queen’ form. Drag king-ing, for example, is an art in which artists exaggerate gender performance by dressing up as men. Another variant is ‘drag clowning’, where people dress in extravagant ‘campy’ costumes and perform comically. Drag can also be political. The Cockettes were a radical drag troupe who lived on a commune in San Francisco in the 70s. They would put on free performances that critique capitalism. Another example would be the drag artists in Chicago, who use their artistry to make political statements about racial and gender equality.

However, the popular imagination of drag in the mainstream media is different. The media has established drag as a transgressive act in which cisgender gay men wear glamorous dresses, heavy and over-the-top makeup, fake breastplates and then break out on the stage with grand music and dance performances. This representation of drag is not incorrect, but it is limited. It fails to capture various other drag forms. It is misrepresentative and distorts the art of drag.

Shows like Drag Race tend to convey that only cisgender gay men can perform in drag. In the past, there have been few contestants who are non-binary or are transgender women on the show, but their stories scarcely get enough attention or air time.

Drag race alumni and trans model Carmen Carrera, once tweeted, “For someone to consciously block the truth of trans performers and the progression of our movement all because [sic] the public at large doesn’t know any better is just a cruel and evil use of power,” referring to the host of Drag Race, RuPaul.

The art of drag has existed outside the mainstream media for a long time. Spaces of drag are assumed to be safe for LGBTQ+ persons. There is no logical reason why someone should not be able to express themselves through drag. Yet, many are not being allowed to participate in this vibrant and diverse community. Non-binary and women drag artists have felt unsafe and uncomfortable because of the blatant misogyny and transphobia in the drag community – a possible reflection of the larger cisgender gay community.

Also read: How ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Became a Capitalist Money Maker

Television and other mainstream media are often considered as our windows to the world. That’s why the media has a vital role when it comes to portrayal and representation. It should be able to portray all forms of drag, especially those that go unnoticed. This has to be done sensitively – artists should have the liberty to share their stories as they wish and not be pressured to buckle under popular ratings and commercial value. It should not be made to satisfy the ‘queer fantasy’ of a cisgender heterosexual audience. It should render a voice to marginalised groups, document their reality, and not be a tailored portrait of glamour and drama for sensationalism.

One cannot completely discredit the media either. In recent years it has made efforts to diversify its content- to bring in those stories which often get lost in the lights, cameras and glamour of competitions like Drag Race. Shows like We’re Here and Pose help break the barrier between drag and ballroom culture and bring the mainstream into the tiny spaces of this niche art. The extensive exploration of the drag communities makes these shows a better representation of drag.

To its credit, Drag Race has given a platform for drag queens to talk about issues prevalent in their community like homophobia, racism and so on. There is still the question of commercial exploitation and fetishisation of these issues by media corporates.

Unfortunately, Drag Race still seems to have a monopoly on representing drag in the mainstream media. As Deadline reported, Drag Race currently has about 1.3 million viewers – and for many of them, this is their only exposure to drag. The show needs to be held accountable for improving the representation given its grave responsibility and far reach.

The winner of season nine of Drag Race, Sasha Velour once said. “Everyone is welcome in drag. Everyone is important and valuable.”

It is high time to show that and not just tell.

Kade Gottlieb, who performs under the stage name Gottmik (goes by she/her pronouns in drag), made history by being the first-ever transgender man to compete on Drag Race. Gottmik is only the second trans performer to compete on the show. In her introduction segment, Gottmik said: “It’s time to crash the cis-tem”. A clever play on the words cisgender and system. That is something to feel good about, but why did it take so long for the show to break the ‘system’ when the very essence of drag aims to subvert it?

Gautham Warrier (he/him, ze/zir), undergraduate student and a drag enthusiast. Instagram handle: _gaw._

Featured image credit: Transgender drag queen Aunchalee Pokinwuttipob, better known by the stage name, Angele Anang, 26, poses for a photograph raising three-finger salute during an LGBT rally against Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and to call for reforms to the monarchy, at Ratchaprasong intersection in Bangkok, Thailand, October 25, 2020. REUTERS/Chalinee Thirasupa