No Tea, No Shade: The Rocky Relationship Between Drag and Mainstream Culture

What happens when something that prides itself on otherness drifts into the mainstream?

For much of the twentieth century, drag was about as niche as you could get. Unlike Shakespearean times, when men routinely played women, cross-dressing in entertainment became associated with the lowest, broadest comedy. The phrase ‘drag queen’ was first recorded in 1941, but for decades it thrived solely underground, too provocative for mainstream audiences. Even within the LGBT community there was a tendency to see drag queens either as a joke, or as a narrow, over-feminised version of gay identity, whose explicit otherness barred assimilation with heteronormative society.

Up until six months ago, when I heard the words ‘drag queen’ I pictured a burly bloke in a sequined frock singing ‘I Am What I Am’. That was, up until my flatmates convinced me to watch reality competition RuPaul’s Drag Race. ‘Okay’ I thought, ‘this is actually pretty entertaining. A bit full-on though, I couldn’t manage more than one episode at a time’. Little did I know I’d soon be binge-watching it like a starved Cookie Monster let loose in the McVities factory. In a matter of weeks I went from drag oblivious to drag enthusiast, and here’s why.

For one, RuPaul’s Drag Race is downright fun. The show – in which queens do battle and lip-synch for their lives to be crowned America’s Next Drag Superstar – is serious about not taking itself too seriously, with its over-the-top hijinks creating a bombastic heightened reality. The whole point of drag is to be irreverent, and Drag Race heartily complies. Whether the contestants are performing comedy roasts, re-enacting Spanish telenovelas or ripping scraps of fabric from zombified past contestants to create post-apocalyptic couture, they inject a chains-off splash of colour into pop culture.

RuPaul notes that many are also enticed by the tenacity and endurance of the contestants. Each season has its heroes and villains, but it’s heartening to see the queens – all of whom will have experienced at least some degree of prejudice or repression – finally arrive in an arena where what makes them different is celebrated.

is drag actually becoming mainstream? 

What stands out most, however, is the sheer diversity of the queens. You can take that literally – Drag Race has featured performers from countless ethnic backgrounds, doing more for inclusiveness in eight seasons than Hollywood has in a century. Their talents are what is most diverse, though. The show features actors, singers, comedians, models, impersonators and performance artists, and the strongest contestants blend all of these skills. Compare the vaudevillian stylings of Jinkx Monsoon to the acid wit of Bianca del Rio, or the irrepressible kookiness of Katya to the high fashion of Raja and glamorous burlesque of Violet Chachki. Between them, they prove that drag is not a static, homogenous identity, but an art form which can be interpreted in hundreds of ways.

I’m not alone, either. Recently, wider culture has become more aware and more appreciative of drag. Although Drag Race is unlikely to be picked up by the BBC, the internet has allowed it to become a phenomenon, not only within the LGBT community but beyond. And with people of all strokes being drawn in by the entertainment and artistry of drag, fluid notions of gender and sexuality are being subconsciously normalised. Despite not being overtly political, Drag Race is subversive, toying with our expectations of gender and even the notion of gender itself. It demonstrates that drag goes beyond mere female impersonation; though it is staggering how convincingly female some queens appear, others take pride in blending male and female traits (a.k.a. ‘gender fucking’), or adopt exaggerated gender traits to make social commentary. As the show’s popularity grows, it’s impossible to guess how many lives have been bettered by its celebration of queer identity and its ethos of self-confidence and acceptance.

I realise it’s something of a cliché to discover drag via RuPaul. Some have criticised his show’s dominance, baulking at the idea of something as deliberately counter-cultural as drag entering the mainstream. I’d pose two questions here, though. One: is becoming mainstream an inherently bad thing? Mass appeal might cause a certain dumbing-down (consider the basic queens who do little more than look fierce and parrot catchphrases), but it brings with it an opening up. Drag might have been forged in the flames of club culture and is still largely based there – club appearances are the bread and butter of most queens – but why shouldn’t talented queens also appear on album charts, magazine covers or Broadway stages? Greater exposure equals greater opportunities, meaning that even those who spend evenings on the sofa in their pyjamas get to appreciate these queens’ talents.

My second question: is drag actually becoming mainstream? It may be better-known thanks to RuPaul and co., but drag subverts the mainstream by its very definition. It thrives off breaking norms and striding into places mainstream art fears to tread. Being safe or commercial has never been an option. You could even argue that the mainstream is moving to meet drag, rather than vice versa: consider how phrases like ‘throwing shade’ (insulting someone) and ‘spilling the tea’ (sharing gossip) have seeped into common usage, or the growing cult status of the late Divine.

So, far from drifting into the mainstream as though pulled inexorably by somebody else’s tide, drag is going only where it wants to, thank you very much. The sole difference now is that more people have joined the ride. At a time when US legislators believe transgender people going to the toilet is a greater public safety risk than swathes of citizens owning assault rifles, however, it would be naïve to assume that mainstream society is on some glitter-sprinkled helter skelter of acceptance. Drag has always pushed at boundaries, and it is vital that it continues to. It won’t ever fit the status quo but, through increased recognition, drag has the potential to enrich both our cultural lives and society as a whole. 

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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