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  • King Markiss

The Ru-Paulification of Drag

Words by King Markiss (he/him) 


Nothing is stopping me from getting into drag. 

At 16 years old, alone in my bedroom, five hours into a Ru Paul’s Drag Race binge, this thought repeats in my mind. I carve out the contours of my face and tape my breasts beneath my armpits. King Markiss is born. People don’t look at me like they look at drag queens, though. The second time I go out in drag is at Cuba Dupa and I am looked upon with confusion, if not contempt. 


When normies (the name I lovingly bestow upon those of you who watch no drag—or no local drag) think of a drag performer, one type of person comes to mind. She is tall; she wears a big wig, a big chestplate, and a magnificent sparkling gown. She is a drag queen— and a certain type at that. She is Ru Paul. 


***


Ru Paul’s Drag Race is an international phenomenon. Without it, drag might still be an underground, criminalised art form. With it, drag has totally transformed for the better… and worse. Drag Race’s influence has penetrated every local drag scene and the minds of every drag consumer. Performers have enjoyed increased pay and opportunities, and trans people’s avenue for gender expression and experimentation has become mainstream. But, through the race, everyone now expects perfection. They expect competition. And, they expect a particular depiction of gender. 


Modern drag as we know it can be traced to British vaudeville theatre and Harlem’s ballroom scene. Male vaudeville performers would dress as women for their show, only revealing their identity at the end—to the audience’s shock. Some performers even developed large fanbases, such as the famous actor and drag queen Julian Eltinge. 


In the ballroom scene, the Black and Hispanic queer folks of New York would hold intimate balls with runway shows, voguing, and pure unadulterated queer creativity. This is where the concept of a ‘drag house’ popped up, as the Black and Hispanic drag queens and trans women in the scene, who were often homeless and struggling with oppressive economic forces, were in need of elders’ guidance and care. 


In Pōneke, drag has been a staple since the 1970s. Back then, it was distinctly focused on the political subversion of gender. In a 1973 Christchurch Gay Liberation Front newsletter, they describe a performer as “not trying to act like a woman. He’s showing that clothes and behaviour have no relations to a person’s essential masculinity or femininity; he’s showing that our attitudes to masculinity and femininity are conditioned by what society has taught us to believe, and not by what we really are.” Now, we find ourselves in a new era of drag: Ru-Paulified drag.


***


Expectations of perfection infect our minds like a virus, and through RPDR, expectations have skyrocketed. Competitors spend up to tens of thousands of dollars to prepare for RPDR. Yet, having high expectations for a competition like RPDR is not the issue; the issue is when normies look down on local artists who fail to live up to that standard. 


A Pōneke queen told me “the bigger [RPDR’s] budget, the more expensive they expect their cast to be”. To her, drag has become about “whose outfit is the most expensive, who looks the most like an Instagram/TikTok model. [...] Drag is meant to be a means of self expression, but now it just feels like capitalism has ruined that.”


The word “crunchy” is often used to describe the queens appearing on RPDR Down Under, complaining that these queens, who lack the resources Americans enjoy, are low-quality. This couldn’t be less true. 


When you attend a drag show in Pōneke, you stand (or sit, if you are lucky) in a cramped bar to watch the performer dance, lipsync, sing, or strip (or sometimes all of the above) to their favourite song. Perhaps they wear a dress from Shein because it’s all they can afford that fits their body, or perhaps they are wearing a bedazzled op shop suit because they found the time between their 9-5. Perhaps, if you are lucky, they wear a costume they painstakingly sewed themselves.


Complaining that our drag is ‘crunchy’ implies that we look cheap. The expectation that drag performers need to look like runway models reflects a deep undercurrent of classism. Put bluntly: the queer people who make up the drag community have always faced systemic barriers to acquiring wealth. Especially performers who are trans, Black, or Māori. So no, normies, Aotearoa’s drag is not ‘crunchy’. It is normal, and it is excellent

***


My back and eyes ache from the blinding light of the sewing machine in my dark, cold lounge. I’m at the end of my tether, but my costume is finally finished. My flatmate asks me if I’m nervous. Of course I am nervous! 


“Do you think you’re going to win?” she asks. Win? Win what


“The drag race!” she replies. 

RPDR transmits a single kind of drag across the world: pageants. Modelled after America’s Next Top Model, RPDR pits queen against queen. Competition has always existed in the art form, and in Pōneke, there is often a friendly competition between two drag performers sprinkled between the two or three pageants a year. But you’d be sorely mistaken if you came to a Pōneke show expecting a panel of judges. Your regular weekend drag show is instead a pure celebration of gender malleability and queer creativity. There is no expectation of competition or perfection. In the words of Pōneke drag queen and producer Amy Thurst, RPDR has brought the community “elitism, competition, and burn out.” 


***


Perhaps the most potent effect of RPDR is its gender essentialism. It is well known that Ru Paul did not want transgender women competing on RPDR for a long time. Local drag king and producer Willy SmacknTush says Ru Paul’s “inclusion and celebration of trans queens was ridiculously overdue, and only started [...] after intense criticism.” 


The trans, crossdressing, and drag communities have always been intimately connected. In Pōneke, Carmen Rupe’s coffee house—which doubled as a brothel—employed “a mix of drag queens, female impersonators, transvestites and transsexuals [sic.].” RPDR wanted none of this. 


The tunnel-vision of drag as cisgender men dressing as women also deeply correlates with the misogyny and transmisogyny that permeates straight and queer cultural spheres. “[Ru Paul] would rather have cishet men on the show over drag kings, because he doesn’t think women are good enough [to do drag]—although not all drag kings are women,” Willy SmacknTush tells me. Local king Sir Traylene comments that RPDR presents drag as “sterile, competitive, and narrow”. 


*** 


Despite its sterilisation, RPDR has meant a significant rise in popularity and success for some performers. One local queen attributes her success to RPDR, recounting that, with the popularity of RPDR, “drag became something people are willing to pay money to see.” But, drag kings have been left behind in this hype. 


Willy SmacknTush says kings, compared to queens, “are not offered the same performing opportunities, the same pay, [or] the same respect from the public and other performers”. Amy Thurst also reflects that drag kings lack representation in the art form. Indeed, every time a normie learns I do drag, their first question is “aren’t you already a girl?” Kings are still subject to the stigma from which drag queens have been largely uplifted. 


RPDR has also affected non-performers. Making celebratory depictions of gender non-conformity highly accessible, it inspires more people to get into drag, and helps people on their journey of transness. Amy Thurst notes a distinct increase in local performers around RPDR season 8 and 9 in 2016 and 2017. Her start, mine, and no doubt many others’ in the scene, was inspired by RPDR


Further, drag often leads people to discover or express their gender. Carmen Rupe began her journey as a cross-dressing sex worker and a drag queen, eventually finding that her alter-ego Carmen was her true self. There is no feeling better than looking at yourself in the mirror and feeling at home. RPDR has spread this joy.


If you take one thing away from this article, let it be this: RPDR is a sterilised, commodified representation of our community. If you love RPDR, come to a local show. If you love RPDR but don’t want to engage with real-life drag performers, consider why we make you uncomfortable, and make a change. Drag can’t hurt you. 


Sir Traylene had powerful words on the danger of RPDR tunnel-vision: “Many people will claim to love drag while consuming it online [...] [but] will never put their money where their mouth is and see a local show. They will vote right wing and take away rights from the very people they sensationalise. They will allow violence incited towards our communities. They will brush off their ‘isms’ and bigotry because [...] [RPDR’s drag] removes the history, range, and political sides of drag.”

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