"Dragula," Inclusivity, and the Downfall of "Drag Race": The Rise of Alternative Drag in MSM
Among my friends, by and large, I am the token drag performer. In reality, I haven’t played an actual drag show in just over a year, with the bulk of my performances coming at an art showcase / open stage known as Atomic Signal. A performer, I am. A drag artist… I have a harder time taking that label and owning it, for one reason or another. Never mind my sporadic schedule, it’s just something about the culture, something about the portrayal of drag artists in the media. Prime example: I despise the movie To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar! Yeah, seeing leading macho men Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes in wigs, tights, and tits was good fun (and I still titter at RuPaul’s character name of Rachel Tensions), it gives this idea that we’re on, turned up to eleven, all the time. I know I haven’t been doing this for terribly long, sure, but even I know the secret is knowing when to flip the switch and be “on” when it’s necessary.
While I love seeing Ru Girls like Trixie Mattel, Shea Coulee, and Kim Chi making waves in their respective extracurriculars, I look at all of those who have been shut out, those that questioned the status quo and wound up ostracized for it. Girls like Carmen Carrera come to mind, as she called out the bullshit on Drag Race using the pejorative “she-male” and, gods forbid, RuPaul’s song “Tranny Chaser.” Instead of being praised for her activism, she was told she was biting the hand that fed her, implying that she would be nothing without having appeared on Drag Race. For her trouble, she has been wildly successful as a model, being featured on the poster of the Life Ball, the foremost HIV/AIDS benefit event in Europe, and featured in shows such as Cake Boss, Couples Therapy, and 20/20: What Would You Do?
What’s worse is that Carrera didn’t begin her transition until after her season’s filming. This could almost (almost) be forgiven if the pressures had subsided for contestants in subsequent seasons, but this wasn’t the case. Kenya Michaels was out to her season 4 sisters as transgender, but again, did not begin her medical transition until after filming. More recently, Peppermint, a New York legend, was publicly out before her season 9 stint, but wasn’t able to get breast augmentation before filming.
Then comes RuPaul’s 2018 interview with The Guardian. When asked if a biological woman would be allowed on the show, he had this to say:
“Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it, because at its core it’s a social statement and a big f-you to male-dominated culture. So for men to do it, it’s really punk rock, because it’s a real rejection of masculinity.”
Now, I can agree that drag is a fuck you to male-dominated, masculine culture. I’m with her on that point. But to say that that’s the only way that it really works, that it fires on cylinders as Ru implies, is selling the very history of drag short.
But we’re not done yet. No, to double down on the thinly-veiled transphobia and less-thinly-veiled gatekeeping, Ru gives us this: So how can a transgender woman be a drag queen?
“Mmmm. It’s an interesting area. Peppermint didn’t get breast implants until after she left our show; she was identifying as a woman, but she hadn’t really transitioned.” Would he accept a contestant who had? He hesitates again. “Probably not. You can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body. It takes on a different thing; it changes the whole concept of what we’re doing. We’ve had some girls who’ve had some injections in the face and maybe a little bit in the butt here and there, but they haven’t transitioned.”
How does it change the concept of drag? How is sticking an extended middle finger to the face of gender norms and the patriarchy changed by a trans woman performing in drag? And I can hear some of the purists now, “drag” does not stand for “dressed as a girl.” It was named for the way that dresses dragged across the stage in old Shakespeare times. You know, when the men played all of the roles. If we don’t care about putting one above the other, one could make the case for a trans person performing in drag being more punk rock, more counterculture.
But that’s not the argument I care to make. What I wish to argue is that so-called “alternative drag” is on the rise, and in this era of our head of state holding a gay pride flag upside-down, still insisting that he supports the LGBTQ+ community, we need it more now than ever before.
I’ve written extensively about The Boulet Brothers' Dragula here on CryptTeaze, and I’ve made it a point to talk about the things that are outside the norm for drag, which is really splitting hairs when you’re talking about the counterculture of a counterculture. Just this most recent season, we had a drag king (Landon Cider), an AFAB performer (Hollow Eve), a non-binary performer (Maxi Glamour), and a trans performer (Priscilla Chambers). Following the airing of the season, upload snafus be damned, Netflix picked up the show, hosting seasons two and three (the first is on Hey Qween! on YouTube, and licensing is a mother) and possibly more to come. Add to this a book deal for the Boulet Brothers, not to mention the countless performers they have inspired, many of whom I’ve covered previously, and Dragula has made a mark on the face of drag, and drawn blood because they can.
Dragula isn’t the only game in town as far as forward-thinking, progressive drag. Camp Wannakiki, a comedy-flavored competition show, is hosted by The Sugarbaker Twins, the owners of the revered Hamburger Mary’s restaurant franchise. In just two seasons, it has featured several trans performers, including C’est Kevvie and Clare Apparently, as well as a drag king in Boris Tudeth. Kevvie was in season fucking one, for crying out loud, and again I reiterate that the show has existed for two whole seasons (and it’s free on YouTube, so go check it out once you’re done reading). With the levity that the Hamburger Mary’s name holds in the drag community, Camp Wannakiki and the Sugarbaker Twins are more on the frontlines than most would know.
RuPaul’s Drag Race went from being the only game in town to being the only game in town that hasn’t caught up. Granted, the show airs on VH1, so they’ll be enjoying that sweet Viacom dollar for years to come, but for a show that prides itself on being so forward, so progressive, they’re almost doing everything they can to dig their high heels in the dirt and stay put right where they are… or are they?
Michelle Visage, RuPaul’s right-hand woman for decades, lately spoke up about wanting to host her own version of Drag Race that would feature trans women and “bio” queens (note the quotes, I hate the term, and I’m not even a “bio” woman). She even said that anyone is allowed to audition for the original Drag Race, despite what RuPaul himself said in the aforementioned Guardian interview. While Visage’s years in the ballroom scene and culture earn her a pass on calling herself a “bio queen” and referring to herself as a drag queen, it really feels like she’s selling herself short. If she can be in the second-in-command role on-camera as a cis woman, why doesn’t she use the very platform she has cultivated, not to mention her decades of history with RuPaul, to speak up and shake things up for the better? Michelle Visage wanting her own “version” of Drag Race isn’t progressive, it’s capitulation.
When your own court of seasoned veterans is crying foul, that should be a sign that something isn’t right. Detox, one of the most prolific of the Ru Girls, went on a Twitter tear following the season 12 cast reveal, calling the lack of trans performers a “conscious exclusion.” Carmen Carrera went so far as to call RuPaul “the Hitler of the LGBTQ community.” Given her history with the show and RuPaul in particular, it’s not hard to see where the frustration and resentment comes from.
Parallels aside, the stick in the mud that is RuPaul Charles in the drag world may not be moving anytime soon, but the trajectory of the alternatives is due upward. Whether it be the blood-soaked Dragula or the lighter-hearted Camp Wannakiki, or any other organized competition series, now is the time for alternative drag to rise and be seen. It is time for those of us, like myself, who saw Sharon Needles on Drag Race and said to ourselves, “if she can win and do awesome things, maybe a weirdo like me can do something great too.”
After all, if we take RuPaul at his word, drag is punk rock. What’s more punk rock than a revolution?