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What Do We Do With Bad Drag?

After Bianca Del Rio’s performance at Montreal Pride this weekend, a friend sent me a message.

“Honestly if you’d seen the drag show here it would have blown your mind,” they wrote. “Bianca Del Rio just relying on rape, sexism, and racism to make jokes about the performers and viewers like I don’t know if she wrote the script or? But holy shit – the whole thing was staggering.”

I wasn’t shocked. Bianca Del Rio had a herstory of being particularly controversial; constantly looking to push boundaries and scrape together laughs through cheap and jabbing humor. But the video of the live show was difficult to watch: “You notice she wasn’t raped until she was in the bottom two? Think about that, bitch – that’s fucking strategy!” Bianca took aim at Season 10 contestant Blair St. Clair, who bravely opened up about their sexual assault during filming. “Oh fuck you,” Bianca continued. “Rape is funny if you haven’t had it.”

Last year I wrote openly about my own troubling experiences with sex, and the difficulty of finding a language around consent within the queer community due to our identity being so closely wrapped around sexual behavior and desire. Queer men and women often silence ourselves from these politics because of sexual shame. Sometimes we don’t speak up about sexual misconduct because we’re scared our words will shatter the illusion that we’re a strong, loving, understanding community – an illusion under constant scrutiny by those eager to label us perverts, deviants, sinners. Blair’s admission is an act of unmatched courage – and shouldn’t be belittled by Bianca’s ignorance and scorn.

But at the core of Bianca Del Rio’s self-identified comedy is something that cuts well beyond just discussions of sexual assault and rape. We’re constantly told that drag as art centers itself on principles of freedom, liberation, experiment. To be in drag is to defy and deny the shackles of the status quo. This “anything goes” ideology then opens the trapdoor for performers like Bianca Del Rio to espouse their bigotry.

Bianca doesn’t stand alone. Earlier this year, during a show in Denver, All-Stars 3 winner Trixie Mattel used slavery as a punchline: “I couldn’t decide what to wear so I wore this. It’s just like a cotton. Latrice picked it.” We’ve now seen two queens (Raja & Monét X Change) don the Native American headdress on Drag Race. Whether it’s cultural appropriation and insensitivity, blatant racism, or complete disregard for the mental/physical health of a country where “someone is sexually assaulted every 2 minutes,” the queens (and their base) will often defend their “art” as pushing boundaries, breaking rules, dragging norms.

What this defense glosses over is the fact that drag, as we’ve come to consume it, is riddled with rules and guidelines about how queens are expected to behave, walk, talk, and look. The majority of these rules are enforced informally, but are nonetheless widely understood. How many times have we heard Ru and Michelle discuss whether a contestant was “fishy” enough; whether a queen was properly padded so as to better resemble a woman’s figure? (As if a woman’s body can so simply be reduced to a single form). Even Drag Race’s primary gatekeeper has created arbitrary rules about which genders are allowed to compete. Voguing, death drops, lip syncs, snatch game, costume reveals, tucking, houses, mothers… there are a slew of realness rituals that polished queens are expected to comply with. While, yes, drag does break down many assumptions around sexuality and gender that fog people’s minds, it’s also an art that requires discipline, practice and an understanding of the craft and its herstory. Drag will never be void of rules because no social or cultural context ever is.

It’s curious how we can so easily accept this idea of “pushing boundaries” without ever really asking, “But where do we want the boundary to be?” What important social commentary is Bianca making when she pokes fun at rape victims? What endgame does Trixie have in mind when she compares Latrice to a slave? Do they ever even consider that the empowerment they might feel – saying controversial and shocking statements on stage – will only serve to further disempower others? Do they ever consider their own privilege in what to them is just seemingly a piece of comedy? Their words – their apparent comedy, their art – become sites of trauma for those who haven’t yet healed. Simultaneously, these words become a vacation to those in the audience who ever-so-quietly do believe that rape might be funny, that slavery is a joke. These words grant legitimacy by easing their tensions, by letting them laugh. Is it worth it?

There’s an inherent fragility involved in talking about or critiquing the art that grows from an already marginalized community. It’s difficult to call out behaviors in other queer people because you don’t want to shatter the illusion that we’re a strong, loving, understanding community. We’ve come to support queens like Bianca and Trixie because of their televised determination and struggle. But it’s important we keep each other accountable. We need to set standards, recognize our own sets of privilege, and be unafraid in speaking out against ignorance veiled as comedy/art. And if calling out bad drag is controversial, then someone better tell Montreal Pride that I’m open for bookings.


Dejan Jotanovic

Dejan is currently living in Auckland, NZ as a freelance writer whose interests spin around queer history, feminism, pop culture and public policy. He also particularly enjoys watching RHONY, eating naughty vegan food, skateboarding and refreshing his Twitter feed.

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