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Why 'Drag Race's Plus-Size Queens Can't Be the Heroes of Their Own Stories

Kalorie Karbdashian-Williams walked into the RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 10 workroom with confidence, announcing that she was about to serve America its “all-Karb, high-Kalorie” diet. Kalorie’s ethos was one of body positivity. Her aesthetic celebrated her curves and flaunted her body. She twerked and moved her body freely. Her name asserted that big queens deserve to stand alongside a sex and style icon like Kim Kardashian.

Kalorie was not the first big queen to walk into the workroom, nor was she the first queen to embrace her status as a “big girl” among a group of girls with traditional bodies. But she was the first queen to shout out body positivity in her early on-screen commentary and make it a part of her brand and ethos as a queen.

But, when she walked into the workroom in Lee Dawson’s RuCap of the same episode, her footsteps were made to sound like the Jurassic Park tyrannosaurus rex and her body was morphed to look like an amorphous blob. Later in the episode, when Kalorie was performing for the other queens, Homer Simpson’s voice was dubbed over her own, describing foods he likes — “I like pizza, I like bagels, I like hot dogs with mustard…”  And when she jumped into a split, the video cut to a clip of the grandfather in Freaky Friday yelling “Earthquake!”

After a commenter seemed to call him out, Dawson defended the decision on Twitter, saying her “drag persona is built around promoting her size and being proud of a big girl.”

But it was that confidence that probably opened her up to this particular instance of parody: people who are unapologetic about their big bodies often expose themselves to punishment for it. Kalorie's desire to be seen as sexy had to be squashed, which is indicative of gay men’s attitudes towards fat queer people.

Dawson’s funhouse mirror representation of Kalorie also showcases that, while Drag Race has become a platform for queens to talk about issues like racism in the LGBTQ community, the same discussion has not happened about sizeism, even when fat queens talk about body positivity.

In his book Fat Gay Men, Jason Whitesel writes that fat bodies are often gendered and read as feminine bodies and, due to misogyny among gay men, “fat amounts to degradable femininity.”

One thing that the popular hookup app phrase “no fats, no fems” teaches us is these bodies that don’t meet some golden proportion deviate from an acceptable body type in the gay community.

“Fat feminizes male features, threatening masculinity and departing from the archetype of the disciplined hard body,” Whitesel writes, referencing how men with hips or breasts are often feminized and therefore desexualized and marginalized. Kalorie fought to make her feminine body sexy, a transgression that opened her up to ridicule.

According to Todd Harper, assistant professor at the University of Baltimore, this size-shaming is indicative of a larger American attitude toward fatness, which is considered temporary or changeable, unlike other parts of a person’s identity. Harper called the idea of fatness as a choice a “very durable” American myth.

“Being fat is being seen as a moral failing,” he told INTO in a phone interview. “If you just had the willpower to not eat blah, or exercise more or  — insert any other self-control oriented verb statement here — if you just had the will to do those things, you wouldn't have to be fat anymore! So if you are fat it’s a deliberate choice on your part, so anything bad that happens to you is your fault.”

Unlike racism or other forms of discrimination mostly seen as wrong, “fat shaming stuff just skates,” Harper says. This parody of Kalorie’s fatness indicates how fat people are often not allowed to control their own narratives. A person's weight is considered part of the public domain for dissection.

This season, The Vixen spoke about media narratives for black queens. During a fight with Aquaria, The Vixen stopped the exchange to point out the meta-narrative of the argument: for people at home, The Vixen and Aquaria wouldn’t be seen as sparring equals. The Vixen would be seen as a black queen beating up a young, white queen.

The same can be said for fat queens, whose fatness often means they are villainized. Several big queens have become villains: Darienne Lake, Delta Work, Roxxxy Andrews, Ginger Minj and Alexis Michelle are just a few of the big queens who’ve been cast as the villain in their respective seasons. And just as often as these queens are cast in a villain role, there’s a small, meek queen whom they are made to terrorize. Darienne Lake had BendelaCreme, Roxxxy Andrews had Jinkx Monsoon. Ginger Minj was the old big bitter queen to Pearl and Violet Chachki’s youthful energy and Alexis Michelle was the egotist there to be a thorn in everyone’s side.

According to Harper, this creates a vicious cycle.

“The more it happens, the more it’s deeply embedded in how we understand that stuff in culture,” he said. “Then people unthinkingly reproduce that, which embeds that even deeper.”

What happens is a two-way editing street: not only does it become much easier to cast big queens as villains, but because of embedded cultural tropes, it’s also much easier for audiences to accept that a big queen will be mean. But that doesn’t allow big queens to be fully-realized humans.

Yes, a reality show can be a cauldron full of emotional torment for its contestants. But acting out based on that torment is only acceptable to a sliver — read: thin, white — of girls.

“To [take] one or two big girls and throw them in with these traditional body normative girls — and that has twice the meaning in queer communities — to put them in that body normative environment, are they probably going to have behavior that’s really easy to edit into a villain montage? Yeah,” Harper said. “But it does not at all surprise me that the big girls on that show would be edited into seeming defensive and catty.”

I know what you’re thinking. What about fan favorite Latrice Royale, the most congenial Miss Congeniality? Of course not every queen of size falls into this trap, but there are a lot of ways to explain why Latrice is different from the rest. On one level, there’s her sky-high confidence.

“She was too powerful a personality to be put in that box and she was extremely self-confident and aware of herself and understood herself,” Harper said. Of course, some of that may come from her particular struggles of being a fat, gay drag queen in America.

“I think growing up being a fat black drag queen had to be very fucking difficult,” Harper said. “You had two options: be very comfortable with yourself to the point that people cannot touch you or self-destruct.”

But part of that may also be racism and the particular way that fans view Latrice. As Tyra Sanchez once noted on Hey Kween, because she is big black femme, it’s easy for people to stereotype her a non-threatening “mammy” figure, an enduring trope that has been in the American lexicon since the 1800s.

And though that might seem “beneficial” in some ways because Latrice Royale is a fan favorite, the fact that she is large and in charge, chunky yet funky and black and ultimately becomes a mammy figure is still rooted in anti-blackness.

But, yes, Royale does seem mostly immune to the villain edit because of her confidence. But, on some level, it’s unfair that we demand sky-high confidence from a big girl just to shield her from a bad edit. The same is not true of skinny, white queens.

On Season 10, a lack of confidence defined Miz Cracker’s edit, but her lack of confidence was seen as a positive. She was an underdog, someone who had to get out of her own head to succeed. (Spoiler alert: she did not.) But that same luxury is not afforded to big queens. To be big and lack sky-high confidence is to put a target on your back.

And, because we’re talking about big queens, yes, the target is pretty big, too.

For practical reasons, Kalorie’s body positive ethos didn’t land a narrative arc. By the second episode, she and fellow big queen Eureka faced each other in a lip sync and Kalorie sashayed away. And, oddly enough, the most body-positive storyline of the season went instead to Kameron Michaels, the Tennessee muscle queen instantly declared the thirst trap of Season 10 by blogs once all the queens were announced. According to Michaels, fellow queens in Nashville ribbed her for her dude body, claiming that her drag would suffer because of it. Michaels’ body troubles were given ample time in challenges like the DragCon panel. This shows that Drag Race as a program is ready to talk about body politics in the queer community. However, it’s yet to be seen if a big queen can actually be the one to deliver the message.

Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/FilmMagic


Mathew Rodriguez

Mathew is a staff writer at INTO. His work has appeared in Mic, Slate and Complex. He loves "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," Flannery O'Connor and female rappers and is working on a memoir.

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