Spilling The Tea: Does RuPaul’s Drag Race perpetuate toxic standards of femininity?

Written by Amy Wootten

Illustrated by Prince Pretzl

Like most of us, my weeks over the last few months were punctuated by Drag Race UK Thursdays and then a dose of Drag Race U.S. on a Saturday. It gave me something to look forward to, an hour to forget about the world and escape.

But one particular event in the UK season just didn’t sit right with me and it got me thinking. I lowered those rose-tinted glasses from my eyes and I saw Ginny Lemon, synched, padded and totally out of character. I thought: there’s something not right here. I have a particular dislike for the word ‘sexy’, I see it as a word that cis-het men use to describe women in a derogatory way and maybe that’s just from past experience, but it led to me wondering why Ginny Lemon had to “get sexy” in order to go further in Drag Race. Why couldn’t they just be the kooky queen everyone loves them for?

Real talk, because a kooky queen that lies outside of patriarchal standards of beauty just isn’t going to cut it. It speaks volumes that Lawrence Chaney is the first non-slim queen to win a Drag Race season.

I am fully aware that RPDR is a tiny window into drag. Even, it’s a section of drag that is commodified and gift-wrapped and made to be more palatable to a mainstream audience. But that’s a story for another day. While there is much to unpack, this piece will focus on how it is a lot of people’s only taste of drag and their only point of reference, so the way that it calls for a certain standard of femininity is damaging.

On a panel for POW! Festival on the topic of Drag and Feminism, Ginny Lemon called out the “deep sense of rooted misogyny within the community”, and said they never presented themselves as a “big boobie woman with curvy hips” because they felt uncomfortable with the message that that sent out. Then let’s take a look at Ginny in that skin tight dress, padding for days and sporting huge boobs – and something just feels off. RuPaul and the producers of the show made that happen, and for a show that preaches that you have to love yourself for who you are, it felt like they were really trying to change Ginny Lemon and get them to fit in the box of a more “acceptable” drag in order to succeed in the competition.

It’s like Ginny was told to be more feminine by chucking on a pair of tits as if that is what the performance of femininity is reduced to. It’s this toxic idealisation of a particular type of femininity within drag that I started to question.

As someone who is not a drag performer, there’s only so far I can go with what I think drag – and specifically RuPaul’s Drag Race – perpetuates in terms of femininity and the pressures that those within the community are under. So I opened a conversation with Princx, a queer activist and drag performer from Birmingham.

Pictured: Princx and friends

Princx’s drag “was born in the Birmingham scene in the mid-2010s. A revival of the drag scene was harkened in by artists Lacey McFaden, China Dethcrash and Queenie (amongst others)”. With “no set standards” this scene was a “safe place to explore and find your artistic expression and your soul as a drag artist”. Because of this, Princx doesn’t feel a pressure to conform to certain standards of femininity, they are able to explore a “passion for drag on a smaller, much less scrutinised scale”. It’s when they are under the mainstream spotlight that there is an expectation of “tall hair, a cinched waist, padding, nails and a full blended face of quality makeup” and “hyper-feminine beauty standards” in order to go further in competitions like RPDR.  

The queens on RPDR are seen as the benchmark for making it in drag, and by only “presenting one type of drag”, it “makes drag a game of money and that detracts from the art form of exploring gender identity and expression within what means you have”.

Princx gets to be the “kooky smoking area queen” who is a bit “rough around the edges” but finds beauty in that. RuPaul’s Drag Race does not make enough space for this, it is rooted in perfection and the projection of hyper-feminine pageantry.

“It feels like RuPaul is sort of clinging onto that old school idea of a need for ultra-sexy femininity and that you can only get away with being kooky or weird if you also look palatably attractive.”

On misogyny in the drag community – as also called out by Ginny Lemon – Princx said, “The drag community, like the queer community more widely, is often centred around the cisgender gay white man – this leads to sexism and misogyny either explicitly or more insidious indirect forms of discrimination.” This leaves out “queens of colour; trans, AFAB and non-binary drag performers; and drag kings who explore gender outside of this ‘ideal’, who are often excluded, underpaid or not invited to participate in the drag industry’s biggest opportunities, competitions and platforms”.

So, by perpetuating a hyper-feminine image for drag performers to claw towards, RPDR  does not leave much space for anyone who lies outside of that ideal. As the biggest drag show in the mainstream, it has a duty to break these boundaries and do better.

Princx sees the future of drag in the drag performers who lie outside of RPDR’s standards, who “are transgressive, punk and ethereal and are often self-explorative of the balance of gender within”.

I see the future of drag as a place that is fluid, liberated and steps outside of the gender binary and doesn’t place those binaries on people.

Drag does not have to be the performance of ultra-femininity. That’s not what we are here for and it’s not what we need. It feels like RuPaul is sort of clinging onto that old school idea of a need for ultra-sexy femininity and that you can only get away with being kooky or weird if you also look palatably attractive.

Like Princx, “I want to see AFAB and trans performers, disabled performers, performers of colour, bearded queens and unapologetic plus-sized queens, increasingly taking the centre stage”. We do not need another space where feminine presenting people have to look sexy to get ahead and are pressured to do so even if it is not their thing. The world is damaging enough.

So, to all the Ginnys, take off those tits (or put ‘em on if that’s what makes you feel good) and go be yourself. Don’t let anyone tell you how to dress, or how to be, and while you’re at it, support the smoking area drag queens. They need us now more than ever.

The Author

Amy is a small queer person just trying to survive her twenties in London. She gets angry when she’s hungry or tired but is happy when talking all things queer, writing or roller skating. She’s a bit clumsy but she tries. Also a dab hand at making a nice coffee.

Edited by Stephanie Kleanthous

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