Written by Megan Evans
Drag culture has recently become more mainstream with the ever-increasing popularity of the incredibly insightful television series, Ru Paul’s Drag Race, travelling across the nations from the US, to Canada and the UK.
But, do we truly understand the history of the culture, and what being a drag queen really means?
Drag culture allows for a type of expression like no other, an alter ego for some, through makeup artistry, costume design and talented acts.
Drag breaks the heteronormative gender guidelines set in place by society to separate males and females irrespectively. Although queens reflect the preexisting stereotypes of femininity, they blend together the sense of identity and breaking gender boundaries in a way of expressing that gender norms are fabricated.
The named ‘drag queens’ are at the heart of this culture, typically portrayed by males, who talently transform themselves into another character using clothing and makeup. They often imitate and exaggerate female roles for performance purposes of any gender and sexual identity.
Queens can use their own experiences to deconstruct their identifications of gender and explore their social identities by disassembling the power we give to social heteronormativity.
Drag shows frequently include lip-syncing, live singing and dancing, as well as fashion walks and comedy sketches. They often occur at events, such as gay pride parades and drag pageants, or in venues such as cabarets and nightclubs. Drag queens vary by type, culture and performance level, with some drag stars only dressing up occasionally, whilst others pursue this as a full-time career.
Drag was first recorded during the 17th century as entertaining live performances, but, unlike before, cisgender, transwoman and non binary individuals are now increasingly able to collectively perform as drag queens. This wouldn’t have been possible without some of the inspirational individuals in the culture, and the daring moves they were willing to make.
During the 60s, drag queen Flawless Sabrina organised events enabling drag queens to participate like traditional beauty pageant queens. Over time, a lot of LGBT black community members fostered their own neighbourhoods, originating the ‘drag ball’ culture. This has developed over time, with drag pageants and balls becoming mainstream, and an added arm of drag for queens to express themselves in a different way.
Ru Paul has made incredible moves for drag, and was the first ever queen to become a spokesperson for MAC Cosmetics, in the 1990s. Since then, he has helped drag to become a part of the everyday popular culture, rather than just between subversive sexual and gender expression.
Ru Paul’s Drag Race has provided a great platform for drag culture, educating and gaining interest from thousands who may have never even previously known it was a thing; many famous names have come out of the show and continue to appear in the mainstream media, from Trixie Mattel and Bianca del Rio to Violet Chachki and Alyssa Edwards, to name a few.
The show’s raw and natural style is not only informative, but enables viewers to watch the funny, touching family-style relationships the culture helps to build. Oftentimes, drag queen phrases will catch on, defining their personas and personalities to the nations; from Latrice Royale’s ‘EAT IT’, to Alexis Mateo’s ‘sickening, no?’, you can expect fans to recall and recite these phrases from heart.
Despite the fun nature of drag, it has also been a lifeline for so many in the community; the drag culture and family bonds created can provide a sense of armour and protection for queens who feel as though they don’t have a sense of place in the ever-evolving world.
The rapidly changing times, especially with programmes like Drag Race becoming mainstream, has allowed drag to progress as a form of art, to not only be life changing for the LGBT population, but for the whole world.
Ru Paul’s Drag Race has been an eye-opener for so many. Jackie Cox, for example, of Saudi Arabian descent, brought tears to viewers’ eyes on Season 12 in a confessional; she revealed she is a ‘proud American’ and wants to prove you can be both LGBT and from the Middle East, even though this has been frowned upon for centuries, due to different religious and cultural beliefs. Being able to be openly gay and a great competitor on the prestigious show has inspired other individuals to come out of their shells and express themselves however they want to.
Drag star Peppermint, furthermore, who came out as transgender during Season 9 of the show, is an incredible example of the determination and drive set out by someone who has had huge setbacks in life.
Being a black trans woman during the times of the Black Lives Matter movement and continued racial injustice must be difficult, and yet she proposes just how much the show has done for her and her womanhood. She continues to be such an important activist, using her social media platforms to discuss the need for social change following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmad Aubrey.
Peppermint has been an inspiration to many, gaining so many achievements that would have previously been unheard of for those belonging to drag culture. She was, for example, the first ever trans woman to feature as a major role in a Broadway production, as part of the cast of Head Over Heels. She has also openly considered going into politics, following Honey Mahogany’s footsteps from Season 5 of Drag Race, who was elected to the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee, fighting for a more just city, and is the first black trans woman to hold public office.
These achievements that may have seemed so adverse many years ago, are now seen as an opportunity in this new era of drag which continues to help mould the new world and its attitudes.
This new era for drag and identity is very exciting and is reaffirming the beauty and fashion standards, not only for women, but men as well, of all races and ethnicities. The drag culture openly pushes and tests societal boundaries, breaking the mould of masculinity as being solely within men, and femininity solely within women.
For me, drag race is not just glitz and glam, but is a weapon for future generations to express themselves; the culture isn’t just targeted towards the gay community, but is becoming a way of living. As a woman, I feel drag opens the doors for fluidity and influx of gender stereotypes, which I openly accept and look forward to seeing develop over time.
We can all learn a lot from this new way of thinking and inspire further generations with this challenging art form.
Image credit: Alejandro Cartagena, Unsplash