A SYTYCB entry
M’dear RuPaul, I’m sad to report I have a bone to pick with you. (And, OK—tee hee!)
It pains me, because I adore you. I have nothing but admiration for the way you boldly sashayed your way into the hearts of mainstream America with your 1993 hit single “Supermodel (You Better Work).” I love the way you used those strappy stiletto heels kick to open doors for the GLBTQ community, right through to the 2009 debut of your revolutionary Logo reality show, “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
And I can’t get enough “Drag Race,” now approaching its fifth season. The way it spoofs reality shows like “Project Runway” and “America’s Next Top Model” brings me boundless joy, especially when you coolly survey the queens with an empirical Tyra Banks gaze—after they’ve been tasked with making something beautiful using glue guns and a pile of garbage. I’m blown away when I process the sheer level of talent this contest demands: Modeling, styling, sewing, crafting, lip-synching, dancing, acting, singing, and writing—often on the spot and in 5-inch heels. I’m thrilled that plus-size queens are given the same amount of respect as the pint-size “fishy” ones. But most importantly, I love how “Drag Race” reveals the personal world of a group still beleaguered by prejudice, discrimination, and violence, and puts a heart-breaking, human face on all the abstract debates about sexuality, religion, and policy.
But, girl, I need to have a word with you about your “Drag Race” spinoff, “RuPaul’s Drag U.” Yes! The concept is brilliant. Drag queens teaching biological women how to be “women”? Hilarious! I see that impish look on your face. I know you’re out to turn the concept of gender on its head, again. You look as gleeful as Willie Wonka when you put pictures of Average Janes through the “Dragulator” and come up with their flamboyant drag personas, replete with gravity-defying wigs, ornate headpieces, and dramatic, bright capes and trains. And it’s a gift to see my favorite queens like Sharon Needles, Chad Michaels, and Latrice Royal back on the boob tube, sharing their secrets for extreme glamour.
However, I’m afraid that you and your merry crew of drag “professors” have playfully pranced right into the gaping black hole at the center of most makeover shows. On “Drag U,” as with “What Not to Wear” and “Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style,” the message is clear: Above all things, if a woman wants to find success and happiness, she must learn how to be pretty.
Don’t get me wrong, I can get down with a good makeover show. More often than I’d like to admit, I get swept up in the consumerist fantasy of some fairy godmother fashion guru gifting me a wild shopping spree and spa day. I watch and internally squee, “OMG, love that dress! Lookit those fabulous earrings!” I get it: When I’m down in the dumps, sometimes, a fresh haircut and a new frock are just the boost I need. If you and your drag-queen army wanted to help me pick out a new shade of lipstick—and dump some cash on me—I’d dance for it, no doubt.
But my good girlie buzz screeches to a halt when I’m watching a makeover show and I see the fashion police descend on a woman—who doesn’t even necessarily identify as transgender—who’s more comfortable dressing as a “boy.” I squirm when Stacy London and Clinton Kelly find a young lady with a broad shoulders and muscular physique, who likes to play sports and roughhouse with dudes in baggy T-shirts and basketball shorts. They’ll put makeup on her face, doll her up in a flowery dress, and drag her to a mirror. “Look how pretty you are!” they say with an outwardly patronizing tone. “I’ll bet you didn’t even know you could be a girl!”
And perhaps they are getting down to some secret sadness. Maybe this woman dresses the way she does because she doesn’t have a stereotypically dainty or curvy figure. It’s possible she always felt a little forlorn and left out of the ultra-femme girl club. It could be she gave up on ever getting a straight guy to look at her—and the stylists are genuinely, kindly helping her transform into the butterfly she wants to be.
Or not. Maybe her new clothes make her feel awkward and strange and too visible. Has anyone considered she might have relished dressing with a male level of comfort? How wonderful it must have been to live free of fashion, makeup, or hairstyling. Being a “dude,” she could just throw on the first clothes she found on the floor, and go out to shoot some hoops. I know, I know: Most people can’t live that way every day. Indeed, a certain amount of professional dress and neatness is required for success in business. But why must women also be feminine and attractive?
Even as a heterosexual, cis-gendered woman who loves beautiful clothes, I have days I hate being a “girl.” My head will be wrapped up in writing, when I realize I need to go to the store—and putting together even a low-key outfit seems like a time-consuming chore. On these days, I want to live without style. I also have days I don’t want to fend off sexual advances; I don’t want to hear what men think about me; I don’t want to be talked down to because I’m too cute to know anything.
So my darling, Ru, when you round up a pack of heroic servicewomen who live in combat boots and baggy khakis and you tell them, “In the line of duty, you’ve sacrificed the most important thing of all: being a woman,” I wince. And when your laugh-riot “Dean of Drag” Lady Bunny schools them on the art of walking in heels—insisting that high-heeled shoes don’t hurt the body one bit—I cringe. Yes, these woman, too, have the power to become lovely, breathtaking creatures. But why do they need to do that to be considered real women? Why are we expected to cheer and assume it’s going to change their lives for the better?
Clearly, the contestants on your “Drag U” signed up for the gig. They are seeking a little schooling in comeliness and OTT drag-queen flair, and they’re having a blast. As you happily dance between dapper dandy and glamourpuss diva, Ru, you demonstrate that genderized dress is simply armor one can put on and take off at will, particularly when you say, “You’re born naked, the rest is drag.”
Still, I get prickly when one of your “professors” blanches at a divorceé’s quilted pantsuit, because I worry about the message it puts into the world. Like, “Yes, women, everyone is watching you, and if you don’t look good, they’ll be judging you.”
In her defense of leggings and other “ugly” ill-fitting and unflattering clothing, Erin at A Dress A Day puts it best when she says: “You don’t have to be pretty. You don’t owe prettiness to anyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don’t owe it to your mother, you don’t owe it to your children, you don’t owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked ‘female.’”
It seems the real key to happiness isn’t finding girlish sex appeal, which is temporary at best. It’s about staying true to yourself—whether you’re playing dress up in a flamenco skirt, platform heels, and Carmen Miranda fruit basket on your head, or you’re chilling in a baggy sweat suit and running shoes. I know you feel me on this, Ru.
Can I get an A-MEN?