copyright 2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 54, fall 2012

RuPaul’s Drag Race as meta-reality television

by Nicholas de Villiers

“Drag constitutes the mundane way in which genders are appropriated, theatricalized, worn, and done; it implies that all gendering is a kind of impersonation and approximationgender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original.” —Judith Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination”

“I was a child of television. … I instinctively knew just how to turn the volume up, how to pitch myself, and how to speak in sound bites. In short, I knew how to speak the language of television. Fluently.” —RuPaul, Lettin It All Hang Out

America's next top drag queen

An October 2008 segment of the entertainment news show The Insider introducing the launch of the first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race (first aired February 2, 2009) begins with the announcer saying,

“Move over Tyra and America’s Next Top Model, there is a brand new talent competition hitting the airwaves that is about to turn the rules upside down, because these all male contestants aren’t just striking a pose, they are dressing up like women to become America’s next top drag queen.”

We then see behind-the-scenes shots of the contestants in the backstage/makeup/workroom area with commentary from RuPaul reassuring reality-TV fans that there will be lots of drama because “we’re queens.” The contestants’ self-introductions are interspersed with footage of RuPaul’s “Supermodel (You Better Work)” music video from 1993, thus reminding the audience of RuPaul’s earlier moment in the spotlight of mainstream culture. Over shots of the panel of judges, RuPaul explains that they are looking for America’s next drag superstar, distinguished by “Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent.” We can already sense a bit of RuPaul’s subversive sense of humor in smuggling an obscene acronym (C.U.N.T.) onto mainstream television, and RuPaul jokes that no one has come for her title and it is “kind of lonely at the top.” (I will use “she/her” to refer to RuPaul in female drag, and “he/his” for RuPaul’s “male drag” persona, often including glasses and a mustache). But RuPaul is also strikingly sincere and Oprah-esque when she explains that these are people who have “taken adversity and turned it into something beautiful and powerful.” She offers up her version of the drag American dream:

“a lot of paint and powder, and a positive attitude, high-heels and a dream will take you a long way.”

This encapsulates the meritocratic dream of talent-scouting television like Star Search and Miss America that The Insider’s audience also recognizes from reality television shows America’s Next Top Model, American Idol, and Project Runway.

What we don’t see in The Insider’s profile is RuPaul in dapper suit-wearing “male drag” (rather than “out of drag”—a state reserved for the contestants). RuPaul famously declared,

“You’re born naked and the rest is drag.” (Lettin It All Hang Out, viii).

This concept of drag as revealing the imitative structure of gender (including normative heterosexual gender, not just lesbian, gay, and drag “role playing”) will be recognizable to readers of Judith Butler’s influential essay “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” (though many forget that Butler credits this insight to Esther Newton’s anthropological study of drag, Mother Camp). Butler, however, has since downplayed the example of drag (as conscious or voluntary performance) in her idea of gender performativity (perhaps understandably, since many use the word “performative” when they mean “performancy”).[1] [open endnotes in new window] But I want to take RuPaul’s conscious — and perhaps unconscious — performances seriously. I will go on to argue that RuPaul’s multiple personas offer a kind of metacommentary on talent contest reality television conventions and specifically the roles of Tyra Banks and Tim Gunn from America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway. RuPaul’s television performances offer “readings” of their performances, as well as revisions of her own iconic “Supermodel of the World” persona. RuPaul’s Drag Race is thus a form of “meta-reality television.”

Werner Wolf has identified a “metareferential turn in contemporary arts and media” in two edited volumes that speculate about works that call attention to themselves as artifacts (metafiction, metacinema, metatelevision). Wolf defines “metaization” as

“the movement from a first cognitive, referential or communicative level to a higher one on which first-level phenomena self-reflexively become objects of reflection, reference and communication in their own right” (Metareferential Turn, vi).

This is generally associated with a kind of intellectual, critical, and distancing reflexivity, but certain contributors to the edited volumes (including myself on “metahorror” films) suggested that metareference in popular media does not necessarily conflict with the immersive enjoyment of the text by the audience, and can act as a kind of flattering wink to the savvy fan. In what follows, I will examine both the intertextual and metatextual elements of RuPaul’s Drag Race in relation to ANTM and Project Runway and reality television more generally, but I will also look further back in time than The Insider to gauge the impact of Jennie Livingston’s 1990 drag documentary Paris Is Burning on RuPaul’s early-90s persona (for example, the lyrics on her album Supermodel of the World), the format and vocabulary of RPDR, and audience reception of RuPaul’s show.

Much of RuPaul’s dialogue is borrowed from the drag ball scenes in Paris Is Burning. Sometimes this borrowing takes the form of direct quotation, for instance: RuPaul tells Santino, a judge on RPDR who also competed on Project Runway, to “shake the dice and steal the rice” (which may have been slang at the time of Paris Is Burning, but is recognizable as a snippet of dialogue from the MC in the film, along with Venus Xtravaganza’s idiolect also quoted by RuPaul: “between me down there”). Sometimes it involves revision and re-inflection: “Xtravaganza” becomes “Eleganza,” “Psychological” becomes “Biological,” etc. This kind of mutation is characteristic of a “meme” whereby culture is disseminated through fan communities and the Internet. I will end with some speculation about the effects of new media on our sense of “drag community” and “gay community.”

To start with The Insider’s comparison: does RPDR turn “the rules” of America’s Next Top Model upside down? Other than the gender (or genders) of the contestants, the contest itself is relatively similar: each week the host announces a specific challenge (with some coaching) that tests the modeling and spokesmodeling skills of the competitors, usually producing an artifact (“your best shot” taken by a celebrity photographer; a short promotional video), and a runway performance/interview in front of a panel of judges chosen for their industry experience who offer their critiques, presided over by a successful spokesmodel. The final prize competed for is also similar: a modeling contract, an advertising contract, the opportunity to appear in a top magazine, and the title/crown. In ANTM, Tyra Banks (a “top model” who is also the executive producer of the show) reveals one-by-one the photographs of the contestants that have not been eliminated, saying,

“Congratulations. You are still in the running towards becoming America’s Next Top Model.”

The first-called contestant receives a small prize and sometimes an advantage in the next challenge, and the final two contestants left standing are usually given further criticisms before Tyra breaks the suspense by revealing who will stay and who must pack their things and leave the show. One major difference is that the decision of who stays and who goes is made by the panel in ANTM whereas the panel of judges on RuPaul’s Drag Race play only an advisory role, since RuPaul reserves the privilege of making the final decision herself of who will “Shantay, you stay/Sashay away.”

RuPaul’s decision is allegedly based on the “Lip-Sync for Your Life” performances of the bottom two queens. In asserting her power (often calling the panel of judges to “SILENCE” dramatically) and her judgment by fiat, RuPaul parodies and exposes the pretense of democratic voting by a panel of experts (since the open secret of reality TV competitions is that the producers have a say in who stays because they are “good television”). RuPaul also highlights the way ANTM is really Tyra’s show (Tyra’s ability to make everything about her through aggressive empathy can also be seen in her successful Oprah-esque daytime talk show). This megalomania (“bring in my girls”) and narcissism is also parodied in the recap (“RuCap”) episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race where the most memorable outfits are all RuPaul’s own runway appearances.

So, while RuPaul’s Drag Race does not follow the exact pattern of ATNM, it frequently refers to Tyra (“the other Tyra”) and borrows several aspects of the format and trademarks of Tyra’s show: on ANTM, the challenges are announced by “Tyra Mail” (usually rather enigmatically, to create a guessing-game for the contestants); RuPaul revises this as “You’ve Got She-Mail”: a video appearance of RuPaul in female drag announcing the challenge (again somewhat enigmatically). She-Mail is both an appropriation of Tyra’s device and a reappropriation of the offensive “she-male” label for drag queens (likewise for RuPaul’s use of “ladyboy,” although the show is ambivalent at best about transsexuality, as seen in multiple arguments between contestants). Another direct link between RPDR and ANTM is the controversial winner of RPDR season 3, Raja (Sutan Amrul), who was a makeup artist on ANTM. ANTM can also be connected to Paris Is Burning through the guest appearances of voguing-coach Benny Ninja of the famous House of Ninja. When Tyra invited the notoriously homophobic Westboro Baptist Church family (known for protesting with “God Hates Fags” signs at funerals) on her talk show, they accused her of being a “Fag Enabler.” Beyond the repulsive homophobia intended by this comment, I think it is a brilliant description of the positive work of her enterprise and her collaboration with effeminate gay men of color (Mr. Jay and Miss J).

When RuPaul enters the workroom to announce the mini-challenge on RPDR, he is in “male drag” (a tailored suit, what he calls “executive realness” in Lettin It All Hang Out [x–xi], borrowing a term from the drag balls of Paris Is Burning). This is where the show more closely resembles Project Runway, and RuPaul as a man resembles the charming and dapper gay mentor Tim Gunn at Parsons The New School for Design. RuPaul’s tone in the workroom is less imperious, and he focuses on coaching the contestants and getting them to talk through their costume ideas for the main theme challenge, while reminding them how things might play out on the runway (but instead of predicting the criticisms of Heidi Klum, Michael Kors, and Nina Garcia, RuPaul in female drag is the one to impress, so the coaching is slightly schizophrenic).

Unlike ANTM and Project Runway, we rarely get to see the contestants of RPDR in any kind of dorm-room/apartment/non-studio setting, rather, the show emphasizes the conventional reality television distinction between public and private through scenes in the workroom (the “You-Better-Work-Room”). The genre of reality television is in fact known for eroding the distinction between public and private, since at least MTV’s The Real World, which introduced the private “video confessional” format but developed drama around making intimate cohabitation public. Often the contestants are in a state of semi-undress, and the show emphasizes the process and the work that goes into “the transformation” from “gentlemen” to “women”—tucking, padding, “cooking” makeup, etc. (a major focus of RuPaul’s autobiography and more recent style guide, Workin’ It: RuPaul’s Guide to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Style, which itself resembles Tim Gunn: A Guide to Quality, Taste, and Style). We also see this emphasis on the “work” of drag in challenges where the queens must give non-queens makeovers to look like them (butch women, jocks, older gay men, straight fathers).

The promise of getting to see “behind the scenes” is one of the major draws of reality television, and explains the appeal of the online supplement to RuPaul’s Drag Race “Under the Hood” which was replaced by a full half-hour program RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked in season two. Untucked shows the contestants in the “Interior Illusions Lounge” critiquing each other and the judges while preparing for the final “Lip-Sync for your Life” portion of the show. This provides viewers at home the chance to speculate along with the contestants about who will be in the bottom two, who is being two-faced, what allegiances are forming, who will be in the final three, etc. As John Fiske and John Hartley note in Reading Television, competition shows like dance contests with a panel of judges, quiz shows, and sports broadcasts allow the audience at home to vicariously participate and identify with the roles of both competitor and judge (146). Untucked provides a further meta-level where the contestants (and audience) can judge the judges (Santino, Merle, Michelle Visage, celebrity guests—Sharon Needles’s impression of Michele Visage in “the Snatch Game” during season four was perhaps the most inspired “read”). This also makes us feel even more like “insiders” to the proceedings, thus reinforcing a sense of fan community.

The insider

This distinction between “insider” and “outsider” is also a central problem for Jennie Livingston’s film Paris Is Burning. Bell hooks has criticized Livingston for not being reflexive enough about what it meant for her as an outsider (a white lesbian) to ask black and Latino drag queens and transsexuals to explain themselves and their terminology to outsiders (mainstream audiences). Hooks accuses Livingston of turning a “ritual” with meanings discernible to insiders into a “spectacle” for outsiders (150–51). In The Queening of America: Gay Culture in Straight Society, David Van Leer problematizes this in/out distinction and argues for a shift of emphasis from gay narrative visibility to gay speech:

“My analysis … focuses on the language itself, turning from the visible to the verbal, from homosexual narratives to homosexual dictions, rhythms, rhetorics. The sexual character of language is rarely direct, and post-Stonewall criticism has occasionally stigmatized such writing as ‘closeted.’ But just as invisibility does not impede all forms of speech, so the refusal to identify one’s personal interests can facilitate other kinds of gay statements.” (19)

The value of such indirect language can be heard in Paris Is Burning when Dorian Corey and Venus Xtravaganza explain “Reading” and “Shade.” Corey explains that if you are both black queens, you can’t call each other “black queen” as a slur. Instead, reading involves finding a flaw (“your ridiculous shape, your tacky clothes, your saggy face”) or getting in a good crack at someone (Venus: “Touch this skin, honey, touch all of this skin. You just can’t take it, you’re just an overgrown orangutan”). Shade is even subtler, whereby, “I don’t have to tell you you’re ugly, because you know you’re ugly” (Willi Ninja also explains that Voguing is a “safe way of throwing shade”). But what is important here is that this is an “art” which is communal, and while its apparent goal or motive is insult and competition, the pleasure is in the game itself (despite heated moments where the MC or judge is accused of being “shady”/”throwing shade,” one of the remarkable aspects of the drag balls depicted in Paris Is Burning is the rotation and permeability of the roles of contestant, audience member, and judge).

Reading and Shade are in fact closely linked to the African-American rhetorical strategy of “Signifyin(g)” analyzed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in The Signifying Monkey (drawing on earlier work by Claudia Mitchell-Kernan and others), where he argues,

“Signifyin(g) turns upon indirection” (77).

These verbal strategies are used by adults within African-American communities and taught to children so they can learn how to “hold a conversation” and understand the subtleties of indirection as a rhetorical technique. While I have benefited from such a clarification of terminological definition and use, hooks criticizes this aspect of Paris Is Burning: the way it explains black, gay, subcultural terms to “outsiders,” in the manner of a conventional ethnography (with inter-titles: READING, SHADE, MOPPING, etc.). But it is important to note that the participants often relate ironically to the “talking heads” format itself. Pepper LaBeija begins the film with “So you want me to say who I am and all that?” and Freddie Pendavis jokes about how a “faggot can pull a stunt and you won’t find out until years later” and how he’s “a very quiet person,” adding “if you believe that, you know I own that island over there?” Like Gates’s reading of “trickster” figures in the African-American oral and literary tradition, the joke is on the director and viewer who are “outsiders” and lack access to the subtleties of such rhetoric (and may not catch up with the stunt until years later). Van Leer explains that

“often minorities speak most volubly between the lines, ironically reshaping dialogues the oppressor thinks he controls or even finding new topics and modes of speaking to which the oppressor himself lacks access” (19).

Van Leer in fact objects to Corey’s explanation of “Realness” as “passing” since this translates a gay “inside” practice into the dominant language of heterosexism and racism, and the essentialist metaphors of visibility (194).

The epistemological or ethnographic framework is constantly undermined in the game that the participants play with the documentary format itself. The last line of the film is actually a question:

“So this is New York City and this is what the gay life is all about…Right?”

Livingston herself as a queer filmmaker acknowledges a potential critique of her own film by including as the final intertitle “PIG LATIN,” demonstrating a simultaneously exclusive and inclusive mode of speech. Like an ethnographic documentary, RuPaul’s Drag Race occasionally explains insider terms to outsiders (such as “kai kai”: when two drag queens date each other). But it also attempts to illuminate the dynamics of drag community: a complex mixture of competition and collectivity (although competition shows always stress rivalry rather than collectivity). Recalling the drag houses of Paris Is Burning, RuPaul acts as “mother” and is sometimes called “mama” by the contestants (whom she refers to as “my girls”). Butler has noted how the drag houses in Paris Is Burning point to a resignification of the terms of kinship: mother, father, and children (241). Paris Is Burning allows Butler to refine her theory of resignification, iterability, and citationality with regard to gender and kinship in ways that cannot be reduced to voluntarism (including the “voluntarist” view of gender as willed performance that she wanted to distance herself from in Bodies That Matter). But I would like to ask what happens to these notions of kinship and community when we leave the ballroom setting and, as consumers, watch RuPaul’s Drag Race through new media:

Queens of all media

How is queer culture passed on in the age of new media? In many ways RuPaul’s Drag Race contains the kind of intergenerational tutoring, communication, competition, and transformation of drag occurring between “mothers” and “children” in the drag world depicted within Paris Is Burning—and occurring between that documentary film and its diverse audiences. RuPaul’s Drag Race teaches its contestants and cable television/LOGO online audiences how to “read” the participants and the discourse of drag culture in relation to the established codes of reality television (where we move from drag houses to “Team Raja” or “Entouraja” and various plays on the word “fan”: Fanilas, Fandoras, etc.). It also adds a level of corporate sponsorship and product-placement mostly absent from Livingston’s documentary yet essential to shows like America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway. (Paris Is Burning was distributed by Miramax, but, as the credits indicate, partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, and executive produced by Nigel Finch for BBC Television and Davis Lacy for WNYC Television). Beyond the “pink dollar” companies of L.A. Eyeworks, Interior Illusions, wig and gown makers, gay travel agencies, and cosmetics (MAC, Krylon, NYX), the omnipresent sponsor of RuPaul’s Drag Race is Absolut Vodka (and the prize includes headlining the Absolut Vodka Gay Pride tour, a perfect symbol of the commodification of gay culture). The distorted connection to drag ball culture is apparent in RPDR S1:E6, “Absolut Drag Ball.”

In this light, let us remember that the title of the documentary Paris Is Burning in fact refers to a drag ball thrown by Paris Dupree, MC and house mother, and the houses represent appropriations of trademarked couture house names (for example: Saint Laurent) for the purposes of gay kinship and competition that is actually community-building. Absolut is not a house; it is a brand. In the “Absolut Drag Ball” episode, the mini-challenge is to vogue “in the tradition of Paris Is Burning” (a challenge won by Nina Flowers, a Puerto Rican queen who has stressed drag “sisterhood” in her career). The main challenge is to come up with three looks: Swimsuit (parodying Miss America), Executive Realness (a yuppie-aspirational category from Paris Is Burning), and Evening Wear, where the look must be inspired by a fruit-infused flavor of Absolut Vodka.

In his review of the series, Bradford Nordeen is critical of this relentless product placement, and the way the queens are invited to sell themselves as a product. Nordeen calls Absolut Vodka “the numbingly name-dropped sponsor” and notes:

“The bemused unease that I felt in that repeated brand placement seemed to invade the attitude that many of these contestant took to their trade. … (There’s a suspicious tendency here to role-play the very real world concerns of drag culture: Drag on a Dime presents constructing a costume on the cheap as if it’s something rare; whereas a post-Drag Race trip last night to the drag show at Barracuda confirms quite the contrary, as resident diva Peppermint regaled the audience with her experiences fighting the Con Edison bill collection team.) The first season dropped this kind of hokey fun that certain drag performers maintain, suggesting that the critical elements that camp once offered are (like poor Porkchop) a thing of the past. Instead, lavish couture gowns and MAC cosmetics maintain the interior illusion … The quite-commercial endeavors of these queens became a startlingly distorted mirror to the prime time efforts of the reality shows from which their drag race was carbon copied. And this narrative seemed not different enough.” (Fanzine)

While I have been stressing parody, resignification, and subversion, Nordeen offers an important reminder about the capitalist political economy of reality television and, like hooks on Paris Is Burning, questions whether the show is as “progressive” as it seems (in a more recent article on the problem of race in the series, Nordeen explicitly links RPDR to Paris Is Burning and asks, “Is the overt performativity of racial stereotypes by these queens liberating or merely self-perpetuating?”). In terms of commodification, RuPaul’s show is also clearly an infomercial for RuPaul’s songs (available on iTunes!) and the RuPaul brand itself. Elizabeth Schewe has argued that RuPaul’s autobiography Lettin It All Hang Out expresses RuPaul’s ambivalence about himself as a product:

“While RuPaul embraces both the confessional autobiographical mode and the pop-culture marketplace that make his “rags to riches story” possible, he simultaneously draws on his working-class African American background to question “the consumer logic of late capitalism” that legitimates (depoliticized) queerness through its consumption ‘as an aestheticized lifestyle’ (Eng 43). In other words, although RuPaul glories in the power of performance to break down barriers and create community, the classed and racialized images of prostitution and slavery that recur throughout Lettin highlight his fear of exclusion from the very community that his commodified performances help to create. The specter of reader-as-consumer haunts the autobiography, and RuPaul’s conflicting views of the reader as community member or voracious consumer are never resolved. … Indeed, it is precisely through these unresolved tensions that RuPaul indirectly questions the rags-to-riches narrative that he employs and the assimilationist politics that go hand-in-hand with such a narrative of success.” (670–71)

Schewe’s concept of ambivalence and her use of José Muñoz’s concept of “disidentification” in performance helps clarify for me why I don’t fully agree with Nordeen that RPDR is a “carbon copy” of any of the intertexts I have discussed. Instead, I would suggest that distortion and migration of communal and discursive practices and meanings are inherent in the process of impersonation, citation, and metaization that I have been tracing here, and perhaps say more about the medium than the message. While RPDR resembles Paris Is Burning and continually cites it intertextually, it also indicates that queer culture is now frequently passed on between generations in a fashion more akin to “memes.”

In contemporary new media culture, savvy television fans catalog the dissemination of tropes through wiki websites like TV Tropes (tvtropes.org)[2] and we can follow the quick explosion, mutation, and exhaustion of internet memes and the moment they “go meta” on our Facebook feeds. To my knowledge, no one has called attention to the possibility that memes might be “queer” in that they replace a theory of culture passed down like genetic material through heteroreproductive institutions with a theory of culture that is “worth passing on” across generations. This “queer” passing on of culture happens in non-heteronormative ways that in fact bypass family. (This is both the fear of conservatives wishing to police the Internet, and the promise of projects like It Gets Better where Dan Savage encourages gay adults to bypass parents and educators to speak directly to at-risk queer youth via YouTube.) Homophobes have long used the smokescreen of equating homosexuals with pedophiles in order to prevent any kind of continuity between queer generations (and make sure that each suicidal gay youth feels like she or he is the only one, a point powerfully made in Eve Sedgwick’s Tendencies (3)). On the one hand, RuPaul’s television show may exemplify pink-dollar profiteering and what Lauren Berlant calls the “cruel optimism” of meritocracy and “rags to riches” fantasies (hearkening back to the dreams of the young transsexuals Octavia and Venus in Paris Is Burning). But on the other, it also cultivates a media-savvy and meta-savvy queer audience who might recognize these fantasies as utterly conventional and at odds with the show’s counternarrative about queer kinship and intergenerational coaching. (And this coaching is not just from mother to child: recall the “Golden Gals” episode of season two where the queens are given drag “mothers” who are older Stonewall-era gay men, distorting the meaning of “drag mother” from the drag ball circuit, but also countering gay amnesia and generational isolation in a way congruent with the drag balls themselves.)

The RuPaul’s Drag Race recap and reunion specials retrace how the queens’ terminology is coined, appropriated, and disseminated (“true T,” “no T, no shade,” “sickening,” “fishy,” “booger,” “Heathers,” etc.)—performing a kind of linguistic anthropology akin to Judy Grahn’s Another Mother Tongue or William L. Leap’s Word’s Out: Gay Men’s English. The metalevels added by the recap/reunion specials and Untucked teach the audiences the art of indirection just as Paris Is Burning teaches “Reading,” and “Shade.” Indeed, Roger D. Abrahams’s explication of black women’s use of indirection aptly describes the contestant Jujubee, winner of the “Reading” mini-challenge in season two of RPDR, and her role in the workroom and in the Interior Illusions Lounge:

“A person is loud-talking when he says something of someone just loud enough for that person to hear, but indirectly, so he cannot properly respond (Mitchell-Kernan). Another technique of signifying through indirection is making reference to a person or group not present, in order to start trouble between someone present and the ones who are not.” (Abrahams, qtd. in Gates 77).

However, when the judges say that something “reads” a certain way (typically, “doesn’t read as feminine”) they are using the term in a more typically televisual sense (“reads on camera” as X).

While websites like Urban Dictionary offer the lure of tracing the etymology of subcultural, ethnic, and queer terms, the search for origins may be irrelevant. I would like to offer two subversions of the notion of originality. In Roland Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text, a short book of literary theory published in 1973, he suggests that literary criticism primarily concerns itself with the what he calls the tutor text, and always deals with texts of pleasure such as Flaubert, Proust, and Stendhal, never texts of bliss:

“thus criticism speaks the futile bliss of the tutor text, its past or future bliss: you are about to read, I have read” (21–22).

But he later notes another kind of tutoring: he reads Proust in a text cited by Stendhal, and reads a passage in Flaubert

“according to Proust. I savor the sway of formulas, the reversal of origins, the ease which brings the anterior text out of the subsequent one. I recognize that Proust’s work, for myself at least, is the reference work, the general mathesis, the mandala of the entire literary cosmogony” (35–36).

Barthes suggests that this is what defines the “inter-text.” I have argued that this is true for the three major intertexts of RuPaul’s Drag Race, but especially Paris Is Burning. We read one text according to another, sometimes even against proper chronology.

Another subversion of origins can be found in Butler’s “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” She offers “something like a confession” that when she was young she suffered from the allegation that being lesbian is always

“a kind of miming, a vain effort to participate in the phantasmatic plenitude of naturalized heterosexuality which will always and only fail” (21).

Yet she remembers “quite distinctly when I first read in Esther Newton’s Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America that drag is not an imitation or a copy of some prior and true gender; according to Newton, drag enacts the very structure of impersonation by which any gender is assumed.” (21). Thus, “the naturalistic effects of heterosexualized genders are produced through imitative strategies” as well (21). Such a non-essentialist model suggests that gender is a kind of technology. While Butler stresses the mundane aspects of this technology, I believe that RuPaul recaptures some of the early thrill of Gender Trouble in the spectacular teaser for season four of RuPaul’s Drag Race aired on The Insider.

It starts with RuPaul in male “executive realness” drag walking down a corporate office/laboratory hallway with a Muzak version of “Jealous of My Boogie” playing (perhaps acknowledging the effect of banalization through corporate sponsorship criticized by Nordeen). But as RuPaul enters the passcode to enter a “lab” he is transformed into a Gareth Pugh-inspired Sci-fi “Glamazon” at a control panel labeled with intertextual references to previous seasons and to Paris Is Burning:

RuPaul’s “Drag Droids” are constructed/deconstructed while RuPaul screams “They’re alive” (this is the kind of B-movie allusion she frequently makes to Mommie Dearest, Snakes on a Plane, etc.). They are instructed to “go forth and be sickening,” suggesting that RuPaul is both creator, mother, boss, producer, and is herself a technological product (since she resembles them and is also zapped with electricity from the “fierceness overload”). What we witness here is the technology of gender, the technology of commodification, and the technology of fandom as we take pleasure in the intertextual references of this “new media” device and the further metaization of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Coda: the script of season 4

The recently concluded Season Four of RuPaul’s Drag Race turned out to be some of the most tightly “scripted” reality television, with a stronger emphasis placed on “the rules” of the show in a way that further heightens the show’s metareferentiality and its intertextual relation to Project Runway and competitions like American Idol.

Specifically, in the episode “Frenemies” (S4:E8) the tendency of reality television scripts/editing and thus to create intense rivalries between contestants to encourage fans to “take sides” became an explicit device, in this case making established “enemies” Sharon Needles and Phi Phi O’Hara team up to work together on a musical number (the “team challenge” often reveals rivalries and personality clashes, especially in Project Runway). But there was a further demonstration of television “drama,” after they had to lip-sync for their lives, and the audience eagerly anticipated RuPaul’s decision to send home either fan-favorite or hated rival. RuPaul announced that in fact Willam, who had won the team challenge with Latrice Royale, had broken “the rules” of the show and therefore was disqualified and must go home (but would not specify what rule had been broken, and Willam’s onstage nervous vomiting before the announcement only made the guessing game more intense). This season, in keeping with the conventions established in Project Runway (and ANTM), the show’s producers have foregrounded “the rules” (“contract”): the contestants are isolated from the outside world, and contact with loved ones (through video phone) is a coveted prize to be won. Thus, the rumor spread that Willam broke the rules by making contact with the outside/online world during filming. But RuPaul, the producers, and Willam carefully kept this information a secret in order to prolong the fans’ curiosity, promising “all will be revealed” in the show’s reunion special (which it was, confirming the rumor as true). In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, the seasoned television actor Willam was asked “Why do you have to be cryptic about what happened on last night’s episode?” and responded,

“Oh, no, no — not at all. We don’t have to be cryptic. It’s my choice. I want people to keep tuning in. Maybe watch me at the reunion.”

When asked if this was a stunt to garner publicity (perhaps timed with the release of Willam’s iTunes single and timely video parody “Chow Down (at Chick-fil-A)”), Willam responded:

“I’m going to leave all these answers up to wiser men than I at the network. I do like the fact that they didn’t make it seem like I got caught doing something, like my hand was in the cookie jar. Everything that I did on that show was pretty much in character, except for when I cried.”

In an LAWeekly Blog article about the West Hollywood season premier screening of Season Four, Willam noted that while she was “in character” she struggled a bit with the “scripted” aspect of reality television:

Drag Race was just a gig for me, albeit a huge one. Being on TV definitely gave me an edge but the whole reality thing was difficult,” he told us. “A judge told me I was ‘going off script’ once and I’m, like, ‘Wha-huh? Wait. Ain’t this reality?’ I only gave the cameras what I wanted to give them so you'll get a great, concentrated version of Willam.” (Lecaro)

The reporter suggests that “Though most reality shows are for the most part anything but, we’ve always found Drag Race more authentic than most.” As a counterpoint, a blogger Fierce Black Queen felt the overt manipulation of the “Frenemies” episode was the tipping-point for him as a fan:

“Here is the self-induced schizophrenia that I am looking to avoid in the future: I want to watch this show either as a study in Reality TV editing, or a Reality TV Show–not both. When RuPaul announced that their team was on the bottom, I thought of it as a study: which one would the producers pick? Sharon is an important favorite, Phi Phi is an important antagonist…which would they sacrifice? Then, when they started performing, I watched it as a Reality TV Fan. The Queen starting rooting for Sharon, and praying that Ru would not reward one more damn Drag Queen for Dancing For Your Life, instead of lip syncing for it. And then Ru comes out with a twist worthy of Citizen Kane. So it’s Sashay Away to Willam. The Queen will go into detail about his thoughts on the ‘break the rules’ convention, and why I think it was the straw that broke the gay camel’s back. Suffice it to say, that as a dramatic device it had more holes than Gruyère Cheese. I will miss Willam. He was one of the most interesting characters on Reality TV that the Queen has seen in a long time. He is the evolved product of the genre: a self-aware performer, who had an intricate game-plan that he executed brilliantly. He was a strange combination of someone you love to hate…and love to love. If you ask the Queen, it was a PERFECT way for him to go out: dramatic, with much intrigue.” (FBQ)

A good example of this self-awareness and humor from Willam can be seen in the Entertainment Weekly interview upon his exit:

“Outside of this incident, did you think you had a good chance of winning?”

“I think I won. Didn’t I? Phi Phi O’Hara says that ‘everyone is a winner just by being on the show.’ So I think I’m a winner, right? Yeah. No, I thought the front runner this year was RuPaul because she’s won every other year. She’s the only one that gets residuals, so good on her.” (Lacaro)

In fact, this became the explicit theme of the final RuPaul video for “Glamazon” which, in atypical fashion, was deliberately leaked before the final episode, during which we saw the filming of the “prequel” narrative to the video, in which RuPaul refuses to give up her crown, and further deconstructs her “Supermodel of the World” persona (and its inverse image: her “RudePaul” reputation). In another twist on her own show’s established formula, RuPaul asks all of the three contestants (Chad, Sharon, and PhiPhi) to lip-sync for their lives, but, just as the audience expected RuPaul’s final decision, she added a final coup that appears to undermine her previous insistence that the final decision was hers alone to make (despite the advice of Michelle Visage and Santino Rice). She opened the final decision to a fan vote (thus aligning the show with audience-vote driven contests like American Idol), something usually reserved for the reunion special “Miss Congeniality” vote, or the anticipated RuPaul’s All Stars Drag Race. Thus, RuPaul’s Drag Race has, in its fourth season, begun to turn its own rules “upside down.” The question remains whether savvy fans[3] and contestants can keep up with this level of overtly scripted manipulation, “schizophrenia,” and metareferentiality.


1. J. L. Austin’s concept of “performative” language—that is, a speech act that doesn’t merely describe a given situation but actually brings into being that which it names—has been immensely productive for gender studies and queer theory (extending beyond speech to cultural discourse including gender assignment and forms of “coming out of the closet”). However, some uses of the term “performative” in performance studies lose sight of the role that social convention and the unconscious play in the performative effects of discourse beyond the intentions of an individual actor knowingly performing a theatrical role, which I am here calling “performancy” as it connotes willed performance. On this, see J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, 2nd Edition (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1975) and Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’ (New York: Routledge, 1993).

2. As the TV Tropes website explains:

“This wiki is a catalog of the tricks of the trade for writing fiction. Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means ‘stereotyped and trite.’ In other words, dull and uninteresting. We are not looking for dull and uninteresting entries. We are here to recognize tropes and play with them, not to make fun of them. The wiki is called “TV Tropes” because TV is where we started. Over the course of a few years, our scope has crept out to include other media. Tropes transcend television. They reflect life. Since a lot of art, especially the popular arts, does its best to reflect life, tropes are likely to show up everywhere. We are not a stuffy encyclopedic wiki. We're a buttload more informal. We encourage breezy language and original thought. There Is No Such Thing as Notability, and no citations are needed. If your entry cannot gather any evidence by the Wiki Magic, it will just wither and die. Until then, though, it will be available through the Main Tropes Index. We are also not a wiki for bashing things. Once again, we're about celebrating fiction, not showing off how snide and sarcastic we can be.”

See: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HomePage

3. I would like to thank Bradford Nordeen, Maureen Turim, Linda Howell, Melissa McCarron, Diana Aldrete, Christopher Perrello, Lauren Jones, Alex Palmer, Hayden Drewery, Erin Tuzuner, Carl Cochrane, Jessie Nute, Matthew Birmingham and the queens of Dragstravaganza (Jacksonville, FL), among many other friends and fans of the show, for sharing their thoughts and insights about RuPaul’s Drag Race. This essay developed out of my presentation on a panel at the Northeast Modern Language Association conference, ‘You’ve got She-Mail!’: Drag and Discursive Limits in RuPaul’s Drag Race, organized by Diana Aldrete and Melissa McCarron, March 17, 2012.

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