The ninth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality TV show featuring drag performers from all across the United States who come in to compete for the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar, premiered on the small screen on March 24th 2017. Although it has been easily accessible for a long time through its usual broadcaster Logo TV, a channel primarily aimed at LGBT viewers, the show’s most recent season newly premiered on VH1, a medium which usually reaches a wider audience in its variety.
Using Diana Fuss (1991)’s theorization of the inside and outside, we can analyze the way in which drag queens, who can be said to belong to an exterior, have entered a new realm in terms of visibility, i.e. what can be categorized as interior. By crossing this line, these individuals who do not seem to fit the male / female gender binary, in terms of both aesthetics and self-identification, are placed in a conventional binary system, separating the self from the other; the heterosexual subject from the drag performer (Fuss, 1991).
Interestingly enough, this fundamental polarity within metaphysics of identity can be perceived to function as a reinscription of heterosexuality as central element, reconfirming the so-called authentic quality it possesses (Fuss, 1991). In other words, proclaiming one’s drag artistry loud and proud and establishing it as a quasi-identity, in opposition to the norm, only further normalizes this specific norm and re-establishes hierarchical relations (Fuss, 1991).
However, drawing on Michel Foucault, Fuss (1991) also explains that identity needs not to hold a stable function, but can rather be interpreted as performative, entering a ceaseless cycle of redefinition and therefore never reaching final uncovering. Followed by Judith Butler (1991)’s conceptualization of necessary drag, this argument finds support in the deconstruction of compulsory heterosexuality. In fact, when drag queens unfold their art form on screen, most specifically when they move back and forth between their drag-self on stage and boy-self in the workroom (where the efforts behind the final product are showcased), it is not an attempt to imitate the truthfulness of heterosexuality or gender, but rather to associate it with drag and therefore dismantle its position as original (Butler, 1991). In fact, drawing on Esther Newton, Butler (1991) perceives the caricatural aspect of drag to be an unmasking of heterosexuality and gender as inherent lies, requiring perpetual naturalization through constant emulation of themselves.
In other words, the VH1 viewer who might take gender seriously sees his self / interior / gender / heterosexuality strictly existing in opposition to the other / exterior / gender bender / drag performer, inevitably leading to an inability to bring about an identity based on itself alone (Butler, 1991). Consequently, contestants on the show serve to reveal the performativity of gender, therefore exposing the perfect illusion of gender as a direct expression of one’s true essence (Butler, 1991).
On the flip side, it is important not to be blinded by such praise of RuPaul’s Drag Race, as although it breaks boundaries of gender pretentions, it also functions in a neoliberal framework and perpetuates it. As a matter of fact, drag queens competing on the show are openly encouraged to let go of any financial, physical, or social disadvantage, in order to be judged in a sphere that is claimed to be neutral and fair. Convincing the viewer of the legitimacy of such a structure, individuals are expected to transform into neoliberal subjects, ready to adhere to a pro-capitalist society. Then again, this critique goes to challenge the very premise of the show, as it is, all in all, a competition.