Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Judith Butler in Drag

Writing about Judith Butler after graduating from colleges turns out to be just as difficult as writing about Judith Butler while in college. Instead of facing up to the daunting task, I procrastinated by watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. Every. Single. Season. And when I finally decided to take a stab at the first essay in our Reader, I found RuPaul’s Drag Race all over the place.

For those who don’t know, RuPaul’s Drag Race (RPDR) is a reality TV-show on the queer-themed TV cable channel, Logo. Superstar RuPaul brings on a dozen virtually unknown drag queens from across the US to strut their stuff in an attempt to become the next drag superstar. They face weekly challenges where they have to do anything from write and record an original song, star in a motivational video for the troops, or design and wear an outfit completely out of hair, all while trying to impress RuPaul with their charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent.

At first, I thought RPDR was pretty radical–for a reality show, anyway. The drag queens, while all biologically male, constantly refer to each other as “she” and “her.” RuPaul appears on the show both in and out of drag, and there is complete transparency in the drag process; we see all the contestants put on their make-up, wigs, costumes, and various drag-specific accessories. There is relatively open discussion of gay sex and relationships, and several drag queens talk about being HIV+.

In a world where reality TV is usually mindless brain candy, RPDR seems like departure from the stereotypical notions of gender we’ve come to expect on trashy TV. But disappointingly, examining RPDR through the lens of Butler’s gender theory reveals that this isn’t actually the case.

In discussing terminology surrounding gender and choice, Butler explains the process of embodying a certain gender. She says, “Becoming a gender is an impulsive yet mindful process of interpreting a cultural reality laden with sanctions, taboos and prescriptions” (Variations on Sex and Gender, p. 26). This is precisely what many of the drag queens on RPDR are doing. Are they radically reinventing what it means to be female? No. Many contestants on RPDR take stereotypical markers of femininity to extremes. This means more make-up, huge breasts, the highest heels, and the thinnest body. If anything, this is a radical conformity to traditional notions of what women should be–that is, fitting a stereotypical, heterosexual male fantasy to a T. Ironically, on RPDR, this typically straight male fantasy is mapped out on the body of a gay man.

Some might argue that the drag queens of RPDR expand on and redefine traditional notions of gender. If only this was the case. Butler explains the connections between gender and gender norms, saying, “Less a radical act of creation, gender is a tacit project to renew a cultural history in one’s own corproeal terms” (Variations on Sex and Gender, p.26).  RuPaul’s drag queen contestants are manipulating traditional notions of femininity, whether it be large breasts or high heels, and literally creating new bodies for themselves based on these norms. Instead of redefining gender or gender expression for themselves, they reinforce cultural notions of what it means to be a pretty girl (take a look to see  what I mean).

RuPaul’s Drag Race certainly has radical potential, but it is not in the way that the contestants construct their gender identities. At the end of the day, most successful contestants perform as Dolly Parton-esque caricatures*. There is nothing radical about that.

*Of course, there are drag queens on RPDR that don’t fit this mold and in fact, one such drag queen won the competition in the previous season. Hopefully this is a trend that will continue.

2 Comments

  1. Your post makes me think of the “Marxist problem” Butler describes on page 35: “on the street and in the world I am always constituted by others, so that my self-styled gender may well find itself in comic or even tragic opposition to the gender that others see me through or with.” For example the drag queen as comic, entertaining cabaret persona (which is a fantasy) or the tragedy of Brandon Teena, portrayed by Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry (which is the reality). Butler suggests on page 36: “we might do well to urge speculation on the dynamic relation between fantasy and the new social realities.”

    Butler wrote this essay in 1987; now in 2011 you can see on Oprah a pregnant man and read in The New York Times about women’s colleges’ policies for admitting, educating, and recognizing their transgender students. Advances in modern medicine that may have seemed like fantasy 25 year ago are the reality today, and have made it possible for some to “exercise their manhood or womanhood [properly] … to exist [within] established gender norms” (page 27, brackets indicate where I have inserted the opposite words from Butler’s text).

    But it raises a question for me: Do we reinforce cultural gender norms by changing the anatomy of our bodies to fit those norms? Does it become easier to change ourselves to match the constraints rather than interrogate or proliferate those constraints? And what are the ramifications for cultural constructions like race, class, or sexuality?

  2. ALL I CAN SAY IS THAT THE WHOLE BUSINESS IS SUCH A FLUID AND ONGOING RIVER THAT EVEN THOSE WHO ONLY CLAIM TO BE GENDER-CONSCIOUS ARE CAUGHT UP IN DOUBTS AND FIGMENTS OF IMAGINATION AS TO THEIR PAST AND PRESENT SEXUAL STATUS.
    THE ENDING POINT OF ALL DISCUSSION TODAY IS ASKING QUESTIONS RATHER THAN ANSWERING THEM.SO WHAT WILL BECOME OF THE VERY-SEXUALLY-DEVIANT BEHAVIOURS?WILL THERE BE AN END TO IT ALL?OR WILL HUMAN’S CREATIVITY PROVE BOUNDLESS?