Fluff: Drag U or Why Gay Prof Was Right

 

RuPaul at a party for the launch of her Starrb...

Image via Wikipedia

 

Last year, Gay Prof wrote a post about RuPaul’s drag race being one of the only shows on Logo that both entertained and had a thoroughly multicultural cast. (Mind you, later he critiqued it for “subtly discriminate against contestants with an accent“) I admitted then and now to having never watched the show. My biggest concern with televised versions of drag is that they almost always center white male performers who are doing exaggerated and sometimes insulting versions of blackness (or browness or Asian Face, or all of the above) and that this has become so normalized in drag that there are actual full on racist performers who appear in black face with boozy-welfare-queen-watermelon-eating back stories that mainstream audiences excuse away as “performance”.  (And by mainstream, I mean straight, bi, and fay audiences including some of the stars of Queer for the Straight Guy whose picture with one particular racist drag performer I have posted on the blog before.) While televised drag does not require, nor defined by, racism and classism, I have always been concerned about how the lack of critical attention and critique of oppression in certain forms of drag opens the door for certain people to center those oppressions as normative and acceptable from TV to Gay Pride events. So I staid away from RuPaul, who I have always loved, for fear that his own actual black face would further legitimate the under currents of race and gender or racialized gender that I find problematic. Instead, Gay Prof painted a picture of the show in which men of color from a wide variety of backgrounds, spoke openly about class, race, identity, sexuality, and the self all in the context of recognizable fun. The show was groundbreaking not only for opening a space for men of color performers to speak about performance in mainstream-ish media, something that has not been done since Paris is Burning, but also in expanding Logos’ ever lightening line up after the big, unexplained, cancellation of Noah’s Arc.

Last night, I flipped on Logo to watch a completely different show. The schedule was wrong in my area as it often is here. But hey, at least we get it.

To my surprise they were showing RuPaul’s Drag U, a new incarnation of RuPaul’s show in which drag queens teach primarily hard working, working class, cis women to strut their stuff like a queen. This is not a show in which men who play women teach women how to fit into a gender box. If it was, you know I’d have something to say about it. Instead, it combines basic self help principles with drag style to give women who have given up on themselves a chance to shine. From what I saw, the basic premise is not to convert from butch to femme but rather from emotionally lost to fierce!

It is also the best send up of Tyra Banks’ insipid America’s Next Top Model I have ever seen. RuPaul does Tyra so well, he could stand in for her if she ever gave up the reigns one day. And it is this self-reflexive, ironic stance that helps contextualize the tv makeover genre as something that really can’t solve all your emotional issues or childhood traumas just by putting you in some makeup and a dress. But what it can do is give some rudimentary tools to start working on your ish while looking fab doing it. Thus when one woman talks about her problems with people making fun of her in the past, RuPaul whips out a Lil’ Kim lyric that is as unhelpful and pseudo-supportive as any Tyra Banks’ show. In so doing, he is reminding both the audience and the contestants that this is reality tv and unlike Jillian Anderson who thinks she can come into a family’s life for a few days and empower them to stop grieving the death of their babies or stand up to domestic abuse by running on the treadmill, RuPaul is an entertainer and this is nothing more than entertainment.

That said, it was equally nice to see women who work hard all day in jobs reserved for men or surrounded by them, get a chance to girl-out. Rather than posit femininity as a solution to every woman’s problem, ie to argue that women just need to shop, wear make up, and have dinner ready by 5 to be happy, the show highlights gender performance. It shows the women on the show that there are no set ways of acting. They allow them to discover at their own pace, or at least the pace of shooting a season, that the choices they have made to protect themselves at work or in the world do not have to define them. They are playing roles and they can play other, more flirty or vivacious roles, with the switch of a costume. Hey … who told RuPaul he could steal our femme secrets darnit!

Also, unlike Tyra and other body image based reality shows, DragU invites people from all walks of life, body size, and identity group to participate. They do not tell big women the goal is to become super model thin on an unhealthy and unsustainable exercise and diet regimen or to tell Anorexic girls they are “plus size”, instead the show helps women embrace their bodies and the powerful gender performances they can engage in from within them. Similar to cognitive behavior therapy, yeah I said it, the drag professors address the thoughts and actions of the women in ways that both provide correct information and skills they can use to embrace multiple versions of themselves at any given time. The mantra of you are beautiful just as you are is actually fairly honest in this context as opposed to the lipservice it is paid elsewhere.

Finally, the drag professors are also a very diverse set. They are large and thin, young and old, white and poc, urban and rural , new and seasoned, etc. And many of them talk about the issues their students raise as issues they have had to face themselves. The ability to identify across gender and through performativity seems like a light and accessible way to highlight the humanity of both women and drag performers who are often targeted and abused in our society for some similar and some disparate reasons. The moments when the drag instructors offer insights about their students opens the door for the otherwise standard makeover fair to be transformed into social commentary that thoroughly centers gender oppression from multiple targeted gender perspectives.

Ultimately, DragU is a comedic send up of a genre I find largely detrimental to both the female viewers and female participants. While it is nothing deeper or more meaningful than light entertainment, it does it with the kind of diversity and attention to people’s needs that rings decidedly hollow in shows that claim to take these things seriously. So yeah, Gay Prof was right, but isn’t he always.

On Fathers and Days

This post has been edited to fix all of the disability related grammar issues. Sorry it took so long.

unattributed/employeesthrive.org

A lot of women bloggers took the weekend to write reflections about their fathers. Many were filled with ambivalence, pain, and resolution. Some showed the courage of the phoenix rising out of natal ashes. Many natal families are the first place we learn fear, violation, betrayal, and violence; these stories, and being able to tell them without judgment, are woven into a feminist commitment to ensure equality for young girls and women around the world. But when it comes time to talk about families, I feel like the thin girl complaining she is not plump enough or that she cries in front of her mirror too. I’m sure she does, but given the amount of body policing and psychologically damaging labels of ugly, lazy, and unlovable larger girls labor under it is hard to give skinny an ounce of sympathy. And so, like skinny, I keep my mouth shut. You see, my stories about my father are about systems of oppression not the scary man who we fear coming home from work, having too many beers on Sunday, or stumbling into the “wrong room” at night. My father taught me to be strong and wise and politically committed. His failing was in sending me out into a world of middle class people with working class revolutionary commitments and ethics. And our shared lack of compromise with polite people has led to our shared careers as the hard core wing of academe and social service,  too smart to toss and to different to be included.

unattributed/voices.com

I could tell you stories about how my father missed my birth because he wasn’t the same color as my mother so the staff told her he’d gone out for a smoke and they couldn’t find him. I could tell you about the time that a group of men beat him bloody on his way home because they didn’t think he deserved to be in our family. And I could tell you the look on my first boyfriend’s face when he came to my house and met my father or the way the gf and my dad bonded to my mother’s chagrin. I could tell you these stories and watch you guess at whether he was lighter or darker than me and my mother. Watch you wonder if my stories of outside oppression color my ability to see it inside my home. But the thing is, my tears, though real. are not your tears and my father is still my hero.

getty image/unattributed

So if I were to tell you a story about my dad, it would be about how such a strong man and brilliant mind inspired me to be better than I am. It would be about his escapades putting his life and his career on the line to stand up for Chicano rights, Black Pride, and the American Indian Movement. It would be about the bad-ss days of old when he and Angel Davis were in the trenches together instead of contrasted by hallowed halls. And it would be about how at the end of his life, this man is disrespected almost daily by young, white, gay and lesbians, and upper middle class white heterosexual couples and college kids who call him the “Man” while they mock him, antagonize him, refuse to serve him at restaurants and grocery stores, all the while waiting for him to die so they can tell their friends to buy up his house and own the whole block. It would be about how the onset of dimentia is making their disrespectful crazy-making around him seem legitimate to police and is transforming my dad from the kind soul who carried a big stick to the raging “old fool” on his porch in shorts in the middle of winter.

The Fields/Hustlerofculture.com

Then instead of lamenting how little he cared for me as a child, like so many others have done this weekend, I would have to tell you how sometimes I cry at the utter lack of control I have over how he is treated by those “neighbors” who think they are so progressive and so much more oppressed than he. I would have to trust you to understand that my PhD does not buy me the privilege to stare down the cops who ignore his calls or the neighbors who mock him. I’d have to trust you to know that the money I make may stop them from stealing his home out from under him as they did to black elders on the block, but it will never buy him security or the respect that he has earned but they still refuse to give. I might even have to tell you how I rage like an angry black woman at some of those people as they stand there shrouded in their white innocence, pointing and using my anger to justify their fear and hatred.

The First Family W/ Barack Obama’s Sister & Husband & Michelle Obama’s mother/unattributed

So no my dad is not the boogie man. I don’t have to swallow childhood shame to take him out to breakfast on Father’s Day or pretend my girlfriend is my roommate.

And so I keep my mouth shut. Because I know what a privilege it is to have a father, a real one, and not just some terror in the shadows who once donated his seed.

Perhaps this little glimpse into my life tells you why it is that every Father’s Day I post pictures of loving dad’s doting on their children and encourage us all to remember the fathers we did have, whether natal or chosen, who helped us find our way.

Michelle Obama’s Dress & The Politics of Race

Apparently the Black Artist Association is upset that neither of Michelle Obama’s outfits were designed by African Americans. They feel that this was a missed opportunity for the Obamas to highlight African American designers and further situate themselves within a particularly black narrative of this nation.obamawu

Like Slant Eye for the Round Eye, who first alerted me to this issue, I have a much more positive take. To me, Michelle’s choice was in keeping with the larger multicultural message of the Obama campaign. It also managed to weave in non-black poc into the center of the inauguration discussion where they were otherwise missing. As I noted in my post about the inauguration, the fact that all of the speakers were either black or white during the inauguration was not lost on me even as the faces surrounding Obama and in the audience were far more diverse. By choosing designers of color who were not of African descent Michelle Obama shifted that binary falsehood and ultimately honored all of us.

I was also particularly happy to see Jason Wu among her choices for designers because he embodied all of the characteristics of the base I was worried Obama might leave behind. He was young, queer, and Asian American. And for those who do not know, that particular demographic, as well as the demographics it intersects, was essential to grassroots mobilization for Obama on the West Coast.

The choice of Isabel Toledo was equally important in that it highlighted a Latina immigrant designer who may have lost mobamadayoutfither job at Anne Klein for failing to meet the same aesthetic as white, N. American born, designers. This of course is the inverse of the typical racialized narrative of immigration in the U.S. Given how little the Obama campaign talked about immigration in public forums, the choice of a Latina immigrant also has particularly powerful implications by simultaneously standing in solidarity with the dominant image of the immigrant and highlighting an industry that continues to be the least vilified and yet among the most implicated in immigrant exploitation in the U.S. Finally, Latinos were another important voting bloc in the general election and if they had not swung left for Obama he would have had a much harder time taking home the win. (Toledo has designed for Michelle Obama before as well.)

While I think most African Americans yearned for a “black narrative” (whatever that really means) in this inauguration, I think Michelle Obama’s clothing choices represented a uniquely feminist of color aesthetic that embraced all people of color. In so doing, Michelle Obama once again reminds us how to navigate these troubled waters with astuteness and grace.

(All though there is still that perming of the kids hair right before the DNC issue . . .)

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both images were unattributed but are likely cropped from AP Photos