Fluff: Drag U or Why Gay Prof Was Right

 

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

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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.

The Real L World but Not the Real L A

post still in progress – images added tonight

Let me start by saying I watched the entire run of the L World on Showtime, wrote essays about both its import and its failings, and teach it in my popular media course. Despite the many things I enjoyed about the show, from both an academic and viewer standpoint, the promises Chaiken made to be a multicultural show written from the perspective of biracial lesbians and lesbians of color, as well as white lesbians seldom panned out in the ways she promised. So I admit it, I was cynical about the racial politics of the “reality” show version of the L Word from the minute I heard it was in the proposal stage.

Like many of you, I watched 6 seasons of the L Word where overall the characters and storylines were compelling but black women, butch women and trans men (the latter of which were often collapsed into a single category) were largely absent and/or almost always depicted in profoundly offensive ways: Kit starts out as a drunk and bad mother whose parents and children hate her. Though she improves over the series she is also the outspoken gender and transphobe whose only white counterpart is the always inappropriate Jenny. As the only consistent black female presence on the show, she also acts as a subtle reinforcement of the idea that black people are more homophobic than white people (the visibly white, tho multiculti cast is all lesbian, the visibly black woman is straight with offensive gender politics) even as she subverts this idea by being openly supportive of not only her sister but the entire community. Yolanda, the only black woman in Bette’s lamaze class, is perpetually angry and constantly attacking Bette for passing. The audience is invited to judge her anger and be repulsed by her politics and beliefs even in the one scene where she is not yelling or on the verge of yelling. More than that, this first season encounter establishes the narrative of whiteness that often undermined attempts at diversity on the show, ie that if you can pass for white, live a life in which you are largely or completely treated as white, then you should and so should the show. As Better put it in response to Yolanda’s accusation that she had failed to embrace her entire cultural heritage and become white, “why shouldn’t I?” And her list of all the privileges and advantages that passing affords her are stated without irony nor complexity as if to further affirm the politics of privilege. The only offset to this mantra is that Bette makes an effort to have a biracial baby with her white partner and that her search is intentionally juxtaposed with her decries about the rightness and goodness of whiteness or lightness.

Latinas faired slightly better in the L Word partially because Papi, who was the quintessential “hot tamale” stereotype, was brought in for a plot twist and then quickly edited back out. Yet like Chaiken’s promises of multiculturalism in the promos for the first season of the show, quite a bit of media buzz surrounded Papi’s entrance into the L Word as a Latina lesbian character. Promotion promised us a character that had largely been missing from the show, what they delivered was a character who helped white lesbian Alice get her groove back and then was largely missing from the show.

At the same time the L Word did give us more interesting secondary characters of color. Candace Jewell, Bette”s fling, though tight-lipped was decidedly not a Saphire character, instead she offered us one of the only positive depictions of working class, [soft] butch identity on the show. She was intelligent, passionate, and hard working. Though some of have criticized the character for the jail house love scene which for them tapped into certain stereotypes of blackness. Tasha also went a long way in fixing some of the earlier missteps of the show with regards to gender politics and class identity. While her character was also more fleshed out than others, it still tapped into certain, more subtle stereotypes, about black women as angry, aloof, and conservative (vis-a-vis white liberal feminists). Carmen, as femme, also complicated an alarming equation of butchness and working classness or hickness that seemed to permeate the show, especially when Moira arrived before transition but also with Kelly. She was perhaps the most well-rounded and integrated character of color in the series. She was tied to a main character so that she was hard to marginalize and the scenes involving her family dealt with both Latinos who are opposed to homosexuality and those who embrace it in ways that avoided stereotypes about people of color and homophobia. At the same time neither of the Latina characters were played by Latina actresses bring the sum total of prominent Latinas employed by the L Word to ZERO. The absence of Asian women, which can only be countered by the casting of South Asian women to play Latinas, was also glaring in a show set in LA.

Given the racial and gender politics of the fictional version, I doubted the unreality of the proposed reality show would veer much further from Chaiken’s seeming preference for feminine, white or light characters; the previews for the Real L Word seemed to confirm my suspicions. There are no black women on the Real L Word and the emphasis on upper class identity in the show seems to imply that black women are poor and therefore not running in the same circles as these “top 10% ” lesbians (to borrow one cast member’s self-description). While I doubt the class-race connections were intentional, the failure to provide wide shots during Rose’s class discussion which would have shown an array of visibly brown and black women leaves the viewer with a particular message even as Rose’s own presence complicates it. More than that, the tight shots in these first scenes may have been an issue of consent and production but also serve to further erase darker women of color from even the background of the show.

Both Latinas in the Real L Word are white by Latina standards and at least one can likely pass by U.S. ones. In fact, I did not know she was Latina until she makes a Spanish language phone call to her mother in an anglicized accent. Interestingly, Rose, the more outspoken of the two could not pass.

At the same time, Chaiken has made an effort to include both butch women and her oh-so-light woc lesbians as equals in the show. Two of the main characters are women who self-identify as not feeling comfortable in a dress. One makes sure to tell us she is “a top” (though her make up artist girlfriend promptly says otherwise) and the other one says “There are heels and boots” and she is definitely “boots”.  A lot of time is spent on Miss Boots storyline in the first episode, so perhaps the producers are discovering something we already knew, ie women of all gender presentations are interesting not just us girlie girls.

The show also spends a considerable amount of time with both Latinas. Unlike the Papi character, Rose’s loud-mouthed womanizing is offset by her time with her family, discussions of growing older and getting out of bad relationships, and her negotiations with her live-in partner who I think is also Latina. Thus, she is transformed from a stereotypical version of Latina womanhood into a well-rounded character who likes to party. Since this is reality tv and bad girls sell, Chaiken’s decision to depict Rose’s complexity is particularly important and a key sign of the growth in racial representations begun in the later seasons of the L Word. Rose’s time with her family is also a critical counterpoint to Tracy’s conversation with and about her mother. While Rose has a supportive family who actively discusses her love life, Tracy’s mother has simply refused to address it and Tracy has had to make the difficult and familiar choice of cutting her emotional-sexual life out of her relationship with her parents. Again the two women’s experiences give us a much wider view of Latina women than we might otherwise get from someone invested in uncomplicated racial stereotypes and sensationalist tv.

Ultimately, I found the first episode of the Real L Word compelling. Not only does it expand the discourse of gender and race beyond that of the fictional show but it offers us a wide range of interesting characters with recognizable issues and lives. It humanizes the experience of lesbians across the lifecycle and thus offers another opportunity for people to see the gay community as normal or to see a snippet of themselves reflected on tv. However, that snippet continues to erase black and Asian women and to privilege a preference for lipstick whiteness and/or lightness that makes me wish Chaiken would deal with her own biracial issues and come into her racial own (instead of emulating Bette’s “why shouldn’t I [pass for white]”). As one biracial girl to another, I can tell her that life is much better on the other side of racial confusion and fear of blackness (all though I cannot say I ever shared those two issues with her). So I will keep watching the Real L Word while rooting for Chaiken to live up to some of the promises she has made over the years and let go of some of the baggage she has defended. And truthfully, the show is interesting, often compelling, and literally hard to turn away from even in the midst of the worst dyke drama.

What did you all think?