When beauty and truth are a drag
I’ve been watching a lot of Netflix lately, and I mean a lot. Life has been extremely stressful, and when it gets too much, being able to escape for a few hours into other people’s lives — real or imaginary — is a blessing.
One of my favourite sanctuaries over recent weeks has been RuPaul’s Drag Race.
I used to feel highly ambivalent about drag. In my late teens, it looked to me simply like men dressed up ‘like women’, in caricatures of ultra-femininity. It felt like unkind parody of women rather than an artform. This was compounded, of course, by my first encountering it in gay pubs where the constant hiss of “fish” would follow any even slightly femme woman there.
But I’m in my forties now, more secure in myself, and less hyperbolic in my politics. Where’s the harm in a little escapist glamour?
Having watched my way through season 5 of RuPaul’s genius drag elimination reality TV competition (to find “America’s Next Drag Superstar”), I would go much further than to say there’s no harm in it.
I would go so far as to say that drag can save lives.
So many of the female illusionists, pageant queens and performance artists who start on Drag Race share on camera that drag saved their lives. It gave them an escape from an intolerable home life; it allowed them to explore who they were in a supportive space; it led them to find inner strength they would otherwise never have known they had.
And I think that that is because the craft of glamour and beauty, and the art of performance may seem as if they are all about pretence, but they are not. In fact, through their illusions and masks, ultimately they enable us to reach for truth.
By transforming from ‘man’ into ‘woman’, by going to the extremes of femininity, as men, drag queens model that, even in the ordinary and everyday, how we present and how we are seen need not be constrained by what is expected of us.
We can be true to how we feel within ourselves, this year, or this month, or this week, or today. We can choose different drag (clothes), a different attitude, a different face, and try it on for size, see how it feels, until we find one, or a range, that enables us to live out in the world, centred in ourselves: proud and loving and strong.
And by creating a character — an exaggerated face, an over the top costume, an extreme persona — by perfecting those skills, a drag queen reveals a deeper truth about herself and about being human. She gives space and voice to a version of herself that has no place in the mundane, everyday world, a fierce verson of herself that is bigger than she ever thought possible.
And she reveals that same truth about each and every one of us: we can become a new person, a spacious, fierce, big version of ourselves, any time, once we’re willing to put in the work, be extraordinary, and live out loud on life’s stage.
As RuPaul says, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else? Can I get an amen up in here?”
This piece was first published in my now defunct Inner Truth Community blog in February 2014.