How RuPaul’s Drag Race Helped Me To Embrace My Femininity
I started watching RuPaul’s Drag Race about a year ago. Friends had been trying to persuade me to watch it for a long time, and I resisted, thinking I wouldn’t enjoy it because of the reality competition format. I saw it as another over-the-top contrived reality show, and didn’t think it was for me. As much as I put it off, I kept seeing memes funny references to it coming up over and over again, and I trusted the opinions of my friends, so I finally caved.
RuPaul’s Drag Race follows a similar format of many of the competition reality shows I’d seen before, like America’s Next Top Model or Project Runway, but I realised within a couple of episodes that it’s quite a different experience. I was expecting to watch Drag Race for some light, mindless entertainment, as a filler until the rest of my shows came back. I was right, in that it was entertaining. The contestants sang, danced, modelled, did standup comedy routines, designed their own clothes and laughed all the way to the end. However, I was not expecting it to completely challenge not only the way I thought about drag as an art form, but also the way I thought about femininity and my own performance of femininity.
As a mostly straight woman, I wasn’t very familiar with drag culture before watching Drag Race. I had gone to a few drag shows in the past with friends, but I didn’t know a whole lot about the different aspects of drag performance, or the reverence and respect it really gives to women. I had always thought that drag imitated women in a way that affectionately mocked us, similar to how we might do impressions of our aunties at weddings, or our friends on nights out, but I found through these queens that while there is an element of humorous parody, the art of drag celebrates women and the specific brand of power that women have.
I was surprised by the different stories and experiences I heard from contestants of the show. I had many gay friends growing up, but the queens’ stories about being feminine gay men and the homophobia they faced, as well as overcoming the rejection and misogyny they faced within the LGBT community through drag, helped me understand the power the art form gives to its’ performers. Drag Race itself is also one of the most diverse shows on TV. Each season, the show casts 12–14 drag queens from across America. Across the show’s ten seasons, there have been four white winners (Sharon Needles, Chad Michaels, Jinkx Monsoon and Alaska), three black winners (Bebe Zahara Benet, Tyra Sanchez and Bob the Drag Queen), two Latinx winners (Bianca Del Rio and Violet Chachki) and one Asian winner (Raja), with a diverse cast every year. There have been multiple transgender contestants over the seasons, and queens from a variety of classes and backgrounds. All body types are represented, and some of the most popular queens, like Latrice Royale, have been plus-size. We see many different fashion styles on the runway, from traditional pageant glamour (like Trinity Taylor) and grunge (like Adore Delano), to avant garde fashion (like Shea Coulée) and androgynous genderfuck drag style (like Milk). There is no one standard of beauty, and uniqueness is not only celebrated, it’s required to win. The emphasis is on what a queen can deliver not only on the runway, but in the recording studio, in acting challenges, and on stage.
Every type of woman is represented, and there are personalities and struggles for every viewer to connect with. Drag Race has recently begun to gain popularity among young women and teen girls who identify with the struggles the queens have gone through under the pressure to conform. They’re able to watch Drag Race and feel beautiful no matter what the media or society tells them, even if they don’t conform to the norm, and it’s what they do that defines them as a person.
Watching the drag queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race excel in so many different areas of performance, presenting as beautiful, hyper-feminine women gave me a strange sense of validation I never thought I’d get from watching the show. There is something compelling about seeing men express their art through the lens of femininity. They use their drag characters to channel strength. Their alter egos and sense of womanhood give them confidence, and when they get into drag, their wigs, costumes and lashes allow them to step into a commanding female persona and perform with more impact than they may be able to as their male selves.
In a world where femininity is perceived as weakness and masculinity as strength, seeing men recognise the strength in femininity and use it to better themselves made me want to take control of my own femininity and own it with the same sense of clarity. I’ve often felt that in order to be taken seriously at work or in everyday life, I had to appear strong. I had to be clean cut, and couldn’t be too feminine. I believed that people would judge me if I wore a lot of makeup, that they might see me as beauty-obsessed, vapid or less intelligent than I am. I had reason to believe that. I had had men I worked with in my first job tell me they thought I’d be an airhead when they first met me because I wore false eyelashes and nails on my first work night out, but once they got to know me they realised I was “actually alright.” I toned down the way I looked afterwards. Watching Drag Race changed that. I stopped caring whether people judged me for my appearance or made assumptions about me based on the way I choose to dress. It’s bolstered my confidence. It’s made me unafraid to experiment with more brash clothes and more dramatic makeup.
RuPaul’s Drag Race, and drag in general, will always be an art form created by LGBT people, for LGBT people. It challenges gender and society’s perceptions of people based on their gender. As Drag Race becomes more popular among straight women, its’ meaning cannot be diluted. It’s not made for us, and we are observers. We have to be respectful. That said, the positive portrayal of femininity by men is something women haven’t seen on this scale before, and it’s refreshing. There’s a lot we can learn from it about being completely ourselves. Women have been lifting each other up for generations, giving each other confidence, seeing our female friends’ strengths and telling each other we’re great just as we are. We’re very good at recognising each other’s strengths and inspiring each other. It’s nice to know we’re not the only ones who see it, and that other people aspire to the specific kind of strength that women have.
It’s only been a year since I started watching Drag Race, but this one little reality TV show that I was so reluctant to watch has given me a decade’s worth of nerve. It may be a guilty pleasure, but it’s celebrating femininity and empowering LGBT people and women of all ages, and that doesn’t feel so guilty to me.