Features /

Gender Performativity in Drag

9 Nov 2021

Meghan Powell

Gender Performativity in Drag

Is drag being shaped in the image of cisnormative and heteronormative gender ideals as it becomes more mainstream?

In the last decade drag has taken the world by storm, emerging from the fringes of the queer community into mainstream media. RuPaul’s Drag Race is without a doubt the most popular show to bring drag to the forefront and has been credited with diversifying mainstream TV and normalising queer identities to the masses.

However, it is no doubt that RuPaul’s Drag Race monopolises the market of drag that drag performance is being shaped in the image of cisnormative and heteronormative gender ideals. As drag has become more popular, we need to examine the ways in which gender performativity and drag performance is intrinsically linked but does not necessarily mean that all drag is transgressive and automatically produces changes in gender relations. Fundamentally RuPaul’s essentialist stance on gender has excluded trans people from competing on ‘Drag Race’. This essentialist stance is solidified by the curation of a Camp Capitalist market driven by binary presentations of drag based on postfeminist representations of femininity, which are ultimately catered for cisgender and heterosexual audiences.

Though Drag Race has been important as a means of wide-reaching representation for LGBT+ people, I question the narrative that Drag Race sells itself on as a wholly radical boundary breaking show on the basis that people without masculine and AMAB (assigned male at birth bodies) have been excluded from competing on the show. Ironically enough the RuPaul praised the shows first female performer, Victoria Scone, as though the exclusion of her place on Drag Race hadn’t been his doing in the first place. Ultimately, the creation of the Camp Capitalist market has monopolised drag and therefore has popularised binary ‘opposite gender drag’, thus excluding drag kings, non-binary and female artists from the mainstream, based on the normative belief that drag performers should have masculine bodies. Thus, mainstream gender performativity in drag has become centred around binary representations rooted in RuPaul’s brand.

The assumption that drag automatically produces politically progressive messages that invoke changes in gender can be seen in a variety of examples. Tristan Bridges highlights the ‘Walk a Mile in Her Shoes’ marches where men were encouraged to dress in heels and quite literally walk a mile in women’s shoes to raise awareness of women’s struggles. Bridges notes that despite the best intentions of the march to try and produce empathy in men for women’s issues, they more often reproduced gender and sexual inequality because of framing feminism in extremely gendered terms.  Ash Stokoe crucially draws attention to the fact that we need to recognise context that surrounds different interpretations of drag that are informed by individuals cultural and political circumstances. Subsequently transgression of gender hegemony depends on performer intent and relationship with gender hegemony structures as well as how it is received by the audience.

Nonetheless, RuPaul’s Drag Race has depended on the narrative that drag is universally transgressive as a means to market RuPaul’s Camp Capitalist brand that relies on the commodification of self-love. Carl Douglas Schottmiller coins the term Camp Capitalism and identifies how messages of self-love and confidence are upheld by the marketisation of RuPaul’s merchandise. Marco Del Valle comments on how catchphrases throughout the show like “don’t fuck it up,” “sashay away” and contestant specific phrases such as “hieeeee” or “Miss Vanjie” are used as brand assets as they become integrated into gay vernacular and meme culture.

Moreover, the success of ‘Camp Capitalism’ is owed to what Chetwynd identifies as conformity to a postfeminist ideal that “valorises femininity and reaffirms the gender binary.” Post-feminism is defined as a societal perception that sees the goal of feminism already having been achieved and is used analytically to examine the paradoxes and contradictions of this belief in relation to current representations of women (Barnet-Weiser et al, 2020).

Chetwynd draws on Rosalind Gill’s work on post-feminism and notes how there are similarities between the “ideal neoliberal subject and the ideal post-feminist subject” as the individual is constituted as an entrepreneurial actor (Chetwynd, 2020). RuPaul’s camp capitalism is therefore a distinct mode of capitalism that is driven by the relationship between neoliberal individualism and postfeminist gender performance, whereby contestants in Drag Race subscribe to a binary feminine illusion that privileges normatively attractive femininity (ibid), in order to drive the Drag Race monopoly.

These representations of femininity in Drag Race are branded as parodic and thus allows the circulation of camp capitalism in a flirty and fun way (Schottmiller, 2017) that separates it from other mainstream forms of marketing. This parodic tone thus facilitates widespread circulation of RuPaul’s brand in multiple media platforms, Schottmiller highlighting how this successfully stimulates a global capitalist marketplace. This is how non-LGBT+ audiences have been integrated into the Drag Race viewership, particularly heterosexual women. Thus, performances of gender on the show are increasingly marketed towards this audience, the subject of the post-feminist ideal woman projected onto this viewership through drag, whilst maintaining the illusion of diversity and transgression through parodic representations and messages of self-love.

However, these parodic representations alongside these messages of self-love resemble hollow and empty signifiers, similar to other brands such as H&M, River Island and L’Oreal that attempts to capitalise from body confidence and self-love discourses (Banet-Weiser et al). RuPaul’s self-love signifiers remain empty because very little work is done to look at the power relations that uphold the systems of capitalism that supports shows like Drag Race, and they are especially empty in light of his transphobia and declaration that only men can act transgressively in drag.

Visibility for LGBT+ people is an important issue, but seems reductive if the only representation that RuPaul will allow is cisgender men who perform binary gender representations and token trans and female performers that don’t meaningfully contribute to diversity on the show, subsequently undermining the gender play of drag that it originally represented.

Bridges, T. S. (2010) ‘Men Just Weren’t Made To Do This: Performances of Drag at “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” Marches’, Gender & Society, 24(1), pp. 5–30.

Stokoe, K. (2019), Reframing Drag, Taylor & Francis, London Routledge: London.

Del Valle, M. (2018), Shantay you slay: Lessons on marketing from RuPaul’s Drag Race, [Online]. Noteworthy – The Journal Blog. Available at: https://blog.usejournal.com/shantay-you-slay-lessons-on-marketing-from-rupauls-drag-race-fef9269c4548 (Accessed 24 May 2021).

Schottmiller, C. (2017), Rereading RuPaul's Drag Race: Queer Memory, Camp Capitalism and RuPaul's Drag Empire. PhD Thesis, University of California, Available at: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/0245q9h9 (Accessed 11 May 2021).

Chetwynd, P. (2020), "Postfeminist Hegemony in a Precarious World: Lessons in Neoliberal Survival from RuPaul’s Drag Race", 21(3), Journal of International Women's Studies, pp. 22-35.

Banet-Weiser, S., Gill, R. and Rottenberg, C. (2020) ‘Postfeminism, popular feminism and neoliberal feminism? Sarah Banet-Weiser, Rosalind Gill and Catherine Rottenberg in conversation’, 21(1), Feminist Theory, pp. 3–24.