I love RuPaul’s Drag Race, you probably love RuPaul’s Drag Race- it’s a cultural phenomenon which has seen incredible popularity in the last few years. RuPaul is an icon who has well and truly done her time and earned her place. But recently she’s repeatedly made missteps and fans appear to be growing tired with it.
I’m not going to speak on her transphobic comments, it’s not my place to and it’s been said much, much better by others before me. Read more about this here and here. I’m also not going to speak on the racism on the drag race fandom and community. This also is not my place and has also been addressed by others far more well-versed than myself here and here. I’m not even going to speak on how she manipulates the trauma and personal lives of the queens on the show, because that’s a whole can of worms I don’t have time for today (but if you’re particularly interested look at some of the things Pearl and Asia O’Hara have said in the past year). But let it be seen that RuPaul, in all her groundbreaking glory, is not some perfect idol and beacon that she may be held up as.
What I want to talk about is how RuPaul, or perhaps more fairly, the producers along with Ru handle femininity on the show. In the latest episode of All Stars Season 4 the category on the runway was Curves and Swerves, and we saw some innovative and original interpretations of this, not least from the queen in question, Manila Luzon. Luzon walked the runway in a Chanel-esque, 18th Century France-inspired quilted/padded ensemble and looked incredibly cute whilst doing it. She (spoilers) found herself in the top two for the week and this outfit surely played some role in getting her there. This past weekend Luzon took to instagram to show her outfit, as many of the queens do. However, on Sunday evening she did something not many queens have done; she showed an outfit she apparently was not allowed to wear. In the caption Luzon explains how she was told to wear her back-up choice as her menstruation dress was found to be in ‘bad taste’. She went on to explain that:
“I was really looking forward to wearing this gown that I think celebrates a perfectly normal human experience! Many of my fans are young women who may feel pressured by society to be embarrassed by periods. It’s empowering to teach young women about their bodies, encourage them to celebrate them AND to question people who tell them not to! My goal with this look was to normalize menstruation by looking sick’ning even if I was on my period!”
Whilst gender is by no means a binary and simplistic concept, and in turn drag is neither – much of what is perceived to be drag finds its origins in female impersonation. Many people believe that drag originally stood for ‘Dressing As A Girl’. The idea then that menstruation (something experienced by many women) is in ‘bad taste’ leaves, if you’ll pardon the pun, a bad taste in my mouth. This is also not to say that menstruation is a particularly feminine thing – many women do not menstruate, just as many trans men and non-binary people do – but it certainly is often associated with femininity. Drag is meant to be controversial, it’s meant to push boundaries and be ground-breaking, it is not meant to maintain taboos around femininity, periods and bleeding. Not only did Luzon look stunning in the kitsch aesthetic we’ve come to expect from her, but she was also attempting to empower people and tear down some taboos.
This is also not the first time fans have noted that the show reacts uncomfortably to femininity. On more than one occasion the show has blurred out the queens’ nipples when they’re in drag (i.e presenting as women). Most recently this happened in episode two of this season as Valentina lip synced against Monet X Change, and notably this happened in the opening episode of season 7. In this episode the queens were asked to appear on the runway as if they were naked, with many of the fake images of their ‘female’ nipples appearing blurred when the episode aired. I’m struggling to recall a time any of the male contestants’ nipples have been blurred when they’ve been seen as boys in the workroom.
How can an artform that celebrates femininity and is meant to revere controversy and ‘bad taste’ censor such quotidien parts of life? Surely if we can cope with references to drugs, sex and god knows what else has featured on Drag Race (which are why we love the show, might I add), we can cope with an image of a pad with some blood on it? It may not be RuPaul’s job to break down these taboos, but it certainly shouldn’t be her place to uphold them.