The queering of mainstream American culture has no more dramatic exemplar than the drag queen. RuPaul’s Drag Race, which began in 2009 as a competition reality show on the little-watched LGBT-oriented channel Logo, is today a global media and entertainment empire of four spin-off and companion shows in the United States, more than a dozen international versions, a live Las Vegas show, annual conventions in New York, Los Angeles, and London, and $65 million in net worth for its founder, RuPaul Charles. Seven years ago, the world had but a single drag queen story hour, in San Francisco. Today, more than fifty occur regularly across eight countries, and untold more take place intermittently in every corner of the United States with backing from the American Library Association. The “drag kid” phenomenon is so mainstream that Good Morning America and Discovery Networks promote it. Having conquered the airwaves and public spaces, “family friendly” and “all-ages” drag shows now bring the next generation of drag fans right into the gay bars and clubs where it all began.
It was inevitable that American politics, too, should begin to revolve around drag queens. According to multiple left-wing media outlets, the summer of 2022 was a season of conservative “moral panic” over drag. In May, Senator Marco Rubio wrote to the secretary of the Air Force urging him to cancel a scheduled drag queen story hour at an Air Force base in Germany. In June, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene promised to introduce a bill preventing children from attending drag performances. In July, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis filed a legal complaint against a Miami restaurant that hosted a “drag brunch” attended by children. In August, the Texas state comptroller announced an investigation into whether a Dallas bar that had recently hosted a “Drag the Kids to Pride” event should be classified as a “sexually oriented business” for tax and regulatory purposes, and Congressman Glenn Grothman introduced federal legislation to prevent the Defense Department from “organizing, hosting or promoting drag shows.”
This conservative political “panic” was a reaction to long-standing liberal political approbation, especially from leading female culture warriors. Progressive women have struck up a love affair with drag queens. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez appears to be the biggest drag fan in the United States Congress. She posts opinions and predictions about RuPaul’s Drag Race to social media. She attends drag events privately and, according to Out magazine, is “a massive Valentina stan.” No surprise, then, that Ocasio-Cortez leveraged her 2018 electoral victory into an open request to serve as a Drag Race celebrity judge, a dream she fulfilled in 2020.
Ocasio-Cortez was not the first Congressional drag fan to appear in the Drag Race franchise. Representative Nancy Pelosi has made two appearances on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, the first in 2018 and the second in 2022. Senator Elizabeth Warren made a video appearance at RuPaul’s DragCon NYC in 2019, the only 2020 Democratic presidential candidate to do so. In 2022, Vice President Kamala Harris appeared onstage with Drag Race winner Symone during a Capital Pride event. Later she hosted a Pride Month gathering at Number One Observatory Circle with Drag Race contestant Shangela, who was the first person ever to attend an event at the vice president’s official residence in drag. But Senator Kirsten Gillibrand outdid them all. In 2019, at New York City’s Elmo Lounge—“the über gay Chelsea restaurant,” in the words of the New York Daily News—she became the first U.S. presidential candidate to be interviewed by a drag queen. Gillibrand twice stopped by the Des Moines, Iowa, gay bar The Blazing Saddle, where she glammed up backstage with drag queen Vana (who called the senator “a strong, female, warrior princess”), swapped dresses with the performer, and served drinks to customers in a rainbow-lettered “Love is Brave” T-shirt.
Progressive male politicians are not immune to the allure of drag queens. In 2021, Senator Cory Booker made a video appearance on RuPaul’s Drag Race—perhaps because Booker and Charles had discovered the previous year on the television program Finding Your Roots that they are distantly related—and in 2022, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the werk room on Canada’s Drag Race. Booker and Trudeau seem to be the exceptions that prove the rule, however. There is a clear affinity between female progressives and drag.
The basis of the drag aesthetic is camp. In 1964, Susan Sontag set out its contours in her first major published work, “Notes on ‘Camp.’” Camp is above all a “sensibility” or “taste” for artifice both in objects and people. According to Sontag, camp is a “love of the unnatural” and of “things-being-what-they-are-not,” a taste that “effaces nature, or else contradicts it outright”; she insists bluntly, “Nothing in nature can be campy.” In this way, camp celebrates the urban over the rural, glamor over beauty, fantasy over reality, naivete over seriousness, hedonism over morality. Though objects—Tiffany lamps, late-nineteenth-century Paris subway entrances, clothing—can be camp, Sontag is most interested in persons and performances. Her examples are primarily actors, singers, films, plays, musicals, ballets, operas. Her lodestone is Oscar Wilde, and his quotes signpost her article. His first is, “One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.” Camp is thus an approach not only to art but to the whole of life—“Being-as-Playing-a-Role”—realized through stylization, theatricality, exaggeration, flamboyance, abnormality, even the grotesque understood precisely as a form or appearance incongruous with nature.
Camp is especially interested in gender. Sontag observes that camp incorporates “the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms” to ridiculous proportions, in the “corny flamboyant femaleness” of Jayne Mansfield and the “exaggerated he-man-ness” of largely forgotten actors like Victor Mature. Thanks to reigning cultural mores and the Hays Code, mainstream gender parody at the time Sontag was writing remained largely within the female-feminine / male-masculine binary. Sontag does not mention classic camp female impersonations by straight male actors such as Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot, or Milton Berle on Texaco Star Theater and its successors. (Later television and film examples include The Flip Wilson Show, Bosom Buddies, Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, and White Chicks.) Instead, Sontag dwells on camp’s “homosexual aestheticism” and its strong association with effeminate gay men.
Some sixty years later, gender parody has become the very fulcrum of camp, as was clear at the 2019 Met Gala in New York City. With a nod to Sontag’s famous essay, the theme of that year’s annual benefit for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute was “Camp: Notes on Fashion.” The leading fashion trade journal WWD hired drag queen Sasha Velour to offer expert commentary on the gala’s costumes and performances. Clearly familiar with Sontag’s essay, Velour described camp as artificial, grandiose, ridiculous, impractical, tacky, extravagant, fantastic, passionate, and unserious in ways that “should be frightening to mainstream sensibilities.” Velour ultimately insisted that camp is “queer style,” evidently having in mind effeminate gay men. Camp has become a one-way street: Everyone, male or female, is tasked with becoming more feminine. The media-acclaimed male performances at the 2019 Met Gala were by the effeminate Billy Porter, the androgynous Ezra Miller, and the genderqueer Michael Urie. Those by women were the exaggeratedly feminine productions of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Janelle Monáe. More than one commentator condemned the straight men in attendance for appearing in soberly masculine black tuxedos, the antithesis of camp.
The flamboyant theatricality of drag evokes frivolity and playfulness. Sontag insists that though camp can be serious—“serious about the frivolous” but certainly not serious about the serious—it ultimately presents a “comic vision of the world,” a vision defined as “an experience of underinvolvement, of detachment.” RuPaul Charles agrees, claiming: “Drag reminds people to not take themselves or life too seriously.” It is supremely ironic, then, to see drag become a cultural vehicle of earnestness and, even more strangely, genuineness. After Nancy Pelosi appeared on Drag Race All Stars for the first time in 2018, an interviewer from Hollywood Reporter asked her bluntly, “What could politicians learn from drag queens?” Her answer: “Authenticity.” For Pelosi the spirit of drag is, strangely enough, “[people] being themselves.” Drag queens have embraced the same sensibility, especially the youngest generation. Kade Gottlieb, a twenty-four-year-old Drag Race contestant in 2021, is emblematic. Unlike drag queens of the past, Gottlieb was immersed in drag culture from childhood and claims to have “basically [grown] up with the show.” In Gottlieb’s view, performing a character is indeed a vehicle for authenticity:
[Through drag] I learned so much about the power of embracing your identity. I remember before I truly was comfortable in the skin I’m in and before I truly came out and told the world who I was, even though I thought I was living my life, I was not. The second I embraced who I was fully and showed the world who I was fully and started living unapologetically, it changed my life.
The paradoxical claim that artifice and parody are vehicles of authenticity is rooted in a cultural system we may call “the therapeutic.” Such a culture is premised on a worldview that originates with the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, and has been most clearly articulated by the sociologist Philip Rieff. The therapeutic narrates the human experience as one of emotional suffering and healing. Practices of introspection—including therapy and counseling, but also cultural products such as novels, plays, films, television, social media, and advertising—aid individuals in understanding their suffering as entangled with repression of the true self. Such repression appears in many forms, but signally as “hate.” The proximate goal of the therapeutic is an eradication of repression and a liberation of the self. The ultimate goal is a lifetime of emotional growth (the “journey”) toward the salvation of the suffering self (“wellness”).
Therapeutic culture skews strongly female and liberal. Therapy and counseling have been a predominantly female interest in the United States since at least the 1990s. Today more than 70 percent of licensed therapists and counselors are women, and the pipeline of students into these fields skews even more female. In 2019, about 66 percent of all adults who had received a form of counseling or therapy were likewise women. Concerning the relation between therapy and political ideology, an analysis of forty-five years of General Social Survey data found that self-described “extremely liberal” Americans have significantly higher incidences of a set of mental-illness indicators than any other ideological category. A 2020 Pew survey found that self-described “very liberal” whites had the highest incidence (statistically significant under standard controls) of diagnoses of mental health conditions—a rate that presumably is correlated with the consumption of professional mental health services. Young white liberal females had the highest incidence of any demographic; 56 percent reported ever having a diagnosed “mental health condition.”
Queerness has long occupied a privileged status in therapeutic culture, as its normalization is strongly associated with the realization of therapeutic values. The first of these values is individuality, a romantic sense of the self as a unique and creative spirit whose reason for existence is its own expression. Gillibrand has said that “drag queens are the definition of brave” because they assert their individuality “against the grain” of popular sensibilities. In a particularly mawkish interaction on Drag Race in 2020, Ocasio-Cortez told contestants that “each and every one of you are [sic] here because you have such a unique characteristic that only belongs to you, that no one else has. Just know that, that that’s forever what makes you special.”
The second therapeutic value is authenticity—the public expression of the true self and belief in an equivalence between inner truth and its outer expression. Ocasio-Cortez encourages drag queens to resist self-doubt: “You are right exactly as you are. Just share you with us.” Pelosi sees drag queens as role models because they are “people believing in themselves, being themselves, taking pride in themselves.” Gillibrand agrees: Drag queens are “unapologetically themselves.”
The third therapeutic value is liberation, a social state in which authentic selves are actualized, recognized, and affirmed. As Pelosi said to Drag Race All Stars contestants in 2022, “Your freedom of expression of yourselves in drag is what America is all about.” Ocasio-Cortez concurs, insisting that RuPaul’s drag queens are “the people who change what people think . . . let’s not forget who threw that first brick at Stonewall” (a feat apocryphally attributed to the black drag queen Marsha P. Johnson). Even Warren’s rather stilted insistence at DragCon 2019—“We’ve got a lot of work to do to make sure that everyone is free to be who they are and to love who they love”—was an endorsement of the promise of therapeutic liberation.
Just as much as progressives cast the therapeutic upon drag, drag draws upon the therapeutic. Devotees of the RuPaul franchise are routinely served hearty portions of therapeutic pathos, ethos, and mythos. Since the first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Charles has ended every episode with the aphorism, “Remember, if you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” Since 2014, regular Drag Race judge Michelle Visage has hosted a companion series titled Whatcha Packin’, which consists of off-stage out-of-drag exit interviews of contestants. Therapeutic themes of individuality, authenticity, and liberation are always prominent. Visage has said that one purpose of the program is to “tell [contestants] how wonderful they are as human beings.” Since 2015, Charles has included in each season finale an act of pure self-affirmation in which contestants address photographs of themselves as pre-schoolers. Each drag queen speaks—often emotionally—of personal, even intimate emotional and psychological struggle, using routine therapeutic tropes of confession, growth, self-acceptance, self-assertion, and self-love. Of course, most every reality television show today incorporates such themes. But Drag Race holds pride of place for centering queerness, the distilled essence of America’s therapeutic culture.
Therapeutic values are likewise at the heart of drag queen story hour. Defenders praise these events as a celebration not only of gender fluidity and queerness but, more deeply, of individuality, difference, self-esteem, and tolerance—a kindergarten or, perhaps better, Sunday school of the therapeutic. Its messages are as simple and direct as one would expect for preschoolers: “Just be who you are”; “keep walking along and singing your song”; “whatever you dream of / I believe you can be”; “everyone fits in here.” It is wholly congruent, then, to affix to the little attendees stickers proclaiming each a “drag queen in training.” Thanks not only to their sexual and gender identities but to their flamboyance in performing those identities, Ocasio-Cortez is only right in proclaiming drag queens the true “patriots” of a therapeutic society.
The rise of the drag queen is not due simply to the ambient therapeutic culture, however. Though the United States has been therapeutic for decades—Rieff published The Triumph of the Therapeutic in 1966—drag conquered progressive America only in the era of Donald Trump. This is no coincidence. RuPaul’s Drag Race first aired in 2009, but it began winning Emmys only in 2017. The show’s growing popularity justified a move from Logo to the more mainstream VH1 that year. Also in 2017, The Atlantic observed that “the early months of the Trump presidency have seen drag flourish as a form of political critique,” and Salon insisted on “the power drag has to challenge Donald Trump’s vision for America.” In 2019, the Washington Post argued that “drag queens are becoming a perfect foil to President Trump.” In 2020, the New Yorker bizarrely asked, “Can RuPaul’s Drag Race save us from Donald Trump?”
At first glance, drag appears an unlikely medium for the Resistance. Prior to his run for the Republican nomination for president, Trump was a clear moderate on homosexuality. The public saw him as the least religious of all the leading 2016 presidential candidates. Democrats took him to be less religious than even Bernie Sanders! Yet Trump’s views on sexual orientation and identity, or his religiosity, were never the prompts for progressives’ reactive embrace of drag. The impetus was always instead Trump’s gender. Even before the release of the infamous 2005 Access Hollywood tape, Trump had become an avatar of “toxic masculinity.” Media across the political spectrum condemned him for his arrogance, aggressiveness, bravado, and cultivation of public interest in his own physical and sexual attributes. According to NPR, “Trump weaponized his masculinity.” The Access Hollywood October surprise simply threw pre-existing indignation into overdrive. The first major protest against Trump as president was the January 2017 Women’s March, at which the “pussy hat” premiered. The #MeToo tidal wave, which began in October 2017, was able to crash ashore thanks to the society-wide (and Hollywood-endorsed) gender-based denunciations of Trump.
The celebration of male homosexuality quickly became a favorite form of cultural and political protest against Trump, precisely because of its anti-masculinity. Depictions of Trump in a homosexual relationship with Vladimir Putin grew popular globally. A mural of Trump and Putin sharing a passionate kiss appeared in Lithuania as early as 2016, and was used frequently at anti-Trump political demonstrations worldwide. By 2017, liberal late-night comics had begun a repetitive torrent of jokes imagining the most graphic kinds of sexual acts between the two men. The trope proved exceptionally popular among political cartoonists. Depictions of Trump and Putin as a gay couple appeared in the New York Times and on the cover of The Economist.
This was a political and cultural atmosphere congenial to the drag queen. In the views of both its theorists and its performers, the social purpose of drag is the visible enactment of gender’s social construction. The gender theorist Judith Butler praises drag for separating sex from gender and demonstrating through parody how mainstream understandings of the sex–gender bond are “falsely naturalized as a unity through the regulatory fiction of heterosexual coherence.” From a post-structuralist perspective, of course, everything is socially constructed. But drag performance stands as a signal act of gender deconstruction—in Butler’s words, a demonstration “of a radical contingency in the relation between sex and gender.” Sexually crude humor and extreme gender parody are central to this demonstration; nothing deflates sincere belief and status more effectively than ridicule.
Drag’s self-conscious project is quite simply the deconstruction of masculinity. Drag is (traditionally) the male assumption of intentionally implausible and outrageous femininity through makeup, wigs, clothing, speech, demeanor, and the like. Going well beyond the effeminate gay man enacting an anti-masculine gender performance in “real life,” the drag queen performs in a manner so intentionally flamboyant and public as positively to mock masculinity. This is precisely drag’s attraction, of course, to the men who perform it. “Tucking”—the practice of taping back one’s male genitalia to give the appearance of female genitalia—has always been one of drag’s core practices. RuPaul Charles named his Drag Race companion show of backstage conversations and deleted scenes Untucked! in recognition of the phenomenon. Charles has stated bluntly that drag is “a real rejection of masculinity” and an “F/U to the cult of systematic masculinity.” When masculine conservatives criticize the left’s cultural project as “the pussification of America,” drag enthusiasts retort that such is precisely their goal.
Among the most thorough emasculations performed on Drag Race was a 2019 skit titled “Trump: The Rusical” (“rusical” being a portmanteau of “RuPaul” and “musical”). Contestants performed a parody of the musical Grease in which a drag Donald Trump played the part of Danny and the skit’s female characters were women in Trump’s personal life and administration. In the parody, Sandy doesn’t woo Danny/Trump, but rather kicks him off the stage while the cast of male drag queens extols female political empowerment, attends the Women’s March, and sings “the future is female” and “power to the pussy.” More than the simple mocking of masculinity, “Trump: The Rusical” is its full erasure.
That cancellation of masculinity is the heart of drag’s appeal to its straight progressive fans. Drag queen story hour is sponsored by librarians—at 83 percent women, among the most female occupations in America, and at 91 percent Democrat, among the most liberal. The Drag Race franchise makes its mainstream millions off an appeal to young straight women. When Drag Race was still on Logo, the network’s media team estimated the show’s audience to be “pretty split between younger female teenage fans and gay men from their 20s to 40s.” Since that time, of course, the show has found a mass appeal. A rather unscientific 2021 poll of fans on the Reddit community r/rupaulsdragrace found that 51 percent were women and only 38 percent were men (another 6 percent identified as “non-binary,” though research suggests that about two-thirds of such persons are women). The show’s young female fan base has outpaced drag’s traditional gay male audience so much that one can now find articles in the mainstream press complaining about straight women dominating drag show audiences and the Drag Race franchise itself.
Drag’s triumph over masculinity is a core element of its celebration of femininity, a celebration central to its appeal to straight women. Though the gender views of female drag fans can be implied from drag performance, it is more instructive to observe the gender performances of the fans themselves. Among the five nationally prominent female politicians who have publicly associated themselves with drag, there exists a positive relationship between femininity and that association: The closer the personal association to drag, the more feminine the politician.
Elizabeth Warren’s attachment to drag is the most tenuous, consisting of a video played at RuPaul’s DragCon NYC in which she failed to mention drag once, emphasized a generic LGBT rights message, and focused on getting out the vote. Her gender display is the least feminine of the group. Warren sports short hair, wears little if any visible makeup, and throughout her 2020 presidential campaign stuck to a uniform of black pants and a simple black top. Stridency seems to be her primary emotional register; in the DragCon video, she used the words “fight” or “fighting” seven times in ninety-five seconds.
Nancy Pelosi and Kamala Harris have cultivated a closer association with drag. Both have appeared publicly with drag queens on multiple occasions. Both are distinctly more feminine than Warren. Pelosi wears a chin-length bob style haircut; Harris’s hair is shoulder-length or longer; each frequently wears stiletto heels. Pelosi has been praised by the Washington Post for her “stylish feminine authority,” and InStyle magazine recognized her as a fashion trendsetter. Harris has graced the covers of Elle and Vogue and has been the subject of a photo spread in Vanity Fair.
Further along the spectrum is Kirsten Gillibrand. In 2019, she was happily photographed swapping dresses with and doing her makeup alongside a drag queen. Gillibrand’s gender presentation is also very feminine. Whereas Pelosi and Harris often appear in public in pant suits, Gillibrand—who has also appeared in Vogue—nearly always wears dresses or skirts. Her makeup is generally visible, and she has built her political career on issues such as sexual assault. Her campaign events during her presidential run were accompanied by pop music sung by female singers about female (and feminine) self-empowerment: “Superwoman” by Alicia Keys; “Just a Girl” by No Doubt; “Good as Hell” by Lizzo. Washington Post gender columnist Monica Hesse summed up Gillibrand’s campaign as ostentatiously “girly.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a category unto herself. Her gender performance is so feminine as to be stereotypical. She is famous for her red lipstick; her hair is typically quite long; she discusses makeup and skincare on Instagram, and her beauty routine has been covered in the media; she once suggested following RuPaul’s Drag Race as an alternative to filling out an NCAA March Madness bracket. She is a fashion icon, having attended the Met Gala, appeared on the covers of Vanity Fair and GQ, and been photographed by Annie Liebovitz for Vogue. Her political motto is “femininity has power.”
Ocasio-Cortez is the exemplar of the straight female drag fan because she does not seek to deconstruct gender per se. Her interest is in deconstructing masculinity. After the Uvalde school shooting in May 2022, Ocasio-Cortez took to Instagram Live to offer a fifty-four-minute stream-of-consciousness reflection on violence in America and its “roots” in misogyny and white patriarchy. Straight American men are “predatory on women, gay, nonbinary, and trans people,” lashing out with violence against the erosion of their “traditional regressive patriarchal values.” In a lengthy interview with GQ, Ocasio-Cortez developed the theme. She decried “traditional cultural markers of masculinity” and praised the infamous 2018 American Psychological Association guidelines framing masculinity as a pathology. In typical feminist fashion, Ocasio-Cortez lamented that even “men suffer from being under the patriarchy.” Though she believes that a “healthy masculinity” can exist, it seems that it can do so mainly by becoming more therapeutic and less masculine. She encourages men to “share their stories of growth” and “dive into their compassion, into their sadness, into their insecurity and explore it and work through it.” She praises her fiancé for his willingness to “use what we go through as opportunities for personal growth,” a practice that seems mainly to amount to an emotional acceptance of Ocasio-Cortez as “an independent, successful woman.”
The presence of gay men (and absence of straight men) is doubly necessary in order for straight women to celebrate femininity’s gender triumph. The male drag performance is a clear negation of masculinity. But it also serves to interrupt sexual competition among women in overwhelmingly feminine spaces. In a drag setting, feminine sexuality still exists, but it is performed by men and directed toward men. This presentation of homosexual sexuality displaces heterosexual sexuality and creates a space in which male sexual interest in women is negated. The female desire to attract male sexual interest is negated in turn. Thanks to gay men in drag, straight women may enjoy a “pure” femininity undisturbed by any hint of masculinity.
Such a sphere is valuable to progressive women battered by the real world of gender fluidity. As progressives, they necessarily endorse non-binarity, transgenderism, and other queer identities on principle, even as actually existing queerness is unkind to femininity. The majority of transgender persons today are girls and young women seeking an escape from femaleness; recent studies have found that as many as 70 percent of young Americans with a “transgender” or “gender nonconforming” identity are biological females. More disturbing for straight female drag fans is the political ideology of trans women (biological males whose gender identity is female). Despite the reputation of LGBT progressiveness, a 2019 study found trans women to be the most politically conservative gender identity of all, significantly more so even than heterosexual men. Only in the fantasy world of drag can everyone be a good progressive femme who hates Trump and votes Democrat.
Drag’s celebration of femininity turns out to be far less successful than it appears. By separating femaleness from femininity, drag queens can appropriate the latter while setting up the former for the most crude forms of caricature and satire. Indeed, critics of drag have long condemned it for misogyny. Though drag’s text is a mockery of masculinity, its subtext—largely unread by its straight female fans—is a subversion of femaleness.
No regular viewer of RuPaul’s Drag Race can fail to notice its misogynistic qualities. Fixed elements of the show include: a scoring system based on “Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent,” traits chosen for their usefulness as an acronym; the celebrity impersonation contest “Snatch Game”; and references to “fishy” drag queens. All these are obscene allusions to female genitalia. Male contestants regularly call one another “bitch” and “ho” and freely appropriate femaleness in addressing one another out of drag as “girls,” “ladies,” and “women.” The sexual elements of drag humor can only be described as aggressively male. In the 2022 episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars on which Nancy Pelosi appeared, lewd jokes were constant. The Speaker of the House praised the “joy and beauty” of drag while sharing the stage with a queen in BDSM apparel sporting a ball gag. During an off-stage interview, one contestant enthusiastically observed, “I’ve finally arrived in the legendary Legends Club and I didn’t have to suck anyone’s dick to get in it.” Punch lines in skits incorporated anal sex, fisting, and “spit roasting” (not for the faint of heart to investigate). In one competition, a drag queen joked about “the time I got a condom lost inside of me,” and another humorously referenced poppers, a nitrite-based angina drug used recreationally by gay men to facilitate receptive anal sex. In Pelosi’s judgment, this is “what America is all about.”
Drag’s aggressive sexual crudeness cannot be suppressed even in so-called “family friendly” shows. In this next step beyond drag queen story hour, children are brought into gay bars for a sanitized version of what one would see in a club or on television. Yet at the “Drag Your Kids to Pride” event at the Mr. Misster bar outside Dallas in 2022, children were instructed to pass dollar bills to dancing drag queens under the glow of a four-foot-high neon sign blazoning the message “It’s Not Gonna Lick Itself!” What was most remarkable was the number of women in attendance with their children. The willingness of mothers to endorse men’s appropriating a female identity to engage in aggressive sexual vulgarity under the banner of tolerance is truly astonishing.
A certain kind of feminism—call it “Samantha Bee feminism”—encourages American women to embrace sexual vulgarity as a form of liberation. Perhaps drag’s straight female fans have counterintuitively interpreted its male lewdness as an endorsement of their empowerment. One need not speculate, however, concerning the impact of drag on the radicalization of the question of femaleness itself. This matter was long masked under a heavy pancake of parody and farce, but transgenderism has forced drag to confront its appropriation of femaleness directly. In a 2018 interview, RuPaul Charles insisted that drag must be performed by biological men. “Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it,” he insisted. As the entire social purpose of drag is, in Charles’s view, the subversion of masculinity, it simply cannot exist as women’s parodying femininity. On the topic of trans women, Charles observed, “You can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body. It takes on a different thing; it changes the whole concept of what we’re doing.”
Highlighting the text while veiling the subtext ultimately became culturally impossible. Even RuPaul’s Drag Race could not hold back the floodwaters of queerness. Prior to Charles’s interview, dozens of the show’s contestants had announced female gender identities before, during, or (usually) after the show’s filming—but none had appeared with a chemically or surgically altered body. Within just five months of publicly stating it, Charles overturned his fundamental premise of drag. By the 2022 season of Drag Race, five of the fourteen contestants were trans women, at least one of whom had already undergone surgery to assume a more female form. The fantasy, stylization, and irony of drag’s male appropriation of femininity is becoming an earnest, serious-about-the-serious male appropriation of femaleness.
If Drag Race was now willing to accept physically altered trans women, it was inevitable that biological women, too, would eventually appear. In 2021 the show featured its first such contestant, Kade Gottlieb, alias Gottmik. Despite having already undergone chest and jaw surgeries so as to present a more male appearance, Gottlieb remained, in basic physical appearance, very much female. This biological woman assuming the identity of a man impersonating a woman was in a sense straight out of the 1982 film Victor/Victoria. Yet unlike in that film, on Drag Race gender identity must now be both sincerely held and publicly known. The result is the elimination of camp humor. Without a male body performing femininity, drag’s dangerous negation of masculinity vanishes. But the negation of femaleness remains.
Something of camp remains, as well. Sixty years ago, Sontag identified camp as a “love of the unnatural” and of “things-being-what-they-are-not.” Drag costume was always meant not to accentuate the natural form but to escape it. Now the body itself has become another costume—less supple and more demanding than dresses, wigs, and false lashes, but a costume nonetheless. The surgeon takes her place alongside the fashion designer and the makeup artist. The triumph of artifice over nature is no longer simply a performance on a stage. It is the anti-natural work of art Oscar Wilde urged his readers to become.
Darel E. Paul is professor of political science at Williams College.
Image by DVSROSS via Creative Commons. Image cropped.