By Sam Danley
TRANNYGATE: DRAG’S DIGITAL DISCOURSE
Since its premiere in 2009, the reality television show RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009-) has garnered significant critical and commercial success, cherry picking drag queens up by their lace front wigs and dropping them into the living rooms of Betty and Joe Beercan. Drawing larger audiences with each new season, Drag Race has brought about significant changes in the drag performance industry by expanding a potential for mainstream success and ushering in a new generation of “Drag Race baby boomers”—younger performers whose first exposure to drag performance was in front of a television or computer screen (Ødegård, 2016).
Each season, a fresh batch of queens compete for the title “America’s Next Drag Superstar,” a jeweled crown and scepter, and a $100,000 cash prize. The queens are tested on more than their ability to construct costumes and entertain audiences—essential skills in the drag industry—however. Contestants often share experiences of personal hardships and experiences of social exclusion associated with their non normative sexual identities. These moments of emotional vulnerability are met by host and executive producer RuPaul Charles (herself a successful drag performer) with one of many well known mantras promoting self love and confidence. RuPaul has expressed the central importance these narratives of emotional resilience play in the show’s success; rather than understanding Drag Race as a mere competition between drag queens vying for fame and fortune, RuPaul conceptualizes her show as an examination the human spirit’s tenacity in the face of systematic social exclusion.
Despite the show’s continued critical and commercial success, its reception with queer audiences has not been without controversy. While scholars and advocates alike have criticized the show’s articulation of drag performance for its proclivity toward traditional notions of normalized femininity and stereotypical drag performance consisting exclusively of female impersonation, it is RuPaul’s use of derogatory language that sparked the fiercest debate among performers, fans, and activists (Edgar, 2011; Metzger, 2016; Ødegård, 2016). Following the show’s sixth season, during which a mini-game segment aired featuring contestants guessing whether an image was of a female celebrity or a “she-male” drag queen, critics began calling for censorship of the show’s allegedly transphobic language. RuPaul’s play on words “she-male” came under scrutiny, as did other uses of derogatory language associated with non normative gender and sexual identities.
The words people use to describe themselves and others like them reveal much about how they position their own identities in relation to the larger social world. This is particularly true for sexual and gender minorities, who—after acknowledging and (to at least some extent) embracing counter hegemonic attributes of their sexual or gender identity—must then orient themselves relative to the reproductive heteronormativity that dominates current configurations of the social world. This orientation does not follow a set path or logic, and, as the controversy examined in this article reveals, often come into conflict with other ways of orienting queer identities in relation to dominant cultural forms.
Sometimes, this orientation leans towards a conceptualization of queerness which emphasizes an inherent threat to dominant heteronormativity evident in all cases of non-normative gender and sexual identity. Referred to as the “antisocial thesis” or “anti-relationality”, this particular conceptualization of queerness (articulated in recent years by Bersani, Berlant, Warner, and perhaps most controversially by Edelman in his hotly contested book No Futurity) positions queer identities as fundamentally antithetical to hegemonic configurations of heteronormative sociality. Proponents of the anti-relational thesis find evidence of subversion in the very act of being or expressing gender and sexual identities beyond the confinements of heteronormative binaries. Mari Ruti (2008) summarizes this conceptualization of queerness in her critical analysis of Edelman’s No Future, writing that anti-relationality calls on queers to “take it upon themselves to embody the threat to the social fabric that they, whether or not they so wish, always already signify” (p. 113).
Not every queer person shares this propensity for embracing negative stereotypes and opposing dominant cultural forms, however. The ways sexual and gender minorities orient their identities in relation to the larger social world can also, in contrast, assign primacy to the queer capacity for hegemonic normalcy. This orientation is often referred to as “assimilationist”, and the means through which its proponents go about deemphasizing queerness as a mark of otherness is frequently called “respectability politics.” Rather than attempting to disrupt the cultural forms which produce and sustain heteronormative dominance, assimilationists pursue more modest modifications to existing configurations of the social in an effort to elevate the status of gender and sexual minorities while minimizing the injuries inflicted upon them by processes of social exclusion.
These antagonistic orientations of queerness are evident in debates surrounding representation in mainstream media, including (but not limited to) televised articulations of queer identities. While proponents of the anti-relational orientation embrace negative stereotypes as a means of resisting current configurations of the social world (which are seen as incompatible with their gender or sexual identity), proponents of the assimilationist orientation promote narratives which counter negative stereotypes and decenter the non-normative aspects of queer identities in favor of aspects of queer sociality which emphasize similarities between queers and their more culturally accepted counterparts. Assigning media representations a certain transformative potential, proponents of both orientations conflate “revolutionary or emancipatory political struggle” with articulations of queerness in mainstream media (Villarejo, 2014, p. 3). Recent transformations in television technology have solidified this strategy of visibility as a primary form of social and political engagement. Kessel (2016) maps the way digital media convergence has disrupted processes of cultural production and meaning making, arguing that as traditional television media becomes increasingly entangled with digital media platforms, the relationship between audiences, media, and the social implications of televised representations of minority groups has become similarly entangled.
Transformations in technology have repositioned television away from the confinement of restricted time slots and limited spaces of consumption towards an unconfined, “highly individualized and irregular” position in audience lives (Kessel, 2016, p.116). Viewers can engage with media whenever, wherever, and in more ways than ever before. As producers move to digital media to improve their show’s online visibility, television shows themselves become subject to increased examination as sites that produce, maintain, reflect and occasionally disrupt dominant social configurations. Citing the reality television series RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009—) as a prime example of the way spectatorship has transformed with the development of digital technology, Kessel and others have drawn attention to the capacity for these new modes of engagement to alter conventions of political and social activism within the queer community.
Inspired by this research, this article seeks to expound the complexities and politics of drag performance as a site of contention between competing orientations of queerness through a case study of online controversy concerning the use of derogatory language in drag performance. Moving beyond this initial observation of discontent, I explore the logic animating competing claims for control of the use of pejorative terminology. What might they tell us about the changing nature of drag performance in a time of unprecedented potential for mainstream success? How are these discordant claims to queerness articulated? And, perhaps most importantly, what might these insights reveal about the contested nature of queerness itself?
“WORDS YOU DON’T SPEAK”
In the wake of Drag Race’s “Female or She-male” mini segment, hundreds of articles and think pieces appeared on popular LGBT+ websites and social media. Well known drag performers, former contestants, and other high profile queers took to digital media platforms to express their support for calls for censorship of RuPaul’s use of pejorative language. Others took to digital platforms to express their discontent with a perceived over-policing of aspects of drag performance motivated by social and political criticisms of heteronormative dominance (and its implicit exclusion of sexual and gender minorities). These debates over RuPaul’s appropriation of derogatory language expanded to include other popular sites of drag performance, including the well-known San Francisco performance space Trannyshack. While debates regarding in-group use of derogatory language in drag performance existed before Trannygate (a colloquial term used to describe the controversy), the popularity of Drag Race as the first television show exclusively featuring a cast of drag performers provided a concentrated, highly publicized arena where this dissension was explored online through new modes of digital engagement with traditional media.
One of the most vocal critics of the use of transgender slurs in drag performance is Carmen Carrera, a transgender drag performer who appeared on the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. In interviews on popular LGBT+ media sites including Queerty, The Advocate, and The Gay Times, as well as on her personal social media accounts, Carrera characterizes RuPaul’s use of transphobic language as evidence of mainstream values invading queer spaces. Calling attention to the injurious consequences of reclaiming pejorative terminology, Carrera and other critics highlight a potentially didactic capacity for televised articulations of non-normative gender and sexual identities to challenge negative stereotypes and promote social inclusion.
“This battle of respect is something very real to me….I’m very passionate and believe that every time the LGBT community is featured in the media, people are learning about us. Now more than ever. My thing is, teach them the good of who we are that way it will cause a ripple effect and open the doors for respect and then ultimately lead to more people loving us.
-Carmen Carrera (@Carmen_carrera) May (EXACT DATE?), 2014
Similar comments were made to the LGBT+ news website The Advocate in a series of articles written in the spring of 2014.
“The word “tranny is just like saying ‘faggot,’ ‘spic,’ or the n word. It’s just these words you don’t speak.” (Malloy, 2014)
“First, let’s get respected. Let’s make sure everyone sees eye-to-eye and understands who we are as people.” (Reynolds, 2014)
Far from the only voice criticizing the use of transgender slurs in drag performance, other well-known performers, writers, and activists expressed similar feelings of discontent with the appropriation of derogatory markers of queer identities. Kat Callahan (2014) shared her discontent on the LGBT+ site ROYGBIV, in an op-ed which received nearly 40,000 online interactions.
“I’m critical of “reclamation theory” and I am very careful what words I choose to use. Call me a dyke (a word I routinely use myself among my lesbian and bisexual identified lady friends, be they cis or trans) and I’m probably going to be pretty pissed. You can’t say it, but I can, because I am a woman who is romantically and sexually interested in other women. If I wanted to reclaim “tranny” and “she-male,” I probably could, but why the fuck would I ever want to do so? I have no desire to try to turn them into something empowering or badges of honor. I’m not capable of it, and it would disgust me to even try.”
Parker Molloy (2014), a writer for the Huffington Post and The Advocate, penned a similarly strong worded op-ed which appeared on both websites, followed by a string of tweets where she declared:
“I fucking hate @RuPaul. Like… there really are few people I truly hate. He is one of them.”
-Parker Molloy (@ParkerMolloy) March 18, 2014
“SOMEONE CALLS YOU A TRANNY? OWN IT!”
These accusations of transphobia were met by RuPaul and other high profile queer entertainers with similar accusations regarding the opposition’s service to existing processes of heteronormative oppression. Where some critics accuse drag performers of contributing to processes of social exclusion, drag performers have accused critics of obsessive policing and censorship of performance content that is rooted in social critique. Take, for example, RuPaul’s defense of his use of pejorative terminology on a popular podcast:
“Does the word ‘tranny’ bother me? No. I love the word ‘tranny.’ It’s not the transsexual community who’s saying that. These are fringe people who are looking for storylines to strengthen their identity as victims. That is what we are dealing with. It’s not the trans community. ’Cause most people who are trans have been through hell and high water. And they’ve looked behind the curtain at Oz and go, ‘Oh, this is all a fucking joke.’ But some people haven’t and they’ve used their victimhood to create a situation where, ‘No! You look at me! I want you to see me the way you’re supposed to see me!’ If your idea of happiness has to do with someone else changing what they say, what they do, you are in for a fucking hard-ass road.” (Charles, 2014)
Later in the interview, RuPaul characterizes the Trannygate controversy as an Orwellian nightmare, where those critical of the use of transgender slurs in drag performance are corrupted by the desire to assimilate.
“It’s the same as in the book… Orwell’s Animal Farm, where the pigs forgot why they had a revolution in the first place. And the pigs started walking up on their hind legs… But no no no. The reason why we do this in the first place was because we wanted to start something different, something new, something broader… Secretly, they just want to be Farmer John.” (Charles, 2014)
Like Carrera, RuPaul also took to social media to address his critics. Below are some of the most widely circulated responses to Trannygate published on social media by RuPaul:
Drag laughs in the face of this bullshit world
-RuPaul Charles (@RuPaul) May 23, 2014
I’ve been a “tranny” for 32 years. The word “tranny” has never just meant transsexual. #TransvestiteHerstoryLesson
-RuPaul Charles (@RuPaul) May 24, 2014
Other popular drag performers, transgender activists, and queer entertainers engaged with digital media platforms, criticizing attempts to censor the use of derogatory language in drag performance. Well known drag performer Heklina, founder of Trannyshack (a venue largely considered the nexus of the west coast drag performance industry and an important site in the history of queer activism), penned an open letter which appeared online on the Huffington Post’s website and in the academic journal Studies in Gender and Sexuality (Heklina, 2014). Unable to keep her night club away from the Trannygate controversy, Heklina offered this explanation for the club’s name, which she eventually changed due to pressure from drag performers critical of the use of pejorative language cancelling scheduled performances:
“…I thought the name was perfect—and not just perfect but cool, original, and transgressive… Trannyshack, as it turned out, was the perfect name for a club that celebrated punk rock, the avant garde, cult movies, heavy metal, goth, and camp and skewered just about everything pop culture could throw up. Absolutely genius performers honed their craft on my tiny stage, and Trannyshack is now seen as having redefined drag on the West Coast.” (Heklina, 2014)
Justin Vivian Bond, a well know transgender performance artist and political activist, expressed not only support for RuPaul and Heklina but disdain for those attempting to censor the content of drag performance in an interview with Queerty in May of 2014. Referencing Heklina’s decision to change the name of her club, Bond said:
“…keep in mind that the reason she has “evolved” is because she’s been forced to due to harassment from a group of people who have decided that ,instead of learning from our queer history of re-appropriating, owning, and disempowering words that ACCURATELY DESCRIBE WHO AND WHAT WE ARE… it’s better to pursue a shame-based agenda.” (Tharret, 2014)
Bond also addressed the incident which sparked this controversy.
“I also think there was nothing wrong with the whimsical “Female or Shemale” game played on RuPaul’s Drag Race -especially because the contestants couldn’t even tell the difference. Hello! That’s revolutionary!” (Tharret, 2014)
“A reality check, if people think you are a tranny it’s because you are perceived as one. OWN IT! If they think that’s a bad thing then THEY ARE STUPID! If you don’t wish to own that word or any other word used to describe you other than “male” or “female” then I hope you are privileged enough to have been born with an appearance that will allow you… to pass within the gender binary system you are catering your demands to…(Tharret, 2014)
THE FUNDAMENTAL ANTAGONISM
While Van Kessel is correct in observing that these disparate responses to Trannygate foreground a tension within the LGBT+ community, this tension is not merely between transgender advocates and drag performers wrestling over the use of pejorative terminology. Similarly, the tendency for scholars to characterize debates about the use of derogatory queer identifiers in drag performance as a tension which initially coincided with digital media convergence is misguided. The tensions expressed in the Trannygate debate existed well before the “Female or She-male” mini segment aired. Indeed, the underlying logic animating both sides of the debate were present long before Drag Race issued its very first casting call. Trannygate is more than a tension between freedom of expression and an alleged hijacking of transgender experiences by Drag Race’s predominantly cisgender cast of performers. And while it certainly can be understood as a debate regarding what words queers should and should not use to refer to themselves and others, existing scholarship regarding Trannygate makes the mistake of assuming that this is all the debate might signify. These fervent responses to Trannygate appearing in popular LGBT+ online media point to a more fundamental tension between two contradictory impulses evident not only in the politics of drag performance but in the different ways queerness is positioned in relation to hegemonic notions of gender and sexuality.
The show’s successful appeals to mainstream audiences unfamiliar with both drag performance and other modes of queer expression, the rapid transition from network and cable television to digital programming—which brought with it an “increasing diminution of temporal and spatial distances” evidenced in the expanding prevalence of online fan interaction, resulted in a particular socio-technological context which allowed the debate to spread, generating hundreds of articles, videos, and social media posts (Kessel, 117). These factors and others accommodate a sense of controversy that, despite its apparent novelty (what other hosts of reality television shows exclusively featuring a cast of drag queens have found themselves embattled in controversy over words like “responsitrannity” and “she-mail”, after all?) is only the most recent articulation of a more inexorable antagonism between the drive to undermine dominant configurations of the social world and the desire to improve queer lives through assimilation. Trannygate is a concentrated cite where conflicting ways of orienting non-normative gender and sexual identities in relation to dominant forms of heteronormative sociality were explored and debated through new forms of engagement with television facilitated by the convergence of traditional and digital media platforms.
It is important to note that by classifying different orientations of queerness into these ideal types, either fundamentally opposed to or in pursuit of hegemonic normalcy, scholars have neglected the complex and dynamic ways LGBT+ people understand their relationship to each other and to the larger social world. Similarly, the tendency to characterize notions of the relationship between non-normative and heteronormative socialities as either entirely harmonious or completely discordant—frequently as means to advance one orientation over another—often fails to reflect critically on the realities of lived experiences which might lead certain groups or individuals to adopt particular orientations.
Take, for example, Sarah Warner’s (2012) coining of the term homoliberal, which she uses to refer to the “the enfranchisement of normative leaning queers at the expense of their other, less assimilable groups” (p. 3). While it is certainly true that aspects of the gay liberation movement were unable to escape the dominance of white affluent men with a much higher degree of political clout than their nonwhite, transgender, or economically disenfranchised peers, Munoz (2006) points out that many proponents of the antisocial thesis (including Edelman) are only able to promote the queer embodiment of hegemonic opposition because of their elevated social and racial status. While white gay men with graduate degrees opine on their inherent otherness, and seek to “rupture the establishment at its very foundations”, other queers struggle for access to housing, jobs, healthcare, and physical safety (Ruti, 2008, p. 113; Munoz, 2004).
Despite these potential pitfalls associated with dividing orientations of queerness into antagonistic ideal types, thinking about notions of queerness and its relationship to current configurations of the social in terms of the assimilationist and anti-social is nonetheless a useful tool for understanding the mental orientations manifested in certain beliefs, behaviors, and phenomenon. This is particularly useful in the case of Trannygate, where we find evidence of explicit appeals to each orientation in the way arguments about derogatory language in drag performance are framed. When understood as a disagreement over what words queers should or should not call themselves and each other, Trannygate becomes something much larger than a digitally driven controversy about a television show, or the name of a nightclub, or the content of drag performance more generally. Disagreements concerning the use of the word “tranny” and other related pejorative terminology in drag performance provide the vehicle through which a fundamental antagonism regarding the nature of queerness is articulated.
Take, for example, Carrera’s call for more didactic representations of non-normative gender and sexual identities. Rather than normalizing derogatory terms and reinforcing notions of deviance associated with LGBT+ people—a supposed effect of the “female or she-male” segment and other similar uses of language in drag performance—she and other critics of the use of transphobic terminology in drag performance advocate for representations which deemphasize otherness in favor of representations more intelligible to current configurations of the social world. In opposition, Halberstam (2014) argues that obsessive policing of in-group language within the LGBT+ community is accommodative to the neoliberal covering of exploitative and repressive functions of heteronormative power structures. He and other scholars operating under notions of anti-relationality are critical of queers like Carrera for ‘playing into the enemy’s hands,” so to speak.
In characterizing assimilationists like Carrera as unproductive, uncritical perpetuators of a rhetoric of injury, thinkers like Halberstam and Edelman overlook nuances of lived experience and everyday realities which drive some queers towards respectability politics. It is clear from the language employed by Carrera, Callahan, Malloy, and others embroiled in Trannygate that the appeal to mainstream sensibilities is intentional. It is not the accidental consequence of an ill-conceived discourse of injury which some scholars might have us believe. The “them” Carrera refers to in her digital engagements with the controversy are all the people who do not constitute gender and sexual minorities. She seeks approval from mainstream sensibilities, not just for herself but for the whole range of non-normative gender and sexualities who experience injury based on dominant notions of gender and sexual normalcy.
Often, queers who do not wish to be reminded of the injuries inflicted upon them by dominant forms of heteronormative sociality are thought to be, as Kessel puts it, “entrenched in identitarian debates” which distract from the real task of the queer enterprise—namely upending the entire foundation of the larger social world (p. 132). As the interviews, social media posts, and op-eds circulating popular LGBT+ digital media platforms in the wake of Trannygate reveal, proponents of the assimilationist orientation see the gains made in recent years by the gay liberation movement and want a piece of that progress for themselves. Often times, as is largely the case with Trannygate, these are queers who have yet to reap the same benefits as their gay and lesbian cisgender counterparts (Duggan, 2002; Munoz, 2004). Paradoxically, it is typically these groups and individuals who lost out on recent political and legal gains due to their less assimilable characteristics that now push for the continued normalization of queer identities.
If critics of the use of pejorative terminology used to identify gender and sexual minorities in drag performance embody the conceptual orientation of assimilationist queerness, performers like RuPaul and Heklina—as well as those who defend them—can be said to represent the anti-relational orientation. RuPaul’s defiance in the face of calls for censorship highlights the critical importance of social critique evident in what performers and some audiences understand to be acts of political and social defiance. The appropriation of pejorative terminology is at once a tool for resisting the injurious consequences originally associated with the slurs drag performers now celebrate, as well as a tool for bolstering pride in the face of social exclusion. The use of words like “tranny” and “she-male” in drag performance revokes the power of dominant heteronormativity by absolving the words of their original capacity for injury and imbuing them with a newfound affirmative potential. In this sense, the use of derogatory language in drag performance is a practical application of the abstract anti-relational goal to threaten and undermine existing forms of heteronormative dominance.
RuPaul, Heklina, Justin Vivian Bond, and many other high profile queer performers articulate this anti-relational orientation in their rebuttals to accusations of transphobia. These examples constitute only a small, representative sample of the kind of discourse permeating debates about the use of pejorative terminology in drag performance, but they illustrate quite clearly the seriousness with which drag performers execute their self-prescribed role of social critique.
Taking into account the long history of political engagement within the drag performance industry, it is unsurprising that drag performers tend to value aspects of their performance which give voice to political and social frustrations, as well as to the injuries associated with embracing non-normative gender and sexual identities. Sara Werner (2012) calls these aspects of drag performance acts of gaiety, or “comical and cunning interventions that make a mockery of discrimination and the experience of social exclusion.” (p. 4) Beyond a mere act of gender expression, drag is distinct from other practices of cross dressing or gender blurring because of its performative dimension. By this, I do not mean the performative dimension evident in all articulations of gender or the performative aspect of everyday life commonly associated with the work of Butler (1990), but rather the performative dimension constituted by the existence of spectators, a stage (or television camera), and the mutual understanding between performer and audience that the public display is intended as a form of entertainment. Drag by and large derives value from its capacity to entertain and delight audiences while offering performers the opportunity to express personal experiences with and attitudes towards the relationship between non normative identities and dominant configurations of heteronormative sociality. These expressions often (but not necessarily) take the form of scathing social critiques and intentionally shocking or vulgar displays of subversion of cultural values.
It would be a hasty generalization to claim that every drag performance is, to paraphrase Warner (2012), an anarchic and amusing display targeting the foundations of homophobia and arbitrary notions of heteronormative primacy. Many instances exist where a drag performance lacks explicit social commentary. We should be hesitant to over-apply Butler’s (1990) assertion that drag, when understood as an implicit revelation of the contingent and imitative nature of gender, is inherently subversive. And we should not disregard her often overlooked qualification that in its replication of notions of gender, drag can sometimes reinforce the binary notions it seeks to disrupt (Butler, 1990).
Much of the scholarship on drag performance is primarily concerned with tracing “what drag does” at the expense of uncovering what drag is thought to do in the minds of performers and audiences. If we really want to get to the heart of Trannygate and understand the divergent orientations of queerness animating the online discourse it generated, we must shed any preconceived notions about the cultural impact of drag performance or the social utility of respectability politics. In dismissing the assimilationist critique put forth by Carrera and others, anti-relationalists overlook the complexities of lived experience and everyday realities which might lead certain people or groups to resist the reappropriation of slurs, particularly on a television show marketed towards mainstream audiences. Similarly, by uncritically policing in-group language, assimilationists tend to overlook the contextual nuances of drag performance, and as a result are said to divide up politically allied subjects (Halberstam).
While critics and proponents of the use of pejorative terminology in drag performance align themselves along an axis of relationality—from antithetical to accommodative—the tendency to categorize conflicting notions of queerness into neatly packaged, clearly defined ideal types is not entirely reflective of reality. Some scholars have already begun asking questions about the supposed “gaiety” of drag performance as it is articulated in mainstream media. Does Drag Race present a disneyfied version of this uniquely queer mode of expression intelligible to audiences unwilling or unprepared to question hegemonic notions of gender and sexual identity? (Metzger, 2016) Or does it maintain its subversiveness through a “Trojan horse” method of subversion, as Ødegård (2016) suggests? Will the ongoing convergence of digital and traditional media, along with its new modes of engagement ripe with transformative potential in processes of meaning-making and political and social engagement, lead us closer to some sort of resolution or continue to divide up a community of gender and sexual minorities based on contested notions about what it means to be queer in a heteronormative world?
Despite an initial refusal to censor the use of phrases like “she-male,” “tranny,” and other pejorative terminology, RuPaul’s Drag Race eventually submitted to calls for censorship, issuing a brief apology and removing the “female or she-male” segment from all future airings of the episode as well as from all digital sites where the show can be accessed. Heklina’s justification for changing the name of her club offers insight into the factors motivating such a decision. Like Heklina, who submitted to calls for censorship after learning that high profile drag performers were no longer comfortable performing in her club, RuPaul and his team of producers appeased critics in order to maintain their popularity with audiences. This calls up a whole new set of questions about the newfound potential for mainstream success in the drag performance industry, and its impact on a mode of expression largely defined by its norm-breaking, subversive, often intentionally offensive content.
RuPaul’s concession led some scholars and activists to point towards a dramatic shift in the social economy of media representation, linking digital media convergence to a surge in assimilationist notions of respectability. Van Kessel encapsulates the supposed implications of this “changed social economy” when he claims that “television production is becoming more sensitive to identitarian claims expressed in social media and other digital media platforms.” (p. 126). While RuPaul’s concession to calls for censorship might lead to such a conclusion, the aftermath of Trannygate suggests a different trajectory.
Concerns regarding a dangerous precedent are unfounded. The controversy has generated its own set of novel responses within the drag performance industry, widening the field of cultural production and expanding the scope and style of drag performance available to audiences unfamiliar with modes of queer expression. Self-proclaimed “nightlife provocateurs” Swanthula and Dracmordia Boulet responded to RuPaul’s submission to calls for censorship with their own reality competition show (available to audiences via digital media platforms) featuring a cast of unconventional drag queens competing for the title of “Dragula: America’s Next Drag Supermonster.” Characterizing their show as an explicit response to explosion of drag in mainstream media, and its perceived alignment with assimilationist orientations of queerness, Dragula seeks to undermine configurations of hegemonic sociality by preaching a gospel of “drag, filth, horror, and glamour.” At the same time, Drag Queen Story Hours—events featuring drag performers reading stories to preschool children at local libraries—have appeared up in over a dozen cities around the country and are more widely available for viewing on a number of digital websites. Challenging notions that drag performance is exclusively subversive, Drag Queen Story Hour attempts to highlight the queer capacity for hegemonic normalcy and so called “family values,” countering the explicitly anti-relational orientation espoused by the Boulet’s.
Rather than pointing towards a fixed trajectory, where new modes of social and political engagement with television bolster assimilationist critiques while thwarting anti-relational articulations of queerness, Trannygate suggests that this fundamental antagonism will continue to be reproduced in new ways as digital engagement with television and queer activism become increasingly entangled.
Sam Danley is a junior studying cultural anthropology and communication studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Throughout his undergraduate studies, he’s been interested in examining the profound impact of technology on queer communities. His research interests have included racial stratification on gay “hook up” apps, drag performance as a site of 21st century social and political activism, and the ongoing enumeration and categorization of non-normative identities in queer discourses. More recently, his research has explored multi-species ethnography and its capacity for engagement with traditional realms of anthropological inquiry.
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