Discontents of Being… Notes (Ella)

LeMaster, Benny. “Discontents of Being and Becoming Fabulous on RuPaul’sDragU: Queer Criticism in Neoliberal Times”, Women’s Studies in Communication, 38:2, 167-186, (2015). DOI: 10.1080/07491409.2014.988776. Electronic.

  • “Throughout this essay, I argue that Drag U advocates for a postfeminist world-view that heralds what Susan Douglas calls ‘‘narcissism as liberation,’’ rearticulating classic tropes of patriarchal domination (245). Furthermore, Drag U integrates drag=trans=queer cultures into a consumerist-based ‘‘homonormative’’ and individualized neoliberal mainstream (Duggan 179).” (LeMaster 168)
  • “With these critiques in mind, I look at both the drag queens and the ‘‘biological women’’ on Drag U to consider the subversive and problematic dynamics of each. I focus on representations of feminine gender expressions as they manifest through drag queens and contestants on Drag U, and explore what these technologies tell us about our broader sociocultural worlds. Turning first to the contestants, and then to the drag queens, my critique extricates the hidden and (a)political ways that gender differences are essentialized and rendered normative with the deployment of ‘‘traditional’’ and ‘‘oppositional’’ sexism (Serano 326).” (LeMaster 169)
    • “The term neoliberalism refers broadly to the various means by which singularities and collectivities are formally (e.g., global economic policies) and informally (e.g., ideology and=or hegemony) governed.” (LeMaster 169)
    • “In this way, I use queer to denote bodies, identities, and enactments that challenge and=or reimagine normative gender and sexual arrangements. Queer can thus refer to gay and lesbian embodiments and identities as well as to bisexual and trans embodiments and identities as long as they queer neoliberal arrangements. While queer is used to describe identities and embodiments, it is also a theoretical project.” (LeMaster 170)
  • “Queer theory provides communication scholars a means of exploring the rhetorical construction of difference. Specifically, queer theorists are interested in the differences that manifest around sexuality.” (LeMaster 171)
  • “Finally, a queer criticism locates and addresses the ways that heteronormativity is reified, produced, performed, ritualized, and taken for granted. In this way, queer critics acknowledge that heteronormativity includes the maintenance of a particular form of heterosexuality: the nuclear family.” (LeMaster 171)
  • “Oppositional sexism describes the ways that one’s gender expression and sex are kept in alignment, while ‘‘traditional sexism’’ describes the defilement of femininity.” (LeMaster 172)
  • “Serano suggests that we look at the ways that gender traits are interpreted rather than how femininity and masculinity are (co-constitutively) produced. This shift, which implicates both transgender and cisgender bodies, can be jarring for a queer critic who has been trained to focus on the ‘‘incoherencies’’ that stabilize heteronormativity rather than on cultural meanings as they exist (Jagose 8). Jarring as it may be, Serano’s perspective broadens queer theory’s potential in helping us to reimagine social relations.” (LeMaster 172)
  • “In a 2013 tweet, RuPaul declared that Drag U had been cancelled. Despite being cancelled, Drag U is available for viewing on the LOGO TV website and for purchase through Amazon and iTunes. Thus, Drag U continues to (re)produce the themes that I tease out and analyze in this essay. In this essay, I focus on the first season of Drag U because it provides a roadmap for the neoliberal logics that would inevitably guide the following seasons.” (LeMaster 173)
  • “The contestants participate on Drag U to improve their feminine gender performances. In each episode, RuPaul assigns a drag professor to each of the contestants to aid in

their respective transformations. In addition to the drag professors, New York–based drag queen Lady Bunny performs as the Dean of Drag while Frank Gatson, Jr., performs as the Dean of Dance. Both Bunny and Gatson offer tips and guidance to the contestants informed by their respective areas of expertise. At the close of each episode, both Bunny and Gatson participate on the judges’ panel alongside a weekly celebrity guest, or ‘‘visiting professor,’’ who also serves as a judge. RuPaul does not judge the contestants but ensures ‘‘the power of drag’’ is used to help the contestants release and realize their ‘‘inner diva’’ (‘‘Dateless Divas’’).” (LeMaster 174)

  • “Drag U illustrates problematic advances in neoliberalism. In particular, individualization, competition, and consumption are neoliberal staples on which producers of Drag U often draw. In what follows, I examine two thematic responses that make sense of these problematic relational dynamics and how we might begin to reimagine these relationships in queer ways.” (LeMaster 175)
  • “For now, it is important to note that there are ‘‘biological women’’ who do not perform femininity ‘‘adequately.’’ One could argue that oppositional sexism—which ensures that one’s assigned sex, gender identity, and gender expression remain in alignment throughout time and space—guides the show.” (LeMaster 175)
  • “Drag queens resist the demands of oppositional sexism by refusing to enact either a masculine male or a feminine female persona. Rather, the drag queens enact a gendered persona that does not so easily align with an assumed ‘‘biological’’ sex. Writing on drag performance work, Eir-Anne Edgar finds that successful drag depends on the performer’s ‘‘ability to deploy stereotypical notions of femininity through performances of gendered norms’’ (133–34). Charlotte Coles adds, ‘‘[T]he sight of a person with [presumed] male genitalia reproducing femininity makes apparent the social mechanisms of gender oppression so that an audience can see its working’’ (4).” (LeMaster 176)
  • “The drag queens are professors to LGBT communities more broadly. More pointedly, the drag queens appeal and profess to a middle-class, gay, White, cisgender, masculine, male majoritarian center, or the ‘‘mythical norm’’ (Lorde 116), guiding a broader LGBT political schema, which David Eng characterizes as ‘‘queer liberalism’’ (3). In short, the drag queen professors bridge minoritarian communities.” (LeMaster 177-8)
  • “A homonormative politic claims a universal subject that does not have an explicitly marked sexual identity; rather, sexual identity (as well as other identity vectors) is rendered private.” (LeMaster 178)
  • “In my view, Drag U drag can be understood as homonormative commercial drag that limits what drag can be and determines what drag ought to look like (Edgar 133–34). The difference between Drag Race drag and Drag U drag is stark. Drag Race drag allows for relatively campy renditions of drag compared to those seen on Drag U. Drag U consists of a cast of queer and nonqueer folks, while Drag Race’s cast is comprised of gay men and three transwomen.” (LeMaster 179)
  • “While passing is not a necessarily ideal queer tactic, it is a survival tactic in a heteronormative world that Drag U privileges.” (LeMaster 179)
  • “RuPaul’s performance as the male university president further supports this bid for respectability. Indeed, RuPaul is referred to using male pronouns and is cast in a position of authority that has been, and continues to be, overwhelmingly held by White men; thus, it is important to mark the importance of a Black man performing in the role of a university president. Nonetheless, he has mastered both maleness and drag queen femininity (and, arguably, whiteness). He has returned to maleness renewed and is now able to embody male femininity while using his stage name, RuPaul, without actually performing in feminine drag. RuPaul and the drag professors (both in and out of their toned-down drag) exhibit how drag is a costume that can be removed when it is politically and strategically necessary.” (LeMaster 180)
  • “Drag U is a media text that merits the critiques of queer and feminist scholars and activists. Serano warns us that ‘‘the media neutralizes the potential threat that trans femininities pose to the category of ‘woman’ by playing to the audience’s subconscious belief that femininity is artificial’’ (43). If we are to remain critical of such representations of women and=or of queer bodies, we need to be aware of the ways that femininity is used as justification for the ongoing oppression of women and=or queer bodies.” (LeMaster 181)
  • “In the case of ‘‘biological women,’’ there is a stark difference between desiring femininity for oneself and desiring femininity because one wants to appease her husband or to attract a man.” (LeMaster 182)
  • “I end by advocating for a broad understanding of drag as a far more complicated social identity than simply gay (or not) men (or not) dressed in women’s clothes (or not). Drag U and similar programming can stifle and silence those of us who are simply living as femme, or embracing a feminine aesthetic, despite our other-aligned gender and/or sex, even as it offers representations of gender variance.” (LeMaster 183)
  • NOTE: This piece was very interesting as it was a queer-led critique on a RuPaul’s Drag Race Spin off. It was good to have another angle on my topic, even if very specific and direct.

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