Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Glamazons: The Time Has Come

So, there I was. Watching the finale of RuPaul's Drag Race, Season Four and it had the usual: highly edited, over the top manufactured drama (Sharon Needles can't nail the dance moves, "She has to get it right and  she has to get it right now"); visits from the past (Tyra and Raja, former winners, looking dramatically done up and kind of awful--but, xoxox Raja); a "Wow, we're really sisters, we're family. I know we hated each other through every challenge depicted on every episode, but we do have big love for each other and we can do anything now" moment; tears/apologies, and "I can't believe this is over and one of us will be the winner" confessionals; praise, praise, and more praise for the show's creator: "RuPaul is the best thing ever, ever, ever"; and, finally the requisite meeting with RuPaul for a jellybean dinner (one jellybean, which is actually one of my favorite parts) where each finalist tells a deep secret about their childhood, Oprah-style. RuPaul actually said to Chad Micheals at one point: "How does it [your father's leaving and having another family] manifest?" and "I wonder if this is your breakthrough moment."

So, I'm not going to try and pull out a ton of meaning from this show, but here's the thing:

I cried.

Not once.

Not twice.


Three. Times.

I find it hard to believe that I'm writing this, given my last post, there are other things to cry about rather than the scripted, confessional-driven, campy show about men who, for a living, perform their (our) interpretations of womanhood and femininity. Emphasis on perform, cause they werq that sh*t out. But, back to crying. This is the second time I've admitted publicly to crying over RuPaul's Drag Race. The first time was when Dida Ritz turned out the strongest lip sync for your life I have ever seen to Natalie Cole's "This Will Be." Part of it was that Ms. Cole was sitting right there and, I'm just gonna say it again, queen nailed the verse:

so long as i'm livin'/true love i'll be givin'
to you i'll be servin'/cause you're so deservin'

That fierceness, or "high drag at its finest" as Latrice Royale called it, drew the kind of call and response it deserved and is rarely seen on the show. Watching, as I often do, still pulls chills and tears from my body (I have it saved on my DVR, you should really watch it now from the tumblr page here, if you haven't seen it). It was, fierce. Both the fierceness of performing not only an incredibly famous, never to be well interpreted song in front of the woman who made and perfected it, but also the Black womanhood that we've come to associate with songs like it and in our everyday lives. As Madison Moore describes in his discussion of fierceness, "fierceness embodies several contradictions all at once...fierceness is both ownership and the loss of control, simultaneously deliberateness and spontaneity" (Moore 2012: 73)--I was just turned on to Moore yesterday, but I read his work with ferocity and you should too. When RuPaul says that the time has come for your to lip sync for your life, in the majority of cases, fierceness, that deliberateness is brought. But, the ownership of that fierceness for many of them, including Ru, is there all along. It is performed and reiterated, in every utterance, every step.

Look, I understand that this is a reality television show and they get to be on television, and they know they're on television so how much of this can we really take "seriously" (these are the critiques I get from my students who are currently reading Jenn Pozner's Reality Bites Back), I know, but I will contend that realness is forever served. Every time I watch it I am reminded of where these loves have come from. What they've been through. And I don't ever want to prioritize the brutality of queer boys lives over queer girls of color--which Aishah Shahidah Simmons is really leading us on and chronicling so beautifully over at The Feminist Wire--in each performance, in every application of caked makeup, in every tuck, and in every lip sync I see that brutality. And I become protective. That experience of being ridiculed, cast away, beaten (physically or not), and the attempts to destroy.

And they're not the only ones, I'm protective because it resonates somewhere with my own experience. And, to quote the fabulous post, Reflections of a Black Queer Suicide Survivor, by Darnell L. Moore that attempt to (literally) destroy us left many of us--even if we can't bear to admit it now--to come "to the wrong conclusion that I needed to sacrifice myself, to die, to at once be free." That's how deep that brutality goes. That death is a viable option. And this is why fierceness is such an important tool. Such an effective way to challenge the hegemony of race, gender, masculinity, femininity, and hetero (and sometimes homo) normativity. We bring it, every time. Because we have to. There is no choice about it. You see it in the glamor of Latrice Royale (I'm going to say her name over and over cause she should've been in the top three, not Phi Phi), the not only polishedness, but skill of Chad Micheals, and the often gruesome spectacle of Sharon Needles.

So, for the win, I have to give it to...Michelle Visage.

Just kidding, but really, why isn't her performance ever considered for the win? And, she's like 5 feet tall. Did y'all see that? When she was standing next to Santino--I'd never seen her stand up before--but she looked like she was standing in a trench, like they do for male actors who are shorter than their female counterparts in the movies.

Really, for me, it's always been Sharon Needles. I love her. I haven't really seen a Goth, scary queen serving realness in the way that she does, as others have pointed out. But, I also just love that she presents as, what we think of in popular discourse, 'poor, white, trash' out of drag. I have no idea what her class background is, but her (gap toothed) teeth are yellowed, her skin is sickly--not pasty--white, her bleached blond hair blends into said skin, and she has a body that exudes a long time emaciation. That could all be a performance that covers up a middle class upbringing that she discarded, but I feel it.  Partly because I know it pretty well. Those were the boys that lived in the trailer park up the street from our house, that were my play boyfriends sometimes, and they were also the boys we avoided because they were too poor, poorer than those of us who lived in houses, for instance.

I have a soft spot for that.

Plus she gives sharp answers to questions like, "Where is Phi Phi?" Answer:  "Disneying it up somewhere." Love. her. So, I give it up to Sharon Needles. But, really, I give it up to all of the queens. And to all of us. Because in the words of Natalie Cole, we're so deservin'. And this will be (or is) an everlasting love. Eternally.


From now on.


loubque said...

FYI it is a tic tac not a jelly bean.

queerblackfeminist said...

Um, thanks. Tic tac. Got it.

Anonymous said...

Love this blog more and more after each post. Ironically, Sharon Needles fb is what turned me on to the blog.

Spork said...

I love this post and your thoughts about solidarity.

The trials of a queer white boy are not the same as the trials of a queer woman of color, but the struggle is the same. Sometimes we lose sight of that.

And my girls on RPDR are serving realness every single moment they're on screen and bringing aspects of our queer culture into the spotlight with confidence and pride -- it doesn't matter if the drama is scripted or contrived, the lives are certainly not.

My friends and I talk a lot these days about how grateful we are that Ru is doing this show, that it feels like it's for us and about us, that we recognize people we know in the queens on the show even though we don't know those queens specifically.

And yes indeed, sometimes we find ourselves tearing-up because there are messages in that show on multiple levels that resonate with our queer experience and that celebrate who we are in all of our imperfect, messy, trashy, unique beauty.

Unknown said...

Everybody say love. I just wanted to say that I love your blog. And if you didn't know Sharon Needles will be in San Francisco May 30th :)

Queerblackfeminist said...

Thank you! I saw her link. Love it!

Queerblackfeminist said...

I love this comment, especially the solidarity piece and trashy, unique beauty. And my friends and I also talk about how grateful we are that the show is on the air, a respite from all that is LOGO. Much love.

Anonymous said...

I have cried at several episodes of this show for the same reasons...although at times the reality tv drama gets on my nerves, the women in this show have touched me on many occasions. They're talent, nerve and pain are a story many of us are all to familiar with. Love Sharon Needles..she is the future of drag!

Anonymous said...

All these queens are fierce and are winners! Having said that I want Sharon or Chad to win!

Anonymous said...

I wanted Sharon Needles to win too, before I found out she's a racist.

Tim Jones-Yelvington said...

Thanks for this post and for turning me on to the Madison Moore. I am always saying that the resilience I experience from dressing in drag genderfuck fashion has to do with the peculiar MIXTURE of feeling simultaneously unsafe (like consciously dramatizing or ritualizing shame and vulnerability) and more powerful than ever -- his quotes on fierceness seem to speak to that.

Anonymous said...

^^^^I dont see how those comments mean shes racist? Sharons always said edgy outlandish things, its part of why we love her. I think you may be reaching on that one.

Brandon said...


Drag isn't about impersonating women or saying how women *should* be. Do we really think drag queens are putting on their wigs and dresses to say, "this is how the average woman walking down the street really looks", or "this is how they should look"? They're hardly that naive or hypocritical. No, it's much more complicated than that. Queens are street-smart social critics--albeit not always the most articulate.

What men are doing when they get in drag is performing a valuable critique of gender norms, in at least one of several ways:

1) They are impersonating a specific archetype of the female entertainer, channelling that personality from a woman's into a man's body.

2) They are mocking traditional feminine stereotypes and showing how absurd these are by exaggerating them through caricature (e.g. the ridiculously enormous prosthetic breasts some queens wear).

3) They are shifting the expectations of femininity from women to men (in the case of queens), relieving women of this burden (unless the women have already eschewed it) and giving men the opportunity to embody it.

What would be the point of men doing masculine drag? Nothing. It would just be a man being traditionally masculine, which hardly challenges gender identity. So drag isn't about saying "this is how women are/should be". It's about males being allowed to impersonate specific female entertainer-archetypes, mocking feminine stereotypes through caricature, and shifting the opportunity to be feminine from women to men.

They're not interested in telling anybody how to be. They're interested in mocking that expectation, paying tribute to specific types of women, and proving that men can be like this too. In a way, they're siphoning off femininity from women who have eschewed it. This is a service to poststructuralist gender criticism.

As we can tell by the tears these queens have shed (insofar as such tears are real), their greatest pain is not being unable to say what women should be like; it is being unable to say that men can be like this, too.

GenieBurlesque said...

Whoever thinks or says Sharon is a racist has never met her.

queerblackfeminist said...

@Anonymous #1 and #2, as soon as I posted this I saw the link about Sharon Needles and racism. And, while I don't condone the use of the "n-word" by anyone, I'm not going to go into it here other than to say that we should assume that in a racist society where whiteness is the norm and a historical moment where white racism is "hip," I wouldn't be surprised if these statements were true. And, many white folks are engaging in the use of this and other disparaging, racist words to talk about people of color. Recently, Lesley Arfin:
So, while I wouldn't excuse Sharon Needles if these are her posts, I also think it points to the larger racist culture we live in. And, all of this may be a performance on Needles' part, but I'm more interested in the feelings/emotions these feelings evoke. peace.

queerblackfeminist said...

@Tim Jones-Yelvington: thanks for your words. xo

queerblackfeminist said...

@Brandon, really? *Sigh*? That's how you enter into "dialogue." Try reading the rest of the post or, reading a little more critically beyond the sentence you essentially post a blog rebuttal to (you should set up your own blog, or post there:). And, I totally disagree that drag "shifts the expectations from women to men," which you effectively rebuke when you describe paying homage or tribute to certain woman and that this is how men can be too (cause that speaks to a binary, no?).

Yeah, those performances *totally* flip the script and discussions of sexism. I'll make a note of that...I'll give you the gender-fucking aspect though, and I think, you know, the rest of the post gets at that.

Matt Locke said...

I, like you, FEEL Sharon Needles. She's transcended the format of the show and pulled off a rare reality-competition coup; a rise to the top done without stepping on anyone else AND with heavy doses of self-doubt. I was on a reality show too, came in second in fact, and I know that pressure-cooker environment well. For Sharon to triumph there is a real testament. And here she is, pulling on the heartstrings of a queer black feminist and an Ivy-educated white gay male equally. How often does THAT happen? :)

queerblackfeminist said...

Pulling at the heartstrings, indeed Matt. Thanks for your comment. xo

Anonymous said...

i am pretty sure that the racist sharon needles screenshot is a fake. the huff post writer who wrote about it also posted a retraction/apology.

regardless, i am loving this blog!

Hunter Hargraves said...

thanks for the fantastic post! not to self-promote, but you may be interested in my scholarly reading of season 1, which has been both challenged and reinforced by the later seasons: "You Better 'Work':" The Commodification of HIV in "RuPaul's Drag Race," Spectator - The University of Southern California Journal of Film and Television 31:2 (Fall 2011): 24-34

Queerbla said...

Thanks you! And yes, I thought the screenshot looked fake too. She addresses. It on her Facebook page. Xo