In my “Introduction to Gender and Sexuality Studies” class at NYU, a professor told the story of her grandmother asking what she teaches: “Queer theory.” “Oh dear, I don’t think you’re supposed to use that word anymore.” In academic and liberal circles today, the word is used so casually, I am quick to forget there was a time before reappropriation, when it was an insult thrown upon the community by the outside.
For a few seasons now, I’ve been an avid watcher of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
For a few years now, I’ve been an ardent feminist and queer advocate.
When I watch Drag Race, I see satire and parody and it cracks me the fuck up. I’m not offended that the portrayals of women are big boobs, big hair, barrels of paint, and a skimpy dress, accessorized with high heels. It’s a parody of femininity and the expectations placed on women; every challenge shows the effort and time that go into becoming such a woman. (Unless you’re Courtney Act, in which case Chapstick and mascara are all you need.)
Sharon Needles, winner of season 4, gets it: “I think [any man] who wears huge wigs, exaggerated make up, skimpy outfits, giant lashes, and impossible shoes to impersonate (slander) a woman is a complete misogynist!! They should all be edited out of all and past episodes of Rupaul's Drag Race.” So really, the whole premise of the show can be argued as offensive to women, but most people let it pass under the societal exceptions allowed for comedy.
In every episode leading up to recent events, the competitors were greeted in the work room with RuPaul’s voice over the loudspeaker announcing “you’ve got she-mail!” This was followed with info about the days challenge. This little pun hardly got much attention from trans* activists. However, when a recent mini challenge asked the contestants to look at pictures of peoples’ bodies and guess if they were “fe-male” or “she-male,” e.g. cis-women or drag queens, shit hit the fan. Activists took to the internet to proclaim Drag Race is transphobic in its use of the word. A word they say has been long used to discriminate against the trans community.
Former Drag Race contestant and transwoman Carmen Carrera has spoken out against the show’s use of the word, with other queens from past seasons largely feeling comfortable with it. RuPaul has since apologized and removed the “You’ve Got She-Mail” intro from all episodes that have aired since the controversy blew up.
While it is not uncommon to hear people in any marginalized community argue about reappropriating a word--gay men pitted against each other if it’s ok to say “fag” amongst themselves and lesbians throwing around the word “dyke”--those conversations have happened amid clear terms of who is discriminated against. Lesbians upset with other homosexual women using the word “dyke” has clear boundaries within the community. The question is about the politics of reclaiming a word. Does it really take power away from those who use it aggressively? Is it a reveal of self-hate that should be addressed or is it a confident choice to take weapons away from homophobes?
In the case of she-male, the question has become who has the right to (re-)claim it in the first place. Trans* activists have argued that drag queens only dress in women’s clothes for a job and temporarily, and so they do not understand the discriminatory practices associated with the word and the identity. But is that valid when countless drag queens have gotten beaten up and called she-male? They may not technically consider themselves to be that and they haven’t given up on all cis-gender privilege, but the word is still used against them. So who owns the word? Who can claim it as there’s and decided whether it is to be reclaimed or never to be uttered again? Those who feel it describes them in technical terms? Anyone who has been kicked in the gut while the word is shouted at them?
While I do not want to state one way or the other how Ru should have handled it or where the line is between offensive humor and transphobia or sexism, I will say that people need to be careful how they position themselves in the debate. By not allowing drag queens any say in reclaiming a word that has been used against them, they inadvertently marginalize discriminatory experiences the queens have had and close them out of a community.
I do not care to suggest there is only one image of what a sexy woman looks like, what femininity a body must present to be a sexy woman, but I also do not want to pass on an opportunity to share this video. It does not matter that since filming Carmen began to identify as female or that Raja continues to live as a man who professionally impersonates women, the important thing is, this is sexy as hell: