Is modern drag moving away from misogyny? – RuPaul’s Drag Race UK Season 2 – Ep 1 Review
Scrolling through Twitter this week I noticed Alan Turing was trending, which intrigued me straight into a worm hole. As I dug deeper, I became sucked into the latest twitter storm as people took offence to a tribute on RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, season two of which kicked off on the BBC last Thursday.
I must confess I have a problematic relationship with drag. Whilst I love the idea of challenging gender stereotypes, the celebration of queerness and the creativity and humour that comes from the drag scene, I have for a long-time worried about the flippant air of misogyny within drag culture.
Portrayal of queens as bitchy, catty and sometimes dumb for comic effect does little for feminism, that combined with lingo that actually attacks women such as ‘Fishy’ has put me off watching Drag Race in the past. I found it very hard to stomach the US version and avoided the UK version when it debuted last year.
How some gay men frequently get away with dismissive misogyny is probably a bigger topic for another time but I can recall quite a few first-hand experiences where I have been ridiculed by gay men for being a woman.
I recall once having to take a detour to Boots ahead of arriving at Friday work drinks where I was asked by a gay male colleague if I had been buying ‘more lipstick’, when I quietly admitted I actually needed to urgently grab sanitary towels because I had just come on, my colleague announced to the entire office filled pub that I had got my period and taunted me with grossed out gagging noises and shrieks of ‘Urgh gross!!! How disgusting’.
I’ve also been referred to as ‘that bitch’ (pre Lizzo reclaiming) on many occasions and vividly remember another post-work drinks evening with a table full of male colleagues, two of which were gay, the rest heterosexual and myself as the only female when my manager (a gay man) described the one sexual experience he had had with a woman as like “licking cottage cheese out of a wound”. As the only owner of a vagina at the table all the men looked at me and laughed, yet again being a woman, I was the (front) butt of the office joke. Yet I digress, this is probably a wider topic, touches on the lack of female representation in the music industry and maybe for another time…
For those interested in wider reading Jamie Tabberer wrote a really great piece in The Independent about misogyny in drag and Julie Bindel wrote a great piece specifically about the Divine documentary.
However, seeing the Alan Turing conversation unfold on Twitter I was intrigued and having plenty of time for telly on my hands at the moment I dove into episode one. Disregarding comments about ‘saggy tits’, ‘bitches’ and a Queen calling herself ‘A’Whora’ the whole she-bang was pretty entertaining.
Stuck inside in my lockdown uniform of scruffy leggings I realised just how desperate I was for some glamour and escapism. Light-hearted entertainment is in short supply right now and distraction from the ongoing pandemic was much needed. I was excited to see cabaret star Joe Black as a contestant…. of course, it was typical that he was booted out in the very first episode.
I’ve long been a casual fan of Joe Black since I was an alternative teen skulking about on Myspace circa 2007. The Brighton artist started on the platform sharing gothic tracks played on the accordion and quickly became a much-loved figure in the Burlesque and Alternative scenes, a sort of strange vaudeville cross between Patrick Wolf, Dita Von Teese and The Urban Voodoo Machine.
The runway challenge celebrated British gay icons in honour of 2020 marking 50 years of Pride (the British branch of the Gay Liberation Front first formed in London in 1970) and the dramatic and creative costumes were brilliant.
It was drag queen Tia Kofi that used this brief to create a colourful tribute to mathematician Alan Turing who cracked the Enigma code that helped end World War Two, and was devastatingly persecuted for being gay, chemically castrated and forced to suicide. He received a posthumous pardon from the Queen in 2013 (ironically the same monarch that ruled over the country when he was subjected to such atrocious treatment in the ‘50s’.) The tribute was a stark reminder of how recently LGB rights have come about, with sexual activity between men not decriminalised until 1967. Same-sex marriage wasn’t legalised in England, Wales and Scotland until 2014 and only in Northern Ireland last year in 2020!
In wearing a binary print suit where the coding spelled out ‘love’ Kofi provided a very fitting reminder of the LBGTQ+ message of the show and was a bit more creative than the two Naomi Campbell looks. I think the naysayers on Twitter who were negative about the tribute completely missed the point of the look and its wider meaning. It’s also great to see a drag act using their platform to educate and inform a younger audience who may not be aware of Turing’s story.
Joe Black dressed as Life on Mars era David Bowie which despite his iconic teal suit and flame coloured hair Michelle Visage outrageously described as not distinctive enough. It clearly couldn’t have been more Bowie! It was also a fitting tribute to Gay icon Jessica Lange who performed in a similar outfit in Ryan Murphy’s wonderfully camp but twisted American Horror Story…
It was a RU-thless elimination which saw Joe Black the first to ‘sashay away’ but in his defence his opponent Bimini Bon Boulash seemed deserving enough stating earlier in the episode ‘You don’t have to be shady’ and right before the lipsync “I’m just gonna give it a bloody go. I’ve worked my arse off to get here” so I’ve got a bit of time for her fighting spirit and positive attitude.
She also dressed as underground fashion icon Princess Julia (with Michelle Visage marking her down simply because she was unfamiliar with the DJ and fashion icon!) Boulash also saved her spot in the competition by performing a handstand in a thong which must require all sorts of tape wizardry.
Overall, I feel like the UK version of Drag Race is much more my cup of tea, there seems to be less outright misogyny and more familiar references and British humour which I’m enjoying. It was great to see lots of alternative culture in this first episode too, with a lot of references to 80’s New Wave British Blitz Kids club culture. As well as Princess Julia and David Bowie other queens recreated looks such as Boy George and Vivienne Westwood.
We need all the entertainment we can get right now so a bit of comedy and escapism in these troubling times is a delight. I’ll be tuning in next week, just hoping there’s no derogatory references to fishy fannies. Let’s hope the misogyny has been weeded out for a more celebratory, less misogynistic modern drag culture.