Since being introduced to the Emmy award winning show RuPaul’s Drag Race my freshman year, I have watched it religiously every Thursday night. For those that aren’t obsessed or even familiar with the drag queen pantheon and culture the show has made famous throughout the world, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a reality competition hosted by the 90’s drag superstar RuPaul Andre Charles, based roughly on a combination of the show America’s Next Top Model and the drag ball culture shown in the 1990 cult documentary Paris is Burning. It is revolutionary gay representation on mainstream television. However, as a female fan of the show, sometimes, in the back of my mind I sometimes wonder why it takes men dressing up in drag to celebrate women.
Black and POC gay men in NYC invented the drag ball culture that the show references as a form of expression against homophobic and racist socio-economic prejudices. A drag queen named Dorian Corey explains the purpose of the balls, where gay men costumed as various categories of straight men or women, to the interviewer:
“In real life you can’t get a job as an executive unless you have the educational background and the opportunity. Now, the fact that you are not an executive is merely because of the social standing of life. Black people have a hard time getting anywhere and those that do are usually straight. In a ballroom you can be anything you want. You’re not really an executive but you’re looking like an executive. You’re showing the straight world that I can be an executive if I had the opportunity because can look like one, and that is like a fulfillment.”
A common term for being read as straight or read socially as another gender is “passing”, which is often a safety measure.
On April 1st when Dr. Broomfield came to our class, I heard references to both the show RuPaul’s Drag Race (“sashay on the runway”) and to the concept of passing. He explained that a dancer has to commit fully to the movement to “pass”, that is to move with enough confidence to convince the audience of the fantasy. As a class we first committed to the downbeat of the dirge song across the floor, then in groups we choreographed dance moves that represented male and female to us, and then finally reversed the stereotypical dance move to represent both genders. A couple other people have written about their experience with dance, either already as a vehicle for empowerment or their journey with dance. My feelings on dance are that I have struggled to remember the steps in every dance class I’ve ever taken. I groove best with my headphones on alone in the kitchen. “Passing” I relate to more areas than dance, since I don’t dance for audiences; I think the concept is useful in any artistic creation, like these blogs, where you need to believe in yourself to make work that other people can enjoy. I wasn’t alone in feeling awkward dancing with the class, and that made it easier to push through and laugh. It was easier to commit to the simple moves from the beginning due to the repetition.
Our discussion afterward moved to the unfortunate topic of men not feeling free to dance expressively for fear of seeming gay, but also to agreeing that confidence was extremely important to the expression of either gender. This connects in interesting ways to the reading in Walking Raddy: The Baby Dolls of New Orleans, “Is the Unruly Woman Masker Still Relevant?” because in its exploration of power expression through dance, we are reminded that public spaces have always been historically the domain of men, where women are vulnerable to harassment.
Male dominance of political spaces led to elite male krewes taking over the economy and ceremony of Mardi Gras. For the Baby Dancers as black women, even as they were sidelined, as in the 1990’s ball culture, dancing and masking let women escape the powers that dictated their public behavior, used visibility as power, and created a fantasy during Carnival where women top the social order. As I think about the class we had with Dr. Broomfield, I see that dancing can’t end systemic oppression on its own, but it’s a way of temporarily throwing away the Veil, working through emotions, and challenging power. It’s a way through doing that knowledge of self solidifies not just in the mind but in the body. Like drag queens, putting on a costume allowed Baby Dolls to express that are usually repressed and celebrate the multifaceted experience of womanhood. Learning about these subversive, powerful performers gave me a balancing parallel to drag queens. The Unruly Woman Masker is definitely still relevant, and she needs her own tv show.