With the upcoming eleventh season of the hit TV series RuPaul’s Drag Race already preoccupying our social media space, and with the exposure and attention drag queens are receiving in the mainstream media today, the art of drag shines brighter than ever. And though this recognition is a fairly recent occurrence, the media has not always been this welcoming and accepting of drag, despite the fact that it has been part of society’s culture for many decades. So before we put on our wigs and switch on our TV to VH1 on March 1st to enjoy the new season of Drag Race, let’s take a look back into how the film industry dealt with the art of drag throughout its rich history.
In films and television series, for many years drag has gone by the name of cross-dressing. It’s the industry’s safe way out – to use the stereotypical comedic elements of drag by putting men in women’s clothing for laughter while managing to avoid dealing with the serious cultural value of the art form. The storylines of such productions usually involve a heterosexual male who has to put on a wig and heels in order to get close to his female love interest or go undercover to fulfil his mission. Issues such as gender expression and sexuality are not even briefly mentioned and even quite the contrary – drag is only viewed as the embarrassing obstacle the main character must overcome in order to fulfil his task or win the girl. A great example of such a film is the famous Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), where Robin Williams takes up the role of a recently-divorced man who dresses up as a female baby-sitter to get close to his kids.
The character takes advantage of every element of drag and stereotypical femininity in order to accomplish his end goal – spend time with his children, but not once is drag mentioned or given credit to. Such representation can be classified as offensive to the community, because it downgrades the art form to a mere comedy device, thus entirely neglecting its significance to queer culture and gender expression. Some other famous big screen productions that don’t stray away from this negative tendency include Big Momma’s House (2000) and White Chicks (2004). Both films are comedies about policemen having to take up the role of a woman to go undercover in order to solve their assigned case, which further proves how such examples of drag representation only justify parodying drag culture, and definitely not acknowledging it.
While the film industry is often criticised for such negative portrayal of drag, there are still some films which provide the audience with an appropriate representation. Films like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) and To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar (1995) were some of the first productions that featured drag queens as the main characters and stories that dealt with issues surrounding their lives and personalities. While most films identified as comedies, they still brought attention to serious subjects from drag culture in a way that no other productions had done before. For the first time the characters were acknowledged as drag queens and the plots dealt with relevant issues like homophobia, gender fluidity, sexual identity and self-expression.
Flash forward to the present day, the images on the big and small screen present quite a different trend. Due to the steady shift in society towards a more accepting and open-minded world-view, screen media is now slowly starting to allow more freedom to creators who want to overstep boundaries. In that context, a title that immediately comes to mind is undoubtedly RuPaul’s Drag Race, the show that from 2009 onwards slowly created a media revolution. With its colorful format and unique contestants, it questions every norm of the traditional TV fashion formats. Moreover, the show does what other productions in the past failed to do: it appreciates the beauty of drag while it openly deals with issues surrounding it and portrays it as the complex form of expression it truly is.
To catch the newest eleventh season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, enjoy the promo and tune into VH1 on March 1st! Get ready to “go wig or go home”!!!