8- ‘Performative Blackness’, RuPaul’s Drag Race & Reality Television

I came across this video a little while ago and was reminded of it after this week’s reading and class discussions. Kat Blaque, the person in the video, brings up some very interesting and, what I would perceive as, correct points in relation to racism, reality television and RuPaul’s Drag Race. One of the first aspects she brings up is the idea that when you have a black contender on the show ‘you already know what kind of queen they’re going to be’ and this is the same with people of other races and body types too, such as Puerto Rican queens and those considered ‘big’ queens who are almost forced into these roles by the editing of the show or through the interactions with other contestants and creators. However, she states that this is not something unique to RuPaul’s Drag Race and this editing of black people throughout reality television commonly happens in a similar way, with them being depicted as the villain or the stereotypical ‘sassy’ black person. This can be considered as being presented in a similar way to Paris Is Burning with Livingston’s choices to edit, present and lead her interviews in a specific way to garner the outcome she wished for, forgoing a more ‘truthful’ telling and taking the sensationalised route.

What is especially interesting however, and is something Blaque considers also, is the fact that RuPaul’s Drag Race is produced and run by a gay black man. Blaque even goes as far to call RuPaul himself ‘anti-black’. I found I agreed with most of things she was saying, especially with the exploration of the editing and then performative nature of ‘blackness’ on both Drag Race and other shows. However, what I did find a little confusing was the way in which she stated, in relation to RuPaul, ‘any time he tries to connect with his race it is done in this very contrived way and there’s this distance between himself and what he’s connecting to, he’s not trying to say, this is me, this is part of me, this is who I am, he’s saying this is some aspect of black culture that I’m going to wear and put on right now’. I feel as though maybe I’m misunderstanding something here, but what stood out to me was almost this feeling that she did not view him as being ‘black enough’ just by being black, there is this notion that he has to act in a certain way and relate to certain things to be considered as connecting to his race. However, she could be speaking more generally about the way he is on the show itself, with him pushing these tropes onto queens and making them into performative things done by both him and the contestants. It has been said that RuPaul constructs and presents this black narrative that is comfortable for his mainstream, majority white audience and, in this sense, I would therefore agree with the idea of him being disconnected from this culture and using it in a negative way that promotes stereotypes and commodifies them further. When comparing this show to the Paris Is Burning documentary and taking this line of thought, it can be argued that RuPaul, the same as Livingston, is almost working as an outsider looking in, just presenting things learnt through perpetuated stereotypes and choosing to work within those to create an image the white society wants and will accept.

This can be seen to relate to thoughts on the performance of blackness and therefore a kind of commodification that comes from it. This can also be considered in the relying on tropes, especially within ‘Hollywood’ drag, and these tropes being commonly not positive ones. An example of this can be seen within one of the most recent episodes of Season 8 of Drag Race wherein the challenge ‘RuCo’s Empire’ is seen. The challenge was set up as a parody of the television show Empire, a series that features majority black characters and is set in the music industry, you can see from the images below that it was one built within stereotypes from the way people dressed and held themselves and this was carried over into the acting as well. This has been criticised by many people as being said to ‘evoke blackface without the dark makeup’ (Article Link).The non-black contestants were instructed how to act to seem more ‘black’, taking on the slang, stereotyped behaviour and fashion of black women as they were scripted and instructed by coaches RuPaul and Faith Evans to do so. And the sketches were conducted and written in such a way that there wasn’t really any way out for those people who may not wish to be a part of it. In an article coincidentally written by Kat Blaque, the person in the initial video, in reflection of this episode she states how with this show being mainstream and it perpetuating these stereotypes it relates to ‘how certain ideas play into biases that maintain the status quo of white supremacy’. (Article Link)

This same idea is presented in bell hooks’ reading of Paris Is Burning and cross-dressing/drag in general wherein it is stated ‘Appearing as a “woman” within a sexist, racist media was a way to become in “play” that “castrated” silly childlike black male that racist white patriarchy was comfortable having as an image in their homes. These televised images of black men in drag were never subversive; they helped sustain sexism and racism.’ (Hooks, 146) This is mirrored especially within this sketch on Drag Race as the competitors are playing off, and instructed to play off, every stereotype of black womanhood they can find and therefore continue to present this damaging and cyclical depiction of black women in the media that filters into their everyday life and impacts all aspects of it.

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