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It’s Never Too Late to Rupologize: Transphobia and Rupaul’s Drag Race Recap #3

Features
by Gregory Rosebrugh
March 21, 2014 9:31 AM
8 Comments
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This week on Rupaul’s Drag Race our squirrel friends competed in a mini-challenge titled “Female or She-Male”, and in case you have not yet seen the episode the game was as vile and flagrantly trans-phobic as you can imagine. The squirrel friends of season six had to look at close-up photographs of various celebrities and guess whether the pictures were of “biological” women or “psychological” women. 

We have to be honest with ourselves—this is not the first time that Drag Race has crossed boundaries of cultural safety. The show has frequently presented queens using unsafe terminology with reference to transgender women in a way that falsely communicates to audiences that is fair to conflate transgender women with cis-gender drag queens, or otherwise that words in the territory of “tranny” are acceptable when spoken by other queer individuals. Hence the show has coined terms such as “tranbulance” and “responsitranity,” usually to pull off a campy effect. It is not cool, and we have known this all along, but we have swallowed our iffy feelings about it because we love drag and generally most of Drag Race, and want to just write these instances off as the actions of ignorant gays who do not know better. “Female or She-Male” went a step further this week, as it not only reinforced that it was okay to refer to transgender women with outdated, culturally dangerous language, but that it is an acceptable cultural practice to dissect transgender women’s bodies and evaluate them based on how well they “pass”. This is fucked up, and totally unacceptable from a show that has transgressively set the stage for drag queens to come out of the closet as transgender women. We all deserve more from this program. 

What should come out of this controversy? At the very least the creators of Rupaul’s Drag Race, including Rupaul Charles and Logo TV, should apologize to the community of transgender women and men who they have offended by devising a game for cis-gender people to ask “Is that a he or a she?” The creators would be wise to release a public statement conveying an understanding that the event they staged this week was offensive, not congruent with the values of the LGBTQ2I community, nor keeping with the cultural politics of “Pride”.    

What can we do as fans of Rupaul’s Drag Race? We can write emails to Logo TV and the creators of Rupaul’s Drag Race, stating that we are devoted fans of the show and that we want to continue to love this show, but that we have difficulty seeing the value in the show’s gender play in cases where it is at the expense of transgender individuals. We think it would in good taste, as well as provide an opportunity for healing, if the creators of this show reached out to the transgender community with a formal apology and an explanation as to what changes will be made to the show to respectively ensure cultural safety. 

This YouTube video is a succinct demonstration of what makes an effective apology, as well as a primer on how to receive “getting called out:” 


                                                *          *          *          *          *

After watching Shade: The Rusical, it is affirmative that we are now in a fierce competition. We have finally arrived at season six! A small handful of these girls are presenting serious talent and majority of them are taking admirable risks. The tee and shade is hitting the ceiling fans and splattering against the wall, and we are gagging. And finally (!), we have the season’s first truly memorable lip-sync. Trinity worked that main stage like a seasoned queen. It is a funny coincidence that this week’s theme for the runway was “Tony Awards realness,” because Trinity served that Chaka number like she was one of the Dreamgirls herself. Who even knew she had that hand fan the whole time?! Meanwhile, April Carrion brought another high drama performance, pointing her claws to the heavens like Manila doing “MacArthur Park”. April was fun to watch, but alas her rendition of “I’m Every Woman” felt more like “I’m Every Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” It was a blast having April here while she lasted. She had a precious demeanor and a couple edgy looks going for her. Still, after watching all the other queens perform in the main challenge this week we are ready to move up to the next level—that’s Snatch Game, hunty—and let’s face it, April ain’t there. 

Here’s the rest of the squirrel friends, ranked worst to best... 

10. Leganja Estranja (same rank):

At this point Leganja is too safe to be in the company of the nine edgier queens in this competition. We need her to go home.  


9. Joslyn Fox (-2):

This was a disappointment. Last week Joslyn sky-rocketed ahead as one of our new favourites after her hilarious performance in Drag Race Me to Hell. This week she was a total wallflower in Shade: The Rusical (that performance was not butch either), and on the runway her head looked like a nest—a wasp’s nest! We still love her and believe she can bring it in Snatch Game, but this week was an embarrassment. On a positive note, it was nice to see someone get under Gia’s skin for once in this season. The highlight of their altercation in the Untucked Lounge was when Gia barked at Joslyn, “You might as well call me a dumb ass bitch,” and we got that reaction shot of Bianca laughing into her drink.

8. “MALK?” (-3):

Someone needs to shake Milk by the shoulders and shout at her, “Defend your craft!” Why did she take shit from Gia like that? Her look was so 1990s red carpet, from the Annette Bening hair to the Annette Bening baby bump to the AIDS ribbon (the latter of which was introduced to most of the world through the Tonys, for Pete sake). It irks me to watch her sit there in the Untucked Lounge, mouth agape, with nothing to say back to Gia except to call her “elitist,” which is true but also not an insult. To boot, Milk’s performance in the Rusical was drab and forgettable. It was the bad version of Ben’s performance. 

7. Gia Gunn (+2):

Gia was a hoot this week. While it was obvious she could not sing she still brought her all in the Rusical, and even compensated with quirky choreography. The girl knows how to work around her weaknesses. In addition, her Tony Awards realness was gorgeous (even though she does not know what a Tony is). It is one of the best runway ensembles we have seen this season. 

The other great thing about Gia this week is that she has really come out of her shell as the main antagonist of season six. She is swiftly developing into a villain for the ages, and it has so far been a marvel and a privilege to watch her madness unfold. When she kai kais with her reflection in the workroom one almost expects her to utter, “Mirror mirror on the wall...” And once Gia gets a drink in her, watch out! She gets full moon crazy in the Untucked lounge. My personal favourite line: “Bitch are you fucking kidding me right now? You look like a fucking dumpster.” The only thing left for Gia to do at this point is cut Leganja loose and, once totally socially isolated, fully transform into the Great Kabuki Killer of Season Six!

One last thing about Gia: if she was an animal it would be this:


6. Trinity K. Bonet (+2):

“I’m not a singer, I’m not an actor. I am a dancer.” Who have we heard say this before, hmm? 

Trinity will not last much longer in this season, not for lack of potential but because she does not believe in herself. She gets worked up about acting competitions but then turns out totally safe performances. The discrepancy between how Trinity performs in the challenges and how she presents in the workroom indicates to us that she is majorly lacking in nerve (much unlike the legendary queen I just referenced). It is too bad that Trinity is getting lost in this competition because that lip-sync to “I’m Every Woman” was high drag, plain and simple.  

5. Adore Delano (+1):

Tatianna Laquifa Glasscock* had her first major breakthrough this week, and ranked among the top performers in the Rusical. Everyone in my Drag Race interpretive community is divided over Adore—we all love her or hate her, and extremely so. I have personally been endeared to her since she first entered the workroom, mostly for all the GIF-ready catchphrases she spits at the camera. It is clear that she will not crack the top four at this point, but it is my hope that stays afloat for a few more episodes. 

4. Darienne Lake (-1):

I am going to take a risk and say that this week Darienne should have been in the bottom two with April. Where Trinity actually pulled a performance out of her ass when it came to show time (despite expectations), Darienne let Gia totally outshine her. It was depressing to watch, and especially sad because Darienne looked like a million bucks on the stage. Here’s hoping she comes back strong in Snatch Game. 

3. Ben de la Crème (+1):

At this point, Ben has Miss Congeniality in the bag (unless she wins, of course). Ben was a joy to watch this week. She was much more strategic than Adore when the two had to select their team mates (Adore, why you picking Leganja?), and overall Ben was a very encouraging and fair team leader. This episode was the first time that Ben and the rest of her tribe of millennial falcons comingled with, well, the better tribe; so it was a spectacle to see Ben facilitate a constructive workspace between the talents of Bianca and Gia. Lastly, it was a breath of fresh air to see Ben drop the terminally delightful shtick.   

2. Bianca Del Rio (-1):

Bianca is a democratic bitch. She stands firm that she is here to take everyone out, and treat everyone like shit. “It’s just not that personal,” she says, and we believe her. That said, she does not always pick the most worthwhile battles. Why she wastes her time talking to the millennial falcons is beyond any of us at this point. She seems better off kvetching to the audience in talking head clips, and we get more out her that way as well. All the same, I still needed to change my diaper after hearing Bianca ask Gia, “Are you in a Whitesnake video? What are you doing over there?”

Why is Bianca below Courtney this week? Simple: Courtney looked good, and stomped all over the main challenge. Bianca is my girl, but she was just safe, and so is her makeup at this point in the game. 

1. Courtney Act (+1):

Here is the dilemma of season six: who do we like more between Bianca and Courtney? There has never been such an intense dichotomy between two top-tier queens. Alaska and Jinkx were not this contrasting, nor were Manila and Raja. We have on the one hand the wry comedy and camp shenanigans of Bianca, and on the other hand the high drama and elegance of Courtney. What one queen lacks the other queen has in every colour. From Courtney we want to see more of the roughness and trashiness of Bianca, and from Bianca we want to see Courtney’s vulnerability and softness. 

Then again, maybe Ru will not let us have it so easy. Maybe Ben or Darienne will throw a wrench in the mix and turn season six into a three-way competition! 

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8 Comments

  • mb | March 24, 2014 9:31 PMReply

    The author seems to be deleting comments that they don't agree with. Pitiful that you attempt to start a dialogue about what you consider an issue and then you censor what you don't agree with. Rupaul has been saying "You've got she-mail!" since the beginning...an obvious wordplay on "shemale" and however many years later NOW it's suddenly too much? Rupaul has done more for the entire glbt community (including transgender) than you ever will in your lifetime. Go fight the real enemy.

  • Peter Knegt | March 25, 2014 2:02 AM

    Just FYI: I'm the only one capable of deleting comments, and I have deleted none. So I'm not sure what you're referring to.

  • Judy | March 24, 2014 2:19 PMReply

    I have spent the past two months lobbying the advertising department at NOW magazine to get their back page section changed from "Shemales" to Transsexual Escorts. They previously had sections for “Asian Escorts”, “Upscale Escorts”, “Fetish & Fantasy” and “Shemales”. Not even “Shemale Escorts”, just “Shemales”. Trans women weren’t even “a kind of escort”. “Shemale" was its own distinct category.

    The word has a longstanding history in the sex industry. First recorded as derogatory term for a masculine woman in the 19th century, “she male” wasn’t used in reference to transsexual women till the 1970s. It was first adopted by pornographers as a term for transwomen that could titillate heterosexual men without triggering internalized homophobia. It was then used by transphobic feminist Janice Raymond in her book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. It’s even been used by academics in charge of psychiatric policy regarding trans people and their access to healthcare. But I’m done with it.

    Nearly a year ago I was on the cover of NOW magazine for the pride edition. The cover title read “The End of Gender As We Know It” and I gave an interview, along with nine other people, on my personal gender identity and experience. I argued that that gender would not disappear, but multiply.

    So you can imagine my dismay when, a week later I'm watching my favourite surreality TV show and RuPaul invites the contestants to play a game called “Female or Shemale”. I wasn’t just angry; I was disappointed. I’ve heard that words only have power if you give it to them, or if you let them them hurt you. Well RuPaul has a lot of power and I’ve never heard the word “faggot” on her show.



    “Female or Shemale” is not the first time “shemale” has been used on RPDR. Every episode begins with “She-mail” from Rupaul, like Tyra Mail on America’s Next top model. And I’ve let that slide because I like puns. Like eating a cake with raisins in it because I like cake but hate raisins so I just gag on them a little bit and swallow anyway. In the game, contestants had to guess whether zoomed in images of body parts belonged to a “biological woman” (female) or a “psychological woman” (she male). The game featured images of previous contestants on the show as well as cisgendered women.

    This is where it gets fuzzy. Some drag queens are transsexual women, and some transsexual women are drag queens. There is a grey area (death to binaries!). And at least four Drag Race alumni have gone on to live their lives as full time women, not just characters for the stage and screen. And guess what? No-one in the game passed all the time. Many of the parts belonging to cisgender women were labelled “she male”. The whole game was transphobic and grossly misogynistic, entering a realm of body policing that I’ve never seen (or let myself see) on the show before. Many women of trans* experience are faced with the often daunting task of passing, every day. Passing is not a goal for all of us, but the validity and reality of our bodies is put under constant scrutiny.

    I haven’t always felt like I’m hearing fingernails down a chalkboard when I hear this word; for several years I was identifying as androgynous, genderqueer, genderblender (basically anything but male or female). As I became more fixed in my identity as a kind of woman, not just a kind of mix-gender person, I felt less comfortable with the word “shemale” being used in the context of transsexual women. I’m not speaking for all women of trans experience when I protest this term. As I said earlier, “shemale” has a long standing history in the sex industry and many women adopt this moniker for socioeconomic reasons, or maybe they just DGAF. I do not feel the same way. And I do not feel like a blend of male and female. I am a woman. I am a woman of trans* experience and I am happy with that. I’m not trying to be any more or less of a woman than any woman born with a vagina, or assigned female at birth.

    I went out to a gay “college-night” in the Church-Wellesley Village last week. I hadn’t been out to a “boy-bar” in a long time and it was… interesting. I felt like I was visiting family in rural New Zealand. I was greeted by the same brand of well-meaning-but-kind-of-offensive “compliments” I received when I came out to my family the first time.

    "Wow! Are you a real girl?"
    "Yes. I am real. Yes I am a girl"
    "Oh but you know what I mean, I meant it as a compliment! You look fish, girl!"

    Yes, thank you for validating my “realness”. Thank you for commenting on my passability. Thank you for describing my gender presentation as what you think a vagina smells like. I try to be patient. I try to accept this in the spirit it’s given, which I know is well meaning. I try to understand that these boys haven’t had the lifetime of gender education I’ve had. But it’s not just about benevolent transphobia. It’s about culture too. All these gay men watch RuPaul’s Drag Race. They all hear and see this language used. And they model it. Monkey see, monkey shante you and your catch phrases stay.

    I lobbied for change in a local magazine and I succeeded. Because advertisers might be arseholes, but they're not idiots. You won’t see “Shemales” as a heading in NOW magazine again. So I’m asking all of you to join me in moving our community forward and ask RuPaul to pull the plug on her transphobia and Rupologize. Let’s make like Transsexual Escorts and put that word to bed. #byefelicia

  • Kerri | March 24, 2014 1:38 PMReply

    Um...yeah, I want you to know that from a very noob hetero perspective, your vehement defense of a word is off-putting. I'm very new to Drag Race, after falling in love in Season 5 with the talent of Jinks Monsoon and the beautiful soul that is Jerick.
    It's been educational for me to see men behaving as they perceive women to be (or should be at that level of entertainment) compared to the reality I see in women of all stripes around me. I've been fascinated by this view, however contrived for good tv, to learn about what is and is not appropriate pronoun use, when it is ok to use which term and how they see themselves in any given situation. In short, to have gained some new understanding, empathy, appreciate their artistry and enjoy the drama and humor of their weekly challenges.
    The show helped me get out making people fit my mental picture of the world. Trust me, people aren't stupid and they'll get the difference between drag (as what someone does) and someone who lives as a woman (as an expression of who they are). I'm not afraid to ask someone how they wished to be addressed and be respectful, but your rant is just so- off the mark.
    In my house, we use the terms "black" and "white" because some of us fall into one of more categories under the same roof. I always laugh when someone outside the home thinks to correct me and decide for me what is more appropriate. Love and understanding trump the political correctness de jour.
    Community, culture, connections- these are inclusive. If you're going to get hung up on the minutia you're tuning me out as well as obviously turning off your own audience.
    Deep breath and just relax a little, yes? This show serves and important cultural gap. Think Cosby Show and Sanford and Sons. It takes time for people to see, understand and then accept it as normative. Just a deep breath and some tolerance of your own please. The rest of use don't really care about your nuanced terms- we're still on exploring lesson 1 and we'd love to get to lesson 2 without administrivia getting in the way. :)

  • Winelush | March 23, 2014 2:19 AMReply

    RuPaul has done more for the movement than any of you snarky little writers jumping on a bandwagon because you haven't done anything yourself to make the community accepted and mainstream. She's referred to shemales in every season, and now all of a sudden you want to get all snarky. Shame on you. If it weren't people like RuPaul, I'd still be walking the streets in packs making sure the transvestites got home unharmed like we did 20 years ago. How soon a generation forgets how hard it was and dangerous and what happened to get to what you have today, which still isn't enough but it sure is finally cresting. People like RuPaul made it easy for you to point fingers.

  • Alexis | March 21, 2014 10:39 AMReply

    I'm sorry but you're being ridiculous about owning a word. "Shemale" is not a famous slur that has been used to oppress transgendered people for decades, the way RuPaul used it was merely silly word play. And how was looking at closeups if Tan Mom's legs "dissecting transgendered women's bodies"? There were no transgendered women featured in the game. I think the transgendered community needs to fight the real enemy. It's not RuPaul. She's done more to break down the gender prison than just about anyone else!

  • DM | March 26, 2014 2:36 PM

    Thank you, Alexis.

    My bone of contention and argument with this whole uproar is that there were absolutely ZERO transgender people featured in this game. There were women and drag queens. Female and She(is a)Male.

    Of all the things to get our pantyhose in a twist about, people, this is not one of them. I appreciate there is a fight to be had. This is not it. Let's get out from behind our computers over a silly competition show that only promotes tolerance and do something than really matters in the world. Shall we?

  • Sami | March 21, 2014 12:19 PM

    '"Shemale" is not a famous slur that has been used to oppress transgendered people for decades'

    Yes it is. The TERFs came up with it decades, the porn industry exploited it, and it's been used as a club against us ever since. You can't even claim 'she-male' has some connection to drag culture like 'tranny' does, which BTW does not justify using that offensive degrading slur in any way, it's always been used to bash us. Your claim is no different from Baldwin claiming he didn't know 'cocksucker' was a slur.

    "There were no transgendered women featured in the game."

    So it would be okay for a straight man hosting a TV show, maybe we could coax Baldwin back onto TV for it, to run a game called 'female or faggot' so long as the 'faggots' they referred to weren't actually bi/lesbian women?

    "I think the transgendered community needs to fight the real enemy. It's not RuPaul. She's done more to break down the gender prison than just about anyone else!"

    Yeah someone who uses their relatively enormous popularity, until very recently RuPaul was undeniably more famous than any trans woman and arguably still is, to tell people that it's okay to use offensive degrading slurs and that trans women are just drag queens, AKA: Men, who get an operation is such a valuable ally.

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