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It Took Decades for Pop Culture to Fall in Love With Drag

There's a huge difference between Rocky Horror and RuPaul. How did we get here?

Sam Rodgers

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Watch two of the best queens in the game drag each other on 'The Trixie and Katya Show', Thursdays at 9.30PM or via SBS On Demand

“Nobody’s perfect” is the famous final line from 1959’s Some Like It Hot. A man in a wig reveals his gender to his male boat-driving companion—who had until then been hitting on the femme fantasy—and the joke is that this revelation doesn’t hinder his advances. The movie's comedy comes from turning the predictable repulsion into nonchalance. It was a daring, progressive move for a film of the coded era, and the ambiguous ending—we never find out whether the boat driver is bi, pan, or just after a very particular type of bromance—sweetens a potentially homophobic, even transphobic, taste in the mouth.

Men and women disguised or performing as the other gender are part of global storytelling. A gender flip is one of the most titillating twists in narrative: just ask Shakespeare. But the queer subculture underpinning this plot device, drag, wouldn’t be seen on screens for another few decades after Some Like It Hot, and wouldn’t have a large cultural impact on the mainstream until the late 2000s. Instead, drag played out on the periphery, commenting on and leading social change, always something more political than pure performance.

Up until recently, drag characters on screen have been depicted in hiding: from the mob, from their own psychotic tendencies, to serve in the army, or to have more freedom. Up until and including 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Frankenfurter, transvestites—that is, men who like to and do wear women’s clothes—were always insidious or outright evil caricatures. Since then, there have been a smattering of popular films depicting a more neutral or positive form of cross dressing, including Victor Victoria (1982), Tootsie (1982), Yentl (1983), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), White Chicks (2004), and Tyler Perry’s Madea movies (2005-), and only a few where either homosexual or trans identities anchor the story, including La Cage aux Folles (1978) and The Birdcage (1996), the seminal documentary Paris Is Burning (1990), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995), Boys Don’t Cry (1999), Transamerica (2005), and The Danish Girl (2015). Trans protagonists usually suffer a serious, often tragic, storyline, while cis-gendered straight characters are afforded the majority of fish-out-of-water comedies. On screen, drag—that is, dressing up for money—is mostly the purview of gay men.

I grew up in an era where drag was gradually asserting a larger presence in pop culture. I met my first drag queen when I was 17, living abroad in the UK. She took pity on me as I emitted bubbly love hearts from my eyes at a bartender who wasn’t interested, and gave me a Christmas Eve kiss. The next year, after I had come out to my family, I watched another British queen perform to Bjork’s “It’s Oh So Quiet”, literally throwing herself across the pub in the big band choruses of the song. I laughed so hard. She got it. I love Bjork! I love absurdist humour! I realised the artform wasn’t trapped by the campy drag I’d seen in Priscilla when I was 10. Even still, those characters seemed so punk to me. They played like I had as a child—putting on dresses, whipping their hair about, making up dramatic dance routines. The next drag queen I saw on screen was Courtney Act on season one of Australian Idol in 2003. I remember being deeply envious of her balls—so to speak. She seemed so cocksure and deeply invested in screwing with the idea of gender and sexuality—an antidote to norms I had to navigate in my small hometown. Even with the caustic personas of local club queens, I’ve always thought of drag performers as the kindest of my queer kin. By rejecting societal expectations of gender, drag kings and queens get what it’s like to not identify with any one of them.

Still, not every gay boy appreciates this further push into queer ambiguity. The image of a feather-boa’d queen can chafe at the carefully constructed reflection of the masc-4-masc crowd. For straight men, it can challenge their perceptions of sexual attraction and arouse homophobia. For some feminists drag can seem misogynistic, if they’re unwilling to extend feminism beyond their own concept of womanhood. For these reasons, for a long time drag had been relegated to the Too Subcultural corner by mainstream audiences. Unless, of course, Robin Williams was making you laugh while not making you hard.

Fast forward to 2009: we hear whispers of a new geolocation sex app called Grindr; France declassifies transgenderism as a mental illness, becoming the first country in the world to do so; a straight man does gay drag in Bruno, while Susan Boyle is forced into drag to be marketable. Modern Family and Glee become gay mainstream mainstays. 2009 also saw the burgeoning of trans visibility: Candis Cayne was in a primetime drama, and Laverne Cox was a star on the rise. On Logo TV, an American cable station, a new reality show aired called RuPaul’s Drag Race. Only a few diehard drag fans watched, if they could: it was gritty (with a vaseline sheen), and as underground as TV shows got. Drag Race celebrated not only queer culture but also the messiness of creating: costumes, song, characters and comedy. The show celebrates failure in performance, even though the last thing contestants hear before each challenge is “Good luck... and don’t fuck it up!” This is host RuPaul Charles’ half-tongue-in-cheek nod to the mentality of other reality shows. It also suggests that if you’re going to fail, you should do it fabulously.

Eight years on, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a juggernaut of pop culture. It fills convention centres with the same exuberant, vulnerable, hero-worshipping fans as the halls of a Comic Con. The show and its singular host have won four Emmy awards; it has the biggest and most diverse cast of gay men, and trans people on TV. The drag queen alumni from the show have had mixed successes, like all graduates from reality TV. Some can sell-out venues around the world, while others suffer from being pigeonholed by race or language, or the narrative that played out on their season. However, most can still book headlining jobs off the show’s popularity.

One of the most successful queens is Bianca Del Rio from season six, who is the superlative crass club queen and now tours the world as an insult comic. If Bianca represents the old guard of bitter queens, season seven’s Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova, who now star in SBS VICELAND’s The Trixie and Katya Show, embody the weird and wonderfully disjointed humour of a Tumblr thread. Adapted from their YouTube series, UNHhhh, the SBS VICELAND show promises them a wider audience, who, like me, prefer the absurdity and messiness of drag to the pageantry and lip syncing. Trixie and Katya can shift gears from slapstick to satire, crassness to wordplay, nonsensical to observational comedy in an instant. The improvisational style of delivery keeps the results unexpected so that episodes beg to be re-watched to catch the rhythm at which they hit punchlines—or don’t (which is half the fun).

Trixie and Katya have a chalk and cheese dynamic that somehow works. They’re platonic gay friends. Between just the two of them, there’s a nuance to the gay man’s experience. Their relationship is something I desperately wanted and needed to see when I was younger—it’s something that I cannot get enough of now. With their brand of pastiche and internet humour, we could see them on late night talk shows in no time.

Will drag become properly mainstream? Or will it be appropriated further, like Lip Sync Battle, without honouring gay and trans performers? Drag’s popularity depends on how much homophobia and misogyny a culture retains. In the meantime, there’ll be the hand wringing, harrumphs and harassment in the comments. There’ll be people who just don’t get it. No doubt we’ll suffer Jimmy Fallon doing a segment on his show in drag to capture the zeitgeist, but hey‚ nobody’s perfect.

Sam’s drag name is Constance Hurdle. Follow him on Twitter