Since the 1990s RuPaul has ‘sashayed’ his way into popculture, forcing a larger audience to think about the limitations of gender categories. The show demonstrates how identity does not naturally fall into simple masculine and feminine binaries and instead suggests that identity combines elements of both. The show RuPaul’s Drag Race (now into its 6th season) frequently uses the term ‘realness’ to celebrate how gender creativity can be experienced not as simple imitation but as an experience of identity that is just as real as any other identity. At the very least, the multiple forms of drag reflect the ambiguous nature of gender identity, exposing how the strict gender binaries with which we live are an artificial form of classification.
Judith Butler writes that ‘gender is simply a self-invention’ and drag artists can be seen as embodying this idea, showing that the subject can have agency in its gender construction. Ru-Paul’s famous quotation from his autobiography, ‘you’re born naked and the rest is drag,’ demonstrates this way in which our whole identity is formed from replicas; we construct our identity by learning and copying behaviour patterns. Butler articulates this idea clearly, saying:
In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself – as well as its contingency.
The point made by Judith Butler and Ru-Paul is that experiencing drag as the authentic behaviour of identity shows not that this performance is any kind of ‘true’ or ‘natural’ identity but that all gender identity is imitative and constructed, none of it true or natural. The point is that neither normative gendered behaviour nor drag is more ‘real’ or ‘authentic.’ The use of the term ‘realness’ mocks the idea of a natural or real gender identity.
Much of the way drag (and Ru-Paul’s Drag Race) is enjoyed by viewers demonstrates a still-abiding cultural inability to see not this ‘realness’ of drag (that it is just as real as the viewer’s identity), but rather to observe it for its fantastical and magical association, enjoying it as ‘unrealistic’. The spectator of this performance removes themselves from identifying with those on the show, when in actual fact the gender identities we see on screen are not as far from our own as we like to admit.
RuPaul once said that “it would take about 10 years for something in gay culture to actually migrate the mainstream,” and he was right. We chose to separate ourselves from the term ‘drag’ because of its challenge to our own identities that we are not as ready as we should be to let go of.