The herstory of drag is one of struggle, damnation, and, most importantly, fabulous ferocity. Drag is something that has been widely misunderstood, and even more widely unaccepted. RuPaul—more appropriately, Mama Ru—has been working for decades to expose drag to the masses as a respected practice and art form. In that time, he has gained notoriety as not only a fashion icon, but as a feminine icon. Drag is something that has shaken the foundations of commonly accepted gender roles and expanded what American society accepts and embraces as beauty. People are beginning to change their perception of drag, mainly that it is not taboo. Thanks in large part to the success of RuPaul’s Drag Race and its contestants, the world is learning to not only accept drag, but to respect it.
Language is an important medium through which to analyze culture. The rhetoric people use, the things they say and how they choose to say them, speaks to their collective interests and values. What RuPaul and his Queens have done to language, the freedom to experiment with and alter language is a recognizable aspect of this subculture. To exemplify the way language is manipulated and transformed by drag culture, we’ll indulge in a microcosmic look at the Jargon of the Drag Race. It’s important to refresh since the lexicon that RuPaul has helped to develop is beginning to manifest in everyday conversation, film, and music. RuPaul has made a name for himself in the music circuit since the 80s, but has now exploded into a Dance-Pop superstar. Much of his personal philosophy regarding individuality, gender, and more can be found in his music. His song, “Born Naked”, provides unique commentary such as, “We’re all born naked and the rest is Drag.”
Social commentary of this scale is legendary in its simplicity. When you stop and think about it, we’re all dressing up as the people we want the rest of the world to see. Every day we put on “costumes” that portray a specific lifestyle and we engage in rituals that illustrate something about our character. In this sense, each and every one of us practices drag. The way we wish to be perceived by others is a personal choice and should be regarded as such.
Continuing this exploration into the lexicon of drag culture, let’s look at the language that speaks to the physical transformation required to dress in drag. The Queens who practice drag refer to putting on their makeup as “painting their face” because they are literally transforming their appearance. The transition from facial hair and Adam’s apples to positively radiant “fish realness” is a radical one, and something that requires a lot of practice to perfect. By drag culture standards, “fish” is used to compliment how feminine a Queen looks, and subtly refers to the stereotypical eau de vagina. It is one of many drag-based lexical choices that have taken on a life of its own and gained recognition as a fundamental part of drag culture. Fun history lesson: the term drag is argued to have originated in the Shakespearean era to refer to a male actor Dressed Resembling A Girl (D.R.A.G.). Although we think of dressing in drag as a fairly new phenomenon, it is actually something that people have been navigating for centuries. The Queens currently reigning in the drag community have simply stepped further into the spotlight of acceptability in today’s culture.
By its very definition, drag is counterculture. It seeks to make a mockery of the gender norms we’re all subjected to and manipulates the way clothing expresses gender. The presence of drag has provided a window of opportunity for people to consider what they think of as acceptable, as fashionable, as feminine and as downright “sickning”. “Sickning” (note the omitted e), by definition from the Drag Race, is a praise rather than a condemnation and further evidences that drag culture is repurposing the perception that drag is taboo. It has allowed those who dress in drag to turn any previous condemnations of the act into personal successes.
RuPaul and his ever evolving band of Queens are determined to change the fundamental ways in which we think about words; their function as a means of representation or misrepresentation. Another of Ru’s great insights can be found in his hit song “Sissy That Walk”, yet another phrase of drag jargon referring to how effeminately a Queen can walk, which features this precious gem imparted by his mother while he was growing up, “Unless they payin’ your bills, pay them bitches no mind.”
It’s not hard to see where RuPaul gets his Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent from. C.U.N.T. is something Ru has deemed to be the foundation of a true drag superstar. One of the most consistent messages he gives his Queens is, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” If you get caught up in what other people think of you and how other people want you to act, then you’ll never find contentment with yourself fundamentally. In the same respect, he asserts that you shouldn’t concern yourself with how others are acting, unless they’re ruining the party for everyone else. To do drag is to realize that lots of people will misunderstand the essence behind why someone decides to engage in these rituals; the sense of identity that is formed while dressing up as something else. Being a participant in this community is also in large part facing up to much criticism. An essential aspect of drag is a way of understanding that no one should be judged by their need to resist gender norms and the rigidly defined roles that society has carved out for what it means to be male or female.
A few sashays and shantays farther into “Sissy That Walk” and we are given a cornerstone of drag lexicon, “Ain’t no Tea, ain’t no shade.”
“Throwing shade” has been making the rounds lately as a way of describing “the act of criticism in a blunt and insulting manner,” according to Wiki’s RuPaul’s Drag Race Dictionary. Tea, on the other hand, is derived from the letter T for “truth”, and is used to ask for news, gossip, and general goings-on with family, friends, or fellow contestants. Live your tea; don’t throw shade. The Queens are spreading a very simple yet fundamental way of living: peace and love, guys. It really is that simple.
Continuing this exploration of the infinitely inventive language of RuPaul and his Queens, the use of pet names is another example of the type of coded language that makes this subculture so fascinating. Most of us have close friends and relatives with whom we use specific—and often goofy—nicknames. The more time we spend with someone, the more we learn about their individual characters and soon brand them with a nickname that reflects that uniqueness. The Queens are no exception to this phenomenon. Perhaps one of the most commonly used terms in drag culture is “hunty”. We all know someone who fits this endearing portmanteau of “honey” and “cunt” all too well; it just took a group of Drag Queens experimenting with language to put their collective finger on it.
The nuances of QueenSpeak, if you will, are varied and great. For instance, the terms “Kai-Kai” and “Ki Ki” may sound quite similar, but are not to be confused.“Ki Ki” is perfectly harmless; to have a “Ki Ki” is to have a personal chat with another person. A “Kai-Kai” happens when two men who participate in drag have sex with each other. As you can see, one of these things is not like the other, but they sure do sound similar. Beware the result of using the wrong term. To help you differentiate, I recommend Scissor Sisters’ hit “Let’s Have A Kiki.” ( The TV show Glee did a cover of this song with Sarah Jessica Parker and it’s even more amazing than you think).
The final, and crowd-favorite, constituent of the Lexicon of the Drag Race is “reading”. One of the commonly anticipated challenges of RuPaul’s Drag Race is when Ru “opens the Library” for the Queens. The term is actually a reference to the amazing film Paris is Burning, which you should check out for more of the history surrounding drag culture. “Reading”, in this sense, refers to the cutting and cunningly accurate exposition of another person’s flaws. This is a time in which the Queens get together after being exposed to each other’s unique, personal drag style and “read” each other. By throwing jabs that are meant to both sting and provide constructive criticism, these reading sessions are always exaggerated, always insulting, and always spot on. You truly have to be confident in who you are to laugh at yourself, and these Queens have mastered the art.
To make it onto the Royal Court of RuPaul’s Drag Race, a Queen must possess the four fundamentals: Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent. The world of drag has been misunderstood since its practice became public. One of the most important things people need to realize about this culture is that these Queens truly are female icons. They’re vulgar, they’re flawed, but they’re real. Maybe they make you uncomfortable, but that is part of the objective – to point out the pitfalls in gender normative behaviors. The ultra-publicity that the Queens from Drag Race have received has not caused them to retreat back into the shadows. Rather they proclaim their position on the trivialities of gender norms and reveal to the world what they represent: a new definition of what is “appropriate”, of what is “comfortable”, and of what is “feminine”.
Latest posts by Logan Isaman (see all)