M/C Journal, Vol 21, No 2 (2018)

“We’re All Born Naked and the Rest Is” Mediation: Drag as Automediality

Anna Poletti, Julie Rak

Abstract


This essay originates out of our shared interest in genres and media forms used for identity practices that do not cohere into a narrative or a fixed representation of who someone is. It takes the current heightened visibility of drag as a mode of performance that explicitly engages with identity as a product materialized—but not completed—by the ongoing process of performance. We consider the new drag, which we define below, as a form of playing with identity that combines bodily practices (comportment and use of voice) and adornment (make-up, clothing, wigs, and accessories) with an array of media (photography, live performance, social media and television). Given the limited space available, we will not be engaging with the propositions made during earlier feminist and queer thinking that drag is not inherently subversive and may reinscribe gender and race norms through their hyperbolic recitation (Butler 230-37; hooks 145-56). While we think there is much to be gained from revisiting these critiques in light of the changes in conceptualisations of gender in queer subcultures, we are not interested in framing drag as subversive or resistant in relation to the norms of masculinity and femininity. Instead, we follow Eve Sedgwick’s interest in reparative practices adopted by queer-identified subjects who must learn to survive in a hostile culture (“Paranoid”) and trace two lines of analysis we identify in drag’s new found visibility that demonstrate the reparative potential of automedia.

At time of writing, RuPaul’s Drag Race (RPDR) has truly hit the big time. Pop icon Christina Aguilera was a guest judge for the first episode of its tenth season (Daw “Christina”), and the latest episode of RuPaul’s All-Stars season three spin-off show was the most-watched of any show in its network’s history (Crowley). RuPaul Charles, the producer and star of RPDR, has just been honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, decades after he began his career as a drag performer (Daw “RuPaul”). Drag queens are finally becoming part of American mainstream media and drag as an art form and a cultural practice is on its way to becoming part of discourse about gender and identity around the world, via powerful systems of digital mediation and distribution. RPDR’s success is a good way to think about how drag, a long-standing performance art form, is having  a “break out” moment in popular culture. We argue here that RPDR is doing this within an automedia framework.

What does automedia mean in the context of drag on television and social media? We understand automedia to be about the mediation of identity when identity is both a product of representation and a process that is continually becoming, expressed in the double meaning of the word “life” as biography and as process (Poletti “Queer Collages” 362; Poletti and Rak 6-7). In this essay we build on our shared interest in developing a critical mode that can respond to forms of automedia that explore “the possibility of identity in the absence of narration” (Rak 172). What might artists who work with predominantly non-narrative forms such as drag performance show us about the ongoing interconnection between technologies and subjectivities as they represent and think through what “life” looks like, on stage and off?

Automedia names life as a process and a product that has the potential to queer temporality and normative forms of identification, what Jack Halberstam has called “queer time” (1). We understand Halberstam’s evocation of queer time as suitable for being thought through automedia because of their characterisation of queer as “a form of self-description in the past decade or so … [that] has the potential to open up new life narratives and alternative relations to time and space” (2). Queer time, Halberstam explains, comes from the collapse of the past and shaky relation to futurity gay men experienced during the height of the American AIDs crisis, but they also see queer time, significantly, as exceeding the terms of its arrival. Queer time could be about the “potentiality of a life unscripted by the conventions of family, inheritance, and child rearing” (2). Queer time, then, evokes the possibility of making a life narrative that does not have to follow a straight line or stay “on script,” and does not have to feature conventional milestones or touchstones in its unfolding. If queer time can be thought alongside automedia, within drag performances that are not about straight lives, narrative histories and straight time can come into view.

Much has been written about drag as a performance that creates a public, for example, as part of a queer world-building project that shoots unpredictably through spaces beyond performance locations (Berlant and Warner 558). Halberstam’s shift to thinking of queer time as an opening of new life narratives and a different relation to time has similar potential when considering the work of RPDR as automedia, because the shift of drag performance away from clubs, parades and other queer spaces to television and the internet is accompanied by a concern, manifested in the work of RuPaul himself, with drag history and the management of drag memory. We argue that a concern with the relationship between time and identity in RPDR is an attempt to open up, through digital networked media, a queer understanding of time that is in relation to drag of the past, but not always in a linear way. The performances of season nine winner Sasha Velour, and Velour’s own preoccupation with drag history in her performances and art projects, is an indicator of the importance of connecting the twin senses of “life” as process and product found in automedia to performance and narration.

The current visibility of drag in popular culture is characterised by a shifting relationship between drag and media: what was once a location-based, temporally specific form of performance which occurred in bars, has been radically changed through the increased contact between the media forms of performance, television and social media. While local drag queens are often the celebrities (or “superstars”) of their local subcultural scene, reality television (in the form of RPDR) and social media (particularly Instagram) have radically increased the visibility of some drag queens, turning them into international celebrities with hundreds of thousands of fans. These queens now speak to audiences far beyond their local communities, and to audiences who may not have any knowledge of the queer subcultures that have nurtured generations of drag performers. Under the auspices of RPDR, drag queens have gained a level of cultural visibility that produces fascinating, and complex, encounters between subcultural identity practices and mainstream media tropes. Amongst her many tasks—being fierce, flawless, hilarious, and able to turn out a consummate lip sync performance—the newly visible drag queen is also a teacher. Enacting RuPaul’s theory of identity from his song title—“We’re all born naked and the rest is drag” (“Born”)—drag queens who in some way embody or make use of RuPaul’s ideas have the potential to advance a queer perspective on identity as a process in keeping with Judith Butler’s influential theory of identity performativity (Butler 7-16). In so doing they can provide fresh insights into the social function of media platforms and their genres in the context of queer lives. They are what we call “new” drag queens, because of their access to technology and digital forms of image distribution. They can refer to classic drag queen performance culture, and they make use of classic drag performance as a genre, but their transnational media presence and access to more recent forms of identification to describe themselves, such as trans, genderqueer or nonbinary, mark their identity presentations and performance presences as a departure from other forms of drag.

While there is clearly a lot to be said about drag’s “break out,” in this essay we focus on two elements of the “new media” drag that we think speak directly, and productively, to the larger question of how cultural critics can understand the connection between identity and mediation as mutually emergent phenomena. As a particularly striking practitioner of automediality, the new drag queen draws our attention to the way that drag performance is an automedial practice that creates “queer time” (Halberstam), making use of the changing status of camp as a practice for constructing, and mediating identity. In what follows we examine the statements about drag and the autobiographical statements presented by RuPaul Charles and Sasha Velour (the winner of RPDR Season Nine) to demonstrate automediality as a powerful practice for queer world-making and living.

No One Ever Wins Snatch Game: RuPaul and Time

As we have observed at the opening of this essay, queer time is an oppositional practice, a refusal of those who belong to queer communities to fall into step with straight ideas about history, futurity, reproduction and the heteronormative idea of family, and a way to understand how communities mark occasions, conceptualize the history and traditions of subcultures. Queer time has the potential to rethink daily living and history differently and to tell accounts of lives in a different way, to “open up new life narratives,” as Halberstam says (2).

RuPaul Charles’s own life story could be understood as a way to open up new life narratives literally by constructing what a queer life and career could mean in the aftermath of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. His 1995 memoir, Lettin It All Hang Out, details RuPaul’s early career in 1980s Atlanta, Georgia and in New York as an often-difficult search for what would make him a star. RuPaul did not at first conceptualize himself as a drag star, but as a punk musician in Atlanta and then as part of the New York Club Kid community, which developed when New York clubs were in danger of closing because of fear of the AIDS epidemic (Flynn). RuPaul became adept at self-promotion and image-building while he was part of these rebellious punk and dance club subcultures that refused gender and lifestyle norms (Lettin 62-5). It might seem to be an unusual beginning for a drag star, but as RuPaul writes, “I always knew I was going to be star [but] I never thought it was going to be as a drag queen” (Lettin 64). There was no narrative of mainstream success that RuPaul—a gay, gender non-binary African-American man from the American Midwest—could follow.

Since he was a drag performer too, RuPaul eventually “had an epiphany. Why couldn’t I [he] become a mainstream pop star in drag? Who said it couldn’t be done?” (Workin’ It 159). And he decided that rather than look for a model of success to follow, he would queer the mainstream model for success. As he observes, “I looked around at my favorite stars and realized that they were drag queens too. In fact every celebrity is a drag queen” (Lettin 129). Proceeding from the idea that all people are in fact drag artists—the source of RuPaul’s aformentioned catch-phrase and song title “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag” (“Born”), RuPaul moved the show business trajectory into queer time, making the “formula” for success the labour required of drag queens to create personae, entertain, promote themselves and make a successful living (and a life) in dangerous work environments—a process presented in his song “Supermodel” and its widely-cited lyric “You better work!” (“Supermodel”). The video for “Supermodel” shows RuPaul in his persona as Supermodel of the World, “working” as a performer and a member of the public in New York to underscore the different kinds of labour that is involved, and that this labour is necessary for anyone to become successful (“Supermodel” video).

When RuPaul’s Drag Race began in 2010, RuPaul modelled the challenges in the show on his own career in an instance of automedia, where the non-narrative aspects of drag performance and contest challenges were connected to the performance of RuPaul’s own story. According to one of RuPaul’s friends who produces the show: “The first season, all the challenges were ‘Ru did this, so you did this.’ It was Ru’s philosophy” (Snetiker). As someone who was without models for success, RuPaul intends for RPDR to provide a model for others to follow. The goal of the show is the replication of RuPaul’s own career trajectory: the winners of RPDR are each crowned “America’s Next Drag Superstar,” because they have successfully learned from RuPaul’s own experiences  so that they too can develop their careers as drag artists. This pattern has persisted on RPDR, where the contestants are often asked to participate in challenges that reflect RuPaul’s own struggles to become a star as a way to “train” them to develop their careers. Contestants have, like RuPaul himself,  starred in low-budget films, played in a punk band, marketed their own perfume, commemorated the work of the New York Club Kids, and even planned the design and marketing of their own memoirs.

RPDR contestants are also expected to know popular culture of the past and present, and they are judged on how well they understand their own “herstory” of the drag communities and queer culture. Snatch Game, a popular segment where contestants have to impersonate celebrities on a queer version of the Match Game series, is a double test. To succeed, contestants must understand how to impersonate celebrities past and present within a camp aesthetic. But the segment also tests how well drag queens understand the genre of game show television, a genre that no longer exists on television (except in the form of Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy), and that many of the RPDR contestants are not old enough to have seen, performing witty taglines and off-the-cuff jokes they hope will land in a very tight time frame. Sasha Velour, the winner of season nine, won praise for her work in the Snatch Game segment in episode six because, acting on advice from RuPaul, she played Marlene Dietrich and not her first choice, queer theorist Judith Butler (RuPaul’s). Sasha Velour was able to make Dietrich, a queer icon known for her film work in the 1920-1940s, humorous in the game show context, showing that she understands queer history, and that she is a skilful impersonator who understands how to navigate a genre that is part of RuPaul’s own life story. The queer time of RuPaul’s narrative is transmitted to a skill set future drag stars need to use: a narrative of a life becomes part of performance. RPDR is, in this sense, automedia in action as queens make their personae “live,” perform part of RuPaul’s “life” story, and get to “live” on the show for another week if they are successful. The point of Snatch Game is how well a queen can perform, how good she is at entertaining and educating audiences, and how well she deals with an archaic genre, that of the television game show. No one ever “wins” Snatch Game because that is not the point of it. But those who win the Snatch Game challenge often go on to win RPDR, because they have demonstrated improvisational skill, comic timing, knowledge of RuPaul’s own life narrative touchstones and entertained the audience.

Performative Agency: The Drag Performance as Resource for Queer Living

Velour’s embodied performance in the Snatch Game of the love and knowledge of popular culture associated with camp, and its importance to the art of drag, highlights the multifaceted use of media as a resource for identity practices that characterizes drag as a form of automedia. Crucially, it exemplifies the complex way that media forms are heavily cited and replayed in new combinations in order to say something real about the ways of living of a specific artist or person. Sasha Velour’s impersonation of Dietrich is not one in which Velour’s persona disappears: indeed, she is highly commended by RuPaul, and fans, because her embodiment of Dietrich in the anachronous media environment of the Snatch Game works to further Velour’s unique persona and skill as a drag artist. Velour queers time with her Dietrich in order to demonstrate her unique sensibility and identity. Thus, reality TV, silent film, cabaret, improvisation and visual presentation are brought together in an embodied performance that advances Velour’s specific form of drag and is taken as a strong marker of who Sasha Velour is.

But what exactly is Sasha Velour doing when she clarifies her identity by dressing as Marlene Dietrich and improvises the diva’s answers to questions on a game show? This element of drag is clearly connected to the aesthetics of camp that have a long tradition in gay and queer culture. Original theories of camp theorized it as a practice of taste and interpretation (Sontag)—camp described a relationship to the objects of popular culture that was subversive because it celebrated the artificiality of aesthetic forms, and was therefore ironizing. However, this understanding of camp does not adequately describe its role in postmodern culture or how some queer subcultures cultivate the use media forms for identity practices (O’Neill 21). In her re-casting of camp, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argues:

we need to [think of camp] not in terms of parody or even wit, but with more of an eye of its visceral, operatic power: the startling outcrops of overinvested erudition; the prodigal production of alternative histories; the ‘over’-attachment to fragmentary, marginal, waste, lost, or leftover cultural products; the richness of affective variety; and the irrepressible, cathartic fascination with ventriloquist forms of relation. (Sedgwick The Weather 66)

This reframing of camp emphasises affect, attachment and forms of relation as ongoing processes for the making of queer life (a process), rather than as elements of queer identity (a product). For Sedgwick camp is a practice or process that mediates queerness in the context of a hostile mainstream media culture that does not connect queer ways of living with flourishing or positive outcomes (Sedgwick “Paranoid Reading” 28). In O’Neill’s account, camp does not involve attachment to the diva as a fixed identity whose characteristics can be adopted in irony or impersonation in which the individual disappears (16). Rather, it is the diva’s labour—her way of marshalling her talent to produce compelling performances, which come to be the hallmark of her career and identity—that is the site of queer identification. What RuPaul wittily refers to as a drag queen’s “charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent” (the acronym is important), O’Neill refers to as the diva’s “performative agency”—the primary “power to perform” (16, emphasis in original). This is the positive power of camp as form of automediation for queer world making: media forms provide resources that queer subjects can draw on in assembling a performance of identity as modes of embodiment and ways of being that can be cited (the specific posture of Dietrich, for example, which Velour mimics) and in terms of the affect required to marshal the performance itself.

When she was crowned the winner of season nine of RPDR, Sasha Velour emphasised the drag queen’s performative agency itself as a resource for queer identity practices. After being announced the winner, Velour said: “Let’s change shit up. Let’s get all inspired by all this beauty, all this beauty, and change the motherfucking world” (Queentheban). This narrative of the world-changing power of the beauty of drag refers to the visibility of the new drag queens, who through television and social media now have thousands of fans across the world. Yet, this narrative of the collective potential of drag is accompanied by Velour presenting her own autobiographical narrative that posits drag as an automedial practice whose “richness of affective variety” has been central to her coming to terms with the death of her mother from cancer. In interviews and in her magazine about drag (Velour: The Drag Magazine) Velour narrates the evolution of her drag and her identity as a “bald queen” whose signature look includes a clean-shaven head which is often unadorned or revealed in her performances as directly linked to her mother’s baldness brought on by treatment for cancer (WBUR).

In an autobiographical photo-essay titled “Gone” published in Velour, Velour poses in a series of eight photographs which are accompanied by handwritten text reflecting on the role of drag in Velour’s grieving for her mother. In the introduction, the viewer is told that the “books and clothes” used in the photos belonged to Velour’s mother, Jane. The penultimate image shows Velour lying on grass in drag without a wig, looking up at the camera and is accompanied by nineteen statements elucidating what drag is, all of which are in keeping with Sedgwick’s reframing of camp practices as reparative strategies for queer lives: “Drag is for danger / Drag is for safety / Drag is for remembering / Drag is for recovering.” Affect, catharsis, and operatic power are narrated and visually rendered in the photo-essay, presenting drag as a highly personal form of automediation for Velour. The twentieth line defining drag appears on the final page, accompanied by a photograph of Velour from behind, her arms thrown back and tensile: “Drag is for dressing up / And this is my mother’s dress.”

Taken together, Velour’s generic and highly personal descriptions of drag as a process and product that empowers individual and collective queer lives define drag as a form of automedia in which identity and living are a constant process of creativity and invention “where ideas about the self and what it means to live are tested, played with, rejected, and embraced” (Rak 177).

Velour’s public statements and autobiographical works foreground how the power, investment, richness and catharsis encapsulated in drag performance offers an important antidote to the hostility to queer ways of being embodied by an assimilationist gay politics. In a recent interview, Velour commented on the increased visibility of her drag beyond her localised performances in “dive bars” in New York:

When Drag Race came on television I feel like the gay community in general was focussed on […] dare I say, a kind of assimilation politics, showing straight people and the world at large that we are just like everyone else and I think drag offered a radical different saying [sic] and reminded people that there’s been this grand tradition of queer people and gay people saying ‘actually we’re fabulously different and this is why.’ (PopBuzz)

Velour suggests that in its newly visible forms outside localised queer cultures, drag as a media spectacle offers an important alternative to the pressure for queer people to assimilate to dominant forms of living, those practices, forms of attachment and relation Halberstam associates with straight time.

Conclusion

The queer time and performative agency enacted in drag provides a compelling example of non-narrative forms of identity work in which identity is continuously emerging through labour, innovation, and creativity (or—in RuPaul’s formulation—charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent). This creativity draws on popular culture as a resource and site of history for queer identities, an evocation of queer time. The queer time of drag as a performance genre has an increasing presence in media forms such as television, social media and print media, bringing autobiographical performances and narratives by drag artists into new venues. This multiple remediation of drag recasts queer cultural practices beyond localised subcultural contexts into the broader media cultures in order to amplify and celebrate queerness as a form of difference, and differing, as automediality.

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