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2018 Symposium Papers

Drag in the Era of Queer Affirmation: Branding, Hybridity, and Critique


by Maxim Greer


Since the mid-twentieth century, drag has held a historical place within the aesthetics and politics of a diverse range of queer subject positions. Judith Butler famously identified the medium of drag for its potential to expose gender as a performance of traits and bodily signifiers in which there is no true original. RuPaul Charles emerged in the 1990s as the most well-known drag figure in alternative and mainstream media. In 1997, queer performance theorist José Esteban Muñoz classified RuPaul’s drag as a corporate, sanitized, and desexualized subjectivity. A counterpoint to this style of drag was the “terrorist drag” of Vaginal Davis, who infiltrates and interrogates identity categories, creating a “disidentification” shared with others in the 1990s queers of colour movement.

This paper aims itself as a response, and an update, to the dichotomies in drag and queer identity in light of the initial 2009 airing and continued mass popularity of RuPaul’s television program RuPaul’s Drag Race, alongside the accelerating acceptance of LGBT peoples in most liberal pluralist democracies. The gulf between Davis and RuPaul’s style of drag must be revisited by expanding the analysis through the engagement of Marxist theories regarding the commodity and reification.

Furthermore, emerging queer artists, such as Victoria Sin, not only interrogate identity categories, but also use them to problematize how gender and queerness are represented within drag itself. Therefore, this essay also observes updated forms of drag performance and embodiment as hybridizations of older styles which respond to the industrial complex of RuPaul. This hybridization, which itself delves into a masked-branding of its own, disrupts the reification at play in corporate drag by re- inserting the body, in particular the dispossessed queer bodies of colour, and those that do not fall into the binary system imposed by capitalist media representations.