The Tea about RuPaul: She Can Never Go Mainstream

Mainstream beauty norms exclude RuPaul, a famous drag queen. Her exclusion is worth examining because through it, we  see the response of beauty norms and its gatekeepers to gender non-conformance among communities of color. Simply put, beauty norms respond badly to this gender non-conformance. I present the reader with the image below created by John Cuneo following RuPaul’s interview with The Atlantic[1]:

Queen

The inspiration of Cuneo’s image is RuPaul’s 1993 performance on the National Mall for the 1993 Gay and Lesbian March on Washington. At this performance, RuPaul wore an American flag top and performed her first major hit “Supermodel.” Please watch the first two minutes of the video and observe RuPaul’s outfit. I will assume the reader has watched the performance past this point.

The image presented by Cuneo differs from RuPaul’s presentation of herself when it comes to the presentation of racial and gendered features. Cuneo’s image applies stereotypes of black women to RuPaul, which he does by giving RuPaul “full lips and noses” (Ford, 53).[3] RuPaul’s lips have their “fullness” exaggerated in Cuneo’s picture as in her performance, they are not anywhere near as full as portrayed in Cuneo’s image (Ford, 54).

Furthermore, Cuneo modifies RuPaul’s self-portrayal by removing the clothing that concealed her legs in the original performance. Cuneo draws legs for RuPaul, which he then draws as being wrapped around the Washington Monument. The placement of RuPaul’s legs around the Washington Monument plays on the stereotypical image of black women’s bodies as “grotesque, strange, unfeminine, and lascivious,” as does the portrayal of RuPaul’s lips (Hobson, 87).[4]

Cuneo’s image, whether intentional or not, also comments on RuPaul’s gender non-conformance. Cuneo taps into social anxiety about “disruptive bodies” through his representation of RuPaul’s genitalia (Hobson, 88). Cuneo does so by drawing RuPaul with a perfectly tucked[5] body which sends home the message about her womanhood. However, he paradoxically places the Washington Monument in such a spot that it can also be interpreted as a replacement for a penis. Thus, Cuneo portrays RuPaul as ‘disruptive’ due to her non-performance of gender, as both RuPaul plays both female and male gender roles. In doing this, Cuneo draws an image that appears grotesque because of RuPaul’s blackness and her gender non-conformance.

Why RuPaul is portrayed as grotesque, which paradoxically occurs within an article explaining why her drag is the perfect response to Trump, should be explored. This response occurs because RuPaul cannot sell “whiteness, modernity, sophistication, beauty, power, and wealth” (Hunter, 144).[6] She cannot sell whiteness due to her blackness and gender non-conformance. Because of her inability to sell white-ness, RuPaul will be outside of the euro-centric beauty norms for time immemorial. She will continuously be portrayed as grotesque because of her race and her gender non-conformance, as the mainstream responds badly to non-white and non-gender conforming people.

This post will be followed with one that addresses how RuPaul responds to such purposeful exclusion, which simply put is to enforce euro-centric beauty standards on her show.

[1] Kornhaber, Spencer. “Why Drag is the Ultimate Retort to Trump.” The Atlantic. 2017.

[2] https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4517776/rupaul-performs-1993-gay-lesbian-march-washington

[3] Ford, Tanisha. “Harlem’s Natural Soul: Selling Black Beauty to the Diaspora in the 1960s.” Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul. 2015.

[4] Hobson, Janell. “The ‘Batty’ Politic: Towards an Aesthetic of the Black Female Body.” 2003.

[5] Tucking is the process by which people with penises hide them during drag performances.

[6] Hunter, Margaret. “Buying Racial Capital: Skin-Bleaching and Cosmetic Surgery in a Globalized World.” 2011.

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4 thoughts on “The Tea about RuPaul: She Can Never Go Mainstream

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  1. rmcelroy12, I found your comment about Cuneo’s exaggerated image of RuPaul’s lips and nose really interesting. In addition to the presentation of racial and gendered features of Cuneo’s image of RuPaul, I’m wondering how RuPaul’s outfit of Captain America and her blond wig plays into gender non-conformance and citizenship. Captain America is one of “America’s greatest superheroes”, shielding and protecting America from the great evils of society. Since RuPaul does not conform to any of the ideals of whiteness, she may be considered one of the great evils of white society. At the same time, RuPaul stands out as one of the leading actors, or “superheroes”, of drag and of gender non-conformity. This shows the tension between the ideals white society tries to uphold and how RuPaul tries to deconstruct these ideals. As for her blond wig, RuPaul satirically chooses hair to further insist on her American citizenship. As we’ve seen in previous readings, natural black hair has been and still is discriminated against. Peiss refers this as consumer citizenship, and how many engage in gender identities to be considered a citizen. By wearing the blond wig, RuPaul satirically asserts herself as “part of the white ideal” and therefore, a citizen of America. Thus, although RuPaul does go against all these white identities and ideals, it is really interesting how the Captain America outfit and the blond wig empower RuPaul to still claims the American identity and citizenship for herself despite all the backlash she has gotten in mainstream media.

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  2. Similar to Avery’s comment, I thought about the intersection of nationalism and intersectionalism while reading the article by rmcelroy12. How does RuPaul’s performance play with gender conforming bodies and race? Drag performances have conflicting responses, in that they can reinforce feminine stereotypes due to the type of dress and actions within drag performances. However, rmcelroy12 describes this dicotomy well when adressing the drawing of RuPaul, “Cuneo’s image, whether intentional or not, also comments on RuPaul’s gender non-conformance. Cuneo taps into social anxiety about “disruptive bodies” through his representation of RuPaul’s genitalia (Hobson, 88). Cuneo does so by drawing RuPaul with a perfectly tucked[5] body which sends home the message about her womanhood. However, he paradoxically places the Washington Monument in such a spot that it can also be interpreted as a replacement for a penis.” This is intersection plays into nationalism since the Washington Monument is a symbol of George Washington and built to display our national price of our leaders. However, by wrapping RuPaul’s legs around the monument, it seems to say that gender non-conformity is a part of this nationalistic dialogue and will not be ignored. While this performance was over ten years ago, it seems still important to the dialogue of our new president as more legislature tries to harm non gender conforming individuals.

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  3. Thank you for this post! I so agree with the Atlantic post’s title – okay, maybe not the “ultimate” retort, but I think anything that so blatantly celebrates gender non-conformity and displays the artificiality of gender is a useful political retort – and yet I don’t agree with much of the article itself, much less the image. I believe that it is RuPaul’s blackness and gender non-conformance that make RuPaul as a character, and the show in general, such an un-assimilate-able political statement, but Cumeo’s cartoon caricatures and exaggerates these features, marking them as too grotesque for the general white American public rather than just as too much for Trump. It’s especially the placement of the Washington Monument that makes the whole thing clearly satirical at RuPaul’s expense, because we know full well that most Americans are still obsessed with the genitals of anyone perceived as gender non-conforming. Trump is not the joke here, RuPaul is, because even most Americans who want to satirize Trump still hold the Washington Monument somewhat dear and do not want it straddled.

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