Reading RuPaul’s Drag Race

This piece explores how and why RuPaul adheres to mainstream beauty norms on RuPaul’s Drag Race, despite her permanent exclusion from mainstream beauty, which is discussed here[1] She manages her and her show’s image in a way that presents ‘tolerable’ gender non-conformance and avoids presenting ‘intolerable’ gender non-conformance. However, by working within this framework to manage her image, she excludes certain queens, namely plus sized queens, from being successful on her show.

Pham (2015) describes “tolerated” differences as those differences that are “contingent on the fulfillment of conditions of acceptability” (68).[2] In other words, certain characteristics, including gender non-performance, are tolerated if they either fulfill preset expectations or do not push much against the mainstream. If a characteristic crosses this threshold, meaning that it becomes a threat to mainstream beauty norms, the characteristic becomes the recipient of “intolerance” (Pham, 68).

Pham’s analysis leaves the work of finding what separates tolerable and intolerable to us. Paris is Burning, the documentary that birthed reading culture including reading culture within RuPaul’s Drag Race, can help us navigate the distinction between tolerable and intolerable characteristics in gender non-conformance. Dorian Corey, a queen in Paris is Burning, describes reading as “the art form of insult.”

Reading culture gives insight into what characteristics are tolerable versus intolerable in gender non-conformance. The tolerable characteristics will slide by with one or two jokes made about it, while the intolerable characteristics become the brunt of many jokes and sometimes, a pile on. The mini-challenge titled “Reading is Fundamental” from RuPaul’s Drag Race shows this dynamic.[3][4] All contestants, except for Willam, ‘read’ Jiggly Caliente for her body size, which makes it quite clear that Jiggly’s weight is intolerable.[5] I propose that fat bodies are tolerable when the fat queen is self-deprecating or when the fat queen does not have another strike against her in terms of beauty (example, being PoC).

The first dynamic plays out when Latrice Royale ‘reads’ Jiggly Caliente by saying “Jiggly Caliente. BMW. Body Made Wrong.” She is rewarded for making jokes about weight at the expense of another fat queen with a mini-challenge win. By doing this, Latrice shows herself as a tolerable (for now) fat character. By choosing Latrice Royale as the winner of the challenge, RuPaul is managing the show’s image to deliver a message: fat bodies are intolerable except for when they are self-deprecating.

The second dynamic plays out when Chad Michaels ‘reads’ Jiggly Caliente by saying “Jiggly, come to Mother Dust. Here’s my dentist’s card, use it.” Chad Michaels is commenting on another aspect of Jiggly’s body that appears intolerable: her teeth. Here, Jiggly is the recipient of Chad’s comment because of the interaction between her body size and another intolerable feature. This interaction (caused when a queen is fat + has another intolerable characteristic, often race) is what leads to only white fat, self-deprecating queens doing well.

With this analysis, we see how people with intolerable characteristics and disruptive bodies, such as RuPaul, respond to their exclusion. She responds by excluding those more intolerable than her.

[1] Each episode is structured as follows: a mini-challenge, a main challenge, a runway look, and finally, a lip-sync between the two ‘worst’ performers (as judged by RuPaul). RuPaul eliminates the loser of the lip sync from the show.

[2] Pham, Mina-Ha. “Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet: Race, Gender, and the Work of Personal Style Blogging.” 2015.

[3] RuPaul’s Drag Race. Season 4, Episode 7. “Dragazines.”

[4] The queens by name (in order of performance – seen by who is wearing the glasses): Dida Ritz, Jiggly Caliente, Phi Phi O’Hara, Willam, Chad Michaels, Latrice Royale, and Sharon Needles.

[5] The author (as a self-identified fat person) has decided to use the term fat over plus-sized because he sees the term plus sized as a way to avoid saying the descriptor (and thus continue stigmatizing) fat.


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