Miss Representation, or Even If You Win You Still Lose

Published on July 16, 2014 by   ·   No Comments

00000000 Pag Hole ALbumDisclaimer: Let me start by saying that this blog post is all about my thoughts on drag pageants, not necessarily the contestants themselves.  People may have all different kinds of reasons for wanting to be part of these events, and that’s just dandy.  I know quite a few performers who have taken part in pageants, and some of them are lovely and delightful people.  Some of them are raging cunts.  But that’s just the mixed bag we get with life in general, and has nothing to do with the pageants themselves.  So before you decide that I *must* be talking about you and get all butthurt and completely lose your shit all over Facebook, just take a deep breath and calm your tits.  Sometimes sweetheart, hard as it may be to believe, it just isn’t all about you.  XO, Janessa

I’m getting ready to participate in a fundraiser for the Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre called the Fireman’s Ball, and this year there is an improve-style live theatre performance as part of the event called the “Little Miss Hot Pants” pageant, crafted in the style of Tony and Tina’s Wedding (but without having to pay those pesky royalties!).  It seemed like a good enough time for me to get up on my high horse and share my thoughts about drag pageants and what they doing to the larger world of drag.  Spoiler alert: I’m not a big fan.

crown51Some people who’ve known me for a long time will say, “But Janessa, aren’t you being just a tiny bit hypocritical?  After all, you yourself were crowned Miss More Head 2004 at the I-Beam!”  And that’s true: I have had to bear the burden of queer royalty in the past, and it was my experiences with that small bar contest that started me on the path to where I am today, both in terms of my drag career and my feelings about pageants.  So anyone who wants to say that I’m a bitter queen who’s never worn a crown and is turning my jealousy on other performers can just remember that it’s been a decade since I wore my last tiara and I probably won’t be wearing another one any time soon, and that’s by choice.  Well, I’ll probably still wear tiaras, but only as non-denominational accessories.  I mean, no legit queen would say no to more rhinestones…

(To the right, you can see my super snazzy Miss More Head 2004 crown.  Smexy!)

So why am I not a fan of pageants?  I don’t like what they are doing to drag, and to our communities.  And I think they also contribute to a larger piece of cultural messaging about women, gender, and queer folks.  But we’ll get to that.

First, I don’t think that pageants are very good for drag.  Why?  Because pageants are all about uniformity rather than innovation.  There is a specific “pageant girl look” that contestants have, and if you don’t try to emulate it you don’t stand a chance in the competition.  The makeup looks the same, the outfits and gowns look the same, the hair looks the same.  Bore.  Ing.  What I have always loved in the drag world were those performers who pushed boundaries and pushed buttons, who didn’t just try to look like beauty queens (or like every other drag queen out there).  Divine Eat ShitYou’ll never find a Divine at a drag pageant.  Her look was too intense, too edgy, too unique.  And that’s what made it fabulous!  I don’t want to look at a parade of cookie cutter queens in the same dress doing the same kinds of numbers; I want to see someone who can make me do a double-take, and who can fucking entertain.  I want personality.  I want uniqueness.  Sometimes people try something new, and it’s terrible.  But at least they’re trying something, instead of just recycling the same old thing.

I also don’t like that pageants turn every aspect of drag into a competition.  When you’re in a pageant, you’re being judged; that’s the nature of the beast.  But you also have all of the “prelims” where you have to qualify to go to the larger pageants, or you’re doing shows to raise money so that you can compete, or you’re doing a some sort of “thank you” tour after winning.  All of the focus is on the competition, on who wins and who doesn’t, on raising money for the competition (more on that later!).  There is so little focus on the art and performance of drag beyond what the contestants think will impress the judges and snag them a crown.  How do you build community among performers, if every time they get together the focus is on competing and decided who is the best?  There is already enough drama among drag performers (and in queer communities in general) without adding this constant focus on competition and winning.

TragicaIt only makes it worse that every queen who enters a pageant is already convinced before it even starts that she has it in the bag, even if they are absolutely, 100% toe up tragic.  So you can imagine the backstage hysterics and recriminations when crowning comes and only one of said performers is actually crowned.  Not to mention some of the notoriously evil things that have been known to mysteriously happen during the competition: “accidentally” spilling on dresses, sawing through heels, peeing on wigs – you name it, some catty bitch has probably done it in the name of snatching a title.  Jezebel recently reported the story of contestant in a “regular” beauty pageant whose makeup and gowns were covered in pepper spray (you can read more about that HERE); I can only imagine how long it will take for that story to spread and we hear about it happening at a drag pageant. Though maybe not, because it didn’t work in this case: the pepper-sprayed contestant broke out in hives, but continued on and was rewarded for her perseverance by being crowned.

0000000 Pageant TitleAnd when all is said and done, having a title doesn’t mean that you are good performer, it might just mean that you were a better performer than the other one or two contestants who showed up.  Some of these preliminary pageants have so few entrants that you might as well just decide them with a coin toss.  Getting the crown just shows that you know how to play the game; it doesn’t mean you know how to put on a show, and it certainly doesn’t make you a better person.  But so many people get some ratchet title and start braying at the top of their lungs about how important it is that they’re a title-holder.  I’m as big a fan of shameless self-promotion as the next queen, but I also make a conscious effort to put just as much energy into actually having something to say or contributing to my communities when I do it.  And some of the pageant contestants I know do put in a lot of work to help build up their communities and work to offer something to the world.  But from my experience, the more someone wants to flash their sash in your face and talk about their titles, the less interest they show in anyone other than themselves.

00000000 Pag FB PostSecond, I think drag pageants can be harmful to queer communities.  On the plus side, they can get more people interested in the art of drag performance and reach large audiences, but the type of performance those audiences see is very limited.  Not only do you have to adhere to the “pageant look,” but you have to be able to afford to compete.  For the large national pageants, contestants have to raise thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars, just to enter, and that’s on top of everything that had to spend to compete in the preliminary pageants to even qualify for the national pageant.

All of this emphasis on cutthroat competition and creating a steady income stream for the pageant owners and promoters, these pageants do very little to improve the queer communities that the performers come from.  Of all the money that’s raised and spent on these pageants, very little is anything ever makes its way into our communities.  Occasionally pageants will be tied to local charities, but this is usually a decision made by the local pageant promoter and is tied to the smaller, less attended preliminary pageants and not to the large national pageants.  Queer communities, and gay culture especially, are already highly consumerist, focusing on brands and what you have.  This is only amplified by these high-dollar competitions that don’t really even bother to try to engage with the communities that support them.

00000000 Pag ALyssa

(Click on me to see me move!)

This has also been my critique of RuPaul’s Drag Race: for a show ostensibly about drag performers, there isn’t a whole lot of actual drag performance happening.  The first three seasons are almost indistinguishable from episodes of America’s Next Top Model, and judging from the contestants (and the judges critiques of them), that is exactly what they were looking for.  They weren’t interested in drag queens who looked or performed like drag queens; they wanted fashion models.  This was personified by season 3 winner Raja who is actually friends with Tyra Banks and has appeared on several seasons of ANTM.  I’ve seen videos that prove that Raja can be a show-stopping performer, but you’d never know it from her time on RDR, where all you saw were her fierce runway looks and her shitty attitude.  Performers almost never actually perform unless they are threatened with elimination, and then it can hardly be thought to represent their actual talent as performers.  After all, they are performing a song they didn’t choose, wearing whatever outfit they had for the last challenge, with the threat of elimination hanging over their head.  Not exactly an ideal situation.

The last three seasons have been somewhat more promising: season 4 winner Sharon Needles is pretty gimmicky, but at least she’s different; Jinx Monsoon, winner of season 5, is a theatre girl and definitely knows how to put on a show, and the most recent winner, Bianca Del Rio finally brought some vindication to those who thought Pandora Boxx was completely robbed and unappreciated because she was a “comedy queen.”  But RDR is starting fall victim to its own hubris: rather than trying to find new drag talent, they are mostly just selecting big name performers from major drag markets with maybe a couple of minor league surprises and one “fan favorite” who gets booted out right away thrown into the mix.  It’s like having Project Runway with Donna Karan, Tom Ford, and Donatella Versace – what’s the point?!  Maybe if they were actually scouting for new talent, they wouldn’t have to rely so much on fabricated drama like the faux-feud between Alyssa Edwards and Coco Montrese that couldn’t have been more scripted and wooden if it had been a Mexican tele-novella.

RuAnd add to this the fact that the whole show serves as a continuous publicity machine for RuPaul’s music and assorted tie-in products.  She’s the drag queen version of Oprah (seriously Oprah, you don’t have to be on the cover EVERY FUCKING MONTH!) without actually giving a bunch of free shit away to suburban housewives in the audience.  We get it, you’ve got a new album out, or a new perfume, or some other crap product you want to sell.  But dare I say it?  Maybe, just maybe, the RuPaul style that every contestant is judged against isn’t the only style option out there for drag queens?  Again, I’m sure there are those who will cry foul, saying that I’m just bitter that my fabulous audition tape was not selected for Drag Race season 6 (if you missed it, I’ve got it posted right HERE!) but I assure you that I’m not.  I had all of these qualms about the show long before I ever thought to make an audition tape, and I only made that one because it was something to do to keep me sane: I was fairly recently divorced and I had just been laid off from my job and suddenly had a ton of time on my hands – why not?!  But I did it more for the experience; I know that I’m not the type of drag queen they are looking for on that show, and I’m not unhappy about that.

FantasyFinally, I don’t like the way that this emphasis on creating a single type of look and focusing on constant competition affects us as queer folks.  This happens to women as well: dominant culture puts so much emphasis on how women should be competing with each other to look better, be skinnier, get the right man, etc. that it distracts them from all of the misogyny that affects their lives.  Drag pageants do the same thing: when we’re so busy cat-fighting over who is the best drag queen, we aren’t getting together to talk about how drag performers are often excluded from the queer communities they support, and how the world at large isn’t all that nice to queer folks either.

I know that Beyoncé is on pretty shaky feminist ground after the whole “Eat the cake, Anna Mae” debacle (if you managed to miss that, there are great posts about it HERE and HERE), but I love the video for her song “Pretty Hurts.”  It does a great job of demonstrating the destructive nature of focusing exclusively on competition, especially when it comes to such intimate topics as body image, sexuality, and self-esteem.  We see the men lined up to judge Bey and the other contestants, and we see them judging each other, fighting each other, and sabotaging each other to win their approval.  We also see them hating themselves and practicing self-destructive behaviors, and being rewarded for it.  If that’s how you approach the world, how can you ever hope to create a community that will nurture and sustain you?  Even if you win the crown, you still lose.

I’m sure that many people will disagree with my thoughts on pageants, and that’s fine.  I’d love to hear your perspectives in the comments below.  I may not have all the answers, but I certainly want to start asking the questions.

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