Drag culture has long been a site for pushing boundaries and shocking society. From Divine eating dog shit to, well, pretty much every moment of RuPaul’s career, drag queens have been manipulating cultural standards and norms to be as entertaining and transgressive as they are popular.
It is mostly entertaining and often thought-provoking, revealing how fake the normative ideas of gender are in everyday society. However, a worrying trend is emerging. Cultural appropriation is rife in drag culture. RuPaul’s Drag Race, for one, offers countless examples.
Traditional modes of dress, such as kimonos and Native American headdresses, are worn by contestants of the show to suit categories such as ‘Hello Kitty’ – read: ‘stereotypical Japanese’ – couture.
This not only appropriates and mocks traditional modes of dress that often have cultural, ethnic, and religious esteem attached to them. These contestants often try to match their choice of outfits to their makeup, inevitably leading to them ‘painting their faces’ in racist mimicry of the people of the culture they are appropriating. Slanted eyes, pale skin, and small lips were the makeup look of choice with the aforementioned kimono challenge.
Drag queens have not received much backlash, despite the permeability of cultural appropriation within the community.
You can only imagine the outrage that would have occurred if cis, mainstream artists had done this. Iggy Azalea, Katy Perry, and many other stars have been called out viciously (and rightfully) for their appropriation of kimonos for their music videos and stage outfits, causing both of them to cease wearing them and issuing public apologies.
Yet drag queens have not received much backlash, despite the permeability of cultural appropriation within the community.
So, why has it not been challenged?
Drag culture has long been transgressive and alternative. As a historically oppressed subculture, it has poked fun at the dominant society that has subordinated them by mimicking them to a gross degree. Yet this does not mean that drag queens are exempt from the same rules as mainstream stars.
Traditional dress and culture should not be used for entertainment, especially if it is warped and degraded as it often is in drag culture.
If it is unacceptable in mainstream culture, it should also be so in drag culture, especially as drag starts to gain momentum in the mainstream.
Now, it is clear there are many questions and issues with this. Primarily, who am I – a cisgender, white, privileged female – to decide what is and is not acceptable within the drag community? As it includes so many queens from so many ethnic and racial backgrounds, obviously the drag community themselves are the experts and should be the judges over whether this is acceptable or not, not me or any other outsiders.
Traditional culture has been used beautifully by drag queens to assert their identity and criticise that same culture that has often excluded them. Kim Chi – a Season 9 contestant on RuPaul – wore a traditional Korean hanbok to assert his drag identity over the Korean traditions that oppress it and his sexuality. This was a powerful statement that represents what drag culture originated for; a place to protect and assert alternative identities and lifestyles against the repressive mainstream.
Yet many recent examples show how easily these statements become cultural appropriation of the most unacceptable degree. April Carrion, another former contestant, has continuously posted pictures in blackface, often with dreadlock or afro wigs, on her makeup Instagram to showcase her ability to paint her face.
This is a worrying trend. While cultural appropriation is still frequent in the mainstream, it has become slightly less acceptable and more policed. This same vigilance needs to be applied to the drag community, especially as it begins to gain real traction and influence within pop culture. Of course the revolutionary and transgressive personality of the drag community – its foundational aspect – must be protected, yet it cannot become warped into pure cultural appropriation that undermines its countercultural core.