Last week, The Broad’s Lucy Hodgeon criticised the use of cultural appropriation in the world of drag, and more specifically in RuPaul’s Drag Race. I feel there are a few things that need to be cleared up.
Just to clarify, I don’t approve of cultural appropriation, at all. But it is worth pointing out some of the examples used to show cultural appropriation have been taken out of context in Hodgeon’s piece. Tarring the drag community with one brush, stating that cultural appropriation has become ‘rife’ in drag culture, is simply unfair.
The ‘Hello Kitty’ challenge was absent of kimonos and traditional modes of dress: the queens were culturally considerate to the nth degree. There has also never been a ‘Kimono Challenge’. The challenge referred to is the ‘Madonna Challenge’, in which some queens replicated Madonna’s red kimono look from her 1999 music video, Nothing Really Matters. Although we can criticise Madonna for creating this look, a queen’s reproduction of it can’t be called cultural appropriation. Not once did RuPaul state that wearing a kimono was necessary, and in fact the queens who did decide to wear kimonos were criticised for it, to the point that in the show’s next ‘Madonna Challenge’, they were explicitly banned from wearing the traditional dress.
Similarly, Alexis Michelle’s Native American outfit for the ‘Village People’ category in Season 9 was not directly taking on Native American culture, but instead replicating the costume of a specific member of The Village People. Admittedly, perhaps this member of the band should not have been assigned, but Alexis’ choice of clothing was tasteful. In fact, it lacked pretty much any Native American influence. So much so she actually received criticism.
Season 3, however, did see Raja culturally appropriate, and, like many other mainstream artists, she should be criticised for that. However, one queen’s costume choices should not be taken as an entire community’s flaw.
The drag community does suffer from examples of cultural appropriation. April Carrión’s black-facing is certainly unacceptable, although I’m not sure that racism was her specific intent and it is not representative of the drag community as a whole.
However, this debate opens up a wider one in society – at what point do we draw the line when it comes to cultural appropriation?
As my fellow writer notes, one of the main purposes of drag is to poke fun at mainstream culture. However what was not noted last week is that this includes all aspects of society. To cherry pick which races, religions and cultures can be used and which cannot, I believe, is discrimination in itself. Blackfacing and specifically targeting one group of society is wrong, but the drag community is based on a false reality itself. It is an expression of art. As Yuhua Hamasaki commented in a recent episode ‘you’re not a real woman either’. Continuing in this vein, are we to criticise the community for appropriating another gender? A line has to be drawn somewhere, as for the moment we are all fumbling around in the dark, unaware of what is acceptable or not when it comes down to the finer details.