The herstory of Drag is one of struggle, damnation, and, most importantly, fabulous ferocity. Drag is something that has been widely misunderstood, and even more widely unaccepted. RuPaul—more appropriately, Mama Ru—has been working for decades to expose Drag to the masses as a normal and respected practice and art form. In that time, he has gained notoriety as not only a fashion icon, but as a feminine icon. Drag is something that has shaken the foundations of commonly accepted gender roles and expanded what American society accepts and embraces as beauty. People are beginning to accept that Drag is not taboo. Thanks in large part to the success of RuPaul’s Drag Race and its contestants, the world is learning to not only accept Drag, but to respect it.
Language is an important medium through which to analyze culture. The rhetoric people use, the things people say and how they choose to say them, speaks to their collective interests and values. What RuPaul and his Queens have done to language, the freedom to experiment on and alter language to be a recognizable aspect of their culture, is a marvel. To exemplify the way language is manipulated and transformed by this subculture, we’ll indulge in a microcosmic look at the Jargon of the Drag Race. It’s an important refresh since the lexicon that RuPaul has helped to develop has placed itself firmly in everyday conversation as well as immortalized itself in film and music. RuPaul has made a name for himself in the music circuit since the 80s, but has now exploded into a Dance-Pop superstar. Many of his words of wisdom can be found in his music. One of his songs, “Born Naked”, provides an important insight:
“We’re all born naked and the rest is Drag.”
Social commentary of this scale is legendary in its simplicity. For something that is so commonly unaccepted, when you really stop and think about it, we’re all just dressing up as the person we want the rest of the world to see. Every day, we put on clothes that label us into some specific style, we do activities that label us as being ‘into’ certain things; each and every one of us practices Drag in some sense. The way we wish to be perceived by others is personal and should be treated with respect. Trans issues have been openly discussed in recent months because of the rising respect towards beautiful women like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner. People who have taken it upon themselves to step out into the spotlight, say, “Here I am, this is me, what more do you want?”, and help mediate a conversation that widely needs to be had. While Drag and Trans are very different, each challenges problems with gender norms head-on.
The Queens who practice Drag refer to putting on their makeup as “painting their face” because they are radically transforming their appearance. Fun history lesson: the term Drag is argued to have originated in the Shakespearean era to refer to a male actor Dressed Resembling A Girl (D.R.A.G.). The transition from facial hair and Adam’s apples to positively radiant “fish realness” is a radical one, and something that requires a lot of practice to perfect. By Drag culture standards, fish is used to compliment how feminine a Queen looks, and subtly refers to the stereotypical eau de vagina. It is one of many Drag-based lexical choices that have taken on a life of its own and gained recognition as a fundamental part of Drag culture.
By its very definition, Drag is counterculture. It seeks to make a mockery of anything and everything, and to provide a bit of social commentary along the way. It will never be mainstream in the way most people perceive it, but it has provided a window of opportunity for people to consider what they think of as acceptable, as fashionable, as feminine. and as downright sickening. “Sickening” in terms of the Drag Race is a praise and absolutely not a condemnation, and further evidences that the culture around Drag has taken on a life of its own.
RuPaul and his ever evolving band of Queens are determined to change the fundamental way we think about words as well as the way we think about the people around us. Another of Ru’s great insights can be found in his hit “Sissy That Walk”, yet another phrase of Drag Jargon referring to how effeminately a Queen can walk, which features this precious gem imparted by his mother while he was growing up:
“Unless they payin’ your bills, pay them bitches no mind.”
It’s not hard to see where RuPaul gets his Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent from. C.U.N.T. is something Ru has deemed to be the foundation of a true Drag superstar. One of the most consistent messages he gives his Queens is that, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” If you get caught up in what other people think of you and how other people want you to act, then you’ll never find contentment with yourself fundamentally. In the same respect, don’t concern yourself with how others are acting, unless they’re ruining the party for everyone else. To do Drag is to accept that most people will not understand you, a lot of people will openly criticize you, and some will say terrible things. But Drag is also a way of understanding that no other person should be judged, least of all by you. A few sashays and shanteys farther into this song, we are given a cornerstone of Drag lexicon:
“Ain’t no Tea, ain’t no shade.”
“Throwing shade” has been making the rounds lately as a way of describing “the act of criticism in a blunt and insulting manner,” according to Wiki’s RuPaul’s Drag Race Dictionary. Tea, on the other hand, is derived from the letter T for “truth”, and is used to ask for news, gossip, and general goings-on with your family, friends, or fellow contestants. Live your Tea; don’t throw shade. These are basic concepts of human behavior that are often ignored in everyday life. The Queens are spreading a very simple yet fundamental way of living: peace and love, guys. It really is that simple.
Most of us have close friends and relatives with whom we use specific—and often goofy—nicknames. The longer we spend with someone, the more we learn about their personality, and the more experiences we have with them, the more we get a feel for what we want to call them. These often range from right-on-the-nose to borderline (or outright) insulting, but we love them all the same. The Queens are no exception to this rule. Perhaps one of the most universal terms–something you will probably have the opportunity to fondly refer to your pet or partner as nearly every day–is “hunty”. We all know someone who fits this endearing portmanteau of “honey” and “cunt” all too well; it just took a group of Drag Queens experimenting with language to put their collective finger on it.
The nuances of QueenSpeak, if you will, are varied and great. For instance, the terms “Kai-Kai” and “Ki Ki” may sound quite similar, but are not to be confused.“Ki Ki” is perfectly harmless; to have a “Ki Ki” is to have a personal chat with another person. A “Kai-Kai” happens when two men who do Drag have sex with each other. As you can see, one of these things is not like the other, but they sure do sound similar. Beware the result of using the wrong term. To help you differentiate, I recommend Scissor Sisters’ hit “Let’s Have A Kiki.” (Random aside: apparently the TV show Glee did a cover of this song with Sarah Jessica Parker, and it’s even more amazing than you think.)
The final, and crowd-favorite, constituent of the Lexicon of the Drag Race is “reading”. One of the commonly anticipated challenges of RuPaul’s Drag Race is when Ru “opens the Library” for the Queens. The term is actually a reference to the amazing film Paris is Burning, which you should check out for more of the history surrounding Drag culture. “Reading”, in this sense, refers to the cutting and wittily accurate exposition of another person’s flaws. These are always exaggerated, always insulting, and always spot on. You truly have to be confident in who you are to laugh at yourself, and these Queens have mastered the art.
To make it onto the Royal Court of RuPaul’s Drag Race, a Queen must possess the four fundamentals: Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent. The world of Drag has been misunderstood since its practice became public. One of the most important things people need to realize about this culture is that these women truly are female icons—at least, they should be. Maybe they’re vulgar. Maybe they’re flawed. Maybe they make you uncomfortable. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? The ultra-publicity that the Queens from Drag Race have received has not caused them to retreat back into the shadows of sub- and counterculture, but to stand strong and show the world who they are and what they represent: a new definition of what is “appropriate”, of what is “comfortable”, and of what is “feminine”. Face it, these men in Drag are prettier than you, and that’s ok!
To catch up on seasons you’ve missed, or for an introduction to the show in general, all full episodes are available on Logo TV’s website.
**Originally published by me via The Witty Agent on October 26, 2015.