Drag Race, Gender, & Alexis Mateo’s Towel

May 31, 2011 at 9:38 pm | Posted in Internet Sleuthiness | Leave a comment
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It’s probably no surprise that RuPaul’s Drag Race is one of my favorite TV shows of all time — certainly my favorite non-scripted show. For me, its appeal goes beyond the fact that it’s a competition (like America’s Next Top Model or Project Runway, two of my other favorites) or that it features drag queens (another one of my favorite things). Drag Race takes a successful reality TV model — contestants eliminated week by week, a charismatic host, a zany panel of judges, wacky and absurd challenges, big personalities and big drama among the participants — and adds an irresistible coating of camp.

I can’t exactly explain why I find camp so appealing. It may be because, in a pop culture so saturated with people taking themselves so damn seriously (here’s looking at you, hipsters), I find the self-awareness of camp to be totally endearing. Camp is all about irony infused with humor and allusion — taking something serious and making it so over-the-top that it becomes ridiculous! When RuPaul dares the bottom two contestants on Drag Race to “Lip-sync for your LIFE,” she’s mocking the life-or-death stakes conveyed seriously by other reality shows. When she commands the queens to demonstrate “Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent,” she’s clearly in-referencing the word cunt.

An additional serious (and sacred) convention that camp can upend is the gender binary; this is particularly evident in drag. I know this is something I’ve talked about before, but another reason I love Drag Race, and drag in general (big ups, Judith Butler!), is for the way it showcases gender subversion and performance. This was perhaps never truer than when the Season 3 title was handed to Raja, a queen who deliberately skirted the boundary between masculine and feminine gender presentation. Raja’s particular form of drag became a subject of contention during the season’s final episode, when the judges debated whether her genderfuck style was more worthy of the title of “America’s Next Drag Superstar” than Alexis Mateo’s more conventionally-feminine gender performance. Ultimately, Raja won the title, giving weight to the notion that drag is not just about men trying to look like women; rather, it can also be about exploring, mocking, and even rejecting gender norms as they exist in contemporary culture.

This long preamble about camp and gender performance is all basically in service of this one photo, which — despite my appreciation for the gender politics at play in drag — still made me laugh. (Translation: I don’t want you to think I’m an ignorant asshole when you read the rest of this post!)

This is a photo Alexis Mateo, the third runner-up in Season 3, drying herself off after being dunked in a dunk tank as part of a challenge:

It’s like homegirl knew she was supposed to wear a towel on her head the way ladies do, but no one ever taught her how to do it correctly. The towel’s supposed to wrap up your hair, Alexis, not just sit on top of your head like a hat! And here’s where the gender preamble comes into play: BEING A LADY: UR DOIN IT RONG.

[ screenshot from LogoTV ]

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