The appeal is obvious; bright, brash and bombastic drag queens are pop culture on stiletto-wearing steroids. But the BBC’s lurid fascination with all things drag is beginning to look like an unhealthy obsession.
Last Saturday BBC Radio 1 hosted ‘Drag Day’, declaring in a promotional article ‘drag queens are the new rock stars.’ Drag queens Bimini Bon Boulash, Tayce, Lawrence Chaney and Jodie Harsh appeared alongside established DJs for twelve hours of dance anthems. The programming decision was embraced by some fans as diversity in practice; because what says inclusion better than having all-male drag queens and their egos squeezed into a studio?
The decision to host drag queens on the radio is a little surprising given glitzy get-up can’t be seen over the air waves. But for those who want a sequin fix on television, nine series of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK are currently available on BBC iPlayer alongside scores of breathless documentaries including Jamie: Drag Queen at 16 and God Shave the Queens.
Like it or loathe it, when drag developed it was solely for an audience of gay men in gay bars. Perhaps with the exception of the occasional stray hen party, drag was rarely performed to audiences of women. With bawdy and grotesque sexist caricatures, it is resolutely masculine in character.
As can be surmised from this article, I’m not a regular viewer of RuPaul’s Drag Race, but I tuned into the BBC to see if there was anything I was missing about the phenomenon that has swept across the Anglosphere. In the opening of episode one ‘Baga Chipz’ sauntered onto stage clad in a trashy leopard print outfit with bleach blonde wig. He was enacting a vicious stereotype of a gobby, working-class Midlands woman. Scratching his crotch he sniffed his hand and winced, playing into a foul misogynist trope of disgust about the female body.
The sketch has all the subtly of Benny Hill, and with around the same level of misogyny. But the laughter elicited is of course ironic; which enlightened BBC viewer would condone sleazy jokes about women’s stinking genitals?
From drag queen story time in libraries to its promotion by the national broadcaster, the veneration of drag as a symbol of liberal, progressive values is troubling and wrong-headed. It seems simply showing that same sex couples exist is not cutting it; instead gay men dressing as sexist stereotypes are fetishized and trumpeted in the name of inclusion. Those who don’t join in the fun are eyed as potentially unwoke, marked out as having suspiciously conservative tendencies.
To the BBC, drag queens are a glittering, bouffanted shorthand; a way of showing that they are attuned to the ‘LGBTQ+ community.’
One wonders if the BBC thinks the diversity box is ticked by the rolling coverage of drag. But there is a lazy homophobia in the idea that somehow all same sex attracted people are represented by drag queens. It’s about as accurate as assuming all women are happy to be subbed by strippers, or that performers at the Notting Hill Carnival are acceptable substitutes for all people of colour.
To the BBC, drag queens are a glittering, bouffanted shorthand; a way of showing that they are attuned to the ‘LGBTQ+ community.’ The subtext is that the only gays who will be tolerated are those who dance to the queer theory beat. Lesbians, bisexuals and gay men who are just getting on with their lives are simply not sexy, not telegenic enough.
Ultimately, the excitement about drag is a product of a society that’s ill at ease with itself, saturated in pornography and bound by ignorance. Research shows that to a majority of the population a vulva might as well be a family car, and for heterosexual women faking orgasm is still the norm. This, combined with the ubiquity of body-punishing, brutal pornography has created a form of social schizophrenia. The only lens through which sex can be thought about is male, and largely heterosexual. There is a place for gay men; and its dressed as parodies of women.
The BBC, an analogue corporation in a digital world, is lost. Desperately trying to satisfy the salacious urges of audiences, they know that sex sells. But sex must be covered-up with sequins, feathers and tawdry performances; to do otherwise might be too obviously sexist. Drag is the perfect vehicle for the BBC’s values; just as with the proverbial turd, sexism cannot be polished, but it can be rolled in glitter.