TV Features

RuPaul's Drag Race Has a Class Problem

The popular reality show is not without controversy, but it's time we talk about the class barriers it perpetuates.

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There's a lot to say about the various social justice pitfalls of RuPaul's Drag Race, from the discriminatory exclusion of trans contestants to RuPaul Charles' recent fracking controversy.

One issue that hasn't been sufficiently addressed is the show's inherent class problem. With the costs of participating in the show exponentially mounting each season, this issue feels particularly prescient. Nowadays, drag queens have to spend down payment-sized amounts of money in preparation for competing, which creates an inherent class barrier and disadvantages working-class and poor contestants.

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Culture News

In Defense of Jeff Goldblum's "Stupid" Islam Comments on "Drag Race"

Unlike most Americans, Jeff Goldblum had some humility on the issue

Actor Jeff Goldblum appeared as the guest judge on Friday night's episode of RuPaul's Drag Race and got himself into some hot water.

After Iranian-American contestant Jackie Cox walked the runway in a red and white striped kaftan with a blue hijab rimmed in stars—in keeping with the episode's "Stars and Stripes" theme—Goldblum asked her if she was religious. She responded that she is not but that her outfit "represents the importance that visibility for people of religious minorities need to have in this country."

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MUSIC

King Princess's "Cheap Queen" Is Performative Queerness

Mikaela Straus's debut LP raises questions about the boundary between using queerness as a brand and using one's power to create an inclusive community.

King Princess is a different kind of gay icon.

While many stars have indoctrinated themeslves into the gay community by becoming beloved by mostly gay men, it's rare to see a star become beloved specifically by the lesbian and bisexual/pansexual femme community.

King Princess (whose real name is Mikaela Straus) burst onto the scene at a cultural moment that seemed overripe for a queer femme-focused star. She was preceded by Hayley Kiyoko, whose openly queer music earned her the moniker "Lesbian Jesus," and she's very far from the only queer femme musician around. But other than Kiyoko, she's one of the few to build a successful pop career off of a specifically lesbian-oriented aesthetic. She's garnered quite a following, and her shows have become safe spaces for queer women looking to express themselves openly and loudly.

Strangely, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Straus implied that she's not well-versed in the queer female community that loves her so much. "My shows are [filled with] very queer females, which is interesting because I cannot tell you a community that I have been less apart of in my life than that," she said. "It makes me interested in what's happening with them." Presumably, Straus is saying that as she identifies more with drag and nonbinary communities than the queer female sphere, but it's still a confounding statement, delivered without context in an article called "The Unapologetic Queerness of King Princess."

This raises the question: Could all this be an act, a well-timed and excellently executed branding technique? In all likelihood, it probably is, at least in part. King Princess's authenticity (a generally meaningless term) has been criticized extensively, and for good reason—she grew up in the music industry, as her father was a recording engineer and owned Mission Sound Studios, and her great-great-grandfather was a co-owner of Macy's. All of this meant she was offered a record deal at age 11 (which she turned down), but it allowed her to release an extremely successful EP in 2017; "1950" rests at a cool 300 million streams on Spotify.

King Princess - 1950 www.youtube.com

Probably at least a thousand of those streams are this writer's, as "1950" is a gem of a song. Fortunately, her debut LP Cheap Queen continues in that song's vein, keeping with the lush harmonies, hefty beats, and glossy 80s pop and rock influences that made that song such a standout.

In contrast to that song and much of her earlier work, Cheap Queen moves away from explicit references to queer culture and focuses on the dissolution of a relationship; take a step back, and it's largely about performance, curation, and fame. The songs are confident and forthcoming, buoyed by modern beats and rich, warm mixes. In some ways, the album's glistening, glittery finish is anti-DIY, totally committed to its own poshness and self-seriousness.

King Princess - King Princess: Deep Inside Cheap Queen www.youtube.com

In that way, you could see it either as the product of someone born with a silver spoon who's successfully capitalized on queer aesthetics and popular music's most familiar and trustworthy sounds and images—or you could view it as the passion project of someone who truly understands the meaning of drag and camp, and who is, as the Entertainment Weekly article states, "queering queerness, whether she knows it or not."

Ironically, in terms of its subject matter, Cheap Queen actually isn't that explicitly queer. It's more of a discussion of relationships, free from gender and sexuality; its lyrics are pure pop, cut through with a thread of Gen-Z angst but without becoming brooding. Sonically, it's relatively subdued and mellow, avoiding controversy or extremes, perfect for chill playlists or summer nights (perhaps it should've been released in June instead of October).

Cheap Queen is at its most out and proud when Straus sings about drag. The cover photo features King Princess clad in light drag makeup, armpit hair showing, casting a disdainful glare at the camera. King Princess identifies as genderqueer, still uses she/her pronouns, and drag has been a huge influence on her life and work. "Drag for me is just such an extension of my queerness because it was how I learned to become comfortable with myself," she told Entertainment Weekly. "I feel so grateful to drag because…RuPaul and everything that has made drag mainstreamed it in a way where a girl from Brooklyn, who didn't feel like a girl, saw drag, and learned how to become a woman."

King Princess - Playboy School Of Pop www.youtube.com

Drag, of course, began as a way for queer people to express themselves and their sexuality in a creative and liberating medium. Like its aesthetic sibling, camp, it originated largely in black queer communities, working as a subversive form of expression that existed outside of and in opposition to established hierarchies.

Women and lesbians have always dressed as men in drag, but of late, increasing numbers of women and nonbinary femmes have been using drag as a way to subvert expectations of femininity. In an article from The Guardian, Rebecca Nicholson writes, "It's a deliciously complicated web to untangle: these are women, performing as what would have been (historically, at least) a man performing as a woman. These female queens are traversing gender boundaries as well as putting on outrageously entertaining performances, often in the face of prejudice and misogyny, even within queer culture."

The fact that cis women have begun performing femme drag has been met with some discomfort and accusations of cultural appropriation and fetishization, though these arguments have also been criticized. In Dazed, Jake Hall writes, "The irony is that drag is designed to disrupt gender norms – anyone can bind, stuff, pad and 'perform' gender to an exaggerated extent." Many have also argued that criticizing female drag performers places too much emphasis on genitalia and bodies themselves, when drag is supposed to be an inclusive space, one dedicated to the deconstruction of gender and exclusivity, and one that can be liberating for nonbinary people or anyone struggling to come to terms with their gender identity. Plus, queer women and nonbinary people have always been around, and trans women like Silvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson were at the forefront of early battles for LGBTQ+ rights.

In the midst of this sacred tradition enters King Princess, who has largely avoided mainstream controversy thus far. Most publications have branded her as a victorious new kind of queer icon. It's hard to say how her legacy will hold up, but for now, she seems to have hit a sweet spot between ingenious branding and a genuinely meaningful message.

Whatever you think of King Princess and the way she uses queerness, she is creating an inclusive space where queer people can congregate and celebrate their identities, with all their inherent fluidity, confusion, and contradictions. And in a way, wasn't that always the point of queer activities like drag, which are inherently, beautifully performative? Aren't they supposed to be about the presentation, the artifice, and the show, highlighting the cracks in the idea that anyone has a fixed gender identity and shattering the idea that anyone is exempt from performing their gender, style, and selfhood all the time?

Maybe King Princess should have the final word on this. "Growing up, I thought it was much more simple," she told Vice. "I was just like, 'I'm gay.' But now that I have the words to describe how I've always felt, it makes it complicated." She's quick to clarify that this is a good thing. "I like that complication, because we are all walking dichotomies of some sort. We are all just walking contradictions. I don't think any of these identities are mutually exclusive."


Dixie Chick fans rejoiced this morning when Natalie Maines revealed that the bluegrass icons will release their first album in 10 years.

Titled Gaslighter, the album is currently being mixed, and the title alone suggests that the Dixie Chicks will resume the aggressive and poignant political commentary that got them all but banned by Country music conservatives.

"Our last album was the most personal and autobiographical we'd ever been," Maines explained of the band's previous effort, Taking the Long Way, which won 5 Grammys in 2007, including Album of The Year and Song of the Year. "This one is, like, 10 times that." The announcement comes after the band made a surprise appearance on Taylor Swift's new album, Lover. Maines also announced that the group will embark on a national arena tour in 2020.

The Dixie Chicks' timing could not be better. With the political climate the way it is, their aggressive political commentary is more welcomed than ever before. As excitement builds for Gaslighter's release, let's take a look back at some of the Dixie Chicks' most bad-ass moments and pray that more spectacle and camaraderie is to come in the new year.

"We're Ashamed That the President of the United States Is from Texas"

Probably one of Dixie Chicks most highly discussed controversies, on March 10, 2003, nine days before Bush's invasion of Iraq, Maines addressed an audience during a Dixie Chicks performance in London. "We don't want this war, this violence," she said, "and we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas." The statement, which didn't even offend Bush and in hindsight seems completely PC compared to the nonsense that spews from our current president's mouth, sparked multiple boycotts of the band across the country, with talk show hosts denouncing the trio as problematic and radio stations blacklisting their music. The trio bit back and went on to record Taking the Long Way, which nearly swept the 2007 Grammy awards. Maines did issue an apology to President Bush, but later said she was proud of her original statement.

MUSIC

Taylor Swift Only Sees the Glitter in LGBTQ+

While her intentions are well-meaning, the "You Need to Calm Down" video is a missed opportunity to highlight the narratives represented by the queer icons.

Taylor Swift telling us to calm down.

Just when Taylor Swift gives us hope, she lets us down.

Her latest music video features almost every mainstream queer celebrity you could imagine. While her intentions are well-meaning, the video is a missed opportunity to highlight the narratives represented by the queer icons. Instead of throwing a trans flag at Laverne Cox, Swift could center the video on the activist and her perspective rather than on her own.

Taylor Swift - You Need To Calm Down www.youtube.com

The Todrick Hall production capitalized solely on the culture of the LGBTQ+ community— celebrating it and taking the song a bit too literally. But uplifting these voices means more than a feature in a video or tagging them on social media.

The music video highlights the visual aesthetic that "signifies" gay culture. There are rainbows and dancing and glitter. We follow a white cis, straight woman parade around with her LGBTQ+ friends. It's a party, a celebration of being yourself, fighting against "barbaric" homophobes with love and positivity. Yet, here, the biggest takeaway from this video is that at last, pop's biggest feud between Taylor Swift and Katy Perry is over. They embrace in the video— which will be sure to cause conversation. It overshadows the video's intent. It's also marketing genius.

The video ends with an image of text advocating for the Equality Act. The Equality Act was passed by the House of Representatives but now sits idle in the Senate. The law would extend civil rights protections to people of any sexual orientation and gender identity. Swift urged supporters to sign her petition asking for Senate support. The petition already has over 200,000 signatures, converting the single's success into political support for LGBTQ+ issues.

While Taylor Swift has contributed to the LGTBQ+ community through donations and recent political support, she's misinterpreted what an ally should be. Leading up to the video's release, Swift addressed a rumor that she would share a kiss with Perry:

"That is ABSOLUTELY false. To be an ally is to understand the difference between advocating and baiting. Anyone trying to twist this positivity into something it isn't needs to calm down. It costs zero dollars to not step on our gowns."

It's difficult to forget the days when Taylor Swift refused to comment on politics, to the point she threatened to sue over white supremacy allegations. Now, she's attempting to be a part of the conversation while lacking the language to be effective. What Swift cannot seem to grasp is that advocating for and offering a platform to the LBGTQ+ community should be greater than featuring them in a music video. Uplifting their stories and normalizing their experiences goes a lot further than a straight woman's celebration of pride. Expecting an immediate embrace from LGBTQ+ members after years of silence and quiet donations is asking for more credit than she deserves. It takes time to earn the trust of queer people, and just maybe, Taylor Swift should take several seats and listen.

CULTURE

Vulture Dehumanizes Drag Queens with Random Ranking

Unfortunately, New York Magazine overlooked the depth of those underneath the makeup, even dwindling some down to a footnote.

Bianca Del Rio giving some much needed side-eye.

VH1

When New York Magazine began releasing photos of international drag sensations, many fans were excited to read profiles on the artistic geniuses.

Unfortunately, Vulture's coverage reminded many that a RuPaul's Drag Race bubble exists and not everyone respects the Queens for the artists they are. Instead of treating the magazine's cover stars like those prior, the publication ranked the performers, classifying them as either Top Tier or Bottom Tier. The reductive representation offered no further insight on the fascinating queens—who they are beyond surface level accomplishments or individual placements on the show. While Drag Race is a launchpad for hundreds of queens, Vulture failed to appreciate the profundity of the new generation of Instagram and reality TV celebrities.

The lives of drag performers tend to be disregarded, with fans favoring the spectacle and on-stage characters. This is a reminder that queens embody a type of expression that both embraces and rejects gender to cultivate a new narrative and understanding of personhood. Drag culture is a celebration of self and the ability we have to truly be ourselves. Unfortunately, Vulture overlooked the depth of those underneath the makeup, even dwindling some down to a dehumanizing footnote.

Queens photographed for the publication reacted swiftly, taking to Twitter to criticize the written content and the photos' lighting.

Although Martin Schoeller is known for his up close, unedited style, the article did not match the quality of the photos. Willam Belli (of Drag Race and television fame) called out the journalistic integrity of Vulture's editors, claiming none of the subjects were informed they would be ranked.

If journalists bothered to look beyond the accessible information on a drag queen's career, each artist's influence on our cultural consciousness would be more recognized. In turn, they could become championed members of our society, surpassing Pride coverage and queer-oriented events (ahem Met Gala). Uplifting their stories year round (outside of the reality show format) would increase the number of pivotal voices allowed to transform our culture. If it wasn't obvious enough, these entertainers have contributed to a shift in Western society and impacted younger generations for good: Gen Y and Z are more inclusive and expressive than past generations, which will inform the future, with or without journalistic appreciation. Vulture should know better.