By Guest Contributor Andreana Clay; originally published at Queer Black Feminist
I watch RuPaul’s Drag Race pretty religiously and have written about what I love about it here. I even watched the contrived–let’s just give Chad Micheals the crown and some prize money since, apparently, it was difficult to give Sharon Needles the crown outright–Drag Race All Stars this summer. So, when Season 5 started three weeks ago, I had my DVR ready and happily watched after a long first day of classes.
So, it’s clear I have a little bit of love for RuPaul (P.S. Part of the title comes from her). No, I don’t listen to her music, but I feel like I’ve been a champion (never gonna stop) of her work for quite some time. She’s pretty mainstream, what José Muñoz might call, “sanitized, assimilated” drag, but I just love seeing a 6-foot-tall Black man doing a pretty standard drag performance. And he’s made a mainstream career out of it. Now, I don’t know RuPaul: she may be the most fame-hungry, celebrity-grubbing, will-never-stop-using-the-pejorative-”tr***y (!)” and supporting-Shirley-Q.-Liquor (!) drag queen out there, but I have to hand it to her. She has managed to produce and maintain one of the gayest shows on television right now. In a moment when all things are gay or gay-loving, we love the gays!–she and her writers have managed to make it just a little bit gayer. Not only is it a show about drag queens from all around the world, L.A., New York, Florida, and Puerto Rico, but it is a show almost entirely made up of challenges. And I love the challenges. As others have noted, this is where the real, un-assimilated gayness comes out: the “get on your knees and put your lips in this hole” challenge; “reading is fundamental” challenges; “make videos where you lip synch to all of RuPaul’s songs, available on iTunes” challenges; and then, there are the requisite “pit boys” with muscles and fully stuffed briefs. Just crass. Gay. Lovely. Plus, there are regular references to ball culture past and present with phrases like, “Extravaganza,” the aforementioned “reading” challenges, etc. I love it! Sometimes I squeek with glee at each offering. It’s refreshing in a moment of increasingly assimilated gay television (“Queers–regardless of race, gender, or class–are just. like. you, everybody!” so sayeth the stock gay characters on current shows).
So, back to Season Five. I was all ready to fall in love with some of the queens and RuPaul again this season, as I have in seasons past, especially when Monica Beverly Hillz came on: “I’m Monica Beverly Hillz, with a Z.” My heart and eyelashes fluttered. Plus, her lip-synch-for-your-life performance of Rihanna’s “Only Girl in the World,” made me grapple, in a good way, with my complicated frustrations with Rihanna at the moment. Mostly, in the form of a download of the song–not revolutionary, but I’m working it out.
Still, my love has been short-lived. Beginning with the first episode and in every episode since, the queens and RuPaul herself, have made it clear that they are “serving fish.” As in, “I’m serving Rodeo Drive fish (Alyssa Williams)” or, as one of the queens said when she walked in to meet the others, “It’s awfully fishy up in here,” or, RuPaul’s question before a recent episode of the behind-the-scenes Untucked (come on, that is a straight up fabulous name for a backstage show!), “Which one of these fish will surface to the top?” Ok, record scratch, dammit.
What’s up with all the “fish” references?
I know I’m about to step off into something I know very little about, like the use of the phrase “serving fish” in drag-queen culture. If we could’ve talked about RuPaul’s Drag Race and “terrorist drag” last night in my graduate class, believe me I would’ve, and I’d have a better understanding of the use of “fish” from several experts in the room. Still, my base understanding is that “serving fish” is performing an ultra-feminine, standard version of drag. Essentially what RuPaul has been serving for two or three decades, no? That’s all well and good. It may not always be the most exciting form of drag, but I can get down with it. I love a good, standard queen–even pageant queens–who can bring it. But, really, “serving fish”? Do I have to hear this every time I watch, in or out of context? You want me to watch your show, support you, when you can’t problematize that shit a little bit? Like, I think it’s about 2013, can’t we can throw out the female + vagina = fish reference? You know, like this more-than-reliable–and yes I’m being sarcastic–Urban Dictionary entry:
If you can’t read it, the first definition is the “feminine drag” definition. But then, #2, whose definition reads, “A term used when someone’s vajayjay smells like it hasn’t been washed for the past few days” gets creative and paints a scenario, “John: ’Oh my! I could tell you’re serving fish from two corners away. Mariah: Shut up! I’ve been begging you to fix the shower for 5 days!”
Isn’t that sweet. Let me paint you a picture, just in case you didn’t understand the first time.
I guess it’s refreshing (like Summer’s Eve) to note the number of folks who have given this a “thumbs down” outnumber those who give it a “thumbs up.” Or, at least I thought it was refreshing until I did a little Internet search on fish and vagina–I know, the ways I fill my time–and there are several medical websites and numerous products to help women address our inevitable “fishy odor” or “odour.”
You know, because, ultimately, we’re just a bunch of gross, smelly, dirty bitches–it’s been medically and pharmaceutically proven. And, try as you may, those of you who protest–that’s not what that means, you’re going too far with, etc., etc.–to prove me wrong, but I cough bullshit if you think this is not what gets evoked for every cis woman who is sitting and watching your show. And, it’s a dire time for women–all women–right now in that our rights, our dignity, our humanity are being called into question this week with the (non)passage and reconstruction of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) by Congress. That might feel like a stretch to you, but I can’t separate out these throw-away, harmless, not-really-intended-to-mean-what-you-think-it-means references–fishy, serving fish, fishiest–words that ultimately objectify, dehumanize, and dismiss women from the lack of governmental protections extended to Native American, lesbian, queer and transgender women, undocumented women, and teenagers. Can’t separate it from the Republican-led efforts to ensure that women in these groups (which includes me, my partner, my nieces, students, and friends) are not treated like human beings under the law and are actually, actively denied the right to services offered to normalized, acceptable women–which includes, who? It’s a small number. And, don’t get it twisted, those of you who use this language, while I’m holding you accountable, yes (I’m not saying you’re the cause of this)–we live in a misogynist culture that already hates women. That’s the way this shit has been set up. But for you to want me to continue to support this “innocent,” used in another context language, is no different. And, you know, I’m just one fan: it may not make a difference if I turn the TV off on Monday nights–that might not matter. Still, you gotta complicate that shit a little bit more for me to stay engaged, to stay down, to hang in there with the queens and others who make up this “community” that I align myself with. Really, it’s all or nothing at this point. We are moving into, I fear, dangerous times of assimilation where we cut out the ones we don’t want (yes, students in my graduate class, I’m biting off our amazing discussion last night) to appear more acceptable. And, don’t think you’re not in that line -up. I’m never one to cut anybody out, but you gotta step it up a bit and study up on this solidarity business for me to stick around.
Peek-a-Ru, Ru. I see you.
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