Are RuPaul’s “Fishiness” Comments Vag-Shaming?
Drag queen extraordinaire RuPaul has an interesting interview with Vulture in which he speaks about the impact his show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and drag culture in general, has had on pop culture and the larger society.
More specifically he said:
What do you think of Lip Sync Battle and Jimmy Fallon?
Oh, I don’t think of it. It’s a poor ripoff of our show. Regular, straight pop culture has liberally lifted things from gay culture as long as I can remember. And that’s fine, because guess what? We have so much more where that comes from. Take it! That’s why [my new show] Gay for Play is such a fun thing, because we’ve taken the best of the gay sensibility and put it all in one place. And we’re showing these bitches how it’s really done. But it’s funny how that works, even in gay culture. There’s a certain “gay shame.” Gay people will accept a straight pop star over a gay pop star, or they will accept a straight version of a gay thing, because there’s still so much self-loathing, you know?
They talk so much about acceptance now today and it’s like, yes, but trust me — I’m old and I know this sh-t — it’s superficial. Because as soon as the lights go out, you’ll see how advanced people’s thinking is. This so-called “Will & Grace acceptance” era is just people f–king posing. Things haven’t changed that much. You see it in politics right now — that’s the f–king truth of people. And you know, people will have you think, “Oh, we’re fashion. We’re gay. That’s my gay over there!” It’s like, no. We’re still a very, very, very primitive culture.
Gayness is still treated as an accessory.
Exactly. But if we can just cut out the self-loathing, we could get really far.
So much has been said and written about this point that there is no need to be redundant. And while I believe the whole “Straight people are appropriating gay culture” idea is a little more nuanced than what RuPaul is making it out to be, I also feel that we do have a nasty habit of loving gays who dance, sing and basically entertain us, while not actually loving them.
And that is problematic, to say the least.
But you know what else is problematic? What RuPaul said later on in the same interview.
More specifically, this:
There’s a sense on Drag Race that there’s a way to win. With certain judges, there’s a value of “fishiness” (a.k.a. looking like a real woman). Do you feel like that is counter to what drag is?
The criteria really isn’t “fishiest.” It’s charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent. And if you got it, if you look at our iconic photo from the premiere, we have a wide variety of girls and, I don’t know, are any of them fishy? Being fishy isn’t like a home run to win. Because we’ve had every type of winner, and the iconic girls who didn’t win who are still super-duper-stars, they’re not necessarily fishy, I would say. They’re a character.
Fishiness can be a part of it.
For some, it is. It was never for me. I always did what I thought was interesting. I always just did what caught my fantasy. Looking like a woman, that was never the criteria for me. It was always to do drag. And drag is not gender-specific. Drag is just drag. It’s exaggeration.
It’s about playing with gender.
Oh, it’s poking fun at gender. It’s mocking gender is what it’s doing. But taking it seriously? No. Because that’s what fishy alludes to. Fishiness alludes to the look and feel of “real.” For most drag queens, that’s not the criteria. Because the look and feel of real is boring.
Correction: fishiness (or “fishy” and “fish”) is a term used, sometimes derogatorily, to describe a woman’s vagina, in particular how we allegedly smell. While it is also used by drag queens to describe those whose drag comes close to mimicking femininity, the added context still does not change the often derogatory root of the expression.
And in spite of RuPaul’s dissonance, his show is very gender specific. While there have been contestants whose drag has been a bit more ambiguous, there is also no denying that the show centers heavily around the pageantry of femininity (i.e. who can perform it the best).
The irony here is that RuPaul is chiding straight people for stealing gay culture when his entire show’s theme is about “poking fun” and “mocking” – as well as stealing from – many of those same straight people, in particular, women.
Of course, this is not the first time RuPaul has casually tried to dismiss away concern about the misogynistic undertones in his show. During a 2014 podcast interview, RuPaul was asked to respond to criticism of his show, particularly from those within the trans community, that the constant use of the word “tranny,” as well as the use of “she-mail” on his popular reality television program, to which he said:
No, it is not the transsexual community. These are fringe people who are looking for story lines to strengthen their identity as victims. That is what we’re dealing with. It’s not the trans community, because most people who are trans have been through hell and high water and they know — they’ve looked behind the curtain at Oz and went, ‘Oh, this is all a f**king joke. But, some people haven’t… You know, if your idea of happiness has to do with someone else changing what they say, what they do, you are in for a f–king hard-ass road.
I still love him, though. But I would love him more if he would understand just how degrading terms like “tranny” and “fish” and “she-mail” really are.