Drag Is Raw: Wrestlers, Queens And Gender As Performance Art
Every Monday night, TV gives itself over to a mass of preening, posturing men, indulging in petty backbiting. Some are decked out in elaborate costumes, most are presenting idealized versions of the human form, and all are angling for a shot at a singular, prized accessory.
Also, RuPaul's Drag Race is on.
To compare WWE's Monday Night Raw to RuPaul's Drag Race may seem like an easy punch line to those who dismiss both as lowbrow entertainment pitched to niche audiences. But those who indulge in both (almost assuredly a very small sliver of that particular Venn diagram) know better than to reject the notion out of hand. While that opening description focused largely on surface similarities, that's only the beginning of the resemblances. Dig more deeply, and you'll find that not only are the two shows comparable, but they're essentially one and the same.
The sports-entertainment industry and reality-competition-television complex both exist wholly in the realm of massaged reality. While scripted in advance, Raw remains a far more malleable property than your typical scripted series. The WWE churns out five hours of traditional network programming each week, but storylines remain fluid, with emergency rewrites happening at the last minute, if necessary.
The most notable example of late came in the aftermath of the Royal Rumble in January. Fan outcry was so vehement in the wake of the pay-per-view event that no less than Vince McMahon, chairman and CEO of the WWE, reportedly demanded an 11th-hour rewrite of the following night's Raw. That the ultimate outcome of the program is predetermined serves as the gist of the argument to those who dismiss professional wrestling as fake. But such a restrictive point of view misses the fact that while the scripted storyline provides a skeletal frame for the performers to work within, the matches themselves provide the true heart of the show. To watch a high caliber match is to watch tremendously skilled athletes move with seamless and acrobatic grace in an elaborate and largely non-choreographed dance. Beneath that garish exterior is a core of quiet elegance, plainly evident to any who care to look.
Balancing elegance and garishness is the hallmark of any good drag queen as well, and the queens featured on Drag Race do it better than any. The show itself operates under the rules of any reality television show, by trading traditional writers for story producers. (Meaning the show crafts the narrative after it films, rather than before.) And while the composition may differ, the song remains the same: Strings get pulled, plot gets finessed, but the true entertainment comes not from the story, but from the element of performance. Drag Race, too, showcases seasoned, dedicated performers at the height of their skills. The queens see drag as a passion and work to elevate it to art.
Both shows contain the shadows of ancient entertainment forms: large groups of men coming together to put on elaborate, out of the ordinary performances, many of them performing as women. From ancient Greek theater to Japanese Kabuki to Shakespeare, it's not hard to see the trickle-down effect that's led to a single night of programming featuring men acting out the most extreme archetypes of masculine and feminine with big, broad strokes. Conflict need addressing on Raw? Resolution most likely comes with a steel chair to the back, if not a choke slam through a table, if not both. Spat brewing on Drag Race? Someone's almost certainly been disparaging someone else's sewing skills. Or makeup. Or wig. One man's steel chair is another queen's sharp tongue.
At times, the shows present almost like a lazy stand-up comedy set: "See, men act like this, but ladies act like this." The men —wrestlers—snort and snarl at each other, so aggressive that it's inevitable all conflict resolves physically. Often, the most winning are the smoothest talkers, who bring finely honed skills to the microphone and cut the best promos. Most of these men are simultaneously oiled up and watered down with images meticulously fashioned, worked and then reworked. Wrestlers are coiffed and costumed and spray-tanned and chiseled within an inch of their lives. Tradition dictates that anything less than a veritable Adonis must be relegated to a bit part. (For some viewers, this isn't such a marked difference from how the world already operates.)
The women, meanwhile—the drag queens in performance mode —are all vivacious, good time girls, pretty and polished and perfect. Bodies are tight; hair impeccable. The interactions are predictably catty, with girls throwing shade and proving beyond a doubt that this is not RuPaul's Best Friend Race. Queens fine-tune their personas through years of trial and error. ("You better work" no doubt echoing through their minds.)The girls that stand tallest are those whose minds work the fastest. Pretty will get you far, but an acid wit will keep your frenemies where you want them.
Such are the surface observations of shows centered on what it is to create, maintain, and make an art out of your own gender facade. Each world, wrestling and drag alike, contains a multitude of characters and character types. In drag, queens often identify within a certain type, be it comedic, camp, pageant, etc., and no single is dominant. Fishy queens (that is, queens that resemble women to the extent that their true gender is confusing or "fishy") don't perform substantially better than more niche queens when it comes to taking home the crown.
Similarly, at least of late, Raw has moved away from the thought that only the manliest of men can dominate the field. The driving story in the WWE for the last nine months has been that of an ascendant wrestler named Daniel Bryan. His storyline represents a struggle between what the WWE has been — a place where wrestlers are bred ( no, really) and bigger is better — and what the WWE could be, which is a place where talent and technique count for more and pretty packaging counts for less. Bryan's rise was fueled by an organic and passionate affinity from WWE fans at large, and his story came to a climax at WrestleMania XXX, a night in which he triumphed over two former WWE champions and one current champion to win the belt(s). (There are two. It's a long story.)
Bryan's tale is that of a classic, recognizable underdog. (Think Rocky, if Rocky looked like a member of the Drive-By Truckers.) Rising through the ranks of the indie wrestling circuit, he was denied serious consideration by WWE powers that be due to the perception that he was too small and couldn't serve as the face of the company. But ultimately what changed Bryan's course in the WWE was something outside of his control: He made a connection with the fans.
What those fans responded to was what fans respond to in any art form: recognition. In Daniel Bryan, fans found something they understood and could relate to. They identified with that sense of being judged and found lacking based on wholly inconsequential criteria. He was the embodiment of what the Haves perpetually denied the Have Nots. He took his inborn good-guy, hard-working, everyman personality and blew it sky high. He took something true and made it larger, until believing in Daniel Bryan became not just a fandom, but a movement. Performers who take something honest and intensify it are the ones that resonate in any field.
So it goes with drag. In 2012, Sharon Needles served as a force of nature on Drag Race, making spooky funny, funny sexy, and sexy campy. Needles even had Lady Gaga gagging with admiration. Sharon Needles was a revelation because she was perceived as a perfect representation of her personality. She brings to her drag the vulnerability of a childhood spent not fitting in and the confidence of the realization that what makes us different, makes us shine. Sharon Needles' drag is her personality turned up to 11, and the act alone represents not just acceptance of one's personality but a celebration of it and all the things that make each and every person perfectly freakish and freakishly perfect. Authentic and aspirational, Needles embodies the recognition of any given person's foibles and that true beauty lies in embracing them, a sentiment that fans recognized and responded to.
Not lost in any of this is the fact that what audiences are responding to, the art being perfected, is that of perceived gender. That Drag Race used to have a spin-off entitled RuPaul's Drag U should come as a surprise to no one. On it, drag queens mentored cisgender women in the art of femininity. Our understanding of how gender represents itself has become muddy in the very best of ways. While there yet exists a pressure to "be a man" or "be ladylike," those ideas are a moving target at best, as increasingly our modern era sees the hoary old gender archetypes as just that: out of date and out of sync.
But the greatest signifier that times have changed is that the place where hard and fast rules about what gender is and is not is in those shows where gender plays not as an informing factor, but rather as full-blown performance art. And in that, there is relief. Drag queens, wrestlers, all are pretending. And so are we. No one wants to fail at being a man or being a woman. So perhaps true victory comes in realizing we're all just approximating.
Then, in light of the myriad similarities, perhaps it's not so surprising that what viewers respond to in a drag queen and what they respond to in a professional wrestler aren't so different. Drag fans and wrestling fans are made of much the same stuff. They come to the activity not necessarily as a specific fan of only one queen or only one star. They come as appreciators of the form at large. Alliances shift, and appreciations vary, but what doesn't change that which gets butts in the seats: the art. Perhaps you're excited for an episode because drag queen Courtney Act is sickening or The Shield wrestles the Wyatt Family, but you're there for the experience, for the eleganza, because you're a mark.
To be a mark, to suspend your disbelief and to believe in what you know to be unreal, remains the crux of so much entertainment. It's entering that movie theater and immersing yourself in another world for two hours. It's investing in the exploits of fictional characters in a made-up land that spans both page and screen. And it's sitting down every Monday night and cheering for the face to triumph over the heel and marveling that some men make the most beautiful women in the world.
It's believing in the fairy tale that gender is simple and clear cut. It's giving in to the artifice. It's embracing the facade. It's becoming a part of the narrative by becoming a willing participant. It's beating the face and beat downs, death drops and near-falls, belts and crowns. It's a chance to regain that childlike wonder, one programming block at a time.
And it's all on Monday nights.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.