Transcript: Ep. 7 - 'Drag': From drag balls to RuPaul | Nov 12, 2019

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PIPPA: Hey, Karina.
KARINA: Hey, Pippa.
PIPPA: Okay, pop quiz.
KARINA: Alright.
What would you think
I meant if I said that you
beat your face to the gods?
Oh, um.
Beat your face to the gods?
I would imagine, like,
hysterical screaming at the sky,
like, it's raining,
and you're just, like,
beating your chest and beating
your face with your hands.
Okay, great. Great guess.
Um, what about if
I said let's have a kiki?
A kiki. I think, like,
maybe, let's have a chat?
Ooh, not too far off.
Is that close?
What you think if
I said you look sickening?
I would think that
the site of my face
nauseates you.
(Pippa laughing)
That's what I would think.
That's fair enough.
Some are closer than others,
but if you don't know what
we're talking about, good news,
because today's episode of
Word Bomb we are talking about
drag and drag slang
and looking at many of the words
that have made the leap from
drag culture to the mainstream
in great part because of
RuPaul's Drag Race.
Okay, so I've watched
RuPaul's Drag Race
a total of
one time, and something
I noticed about the show,
though, not only was it, like,
super out there, it was like
listening to a totally
different language sometimes.
I totally have been there.
I've watched a few seasons of
the show now and it was
interesting to see how many of
these words have
become common parlance,
especially for people
in Generation Z or,
for the Canadian listener,
Generation Zed.
Right, we can't decide
which way to say it. Zed?
Generation Zed sounds so weird.
It sounds horrible.
(Both laughing)
People born
between 1995 and 2015.
Let's, uh, it's not at pithy,
but let's call them that.
So, that puts us just a few
years out of that bracket,
'cause I was born in '91.
PIPPA: Me, too.
You, too. It's weird how
close we are to being in that
generation but how shockingly
out of the loop we are.
It's very true.
So, let's start with
the actual word "drag" itself.
So, drag, as most people know,
is a type of performance
that plays with gender.
Most people have heard of,
like, drag queens,
usually men dressed as women,
or drag kings, which are
often women dressed as men,
but there are also so many ways
of doing drag that do not deal
with, like, the gender binary,
which we will talk about
later in the episode.
Right. The word "drag" itself,
um, this is according to
the Oxford English Dictionary.
It's been around since 1388.
It's a long time, but it wasn't
used in the sort of performance
context until around
the 19th century.
So, before it's like dragging
something on the ground.
Sure, and there's a bit of
a debate about how it came to
refer to drag performance.
So, one folk etymology
says that drag is
an acronym for
"dressed resembling a girl,"
and you'll see it sort of
floating around the internet,
but overwhelmingly likely that
it's an example of a backronym,
which we've talked about
on this show before.
Which means, um,
an acronym that is applied to
a word that already exists.
Yeah, it's sort of like
a retroactively applied acronym
that is not actually
how that word--
The more likely theory for
"drag" is that it originated
from the theatre in
the 19th century
when male actors would wear
petticoats when they dressed
as women and the petticoats
would drag on the stage.
Maybe 'cause they're don't have,
like, the curves to support it
or something.
Maybe. Not enough hip.
And so they'd say they were,
quote, "Putting on their drags."
I actually found one other
theory in my research that
the word drag was
actually a Polari word.
Have you heard of
this language before?
Yes, I have. Yeah.
So, for those who don't know,
this was a secret language used
by basically society's outcasts.
So, circus people, sex workers,
and the gay community in Britain
in the 19th century
or even earlier.
So, this language is sort
of an amalgamation of, like,
rhyming slang, back slang,
which means just
saying words backwards,
sailor slang and more,
and in gay circles this was
used as a way to hide from
authorities at times when
homosexuality was outlawed.
Right, so, um, one of
the earliest sort of more
official uses of the word "drag"
was in the Manual of Psychiatry
in 1927. It defined it as
an outfit of female dress
worn by a homosexual.
And the fact that
it's, like, in the--
Manual of Psychiatry.
That's already kind of showing
how it was kind of viewed.
But like I said, drag now is
a broader art form of gender
expression and through shows
RuPaul's Drag Race
it has gained huge popularity,
but with popularity,
often comes appropriation.
And drag slang words
like yas, slay, gagging,
I'm cringing hearing
myself say these words.
Yeah, yeah.
And so many more words
that we'll get into later.
As these words
have become mainstream,
they've kind of lost their
original context or meaning.
Right. To start
this conversation off,
I talked to Kevin Nixon.
He is a PHD candidate
in anthropology at
the University of Toronto
and his research is in
the cultural politics
of drag in Canada. Here's Kevin.
You know, we can take
these things up as, you know,
aesthetics and for play
and entertainment,
but these are really important
parts of real peoples' lives
and it's something we, we often
think about when we're talking
about appropriation, because it
often seems like this,
sometimes it gets lost in
these lofty ivory tower
academic debates, but I think
we're talking about, you know,
loss and theft to some extent.
You know, that in some cases
these are resistant strategies.
You know, these are ways
of actually on the ground
combating things
like racism, sexism,
and their manifestations
in more violent forms.
Okay, first off,
I just love that there's, like,
an academic world
of study around drag.
That's really exciting.
Yeah, Kevin said to me that
the goal of his research was to
complicate the idea of drag,
which I really liked.
Basically take a deeper,
more intersectional look at
the message that
drag performance sends
and how it can transgress norms
but also reinforce
them at the same time.
Ooh, very cool.
I'm glad that he brought up
that point about how drag
or drag lingo can be a way of
combatting racism and sexism.
A lot of the words
that are thrown around,
we sort of have this, like,
frivolous, fun attitude behind,
but if you look into
the history behind them
they have much darker roots.
Like, have you heard the term
"Serving realness?"
Yes, I have heard of that one.
So, this phrase is one of
the ones that I feel like has
been mainstreamed by
cis straight culture.
People will say something like,
"I'm serving cowgirl realness"
on Halloween,
or, like, "I'm serving
Starbuck's barista realness."
But this phrase,
along with so many others,
was originated by
queens of colour,
especially black trans women,
in particular those
in drag ball culture,
which was an underground LGBTQ
sub-culture where performers
would dress up
based on a category
and compete for prizes.
So, I'd like to play a clip
from the 1990 documentary
Paris is Burning
by Jenny Livingston.
Have you seen it?
You haven't seen
Paris is Burning?
It's on Netflix!
I have no excuse.
I'm bad. I'm bad, bad, bad.
So, if you haven't seen it,
like Karina,
it is a documentary that
profiles drag culture in
New York City in sort of
the mid to late 1980s.
In recent years there's been
criticism of the film in that
it was made by a white woman
so it has a certain gaze to it.
So, there's a lot to
unpack about the film,
but if you don't know much about
drag culture in the 80's
it's sort of the film to watch.
You're about to hear a clip
that features Dorian Corey,
a drag performer
who died in the 1990s.
One fun thing
about Dorian Corey,
who had an incredible
career and life
and contributed so much,
but also, after her death,
a partially mummified male body
was found in her possessions.
Which had potentially
been dead for over 15 years.
So, when you're watching
Paris is Burning,
which you have to do, um,
I'd like you to just think
about the living room that
Dorian Corey is speaking from
and just imagine that there's
a mummified body in the closet.
Wait, it was in the closet?
I think it was somewhere
in the wardrobe.
How did-- How did it get there?
I don't know if there was
ever any conclusive proof,
but they were able to ID the guy
and they thought maybe
it was an ex lover or--
'Cause he died from a gunshot.
(Karina gasping)
That's salacious.
Juicy tidbit, before we
get to hear Dorian Corey
defining realness.
If you can pass the untrained
eye or even the trained eye
and not give away
the fact that you're gay,
that's when it's realness.
Vanjie, looking like the boy
that probably robbed you a few
minutes before you
came to Paris' Ball.
The idea of realness is to
look as much as possible
like your straight counterpart.
Shake the dice
and steal the rice.
Right here. Come on, baby.
Later in
Paris is Burning,
Corey says--
When they're undetectable,
when they can walk out of that
ballroom into the sunlight
and onto the subway and get home
and still have all their clothes
and no blood running off
their bodies, those are
the femme realness queens.
So, like Kevin was saying,
it's about survival.
Like, passing as straight
or passing as cis.
Yeah, and after hearing that,
I feel like whenever I see,
like, "serving realness" as,
an Instagram gif on a story,
it sort of, like,
puts a bad taste in your mouth.
Absolutely. Another example
Kevin gave me of people
appropriating or misusing
a term was "reading,"
which means to sort of insult
playfully. Here's Kevin.
You know, when you think
about something like reading
for instance as being a popular
term that a lot of people
know now from
RuPaul's Drag Race.
You know, we can see it's
origins in racialized queer
communities in the U.S.
and yet it's being taken up by
a number of people.
Um, you know, reading,
in and of itself is something
that was kind of like
a sub-cultural strategy for,
in a lot of cases, queer queens
of colour to resist things
like racism, sexism,
and yet, you know,
we might joke among friends,
"Oh, you gave a good read."
I mean, is that really what
reading was about? And one of
the issues with appropriation is
we divorce something
from its original context.
I want to bring in
Dorian Corey again.
You'll hear her define
the word "shade" as well.
But then when you are all of
the same thing then you have
to go to a fine point.
In other words,
if I'm a black queen
and you're a black queen
we can't call each other black
'cause we're both black queens.
That's not a read,
that's just a fact.
So, then we talk about
your ridiculous shape,
your saggy face,
your tacky clothes.
Let's see. No paint.
Yes, it's paint.
No mother-(Bleep) paint, girl.
She wears more makeup
than my mother did.
Then reading became
a developed form
where it became shade.
Shade is I don't
tell you you're ugly,
but I don't have to tell you,
because you know you're ugly,
and that's shade.
That's great.
Later, in
Paris is Burning,
Dorian Corey says it's not
reading if it's between
gay and straight people.
It's only reading if
it's within the gay community
and that's something that
I think has been lost about it.
Or another great example
of this is the word "Yas"
which I think is one of
the biggest ones picked up by,
kind of,
the white girl population.
Yeah, I can take this one.
The podcast
Reply All,
which is one of my favourites.
One of my favourite podcasts,
actually did a short history of
this word in their episode
"Disappeared," and I recommend
you check it out 'cause it gets
into a lot of stuff that we
don't have time to cover here,
um, but basically,
I hate even saying it,
"yas" is an exclamation like
"yes" which comes from
drag ball culture, but a lot of
people associate the word
with the TV show
Broad City
which features Ilana Glazer,
a white woman,
and she uses the word a lot.
Yeah, I feel like, as someone
who belongs to the exact group
that appropriates the word yas,
my saving grace has always been
that I cannot for
the life of me pull it off.
Yeah, I-- from the beginning
I remember hearing people say it
and not knowing
that it was a drag thing,
but I remember it just, like,
started creeping into how
people talked a while ago,
and I remember even then
being like, "There's something
wrong with this."
Like, there's-- This is just not
sitting easily on the tongue of,
like, a white girl at a party.
Like, it's just--
it always squicked me out,
and then I started reading
about it and was like,
"Oh, justified feelings.
Great instinct Karina."
Only specific people
should be saying this,
not the majority of people
who are saying it now.
And this is the huge
complication of talking about
appropriation within drag,
because there are, like,
certain people who I feel like,
pretty clearly, like,
shouldn't be using the word.
I'm talking about my own
demographic, white,
straight, tend to be female
who use that word,
but then when someone is a part
of the gay community
maybe there's different
gradients of permission
and then if they're
within drag specifically,
there's new levels.
I mean, obviously, we are not
the gatekeepers on who is
allowed to use what words.
But the point is that it's
not a black and white thing.
Not at all.
But if you're a white girl you
should probably stop using it.
Please stop.
Please stop.
Kevin and I talked a little bit
about how hard it is to define
appropriation in
the drag world to begin with.
And a lot of people felt like,
you know, for a lot of
cis gender, you know,
male-identified drag queens who,
you know, drag was very limited
to the performance context
and when the performance is done
everything comes off
and you present as male
and identify as male,
felt that that maybe wasn't
their terminology to use.
Part of the issue here,
um, is-is this issue of
in-group versus out-group
and the line between, you know,
cisgender and transgender
um, and that that is
somewhat porous in some ways,
and drag queens are a really
interesting group to look at
because they sort of
straddle that boundary,
and so it can get complicated
in terms of well, who gets to
use what, and who gets
considered in-group
and who gets
considered out-group.
I feel like there's two
types of appropriation here.
There is appropriation
that is mainstreamifying,
losing some original context,
maybe losing some history,
but then there's appropriation
where someone is profiting
off of innovations that have
come from the drag community.
And this is not,
obviously, a new story.
Madonna's "Vogue"
came out in 1990,
and she profited off vogueing,
which is a dance form that
originated in that
drag ball culture
that I talked about before,
and in her video she featured
Willi Ninja,
who's a drag ball legend,
but now when we think about
vogueing, we see Madonna.
We don't think about Willi Ninja
or the people who actually
created that dance form.
Mh-hm. These layers of
appropriation is something
that Kevin and I talked
about in our discussion.
People outside of the drag world
profiting off drag culture.
Here's Kevin.
So, you know,
I think a lot of people,
where the anger comes from,
I think for folks, is that,
you know,
this was part of our language,
part of our culture and you're
not even appreciating it.
You're taking it, using it in
a way that it's not supposed
to be used, and you're
benefiting from it.
Whether that's material
benefits or more, um,
symbolic ideological ones,
and so I think we really, really
need to think about that.
I mean, we're talking about
capitalism. People now selling
this stuff and making money
off of something that
doesn't belong to them.
And on one level you can argue
that it's good news that drag
has become more mainstream,
meaning it's sort of
more in the public eye,
drag queens are
getting more work,
but then does the history
behind it get erased
as a consequence of
this mainstreaming?
Yeah, this kind of reminds me
of the commercialization of
Pride parades discussion
that we have every--
Every year.
PIPPA: Pride season.
There's like an argument that,
you know, the rainbow-washing
means that there's more
acceptance for LGBTQ+ culture,
but also the, like, protest
that Pride originated from,
it's kind of diluted.
Right. Its really hard
for anything to be both
profitable and subversive.
Mm-hm. To talk about
these complications,
I sat down with
Heath V. Salazar.
Heath is a Latinx drag performer
who uses they/them pronouns
and they perform under
the drag king name Gay Jesus.
That's a great name.
I wanted to talk to Heath both
to get a Toronto perspective
on this, and because Heath's
drag is something that we don't
see represented in
a show like
Drag Race.
A lot of the time
Drag Race
has a very limited idea
about what drag looks like.
Almost exclusively is cis males
performing in
very feminized drag,
but Heath's drag is subversive
and pushes boundaries that
Drag Race
necessarily welcome.
PIPPA: Here's Heath.
The culture of, like, drag kings
and gender within drag has
changed so much in the past,
like, five years,
and especially because before
it was so limited in what you
were able to do and sometimes
there was, like, old school
ways of thinking. Even now of,
like, how you should
and should not perform in drag,
and like,
when I started I thought
I had to, like, be a dude,
do you know what I mean?
And, like, wear a packer
and, like, wear the pants
and, like, put on a beard
and, like, whatever, and I--
The first time I ever performed
in drag I did it that way,
but then the next time
I was like, "It doesn't
feel like drag to me,
because I feel like
I do that every day,"
and also, being non-binary,
I was like,
"What is the opposite of,"
do you know what I mean?
And, like, for me,
'cause I identify, like,
off the spectrum as, like,
agender and trans non-binary,
I'm like, the opposite of
my gender is gender itself?
So, did you and Heath get into
talking about any
specific vocabulary?
Yeah, have you ever
heard of the term "fishy?"
Outside of the meaning of,
like, shifty?
Hm, something's fishy
about this murder scene.
No, not outside of that context.
Okay, this is a little
bit different than that.
Such a square.
PIPPA: You are.
In the drag context,
looking fishy or serving fish,
people might even say,
means that somebody looks like
a conventional cis woman.
So, the term fishy is sort of
a crude way of talking about
an aspect of the female anatomy.
Got it.
You know what I'm talking about?
I know what
you're talking about.
Great, but with drag like
Heath's that like they said was,
kind of, like, agender--
These words were sort of
out of place, right?
So, I wanted to
talk to Heath about these
gendered drag expressions.
So, like,
basically, within drag,
when you say something's fishy,
it means it looks like
the, like, conventional idea of
what, like, a quote unquote,
like, woman would look like.
Like a cis woman.
So, it's funny 'cause it's
a very specific trying--
When people say,
"You look really fishy,"
it means that
your drag doesn't look
like it's exaggerated and, like,
painted and over-the-top,
and then so, when people say,
"Serving realness"
within ballroom culture,
it's when you do things that,
like, very much resemble what
a, like, rich white woman
who's cis would,
like, look like and do,
and so it's very specific,
and it's so funny
because people will just,
like, scream and be like,
"You're serving realness,"
and I'm like,
"Do you have any idea
what you're saying?" No.
Yeah, I mean, I think we can
safely make the assumption that
the people yelling that
are not aware of the history
of what they're yelling.
Have you been to a lot
of drag shows in Toronto?
I haven't been to any in Toronto
but I went to several in
Vancouver when I was
living there, yeah.
Yeah, I haven't
been to very many here,
but they've always felt, like,
really inclusive spaces in
both cities to me, right?
But as Heath pointed out,
just because something is a gay
space doesn't mean that it can't
also have racist practices,
for example. Here's Heath.
And we don't question it 'cause
when we walk into those spaces,
if they're the only
spaces we have,
we think that's the only way
to exist within queerness.
We find this home,
and then this part of this home
is, like, this form of language
that you think is belonging to
you because it's something
that is characteristic of, like,
everyone around you
that's using this thing
and you think it's part of--
You're like, "Oh, that gets
to be a part of me because it's
a part of, like,
our community," and it's not.
People forget that
under the makeup,
there's a bunch of white Cis men
under there that are running
these spaces.
Them being gay, not a factor.
They're still cis white men
and they still have
the conditioning that our
society has given them, right?
If you finally find a community
that feels like home,
and that home shares
a linguistic pattern,
it's going to follow that you're
gonna feel like that is yours.
Those are your words.
That's your dialect.
That's the way you
pronounce words.
Right, even if they don't belong
to your community
racially speaking.
Totally. On this show,
we always talk about words
and word choice, but there was
another linguistic element
that Heath brought up
that I wanted to mention,
and that makes this conversation
even trickier to parse if you
can believe it. I'll let them
tell you. Here's Heath.
I know that there are certain
drag shows that I don't attend
because of
the language they use.
Oftentimes it also ties into,
like, um, like, people talk
a lot about, in rap,
blaccent and, like,
that appropriation of cadence.
Like, it's so jarring
once you're,
you make yourself aware of it.
When I think of, like,
the tongue clacking,
it's as simple as, like, a yas
or the way that the inflection
will be on words
when they speak.
Like, I feel so
uncomfortable just saying them,
do you know what I mean?
But it's, like,
when we think of, like,
the really stereotypical things,
even watching the show
I get so uncomfortable
when I hear it.
It's almost like we're
just taking years and years
of history and just
erasing all of it,
because queer history
within itself is so spotty,
because it's been
actively erased.
Black history has
been actively erased.
We've watched documents
be burned, you know?
And here in Canada we really
like to pretend like these
things don't exist here.
So, it almost becomes easier.
And so, whenever I hear that
language it's almost like
burning the history books.
That's really powerful.
It's like tough to hear,
obviously, but it's true.
This is a good time to mention,
for this episode we really
wanted to share a couple
different voices
from the drag community
and especially feature a black
drag performer who can speak
to the specifics
of that appropriation.
Um, we tried, we weren't able,
which on the positive note means
that drag performers
in Toronto are working.
Yeah, they're very busy.
Um, so, yeah.
I just thought we should say--
That that's something
we really wanted to do.
Mm-hm. We're very
grateful to Heath for
their interview as well.
So, I'm guessing Heath isn't
a fan of
RuPaul's Drag Race.
No, I don't think so,
but they did make the point
Drag Race
has contributed
a lot to the popularity of drag
which means, you know,
a bigger audience for drag,
more work for drag performers,
and those are all good things,
and in no way is
this saying that, like,
Drag Race
should be cancelled.
No, it's about educating
yourself and figuring out how
you can appreciate drag
culture respectfully, right?
Because it is fun
and the dictionary on
drag slang obviously
is endlessly inventive,
but that creativity was born,
in some cases,
out of oppression
and out of a need for survival
and for community.
So, we still haven't defined
those words that you were
quizzing me on off the top.
Right. Right, right, right.
Okay, let's do this rapid fire.
Mm-hm. First one was,
uh, beating your face--
Right. Beat your face.
Um, this means to
apply makeup perfectly.
So, it means that you did
your drag makeup really well.
Oh, I feel like I have an excuse
for not knowing that one,
'cause I don't wear makeup.
Yeah, I'm sure.
I get a pass.
Okay, next word.
Um, kiki.
Kiki means, like,
to gossip or chat.
So, you kind of got it right.
I was on the money.
You were on the money.
Good work.
Okay, and then the last one
was, oh, "sickening."
You look sickening.
Which, to me,
sounds like a grave insult.
Um, so, sickening means, like,
amazing, incredible, the best.
Like, you look so
incredible that I am gagging,
and gagging is a different
drag word that means, like,
to react really intensely,
usually in shock.
Sweet. I feel like we should
sometime soon get together
and you can, like,
shepherd me through
an episode of
Drag Race.
I've got some people who I think
will do a much better job,
but we can, we can both benefit
from a little tutoring session,
I think, for sure.
Yeah, that would be great.
And now you're released,
and you don't have to cringe
hearing me say
these words anymore.
Yeah, I'm relieved.
Oh, God. Me, too.
Word Bomb, a TVO podcast,
is produced by me,
Pippa Johnstone.
And me, Karina Palmitesta.
As always, with Word Bomb,
we'd like to acknowledge
that our work is recorded on
the traditional territories of
the Wyandot, the Anishinaabe,
Haudenosaunee, Metis,
and the Mississaugas of
the Credit First Nation.
Thanks so much to our guests,
Kevin Nixon and Heath V. Salazar
for their interviews,
and those clips that you heard
are from the documentary film
Paris is Burning.
Which is on Netflix,
so check it out, Karina.
Thanks to everyone at TVO
and thank you for listening.

Watch: Ep. 7 - 'Drag': From drag balls to RuPaul