Happy Pride, everyone. Let’s talk Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, drink a cocktail consisting of ginger ale and bourbon and Amanda tries to run from the pain by talking about Kingsman: The Secret Service.
I was never a YAS QUEEN sort of member of the LGBTQIA+ family but a recent change on my favorite show that I love to hate (RuPaul’s Drag Race) gave me pause. RuPaul, Mother of the All, recently started spelling the word “look” stylized as “lewk”. Now, Drag Race has for a while stylized words differently. There’s the Werq the World Tour and of course Ms. Stacey Lane Matthews’ famous “henny” but the changes that have come are new, startling and worth discussing considering that I am your favorite queer feminist postmodernist formalist.
Now, there is a reason that queer people around the world have their own language: safety. For those who are not aware that it recently has really only been acceptable to be queer in America (in some places) since the Stonewall Riots (which was lead by two trans women of color). Queer people in America have their own language to help find other people like you and to protect against those who do not understand or wish to harm you. Point blank.
One of the big influences in queer language for Americans is also deeply rooted in Ballroom culture. Now, I could have an entire blog on Ballroom culture (watch Paris is Burning or Pose for a good primer) but let’s start with two basics: ballroom culture was started by queer people of color. You have queer people of color to thank for shade and voguing and fan choreography that could snatch a girl bald. Second is that is was a welcoming place for all. Cis people were involved, trans folks, cis gay men, cis les women. All were welcome. And because of the ethnic roots of ballroom culture, a language began to form that was unique to queer people. You throw shade at a girl you don’t like. You punch the clock and go to work when you are on stage dancing. You snatch a girl’s wig when you don’t like her and you say something that could literally end her life. Ballroom culture informed drag culture and then club kid culture which brings us to…RuPaul. RuPaul has always said she as a drag queen was a club kid but as a queen often hearkened back to the roots of ballroom culture.
RuPaul is for many America’s first recognizable drag queen. She’s very easy to digest. She’s black but not scary, she’s very classically beautiful and she’s very charismatic. (Here is where I pause to say yes I am gendering RuPaul, a cis gay man, as she but that’s because I’m mostly discussing her as a drag queen) and her ability to use the language queer people have been using for decades at that time was mostly just a funny thing the nice pretty lady says.
The show Drag Race got popular in the 2000s. Hell, I remember watching Season 4 (the best season) on television and a lot of the themes of that season were older drag queens (Latrice, Willam, Chad) teaching the younger queens their history [herstory] (Jiggly, Phi Phi). It wasn’t a very popular show unless you were queer (because it was on LOGO and that channel was mostly for queer people). That meant that if you were watching Drag Race in let’s say 2007 you either understood the references made or you knew someone who did.
But that changed as the show began to gain very commercial success around the time of All-Stars Season 2, the language that kept queer people safe for decades became mainstream. Now, I’m not here to say that it isn’t good for queer culture to join mainstream culture because let’s be real, gay people exist and it’s a part of history that’s worth knowing. But opening things up to mainstream culture means that sacred items once held tightly together through cultural memory and history can be more accessible without the baggage of the history behind them. So a group of wine moms now can say YAS QUEEN WERK because she heard Trixie Mattel say it without understanding at all why that has meaning or value.
And with mainstream acclaim, there is a lot of people who love to monopolize and quote queer culture without giving queer people credit. For many OKURRR is a Cardi B thing rather than a noise drag queens having been making for years. This also plays into commercialization. Recently, I see a lot of merch with YAS and WERK and honestly, it’s all just exhausting. Not to mention the fact that it’s now socially acceptable for wine moms to use drag lingo but if me, a queer person of color still uses it, I get called out for following a trend.
This all culminates with RuPaul taking what was typically drag language like using work and look and now making those words more cutesy? Lewk is not a word. Werq is not a word. They’re odd spellings of words that have real double meaning to queer people. Now, these misspellings are likely for trademark purposes because Ru is a ruthless capitalist and likes to sell merch but it also makes something rooted in struggle and in bloodshed and in violence and in a lack of hemongeny.
Cultural appropriation is real and I’m seeing it happen with the memeification of queer language. And I’m not going to gatekeep to the point that I’ll say only queer people can say YAS but really, before you go on and try to “snatch a wig” just remember who gave you those words, who gave you that language and on the backs of whom you are not able to walk around in Target-sold merchandise.
Be mindful of where you spend your pride dollars. If it isn’t going to an organization, maybe stay away from it. Be mindful of brands who will swap over to rainbows for a month and then continue to deny queer people basic rights the rest of the year. Be mindful of people who love saying these words but also don’t think that gay people should be allowed to marry in churches. You can hold people accountable and still be cordial.
Happy Pride Month, everyone.
Amber and I were having another one of our famous talks. We were discussing life and history as always but I was then quickly reminded of a recent style trend that dredged up every negative feeling I had about 2017: snowglobe nails. Now, if you are fortunate enough to not know what these are, I’ll take a moment and let you find out a little more about this “style” trend.
Now, this is extra. Really extra. Why do you need to turn your nail into a snowglobe? But it immediately reminded me of a trend when I was younger: back in the day of velociraptors and chunky blonde highlights. In my high school, black girls did extravagant nail designs all the time. But back in those days, the black women that did such elaborate nail art were considered to be ghetto or tacky. Now they’d be the stars of popular Instagram accounts and Youtube tutorials.
This is cultural appropriation and gentrification. It’s when things that were once maligned due to its attachment to minority groups without admitting to any of its history and sanitizing it for the sake of popularity.
We’re going to go over a few examples that particularly earn my ire.
If you’ve watched RuPaul’s Drag Race, you have a base concept of what Voguing is. It’s a dance move that was popularized by Madonna in the 80s and is rooted in a the traditions of ballroom drag which was formulated and perfected by drag queens and gay men of color. Voguing is throwing shade with body movements but when Madonna popularized it at first she paid tribute to the LGBT community. She admitted that drag queens and queers of color did it better than her and featured them in her music videos and on her tours.
But as time progressed popular culture associated the act with Madonna more and more and less and less with the queer people of color that inspired and created the dance move. Voguing is an important part of the LGBT community and is a secret language to queer people all over the United States. And with Drag Race now in the popular lexicon, more and more people are aware of Voguing and are not aware of the fact that it is rooted in decades of ballroom drag. It was not something that started in the 1980s and it was not started by white pop stars. My breaking point was watching the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All-Stars and one of the guest judges (Vanessa Hudgens) had the audacity to say she was very into voguing now. Like it was a recent phenomena. Like it was something she just discovered. It exhausted me and I still roll my eyes at it every time I hear that comment.
Now, I’m relaxed. That is an important aspect of black culture, I was told that my natural hair was not pretty and that I was not likely to be hired or desired if I retained my natural hair. But since forever, folks have felt it necessary to try out styles that were created by black people. Dreadlocks come to mind. Dreads are often times maligned when black people wear them for a myriad of culturally insensitive reasons. Dreadlocks are a hairstyle that formed with the Rastafarian culture and religion. They happen because of the kinky nature of black hair. So when a black man or woman has dreads, it’s often times political, spiritual and important. When a white woman or white man does it…well, let’s just say it leaves a lot to be desired. Again, the locks in dreadlocks are formed because black hair is naturally a little kinky, that sort of texture just doesn’t really exist for many others but that stereotyping does not exist for a white woman at Coachella in dreads. So while Zendaya wearing dreads gets a racist comment out of an E! News hostess, a white person in dreads is just eccentric and “worldly”.
The same can be said for many of the trends in hair braiding.
I got my hair braided a few times when I was younger and mostly for those times when I would be away from my usual hair stylist. Braids were a way to protect my roots from breakage. But when I had braids I was as far as the world saw any other black girl with box braids. I didn’t feel pretty with braids and I still look at those photos with any positivity. I can still remember the hours in the stylist’s chair and the pain associated with getting your hair done.
But when a Kardashian braids her hair, heaven helps us. Now, it isn’t appropriative because some form of braiding is almost as culturally universal as Bigfoot, but it is disappointing that something is typically seen as a negative for one race while it’s fresh, cool and edgy for another.
The last hair trend I’ll cover is weave, extensions and wigs. I’m a cosplayer and I spend a lot of time in wigs and I’m a very handsome blond. But there’s a special relationship black women have with their hair and that means that many of my sisters in melanin have hair that they were not born with. And back when I was young in ye olden days, they were dissed for it. My great-grandmother was a snake of a woman but her wig collection was enviable. And as soon as I started collecting wigs, my aunts immediately made comparisons between my love of hair that was not mine and my great-grandmother, Ida. But let a celebrity throw on a neon wig and she’s a trendsetter.
Long weave is a staple for many ethnic communities in the United States. They became an important way to express style for many black women and for some black men.
And that does not mean that all my brothers and sisters with hair not their own do it right. And many of the criticisms of my think piece will be on “ratchet” and “ghetto” individuals. And while yes, there are plenty of folks who are not the pinnacles of fashion or design, the double standard is real and exhausting.
Now, in hindsight, I realize I’ve been extra my whole life. From the velvet jumpers to the always perfectly done hair, I’ve been extra since between it was a word used to describe people and not food. And back in my day, I realize now, that many of the girls and ladies I went to school with back during the days of raptors were extra as hell. Weaves that were several feet long, nails that sparkled like the hot white sun, velour tracksuits and purses that cost more than my rent payments. Today, that woman is extra. Years ago, that person was ghetto. And the big difference between what made a person “extra” versus “ghetto” was often tragically, race. Being extra is seen as a thing mostly now done by white people but comically, it’s something that many queer people and people of color have been doing easily for decades.
Speaking of queer people and drag queens, let’s take a small sidebar to talk about appropriation of language.
Queer people made up our own language decades ago. Shade, vogue, work, look, trade and more all mean something very different to the average gay man or drag queen. This language was created first and most importantly out of safety. Moons ago, being a gay man was not a fashionable thing to be and these codes and secret languages kept gay men and women safe from a hostile world. This secret language kept gay people alive and safe during the AIDS epidemic, during Stonewall and during the rough and tumble conservative eras in American History that you won’t learn about in history class. And as much as I love RuPaul’s Drag Race there’s been an entire generation and section of the populous that gets to “speak Drag Queen” without any of the background knowledge about it. And what’s even more frustrating is watching a woman at Walmart say “YAS, QUEEN. SLAY!” while also refusing to let LGBT people have the save civil liberties they deserve.
You don’t get to say “Yes, queen! Work!” and also think that gay people are still going to Hell because of religious dogma.
Cultural gentrification and appropriation are one of the most exhausting aspects of the modern pop culture landscape. It’s right up there with microaggressions as far as things that just wear me down. Gentrification and appropriation suck the life and history out a thing that matters to a minority community, sanitizes it and re-sells it at a higher rate that often locks out the original owners of that media, act or pattern for mass consumption. But through education, careful research and analysis of media trends and a decent level of empathy: we can combat cultural gentrification together.