RuPaul as Style Guru to Baby Drag Queens and Everyone Else

Tonight’s the Season 2 premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race (9pm on Logo TV or Logo Online)! Among reality contest shows about fashion, style, and beauty, this is my favorite. Hands down. Drag Race has the most diverse group of contestants – in race, gender, sexuality, and likely, class. Last season, three of my favorite contestants were from outside of the U.S.: Bebe Zahara Benet (Camaroon), Ongina (Philippines), and Nina Flowers (Puerto Rico). Also, one of the guest judges last season was Jenny Shimizu (who I adore even if she looked like she was on an Asian American literature panel at MLA)! The photo of Shimizu below (circa her Calvin Klein days) has little to do with this post but it’s there because: I. love. Jenny. Shimizu.

I’m looking forward to this season but I’m also a little nervous. The guest judges that have been announced for this season are Kathy Griffin, Cloris Leachman, and Debbie Reynolds. I can’t honestly say any of them excite me much. Another reason to be apprehensive about Season 2 is precisely because it’s Season 2. Reality shows are always best the first time around. In proceeding seasons, contestants seem too versed and too ready to manufacture drama in order to stand out as a “personality.” Ru seems to be hinting at this when she says:

The biggest change in this season is the contestants are actually a bit more – how can I put this? They’re more tenacious. In the first season, they were a bit more diplomatic because they were representing drag for the first time in a decade. This time around, though, the kids have seen the first show, they know what the prize is, and they know what’s at stake, so they have taken the gloves off.

Still, can’t wait to watch! If you missed Season 1, you can catch up online.

In related news, RuPaul hates fashion people. She tells W Magazine why she has nothing to do with New York’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week: “I think the fashion people are so nasty and so pretentious.”

Also, she’s got a new book out called, Workin’ It! RuPaul’s Guide to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Style (Harper Collins 2010). Both the TV show and the book firmly position Ru within the increasingly familiar trope of the lifestyle specialist/style guru. In Drag Race, she plays (wonderfully!) the matriarch/mentor to baby drag queens (Nina Flowers even calls Ru, “mother,” during their private lunch together).

With Workin’ It! (totally judging said book by its cover here), Ru expands her domain of influence, to “provide helpful and provocative tips on fashion, beauty, style, and confidence for girls and boys, straight and gay – and everyone in between!” The neoliberal makeover logic at work in the book is, by now a pretty trite one. As Brenda Weber explains the logic in her essay, “Makeover as Takeover” – see also her new book, Makeover TV: Selfhood, Citizenship, and Celebrity (Duke UP 2009):

A new and improved appearance will not only make the woman more congruent with larger codes of beauty, but will increase her confidence and thus her personal power. In order to gain access to this form of power, however, makeover subjects (often called “victims,” “targets,” “marks”) must submit fully to style authorities . . .

RuPaul’s embracing of her role as neoliberal style guru is evident in the title and description of the book. In articulating style in the language of democracy (here. the Declaration of Independence), RuPaul’s book connects the consumption of resources like fashion, beauty, and style commodities to political acts. Workin’ It! suggests that “girls and boys, straight and gay – and everyone in between” who wants to be free (and who doesn’t want to be free?) needs her style expertise. This is a central tenet of neoliberalism’s lifestyle politics: consumer power is political power.

What is different about RuPaul as style guru is the difference of race, gender, and sexuality. And while this is a significant difference, it isn’t a radical one. Instead, the book (maybe more than the TV show) is a function of what Lisa Duggan has called “the new homonormativity” of neoliberal sexual politics:

[I]t is a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions but upholds and sustains them . . . [through] a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption.

I love RuPaul. I think she looks amazing and will never be outclassed by any of the contestants on her show. And basically, I can get behind her general message. But her book nonetheless illustrates the power and pervasiveness of neoliberalism as this era’s cultural logic.

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Why I feel guilty when I don’t blog

There are buckets of reasons why I’m glad Mimi is my on/offline writing collaborator and dear friend – but surely top among them is her capacity to deliver much-needed kick-in-the-ass motivation from thousands of miles away. At least that was the effect of her two previous blog posts for me this morning.

I’ve had a bit of blogger’s block lately — but it isn’t for a lack of topics to write about. For example, I’ve been following the news and campaigns about fashion philanthropy (specifically, the Fashion Delivers campaign for Haiti and the LA Times‘ piece on Dress for Success) and wondering how much the overstatements about fashion’s capacity to “empower” and “save,” while no doubt commensurate with the prevailing lifestyle politics of neoliberalism in which consumer power is made co-extensive with political power, is also a kind of false bravado that betrays fashion’s own inferiority complex about its social significance.

Add to that, Angela McRobbie‘s admonition (also bouncing around in my head lately) that fashion “colludes in its own trivialization.” Here’s the full quote from the essay, “Fashion Culture: Creative Work, Female Individualization”:

In the absence of a lobby of policy-makers arguing vociferously on behalf of this autonomous sector, and for them to have access to low-rent urban retail spaces such as market stalls, lanes, corridors, and other cheap locations, when designers do find themselves in difficulty they are judged by a model which deems them simply unviable and the fashion press fatalistically announces another fashion label going out of business. Despite the profusion of fashion magazines, the expansion of the fashion media including television, and the appearance of academic journals devoted to fashion, there seems to be no coherent map of the field, which in turn encourages government to rely on simplistic accounts. In this sense, fashion lets itself down and colludes in its own trivialization.

In 2002 when McRobbie wrote “Fashion Culture,” fashion bloggers weren’t nearly as visible as they are today, so she didn’t mention them or any other members of the “creative proletariat,” like online and print magazine editors who finance their own publications. But like independent fashion designers, many bloggers and editors are being edged out by the corporatization of the cultural economy as well. It is increasingly difficult — almost untenable — for independent designers, bloggers, and editors to sustain their cultural projects without some form of material or immaterial corporate sponsorship (i.e., a feature story in a giant media outlet like the New York Times, affiliate marketing, direct ad sales, banner advertising, etc.). All of the social media outreach events planned for the upcoming Fall 2010 New York Fashion Week which, as Mimi puts it, are “aimed at cultivating new contacts and nurturing existing collaborations between fashion bloggers and captains of industry” attest to this.

Fashion and style bloggers understand that the support (material and immaterial) of fashion giants like the Chanel company, Marc Jacobs, or Vogue brings with it an enormous amount of cultural capital that can launch them into the stratosphere of fashion/media. And I certainly don’t begrudge the fashion blog elite the corporate love they’ve received — we’ve considered and continue to consider different strategies of monetization like speaking gigs, consulting, and commissioned articles. (Though we’re not opposed to advertising, the opportunities we’ve been presented with haven’t been right for us yet.)

Fashion bloggers and social media discourse celebrate — quite automatically now — the independent, DIY, and democratic spirit of blogging. Consider this quote about blogging from Jennine Tamm Jacob (The Coveted) in the video Mimi re-posted:

It was something that I could do. I could just set up a blog myself and I could write about whatever I wanted . . . it was just me doing my own thing and I found that to be really liberating.

But in understanding the cultural and political economies of the fashion blogosphere, it’s important not to gloss over the fact that computer-mediated communication technologies and digital labor are deeply embedded in capitalist logics.

My 3-part blog post on the state of the fashion blogosphere has had many iterations — a pocket-sized and abbreviated version appears in Style Sample Magazine, issue 5, and there’s a revised and expanded academic essay I’ve been working on as well. In the expanded essay, I point out that the new digital work order in which fashion bloggers labor is shaped and limited by capitalist logics. For example, the structures of digital temporality (i.e., timestamps, the organization and archiving of posts in reverse chronological order, etc.) continue to naturalize and positively secure capitalist valuations of productivity, punctuality, and accumulation (of symbolic, cultural, and material capital). Working overtime (if we can still use that concept in the “flexitime” of digital temporality) is de rigeur for fashion bloggers, especially because their productivity must keep pace with the accelerated rhythms of the fashion-beauty complex organized and driven by the capitalist logic of the New/Now. In other words, the spirit of capitalism and its ethic of dogged and steadfast productivity permeate the digital creative labor of fashion blogs even when that labor is “free” (that is, both free from the 9-to-5 workday/workplace and also unpaid).

So while digital technoculture scholars and fashion bloggers alike celebrate the Internet for enabling the flexibility of work and work hours, it may be that we no longer need the external regulatory mechanisms of the Industrial Age (i.e., factory clocks, etc.) because in the Digital Age, we are self-monitoring and highly multi-tasking subjects whose body, image, and time — commodified as cultural goods — are produced, distributed, and consumed in a global cultural economy that is unprecedented in its pace and efficiency.

It’s little wonder, then, why I’ve been feeling guilty about not posting! And I’m hardly alone — consider how many and how often bloggers apologize for their lapses in posting. Such guilt illustrates the affective economies of digital capitalism as well!

As a salve for this capitalist guilt, I have to remind myself that I’ve been highly productive offline — writing chapters at a maddening pace (for me) and loving (most) every minute of it. All free creative labor, but nevertheless . . .

I have to admit, though, it hasn’t been all work for me. I’ve also been quite distracted and all dreamy about Julie Wilkins’ London-based label, Future Classics, which I’ve only just discovered! (How did I not know about their deconstructed jersey deliciousness and their diaphanous silken wonders until now??) Now, should they want to collaborate on some affiliate marketing . . .