When Britney released Work Bitch, it was obvious she'd got the song title from dipping into the drag queen vernacular. And who could blame her? The overt confidence, the acid wit, the fabulous hair; we could all learn a thing or five from a drag queen. And now that RuPaul's Drag Race has entered its sixth season, more and more of us are becoming familiar with drag culture. The show has amassed a fierce and loyal following - last month it hit 1 million likes on Facebook - and its alumni (including Sharon Needles, Jinx Monsoon and Willam Belli) have gone on to achieve huge success. We've never been more thrilled by queens serving realness and lip-synching for their lives. But there is a problem. And, like all the scariest problems, it involves vagina.
The culprit is a turn of phrase that is rife in the drag vernacular on the show. I hear it on TV and I hear it in real life. It is 'serving fish', and it is said without the faintest bat of a smoky eyelid.
For those unfamiliar with drag culture, let me take you to the library. Serving fish is - to quote the reputable source Urban Dictionary - a term 'used in drag culture to refer to a queen that has a very feminine appearance'. I would add that, from my personal experience, the term is also typically used as a compliment. This is the first definition on Urban Dictionary. The second and last definition of serving fish is this: 'When someone's vajayjay smells like it hasn't been washed for the past few days.' And here's the problem. By synonymising vagina and fish, people using this term are reinforcing the offensive idea that vaginas smell like to an old haddock. Awkward.
Similar to wiping your accidental splashes of wee off the toilet seat you forgot to put up, the key is consideration. Before her tongue went off the rails, Miley Cyrus wholesomely concurred that using 'gay' as a synonym for stupid was not okay, because it is ignorant of gay people's feelings. So when someone uses 'serving fish' to mean 'you look like an actual woman', it isn't considering actual women. It is, in fact, belittling them.
Thus by enjoying and indulging in Drag Race am I, as a feminist, guilty of supporting a misogynistic parody of women, what some deem the gender equivalent of blackface? Well, not really, and here's why: drag isn't and was never going to be flawless, because it plays with gender. And gender, as we all know, is complicated, honey. Drag does parody women for entertainment, it can be intimidating and we might not always understand where its motives come from, but something like Drag Race carries an overriding message of self-acceptance and self-love, regardless of race, gender, and labels. Men do not own masculinity in the same way that women don't own femininity. We all own both, and accordingly we should be allowed to play at being both, and this is where drag's significance lies: in gender play. Because gender desperately needs playing with, because we need to stop taking it so seriously, and I actually think drag can help us in eliminating gender issues by raising questions about how we, as men and women, relate to each other and appropriate each other in order to define our own gender identities.
I'm not saying we need to dismantle drag culture and reprimand queens guilty of saying hunty and fishy as vile misogynists of the patriarchal agenda (god forbid), but I definitely am saying that if you're going to impersonate women, then it's only right to respect women too. Sprekken zie drag might score you some club scene brownie points, but when it's offensive to something you're emulating then it's not okay. And like my grandma getting defensive over these old knitted golliwogs from her childhood when my mum told her to bin them, I'm sure veteran drag queens will be up in arms about being told what they can and can't say. But just because you've been doing it forever, doesn't mean it's right, and doesn't mean you shouldn't try and be a better feminist. So stay fabulous, keep working, but ditch the fish. It's been flopping around for too long, and it's starting to stink.Suggest a correction