Queering Racist Symbols

While watching the movie “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar”, I was so wrapped up in the plot that I did not notice the big details. One of the larger details that I missed that was brought up in class is the moment in the film when RuPaul dressed in the confederate flag at a drag ball. The ball occurs in the beginning of the film; the three main characters are in a competition to take the ball’s title. RuPaul is introduced as last year’s winner and makes her début donning the glamorous confederate flag gown. RuPaul is one of the most widely known drag queens. She is an actor, recording artist, television show host, and has been the face of drag queens for quite some time.

Not only is RuPaul’s dress made from the confederate flag, but also the dress is made to be very extravagant and glittered. RuPaul has taken the very negative symbol that goes against even aspect of her character – black male, queer, drag queen – and turned it into a freaking dress. If that is not a huge   to the confederate flag and its meaning, I do not know what is.

RuConfed

There has been a controversial debate around what the confederate flag represents. Some people believe it is a symbol of southern pride – while most recognize the confederate flag as a symbol of racism and a reference to the horrible acts perpetuated against black people during that time. The flag also represents white supremacy and the push that happened against the civil rights movement. In my opinion, if the confederate flag is considered a symbol of southern pride, we have to take into consideration the period in which this represents. The south openly embraced slavery and the lynching of black peoples during the time the confederate flag was embraced. It is also important to note that this era has not ended, these acts have just changed form and are still perpetrated in a different manner. Southern pride must include that history so if you are claiming to embrace racist ideals. During the time of the confederate flag, this was also southern pride:

The only difference between these two images is that this image cannot be put on a flag and be mainstream.

Why is RuPaul wearing this symbol of racism and white supremacy?

Elizabeth Freeman would describe this phenomenon in terms of “temporal drag”. According to Freeman’s piece “Time Binds”, “temporal drag is a productive obstacle to progress, a usefully distorting pull backward, and a necessary pressure on the present tense”. Temporal drag is when a specific object representing a certain culture is revamped. This remaking is meant to conjure memories of the past, but not continuing or mocking it; it is remodeled for a different reason.

I agree with partially with Freeman’s concept of temporal drag. I agree with the notion of an object of the past being created into a new entity, however, I do feel like RuPaul was mocking it. I believe she was showing that the flag meant absolutely nothing and was just another piece of fabric. Drag queens are known for two actions: performing and “reading”. Reading, in drag queen terms, is a form of publicly making fun of someone. I believe RuPaul was definitely reading those individuals who embrace that flag by making it into a dress and performing for those at the ball. She was demonstrating how much she did not care about the meaning of the confederate flag and showing the lack of respect for it. The flag means the world to some people and she was showing them that the flag and it meaning actually meant nothing.

In carrying out this performative reading, I believe RuPaul is concurrently reaching for something else, something deeper. As Jose Munoz said in his novel “Cruising Utopia”, “Turning to the aesthetic in the case of queerness is nothing like an escape from the social realm, insofar as queer aesthetics map future social relations. Queerness is also a performative because it is not simply a being but a doing for and toward the future. Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.” In a way, I believe RuPaul was performing the acceptance of all people. By making that flag into an extravagant gown, she is rejecting white supremacy and the systems that are created by that supremacy which oppress groups of people.

I believe there are many reasons why RuPaul decided to wear that dress instead of verbalizing her opinion. However, the main reason could be that she did not want to spend time explaining how she felt to those who would questioned her.

Audre Lorde said it best, “Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.” Why should those that are oppressed explain their plights and their feelings to the oppressors? In order to avoid that explanation, RuPaul decided to wear that gown instead of speaking her feelings. If the oppressors want to understand the oppressed, they need to do research of their own instead expecting the oppressed to explain everything.