The Inimitable Raja

13 05 2011

Drag is such a random and complex artform. It’s full of desperate freaks with few job skills, larger-than-life personalities, and a universe-ful of unorganised emotions. And there are so many types of drag that we can hardly keep up. As drag becomes more mainstream and acceptable, we can now watch reality television shows about competing drag queens. RuPaul’s Drag Race is by far the most famous (are there any others?), and perhaps the most fascinating creature on Drag Race to fell her opponents and seize the crown is the inimitable Raja, known also by his birth-name, Sutan Amrull.

Since Amrull won Season 3 of Drag Race (and even before his win was certain) people have been buzzing about the queen’s cutting-edge sensibility and unconventional take on drag. (Personally, this is exactly how I’d do drag. Sleek, smooth, and modern.) They’ve pointed out his neglect of traditional feminizing padding, his unapologetically manly voice, and his “thinkiness” about the whole art of drag. After all, his other drag competitors have argued, a real drag queen is supposed to be traditionally girly and talk with a squeaky voice. On top of that, he did a challenge (which he won) in which he very expertly embodied a hardcore punk-rock chick singing to a RuPaul hit. The problem traditional queens have with Amrull is that he has broken the traditional drag mould. Of course, this presupposes that he has rejected traditional ideas of femininity. Wow. We’re now talking about men who imitate women who are not traditionally feminine. Can we get more complex? It’s almost like Victor/Victoria reversed.

I’m confused already. And that’s a good thing.

To give you an idea how challenging Raja’s gender (and cultural) performance can be, let us briefly summarize his outfits from Drag Race. In consecutive order, we have the Native American chief, the Amazonian warrior, a stunningly elegant and edgy take on Marie Antoinette, and, of course, the sister of C3PO, as shown in the initial image at the top. (My favourite. The cold, hard, elegant robot, who does not necessarily follow the orders of her creator).

For me, the most memorable thing RuPaul said during Season 3 was that Amrull took drag to an “intellectual…special place”. It wasn’t his fake tits that mattered (he didn’t have any latex boobs); it wasn’t his showgirl persona that won the day; it wasn’t even his dance moves or voice. It was his creativity. In one episode, when asked by the judges why he wanted to be America’s next drag superstar, he responded with the utmost sincerity that boys should have as much right as girls to be pretty and fashionable. And he’s right.

I think Amrull won not just because of his technical skill, but also because he genuinely values drag as an instrument for social change–but with an unusual, almost alien panache. Men could be women. Or men could simply be men and do the same things as women–wear dresses and makeup. And women could be rulers, warriors, scientists, and other powerful figures, as depicted in so many of Amrull’s drag archetypes. It is that kind of challenge to the status quo that is so valuable, and so important, and the fact that it is packaged so prettily and daintily doesn’t hurt either.

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