Madden: Drag queens did it first


Daily Northwestern

Joseph Madden, Columnist

Drag is funny. Not solely because a man is dressing up as a woman, but because he is doing it in the most animated way possible. It evolved into those men creating and cultivating their individual female personas. As you may well know, drag is rooted in camp. Do you really think a man who dresses up as a woman and calls herself “Helluva Bottom Carter” does not want you to laugh at her? Moreover, do you think by now she cares if you do? Of course not. And I find that admirable.

What you may not know about drag queens, however, is how much mainstream culture steals from them, or how the treatment of queens as the “other” is limiting us as a culture.

Dressing in drag is one of the closest things to a gay tradition. Queens were some of the first to be attacked at the Stonewall Inn, and some of the most avid participators in the subsequent Stonewall riots that most consider to be the start of the modern gay rights movement. No one answer can fully explain what started this phenomenon of gay men dressing as women, plausible that it was an expression or release of the femininity many of those men were forced to conceal during childhood.

Drag, from its inception, played an integral part in forwarding alternative culture. In turn, mainstream culture borrowed (stole) from that alternative. Take, for example, the current popularity of lip syncing. A few years ago, late night host Jimmy Fallon began holding competitions between himself and celebrity guests. The success of the mini-competitions comes from Fallon and his guests attempting to play a role and own it the most they could.

If that last sentence reminds you of drag queens, it should. Because drag artist John Epperson introduced lip-synching into the drag community with his persona Lypsinka. And he started doing it in 1988, some 25 years before celebrities started mouthing words on “The Tonight Show.”

In an interview with, RuPaul, the drag mother herself, noted that contestants have been lip-synching on her show, “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” for years. When asked how she feels about the recent popularity of lip-synching in mainstream, cishet (cisgender-heterosexual) culture, Ru shrugged and said “straight pop culture has liberally lifted things from gay culture as long as I can remember.”

But I am not writing to say mainstream culture should stop stealing gay culture. I am writing to say the mainstream discomfort toward drag queens is stunting the growth of culture.

Drag queens often popularize trends that straight icons “borrow” decades later. Remember Britney Spears’ song “Work B—-,” released in 2013? I certainly cannot forget it. What you probably do not remember is RuPaul’s song “Supermodel (You Better Work),” which is very similar but released in 1993, some 20 years before Britney’s original hit.

What’s more, the stolen bits of gay culture play very well with straight audiences. Lip synching was such a popular segment on late night TV that it is now it’s own Spike TV series, with performances receiving some 10 or more million views on Youtube. Spears’ “Work B—-” has received more than 200 million views on her eponymous Vevo channel.

RuPaul and Epperson receiving little to no credit for the mainstream crazes they made popular decades ago is unjust in the extreme. But nobody needs to shed a tear for RuPaul: She is successful and has openly stated that she does not care about mainstream success.

Instead, consider how much more culturally advanced our society would be if we were not so uncomfortable with drag queens and appreciated what they were doing when they were doing it. There is a greater statement to be made here about how the LGBT community as a whole — or perhaps an even greater one about all marginalized voices — is being excluded from mainstream society limits our culture itself. But this is about giving credit to where it is certainly due: the drag community. We can see in the success of the pathetically de facto, diluted appropriations of drag culture that straight people like what queens do.

I am not so sure how we would go about bringing drag into middle-American culture — in the same interview, RuPaul defined drag as “the antithesis of mainstream.” Integrating drag queens into society could put us cultural decades ahead of where we are now. Perhaps that begins with moving RuPaul’s Drag Race to a network more suitable for its ratings than Logo TV. It could certainly start with acknowledging Spike’s Lip Sync Battle as rooted in Epperson’s and Paul’s work rather than a skit on “TheTonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.”

Sidenote: How are you all enjoying Rihanna’s new hit single “Work”?

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the origin of lip synching. Lip synching originated from Wm. Reverend Wood in 1981 at the Underground Nightclub in Seattle, Washington. The Daily regrets this error. 

Joseph Madden is a Weinberg freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.