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RuPaul’s Drag Race and What People Get Wrong About the History of Drag

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Updated: | Originally published: ;

With RuPaul set to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on March 16 and the tenth season of the hit show RuPaul’s Drag Race premiering on March 22, drag seems to have solidified its place in today’s mainstream entertainment zeitgeist.

Though this isn’t the first time drag has reached pop-cultural prominence — the format and RuPaul both had a moment in the 1990s — the TV show has helped bring it to a new level of visibility. In doing so, Drag Race has also played a key role in codifying an image of what a drag performance should look like. Recently, that influence has raised questions over who that image includes. In an interview with the Guardian last week, RuPaul stirred controversy by saying that he would probably not let trans women compete on the show, saying, “Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it.” He has since apologized for these comments, but the sentiment has cultivated a larger conversation about who gets to do drag, and why.

Beyond the realm of VH1, drag is a multivalent art form with a complex and stratified history. TIME spoke with Joe E. Jeffreys, a drag historian and videographer who teaches theater studies at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, about the history of drag, the influence of RuPaul and some of the common misconceptions many people have about drag.

TIME: What are the first things people should know about the history of drag?

JEFFREYS: I would start by saying that drag is a theatrical form. Drag is anytime that someone is putting on clothing that is considered to be not appropriate to them, and then wearing it with some type of ironic distance. In its purest form, drag is when a person goes into a dressing room, they put this thing on, they go out on stage and they perform, and [after the show] they take it off. Drag, I say, is the indigenous queer performance form, meaning it is of the people, by the people and for the people. I also maintain that drag has always been mainstream — it is just that with the different platforms that drag is now able to work through, perhaps there is a wider, quicker audience that has access to it. But we go back to something like vaudeville, at the turn of the century, and performers like Julian Eltinge were wildly popular. Some of the top paid performers in vaudeville were drag performers.

Even if drag performance has always been mainstream, has that also been true of drag that’s explicitly associated with LGBTQ culture?

That has to go back to when drag and homosexuality become connected. I put it around at the 1930s, when the field of sexology — the study of sex, sexual practices among people in cultures [first developed in the 19th century] — develops all these ideas and categories, who people are, why people do the things they do. For a while it conflates ideas that today we might consider to be cross-dressing with what we might call homosexuality. Esther Newton said in her study of drag, Mother Camp, that drag and camp are the most widely recognized signifiers of homosexuality perhaps in the world, but they can be separated, they are not the same thing…

So did drag’s role as entertainment in queer spaces come about due to the popularity of that type of performance in general, and then it was only later associated with gay culture?

I think the association is there first — it is something queer people do and have done historically. Because once the sex line is crossed, I think the gender line is no big deal. Having the outsider perspective, they are able to look at and see things about gender that perhaps somebody who doesn’t question the overall society as much, doesn’t necessarily see as readily.

So being queer entices some sort of critical look at gender?

That definitely spurs it on. It definitely gives it a little sparkle or direction that might not otherwise be as readily there.

What is drag in its purest incarnation?

I believe that the purest incarnation is in gay bars. This is where the drag queen serves this kind of shaman role, this kind of court-fool role [in which] they are allowed to say and do things that the culture perhaps needs to look at. Even one of the performers on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Bianca Del Rio, will say, “I’m a clown.” She recognizes this comedic role, like we see in Shakespeare with the fools. Drag performers will say that once they are in this costume, they’re allowed to do and say things that they could never do in their everyday persona.

There has been a lot of recent discussion about who gets to participate in drag and who doesn’t. Considering its history, what would you say to that?

Drag is everybody’s art form. Like, I am sitting here in a grey pinstripe suit. It is “executive realness.” I am wearing it with some sort of ironic distance, knowing that this costume translates to a person looking at me, and drag is an ironic wearing of clothing. There have always been male impersonators and there always have been female impersonators. What is being brought to the forefront now, and has been espoused in academic circles for years, is that gender is not a binary, it is a spectrum, or a wave. You are not either one or the other, and I think that is what now is what is becoming more culturally acceptable out there. And so yes, anybody can do drag, because drag to me is the theatrical form: You put it on, you take it off — which is different from how you present yourself in every day life.

So if someone claimed that historically drag performers in queer spaces were gay men, how would you respond?

Drag kings have always been out there, they just don’t get as much attention. Murray Hill has been a New York City icon for years. Judith Butler talks about how men — and this is the power of masculinity — are seen as unmarked. People don’t see men as this thing that can be impersonated. But now mass culture is beginning to see that yes, there are breaks. I mean, look for example at Melissa McCarthy on SNL who does Sean Spicer. Going back to vaudeville, we have performers like Vesta Tilley, male impersonators who did all sorts of male characters, soldiers and things like that.

You know, there was a New York Times article recently that asked, “Is this the golden age of drag?” I don’t know if this is a golden age, I would call it the Ru Era, and I don’t know if it is a peak or a valley. RuPaul has done wonderful things for drag. He has managed to get a generally non-drag-consuming public to understand drag as an art form, which is no small feat. But at the same time, the show has only made opportunities for those contestants. If it was a true golden age of drag, at least in my estimation, I would see mass audiences flocking to the drag shows at my local bars. They are flocking to events featuring contestants from the show, but when you get back down to that localized, gay bar drag show, the doors aren’t breaking down yet.

Do you think cis and trans women should able to be compete on RuPaul’s Drag Race?

I totally believe yes. [There are] women who are female impersonators, and there is also a smaller phenomenon that we don’t see as much of, men who are male impersonators. Some of these guys who perhaps go out there and do Elvis — is that a male impersonation? Absolutely, because drag is an impersonation, so it means to some extent you are looking at the portrayal critically and adapting it. There is definitely a certain style of drag that RuPaul’s Drag Race propagates. To some extent it is about makeup, right? Anybody can do that, anybody can put that on their face, anybody can impersonate their own gender.

Where do you see drag going next?

This is on the edges of the scene, but people are now not necessarily costuming as a man or a woman, and are a little more unclear and sometimes not even necessarily human. I also see drag becoming hopefully more open to everyone, that, yes, a woman can be a female impersonator or a man can be a male impersonator, that it is a theatrical exaggeration. Now, whether this exaggeration is good, bad or indifferent becomes another question — but anybody can co-opt things that can be considered part of their own gender.

If the link between queer culture and drag faded, and cis, straight people started doing it, would that be a problem for drag as a format?

Everybody has always done drag. Milton Berle or Flip Wilson, we have this in our popular culture record. This is why I say drag has always been mainstream. That isn’t what they are known for, but this was a part of their act, their bag of tricks. I mean, look at Tyler Perry. Tyler Perry is one of the most successful people in Hollywood and has worked a career around Madea.

But it’s fair to say that there is a difference between explicitly queer drag and “mainstream drag”?

There is drag is created by, for, and of the gay community and appeals directly to them, and this type of drag hasn’t been visible to a wider audience up until recently. Mainstream drag relies on a different set of tropes, and has an audience that finds a man dressed as a woman to be inherently funny, which is not the same for drag in the gay community.

What isn’t drag?

Drag isn’t just buying the markers. Drag is sincerely invested in it. Whatever the markers of gender are in a particular culture that we are looking at, then drag is not if the individual just puts on clothing without question. Drag is the questioning of all that: What is all this fuss about a bifurcated piece of fabric, at least in our American western culture? Because to some extent that is what it comes down to. Women fought to be able to wear pants, but it is still odd and unusual to see a man walking around in a non-bifurcated piece of material.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Drag is for everybody. Do it! Look at the presentation around you and go, Really? Drag is an encrustation, so encrust yourself with whatever you feel like encrusting yourself with. Put it on. Take it off. That’s what drag is. Everybody can play a character.

Correction: The original version of this article misstated the name of the author of Mother Camp. She is Esther Newton, not Hester Newton.

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Write to Wilder Davies at wilder.davies@time.com