Televised Genderfuck as Surrealist Revolution

By Amy M. Vaughn

(This is an exploratory and precursory essay.)

I love genderfuck. I love watching the disruption of enculturated norms, which is what genderfuck does to traditional notions of the male/female, masculine/feminine dichotomy.

While genderfuckery has had a place in both gay culture and, to a lesser extent, punk rock since the ’70s, it remained mostly underground until drag hit mainstream media. I am, of course, referring to RuPaul’s Drag Race (RPDR).

These days drags serves as an umbrella term for the work of several different types of performance artists. The most well-known of these are drag queens, who perform as women, and drag kings, who perform as men. Sometimes this traditional type of drag is campy, sometimes it’s realistic, but it’s always based on the idea of the gender binary—fucking with the binary, but still within it. Genderfuck rejects the binary, often aggressively, sometimes playfully, always purposefully.

James Majesty, Dragula Season 2. Genderfuck anyone?

I believe there may be something to gain from looking at these performative manipulations of gender though the ideas of the Surrealists of the early 20th century. The Surrealists saw themselves as a revolutionary cultural movement. Their goal was to free people from false and restrictive conceptions of reality. In other words, they wanted to disrupt enculturated norms. And their method was the juxtaposition of disparate entities with the intention of creating a surprising or startling effect.

I don’t think it’s too far a leap to say performative genderbending fits this approach. Whether we’re talking about overlaying feminine characteristics on a masculine form or vice versa, or combining the genders together in incongruous ways, done well, the effect is literally stunning.

Vander Von Odd, Dragula S1. Flat chested in a purple, embroidered matador outfit with collar and long tie. Make-up includes a large pink triangle and finger wave hair that is painted directly on the scalp. An artistic amalgamation of gender-based visual cues with overriding queerness

RPDR has been going for 13 seasons now. It’s been on cable television since 2017. People who live nowhere near a drag venue know and love the art form and its performers. People who otherwise would have had no exposure to drag culture say “Yas queen” and “Hieeee” even though some may not know where those phrases come from. Because of RPDR, drag is everywhere.

And RPDR has provided a platform for genderfuck, but because the goal of the competition is to find the “next drag superstar”—a person who can represent RuPaul’s polished, feminine brand to the world— genderfuck queens rarely excel. “May the best woman win,” has been one of the show’s catchphrases, repeated every episode until the current season. Now RuPaul says, “May the best drag queen win.” We could speculate that this change is due to the casting of the first ever trans contestant, though the point remains the same—RPDR is a safe space for gay males to express themselves through female impersonation. 

Which is drag but not genderfuck.

Dragula S3, right to left: Dollya Black performing as a drag queen, Landon Cider as a drag king, and Evah Destruction as genderfuck.

However, something even more subversive has entered through the door that RPDR opened: The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula, an “alternative drag competition” based on the principles of horror, filth, and glamour. And the Boulets’ stage is far more welcoming of genderfuck.

While drag has traditionally been dominated by gay men performing as women, genderfuck is not gender specific or sexual-orientation specific. Disasterina, on season two of Dragula, described himself as hetero-fluid and is married to a woman, while season three featured two AFAB contestants: Landon Cider, a lesbian drag king, and Hollow Eve, who identifies as nonbinary. 

At this point, spelling out all of these distinctions seems more than a little cumbersome and like a whole lot of nunya bizness, as if these descriptions have no place in the discussion of genderfuck because genderfuck is beyond them. In fact, jabs at traditional drag culture are not rare on Dragula, as can be seen in Evah Destruction’s disposable razor bikini on her hirsute body, a look which would not have a place in RPDR.

The Surrealists believed that art could bring about revolutionary social change through the process of the Hegelian dialectic—thesis, antithesis, synthesis. If we examine the recent history of drag and genderfuck through this lens, while vastly simplified, it might look something like this: the thesis that there are two heteronormative genders was met with the antithesis of an artform superimposing one gender over another to provoke the surreal effect of juxtaposing opposites in order to startled people out of ingrained cultural constructs. The synthesis has been greater acceptance of gay male culture and freedom of expression. Worthy goals, no question.

The dialectic for genderfuck, which I see as following traditional drag to further the same and expanded goals, would also start with the thesis that there are two genders but it would add three sexual identities (gay, straight, and bi). The antithesis is the performance of multiple expressions of gender and sexuality, provoking the surreal effect, and leading to the synthesis of radical freedom of expression and an existence untethered to preconceived cultural definitions—gay, straight, or otherwise.

Dragula has gone from YouTube to World of Wonder to Prime and now to Netflix, which is as mainstream as it gets these days. So, hooray! Another step in the right direction, following in RPDR’s very large and high heeled footsteps. But Dragula cannot fulfill the genderfuck dialectic on its own. Just as RPDR is constrained by its theme, so is Dragula. Luckily for us, we live in a time when we have access to platforms like social media (search #genderfuck at Instagram) and new voices are rising all the time. 

Real progress has been made through queer art in providing a surrealist antithesis to the idea of a gender dichotomy, and the result has been to guide mainstream culture toward not just tolerance or acceptance but celebration of gender differences. There is still a long way to go, but if the future is anything like the last 13 years, this trip is going to be sickening.

Amy M. Vaughn writes weird little books like Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel and Skull Nuggets. She’s also the editor of Dog Doors to Outer Space and a contributing editor at Babou 691.