“You’ve Got She-Mail”: The Use of Gendered Pronouns on RuPaul’s Drag Race

Okay, so I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I just started watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. I had heard of the show before, but it wasn’t until I started watching some reruns at a friend’s house that I realized how much I’d been missing out.

The show is, in a word, fabulous. From RuPaul’s ever-changing wardrobe to the weekly “She-Mail” messages, the show is like a bad car crash- you just can’t stop watching. I mean, who doesn’t want to watch a bunch of dramatic divas compete for the title of #1 Drag Queen? As my roommate described it, the show is a perfect combo of all of our guilty-pleasure TV shows: Project Runway, America’s Next Top Model, and a whole lot of gay.

RuPaul, image courtesy of logotv.com

Ever a student of gender and sexuality, I couldn’t help but notice the interesting use of pronouns on the show. As expected, the queens refer to each other by their drag names and use female pronouns (she/her/hers) when dressed in drag. What gets really interesting is how they refer to one another out of drag: most frequently with the same female pronouns. There were a few “slip-ups,” however, which got me to thinking about whether this use of pronouns is inherent to drag culture, or just to this particular show.

When I started my research, I came across what I assume is a graduate thesis entitled Who is [Wo]Man?: The Complicated Use of Gender-Specific Pronouns on RuPaul’s Drag Race by Ryan D. Wright. As Wright comments, “the pre-transformative process (as it will be referred) reveals the men referring to themselves and RuPaul as women via female-specific pronouns. Since contestants’ gender identity does not aptly compartmentalize into the binary system that English-speaking societies regard as normal, their complicated use of these pronouns requires us, viewers, to reconsider who and how we might determine what a woman is and what a man is” (Wright 2011:2). In other words, the use of this gender-specific language forces viewers to deconstruct the entire gender binary. Rock on, RuPaul!

Wright also discusses the liminal nature of the drag queens’ gender. During the transformative process, the queens take on a sort of genderless or androgynous role. “They each have a penis, but it is hidden. They have breast enhancements, but they are artificial. They wear feminine, female clothing and wigs, but they verbally communicate in a rather masculine tone and pitch. And, it is during this unmarked timeframe that they could be recognized better by gender-neutral pronouns,” but they continue to use female pronouns (Wright 2011:3).

When Wright discusses gender-neutral pronouns, he is referring to the words “ze” and “hir,” pronouns adopted by those who use neither  “he/him” nor “she/her” (Wright, 2011). These recently-adopted terms have gotten a lot of flack along the lines of “how are we supposed to get used to brand new words that sound like gibberish?” I counter that argument with this question: what else are we supposed to do? The English language limits our use of pronouns to either male or female, and absolutely nothing in between. So naturally, the response was not to reclaim old words but to construct new ones.

The best part of all of this is RuPaul’s attitude towards the issue. “RuPaul is notable for stating, ―You can call me he, you can call me she, you can call me Regis and Kathie Lee, just so long as you call me” (RuPaul IX). This suggests that RuPaul, similar to all other drag queens, is not concerned with being classified as a man or woman, but as a queen or more so as a being. It is not RuPaul‘s intention to pass as a woman but to exercise her free will to situate herself amid persons who conform to the categorization of man and woman” (Wright, 2011:4). In other words, Ru doesn’t really give a damn.

This got me thinking about the crossover between the drag community and the transgender community. Within the trans community, pronouns are seriously important. Choosing a pronoun announces to the world how one identifies, and asks the world to both recognize and respect that identity. I wonder if the use of female pronouns in the drag community (most specifically when the queens are not in drag) is a source of frustration for transgendered individuals. I can imagine it might be frustrating for someone who fights every day to be referred to with their desired pronouns, a drag queen who is consistently addressed with female pronouns, might cause a little bit of jealousy. Not that I’m taking a side on this at all, just pondering. Anybody have any input? Perhaps this will inspire another blog post!

All in all, I’ve gotta give RuPaul props for breaking boundaries, even when it makes people uncomfortable. By making a caricature of herself, she allows the viewers to gain insight about the drag community through laughter and extravagance. While it may seem over the top, the show is actually quite progressive, which I can’t help but be inspired by. The next step is having a show like this on a TV station that isn’t LOGO!

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About Michaela


Michaela is a recent Seven Sisters graduate with a self-designed degree in Sexuality Studies. When she's not blogging, you'll find her teaching Health and Wellness and A Cappella to high school students, helping women find properly fitting bras, and working as an editor on a documentary. She hopes to continue her education one day with a PhD in Feminist Anthropology.