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There has been a lot of brouhaha about RuPaul and his fabulous show, RuPaul’s Drag Race and its use of supposedly transphobic slurs (one segment includes Mama Ru very cattily saying, “Oooh Gurl! You’ve got She-Mail”). The reality show can be easily described as a mix between America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway where all the contestants have to make their own fabulous costumes, strut them on stage, and perform in various challenges that include comedy, acting, dance, and singing, and lip-syncing. It’s like the gay gods exploded glitter all over your TV and for some reason, you can’t stop watching. Full disclosure: I’m totally in love with the show, so this piece may come off as a little biased. I write this, though, not to defend the show’s use of supposedly transphobic slurs, but to offer a different view of the issue, one that takes off from a question of semantics rather than activism or political correctness.
When I was a relatively young and inexperienced university grammar teacher, I taught freshmen that words have meanings and that these meanings can be altered if you choose to describe the same phenomenon using different words. Fat and obese mean the same thing, but the former may be taken as an insult, the latter is more polite. A person who strolls down a park is not doing the same thing as another person who struts through it – even though they’re both basically just walking. The point I wanted to make was that words color the meanings they produce. And it’s this idea that words have standardized meanings that I find very problematic when it comes to describing people – whether it’s race, gender, sexual identity, class identity, or whatever. And the reason I feel very uncomfortable with this essentialized form of meaning-making in describing identities is not only because it also tends to essentialize the very identities that they describe, but also mostly because it takes the words away from the contexts in which they are being used.
Context is very important, I think, because it colors the word, and by coloring the word, the meanings are colored as well. So, to divorce a word from the context in which it is used would actually be to take away one layer of meaning, leaving you with a half-baked, ill-formed idea that simply makes one word negative and another one positive or neutral.
In the show (and may I remind you again that this is a show with drag queens) words like she-male (she-mail) and tranny are used in sort of tongue-in-cheek ways that aren’t supposed to be taken seriously. The whole show is a farce – and yes while there are moments of emotional authenticity, on the whole, it’s something that pokes fun at the very idea of seriousness or of people treating themselves too seriously. The whole idea of drag is that it parodizes the concept of a gender binary, and in doing so, it parodizes the very idea that anyone’s identity is a monolithic, non-changing entity: that there is one thing that defines a person and that that thing cannot change.
Of course I do understand why a lot of trans women find the use of these terms offensive – because they have been hurled at us so many times, and with so much vitriol, in the past (and present) that it’s difficult to purge them of their essentialized negative meanings. But I don’t think that should mean that we should ban these words from public (and private) use. There is a reason why those words exist and it’s not just to spread hate or fear or anger. I think it’s more important that we look into the circumstances and the social and cultural forces that have enabled these words to be created and to be used in certain contexts that disempower some people while giving power to those who use it against them.
I understand why the knee-jerk reaction to someone using these terms is to try to demean that person and to take away that person’s choice of using these words, thereby denying them any power over people whose identities are described using these supposed slurs. I also understand how a person could be quite defensive (or dismissive) about his or her use of a certain term. What I don’t understand is how people could see these issues are purely black or white – that there’s no space for a middle ground or a more complex and nuanced way of looking at the issue. Instead of what we usually end up with, which is basically a volley of slurs from both sides (you call me a tranny, I call you bigot), is there a way we could look at words and their meanings from disagreeing vantage points and say that sometimes it’s bad to use them, other times it’s not quite so?