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Apr 13, 2016

How to be a Shady Fish: Speaking like a Queen on RuPaul’s Drag Race

Do we ever sound like our authentic selves? Or is the way we talk always dependent on who we are talking to? Guest blogger Cass Bleechmore looks at the way the contestants of RuPaul's Drag Race communicate and create a shared identity. Despite using a distinctive lexicon, drag queens are just doing what we all do: using language to construct group identity.

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Now just between us girls…

Have you ever noticed that when you’re with a particular person, or a particular group of friends, you speak and act a little differently? And how by doing this, you fit in a little better?

Well, it’s not just you – your friends are probably tweaking their traits to suit you too. (Existential crisis fuel of the day: you may never truly know your friends because of this. Eep. Sorry.) But, because you’re unknowingly working together to match each other, you’re actually building what is called a “group identity”: a way of being unique to your group that connects you all (and distances you from those clearly less cool).

This phenomenon occurs even within the most fabulous circles to bless the earth: the drag queens of reality TV competition RuPaul’s Drag Race. For the uninitiated: imagine America’s Next Top Model, but with drag queens instead of models, and twice as fierce (also for the uninitiated: go watch it now – bless yourself).

If you’re already a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, you will have noticed that the queens have a very unique way of speaking, particularly in regards to some of their vocab. Terms like fishy (to appear convincingly feminine or girly), shade (an insult delivered in a subtle way), read (to insult someone directly) and sickening (used to describe something so outrageously glorious that it makes you sick) are used frequently within the show.

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By using these words, the contestants are showing each other that they know what they mean and how to use them, and that they therefore belong in the group. You’ll have a few words that do the same thing in your group of friends, too.

The group that the drag queens form is often likened to a family – mostly by the queens themselves!

While the queens share the same primary goal – to become ‘America’s next drag superstar’ – they all also share the same desire to have the drag profession seen in a positive light. They support each other like family throughout the contest, as shown in the language they use. Examples of this include the contestants referring to each other as sisters, and occasionally to host RuPaul as their drag mother, or simply mama. The power dynamic that comes with family is seen here too – RuPaul refers to the contestants as my girls, and uses the phrase my dear to soften the blow when she puts contestants up for elimination.

However, just as you’ve probably dealt more than your fair share of tough love to your own siblings, the queens are not always as kind and courteous as they could be to their sisters (this is a competition, after all)! Any queen who is seen to be tarnishing the drag profession is quickly called out for it, which can often result in going against the group (which I’ll explain below).

After watching just a few minutes of RuPaul’s Drag Race, you’ll notice that the contestants pretty much only use feminine terms when referring to each other. Pronouns such as she, her and herself are the norm, as well as other words associated with women like bitch, Miss and girl – these are used regardless of whether contestants are in or out of drag.

The choice to use feminine terms over masculine (such as he, him, man, dude, boyfriend, etc.) is one way that the drag queens show support for each other. By referring to each other as the portrayed gender of their drag characters, even when in their casual “boy” clothes, the queens can convey respect for their competitors’ craft. This is made especially obvious when looking at insults:

Even when throwing serious shade, the use of feminine terms shows that while the addressee could definitely lift their game, the speaker views them as a competitor worthy of respect in their craft. By inadvertently calling the addressee feminine, the speaker is saying that they are successful as a drag queen. (Well… to some extent – some of these digs have a bit of a sting!)

The real insults in RuPaul’s Drag Race come from the use of masculine terms. In Season 6, fishy queen Gia Gunn is personally offended at fellow contestant Milk’s androgynous looks. She reads Milk to filth, saying that she ‘will always think of [Milk] as a man, and consider [Milk] a drag king.’ Some of the other queens let out a chuckle, but one gasps and nearly swears at how rude this is. Plus, the music on the show changes really sharply, so you know it’s serious.

By calling Milk a ‘man’, Gia’s really trying to call her out for what she sees as unprofessionalism, and therefore going against the group goal of trying to portray drag queens in a positive light. This insult is meant to be harsh because it’s meant to call her out. She’s really trying to help. As I said, sometimes families deal in tough love. When Gia is finally eliminated, she bitterly labels her competitors ‘cross-dressing men’ – an indicator that the group dynamic has broken down. (‘Scuse the language if you follow that link).

But ultimately the drag queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race are a family. A support network of fierce queens who somehow manage to build each other up despite fighting it out for the crown. As leaders in the field, they show us just how instrumental language is in identity construction and maintenance. And they do so fabulously.

Cass Bleechmore is an actress and personal stylist (to herself). She completed her honours research on RuPaul’s Drag Race at La Trobe University in 2015. She is very excited to be using her arts degree. If you’ve found this interesting, Cass recommends checking out Nathaniel Simmons’ 2014 research here for more on the intersecting of group values and speech in the RuPaul’s Drag Race community. Super cool stuff!

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