Following a dustup occasioned by a game that made its contestants guess the gender of a person based on close-up photos of their anatomy, RuPaul’s Drag Race has had a change of heart about some of the language it uses on the show, the Huffington Post is reporting.
The series, which airs on Logo Mondays, pits a dozen or more drag queens — that is, men impersonating women — against each other for cash and the title of “America’s next drag superstar.” Occasionally, however, a contestant on the show has been a genuine transgender woman, not just a drag queen; those “coming out” moments are some of the most sincere and heartfelt on reality TV. So it seemed a disconnect for some that the show would routinely use the term “she-mail” as Ru’s version of “e-mail” to the contestants, since “she-male” is considered a derogatory term for a trans woman. (The “she-mail” controversy began when it was first used in Season 1, though the hubbub quickly died down.)
In a statement from Logo to HuffPo, the network said, “We are removing the ‘you’ve got she-mail’ intro from new episodes of the series. We did not intend to cause any offense, but in retrospect we realize that it was insensitive. We sincerely apologize.” Several former contestants (some trans, some not) lobbied for the change and endorsed the decision.
The question it raised for me is, why now? And why that term?
The “now” is fairly easy to answer: Society has developed its sensitivity to LGBT issues over the years, and it continues to grow, and the “female of she-male” game from several episodes ago was clearly a tipping point.
The “why” is harder to answer.
Is it derisive to call a trans person “she-male” offensive, even transphobic? Most definitely. But is calling a gay man a “girl” also bad? It certainly is when said with malice — but one of Ru’s other catch-phrases is “Silence! …. Bring back my girls,” in reference to the (male) contestants. Is calling someone “queer” wrong? When shouted angrily from a car at a gay man walking down the street, yes. But Queer Eye and Queer as Folk showed us how to co-op hate speech and turn it into empowerment.
“She-male” is clearly wrong, but “she-mail” — a pun on “e-mail” — is, and should be considered, a joke … perhaps one in bad taste, but then, bad taste is the stock in trade of Drag Race. In the same way that the transploitation film Ticked Off Trannies with Knives was so named in order to take ownership of a term that can be used derisively, couldn’t we all agree that “she-mail” was meant in good fun and leave it at that? There’s no show on TV that has greater respect for the gay community — including the trans community — than Drag Race. The show also objectifies men (the bikini-brief-clad Pit Crew), uses words like “hunty” and “fishy” in suggestive ways, regularly plays the quiz-show parody “Snatch Game” (and we know what “snatch” means in this context) and makes countless other transgressions. In the way that gay activisms popularized the mantra “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” could we take an expansive look at our culture and distinguish between maliciousness and good-natured hazing?
Maybe not. The trans community suffers a lot of indignities, and coming out as trans isn’t easy. We should try to be sensitive to issues of tolerance and not spread hate. But Chaz Bono — child of Cher and perhaps the most famous trans person in the world — was a guest on the show last night, and he presumably didn’t object to the term. Maybe we could all take a lesson from Chaz … or maybe Chaz needs to take a lesson from the activist trans community.