I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the importance of artistic expression in our current political climate. Most people who know me know that my main academic area of interest is the Beat Generation. When I taught courses in Literature of the Beat Generation I used to teach a poem by Diane di Prima called “Rant” in which di Prima says, in repeated capital letters, “THE ONLY WAR THAT MATTERS IS THE WAR AGAINST THE IMAGINATION!” She goes on to say that “There is no way out of the spiritual battle / There is no way you can avoid taking sides / There is no way you can not have a poetics / no matter what you do: plumber, baker, teacher.” di Prima implores her reader to wake up, to pay attention. There is a battle happening all around us, and everyone is a part of it. di Prima’s insistence that we all have a poetics is quite striking, as is the insistence that the way we choose to determine our own poetics, our ability to use our imaginations to the fullest, is always under attack. On the last day of class, I used to ask my students to identify some specific national event or activity that somehow figures into the war against the imagination. Then, I would ask them to identify something they would vow to do to keep the Beat spirit alive and ensure that they are on the right side of this battle. It could be as simple as seeing a controversial film or viewing some confrontational artwork. Perhaps, if students really wanted to challenge themselves, they might even create some challenging artwork of their own.
Well, my words are my weapon in the war against the imagination. And though writing a weekly review of a television show about drag queens may seem frivolous to some, it is my humble contribution.
RuPaul has a song in which she sings “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag.” Judith Butler couldn’t have said it better herself. And this statement is important because in a world where there is so much violence and hatred for those who are seen as different, it’s nice to remember that in many ways, we all perform our identities. We all have performance in common, even if our performances are vastly different.
In 2015 RuPaul said: “Drag is important because it reminds our culture to not take life too seriously[…].When you take it all too seriously, when you think that everything it says you are on your driver’s license or birth certificate is all that you are, then you’ve really lost the plot.” Well, to some extent I disagree with Mama Ru. Drag is serious business and it always has been. Drag queens were at the forefront of the Stonewall Riots in 1969, kick-starting the gay liberation movement. Drag queens can be funny, beautiful, and/or outrageous, but they always push boundaries and cross over gender binaries. They reject convenient definitions and require their audiences to think. In 2017, I would argue that drag is an incredible act of defiance. In 2017, gender nonconformity is seen as dangerous, but Ru and her girls have the audacity to be themselves, and to love themselves – because if you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else. Can I get an Amen? Drag queens are artists and they are risk-takers. Now more than ever, we can all use the Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent that only Ru can bring us. I look forward to offering my thoughts on the new season Drag Race every week. Thank God for RuPaul. And in the words of John Oliver, let’s make America fierce again.