“The reality-television competition that began nine years ago has evolved to reflect an era fixated on gender and identity — and the boundary-pushing spirit of its star [RuPaul Charles].Drag has been featured in popular culture for decades. Movies like ‘Kinky Boots,’ ‘Tootsie,’ ‘The Birdcage’ — even ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ — have showcased men, some gay, some not, who dress and perform as women. But most tended to treat drag as high jinks. Nothing about the inner lives of queens has hit critical mass quite like ‘Drag Race’… But Charles belongs to a different generation, one that fought so hard for visibility that they feel they’ve earned the right to eschew all political decorum and enjoy the anarchy of reinvention…” J. Wortham, the New York Times
ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key
“When ‘Drag Race’ first began, it seemed like a fun window into an underground culture, but over the nine years it has aired, the show has evolved to reflect America’s changing relationship to queer rights and acceptance.
Drag, to Charles, is about the perversion of our understanding of gender, and by extension, ourselves. ‘We queens take on identity, and it is always a social statement,’ Charles explained to me. ‘It’s all nudge, nudge, wink, wink. We never believe this is who we are. That is why drag is a revolution, because we’re mocking identity. We’re mocking everyone.’
Anyone familiar with reality television will recognize the premise of ‘Drag Race’: Loosely modeled on ‘America’s Next Top Model,’ hosted by Tyra Banks, the show features 12 (or so) contestants who gather to compete for the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar and a cash prize that varies per season but can be as much as $100,000. To determine who will advance to the next round, the queens are given elaborate challenges, like creating haute-couture runway looks from scratch or starring in music videos.
‘Drag Race’ is entertaining in the way that every show that structures itself around transformation is: There’s a pleasant thrill that comes from watching a bland room metamorphose into something out of Architectural Digest, or the creation of an impossibly elaborate meal in under an hour, or a generic-looking man morphing into a gorgeous and statuesque woman.
At first, “Drag Race” wasn’t an easy sell. Even when Viacom’s L.G.B.T. channel, LogoTV, picked it up, Charles had to fight to realize his vision for the show…Each season is imbued with a sense of optimism in the face of relentless adversity; Charles believes that is central to the gay and queer experience. ‘There is a sisterhood here,’ he told me. ‘It has to do with the shared experience of being outsiders and making a path for ourselves.’
Amid the glitz and glamour of drag, the show doesn’t obscure the violence and terror that accompanies the life of the marginalized. On the first season, a contestant named Porkchop described being shot at while standing outside a gay bar… Trinity K Bonet talked about living with H.I.V. When I asked Charles if there was a deliberate decision to infuse the show with overt political messaging, he shook his head.
‘It’s inherent in our experience. We don’t have to do much to infuse a consciousness into the show. It is such a part of our story, and we walk with it.’ That awakening feels familiar to him because he went through it himself at 13. He looked like a girl, with sharp cheekbones, a soft brow…
He saw his first drag performance: Crystal LaBeija, an icon in drag-queen history, was singing Donna Summer in black fishnets and a bustier. Charles was floored. He drafted the first iteration of his new persona, blending the new-wave punk aesthetic of Bow Wow Wow, the goth freakiness of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’…all finished with a pile of hair whose volume rivaled Tina Turner’s.
He started bands, made music videos with friends, appeared on public-access variety shows and worked as a go-go dancer. He papered downtown Atlanta with handmade posters of himself that read, ‘RuPaul Is Everything,’ and ‘RuPaul Is Red Hot.’.. ‘Since “Drag Race’ first aired in 2009, the conversation around identity and gender has shifted tremendously.
For all the show has done to challenge its audience’s notions of masculinity and femininity, it has shied away, until the most recent season, from any serious discussion about the ways the drag community intersects the trans one. There have been trans queens on the show, but the topic is a touchy one in the drag community.
The centerpiece of the show is the contestants’ transforming themselves into queens, and then, after each competition, taking off their wigs and removing synthetic breasts to reappear as men…In 2015, Charles and World of Wonder created RuPaul’s DragCon, a multiday convention about all things drag. Charles had mentioned to me it several times — he is nothing if not media-savvy — as the future of his empire and a way to widen the culture of drag beyond a television show and nighttime acts.”
NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.
Level: Intermediate – Advanced
Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.
Time: Approximately 2 hours.
Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.
Objective: Students will read and discuss the article with a focus on improving reading comprehension and learning new vocabulary. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.
I. Pre-Reading Activities
Stimulating background knowledge: Brainstorming
Directions: Place students in groups, ask students to think about what they already know about the topic. Next, have students look at the pictures in the text and generate ideas or words that may be connected to the article. Regroup as a class and list these ideas on the board. Students can use a brainstorming chart for assistance.
II. While Reading Activities
Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.
- RuPaul Charles and several drag queens made their way to the stage.
- The challenge, was a parody of the dynamics that play out on the ‘The Bachelor’.
- The goal was to see who could perform — satirize, really — stereotypes of femininity.
- One queen was dressed like a Barbie doll, her makeup exaggerating her features.
- The director called cut, and everyone broke into boisterous laughter.
- Part of me wanted to be offended at the over-the-top interpretations of female behavior.
- Charles has said that he feels he is beyond categorization.
- He feels they’ve earned the right to eschew all political decorum.
- We’re mocking everyone.
- “Drag Race” has become a staple of modern television.
Directions: Place students in groups and after they have read the entire article, have them complete the following sentences taken from the article. They can use the words and terms from the list provided, or provide their own terms. They are to find the meanings of any new vocabulary.
Hordes of___people swarmed around the queens, eager to have their___ taken with them. There were long___ of men and___ excited to take ___with Charles, who was holding in a section reserved for the V.I.P.s who bought special badges. There were people dressed as mermaids, ___ cartoon characters and ghouls. There was a dressed as a sea___ being half-eaten by a shark.
WORD LIST: queen, captain, muppets, photos, women, photographs, young, court, lines,
Grammar: Using Adjectives to describe pictures
Directions: Have students choose a picture from the article and write a descriptive paragraph using adjectives.
III. Post Reading Activities
Directions: Have students use the WH-question format to discuss or to write the main points from the article.
Who or What is the article about?
Where does the action/event take place?
When does the action/event take place?
Why did the action/event occur?
How did the action/event occur?
Discussion for Comprehension /Writing
Directions: Place students in groups and have each group compose a letter or note to a person mentioned in the article telling her/him their thoughts on the topic. Share the letters as a class.
Directions: Allow students 5 minutes to write down three new ideas they’ve learned about the topic from the reading, two things they did not understand in the reading, and one thing they would like to know that the article did not mention. Review the responses as a class.