Hello! We’re still in the thick of this month’s theme: the alter ego. So far, we’ve considered the alter ego as a separation of self. But when employed for the purpose of exploring gender, the alter ego becomes an opportunity to connect different parts of the self together and multiply creative possibilities.
For Track 03, let’s bust the binary. Life’s a drag, the body is a stage.
RuPaul | Judith Butler | Marcel Duchamp | Nicki Minaj
I love RuPaul’s Drag Race for the same reasons I love hip hop and art history. There is something so engrossing about different artists contributing to a self-referential, collective body of work. In this case, it’s a global franchise of fabulous and tenacious drag queens. When you get an inside joke or a reference to an iconic moment from a past season, it’s a wink and a reminder that you are part of a vast and invested fandom. If you’re unfamiliar, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a reality show where drag queen contestants compete in weekly sewing, acting, singing, dancing, makeover, runway, and lip sync challenges until one queen is crowned America’s Next Drag Superstar. As viewers, we’re immersed in a world of tongue pops and death drops, where reading is fundamental, the tea is scalding, and the eleganza is sickening. The drama has us gooped and gagged; we’re all born naked and the rest is drag.
What’s the Tea?
What makes this show so compelling for so many, including myself, is the storytelling. In each episode, the queens get ready together backstage in front of a long two-way mirror for their final runway looks. This time inspires their most personal and raw reflections, figuratively and literally. As they transform, they share their experiences and traumas growing up—how they first came out, their relationships to their biological and chosen families, first-time-in-drag confessions, and the inspiration behind their female personas.
Their stories center on how drag allows them to fully embrace who they are. For most queens, drag was an escape from the masculine expectations projected onto them. From an early age, expressing their femininity made them feel more at home in their own bodies. Others open up about how drag saved their lives, giving them hope and community outside of those who couldn’t accept their queerness. We learn that drag is an elaborate illusion used to reveal the truth within. In a 2018 interview, RuPaul declares, “Through drag, I was able to find out who I really am. Period. Drag was never about being a woman. It was about challenging the identity values of society, and saying, “I am whatever I put on.” Werk.
This week, let’s explore the alter ego as an opportunity to play with gender while challenging societal expectations of identity.
Body-ody-ody and Gender
I can’t talk about gender and not invite philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler into this intersection. Butler’s 1988 essay, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution” blew my mind when I first read it, right around the time RuPaul’s Drag Race premiered in 2009. In this essay, they argue that, “gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time—an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts.” Butler cites French philosophers Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s ideas around the body as an “active process of embodying certain cultural and historical possibilities.” Possibilities!
The body is not fixed by gender, rather, it’s a set of possibilities that can change over time. When we identify as a woman or as a man, society expects us to assume the historical ideas of what those things mean in our present culture and time. Butler explains that various acts of gender create the idea of gender; our bodies aren’t prescribed with intrinsic cultural codes. We create gender by performing it. Outside of the male/female binary, we have no structure or expectations for how those historical ideas function in society. The possibilities become a limitless spectrum when identity detaches from history.
A Rrose by Any Other Name
The most compelling art to me [ long drag of cigarette ], challenges societal expectations, questions traditions, and agitates boundaries of acceptance. I think of Marcel Duchamp in this way, the daddy of Dada, whose art pushed society’s understanding of what art could be.
Most known for his ready-made sculptures, he re-contextualized found objects into new forms, from a bicycle wheel to a urinal, and set them in galleries and museums. Duchamp’s alter ego, Rrose Sélavy, opened him to new possibilities in further expanding on his ready-made concept. The name Rrose Sélavy is word play in French for “Éros, c’est la vie,” meaning, “Eros, such is life.” (Some translate éros here as love, MoMA translates it as ‘sex drive.’) Another interpretation is “arroser la vie,” translated as “to toast to life.” Either way, she sounds like *quite* the dame.
When asked in an interview, “Who is Rrose Sélavy?” Duchamp responded, “In 1920, I decided it wasn’t enough for me to be one single individual with a masculine name. I wanted to change my name for the ready-mades, especially to make another personality for myself.” Fellow Dada artist and friend Man Ray photographed Duchamp dressed as Rrose Sélavy, who created and signed works of their own, the first being Fresh Widow.
Fresh Widow is an altered ready-made, a pun for “French window,” and a reference to the then-recent effects of World War I to the population. Black leather squares obscure the glass panes, preventing the viewer from seeing through it. Glass and windows show up a lot in Duchamp’s work, a metaphor perhaps for observing different perspectives, which Rrose Sélavy offered to his own practice and audience. While some historians mention Rrose Sélavy as more of a quirky character in Duchamp’s grand oeuvre, I argue that she added more weight to his conceptual work in challenging multiple facets of societal conventions—not just in how we perceive art, but also in creating space for the multitude of identities within ourselves.
You Can Be the King, but Watch the Queen Conquer
One of my favorite examples of how different gendered alter egos release the creative beast within is Nicki Minaj’s verse in “Monster.” Off of Kanye West’s 2010 album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, “Monster” exemplifies the “dark twisted” part of this album with a video so gruesome it was banned from most music channels. Her verse is universally acknowledged as the best guest feature of the 2010s—and arguably one of the best of all time. She revealed in an Instagram post that Kanye almost took the song off of the album because he knew her verse would be the talk of the entire project. He was right.
At this point in her career, Minaj had yet to release her highly-anticipated debut album, the only rookie standing alongside heavy hitters JAY Z, Rick Ross, and Kanye West. She out-raps everyone by a long shot and created a legendary moment in 2010 that people still revere today.
Why is this verse so good? At that time, we had never heard anything so cloying yet so hard, so controlled yet so unhinged in hip hop before. She delivers split personalities so distinctly and seamlessly while expanding into a wide range of tone, emotion, and intensity with each four-bar phrase. Her vocal inflections are strange and unpredictable. Out of all four MCs on the track, she commits the most to unleashing the monster within and takes us on a Dr. Jekyll vs. Mr. Hyde journey of dueling alter egos.
Harajuku Barbie is the sweet, high-pitched voice overtaken by Roman Zolanski, who aggressively roars and growls in a spooky vibrato. Her alter ego Roman, is featured the most in her first two albums. Minaj describes him as, “the crazy boy who lives in me, who says the things that I don’t want to say. I think he was born out of rage, that’s why he bashes everyone.” Barbie and Roman battle bar for bar as Minaj switches characters, weaving in and out of soft (Barbie) and hard (Roman) energy. Minaj’s scene in the “Monster” music video depicts this as a hostage situation, a dewy pink Barbie held captive by a fanged, crop-wielding Roman. Minaj surpasses the other legendary MCs on this song by rejecting the previous formulas set before her. By breaking from the hyper-masculine traditions of hip hop while bridging different parts of herself, she forced new ideas into expressing the art form of rap. She understood the assignment to the point where she schooled everyone.
Respect the Spectrum
From Shakespeare to kabuki to Tyler Perry, the history of men playing women characters in theatrical performances extends across cultures. And often, it’s for comedic reaction. But off of the stage, exploring gender has long felt dangerous and subversive because of the patriarchal offshoots of toxic masculinity, transphobia, and homophobia. We’re now in a polarizing point in time where parts of this world promote fluid non-binary identities, self-indicating pronouns, and queer and trans-visibility, while other parts fight to keep oppressive structures and draconian laws rooted in bigotry and ignorance. The most recent, heinous onslaught of anti-trans legislature and last month’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill continue to target the rights and lives of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Creativity can thrive under constraints, but true self-expression requires a boundless blue sky and a safe environment. When we’re limited and forced into fixed, harmful “historical ideas” of identity, we chain ourselves and future generations to the same pain.
I’ll end on this! As humans, we live and create most authentically when we reimagine and build structures that support us rather than cage us, where we can show up wholly as ourselves. That in itself, is the art, and a powerful tool in our collective unlearning and evolution. Pursuing that in our own lives inspires others to do the same.
Whew! Thanks for reading. Next week is the final track of Volume 01: The Case for Alter Egos!
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Thank you so much for writing this 💜
Plenty to parse here. Before I read this blog I believed performing artists led two separate lives: public and private. Here is a reason: In the 1940's and 1950's, "movie stars," [a term no longer in use] were contracted with studios. Some stars were told to hide behaviors that might alienate audiences. Then came the '60's. Bob Dylan wrote "The Times They are A-Changin." Indeed times were changing and indeed the changes continue.