10 Books to Read If You Love Drag Race
Miss Vanjie. Miss Vanjie. Miss Vaaaanjie
We’re officially past the halfway point of season ten of RuPaul’s Drag Race, so obviously, I have begun to dread the end—and I’m sure, morbid as I am, I’m not alone. In recent months, RuPaul and Drag Race have been getting more popular than ever, so I’d imagine that there are many who, like me, immediately watch the new episode every week and then feel bereft. What to do? The answer is to turn off your television and read something, of course—but if you’re jonesing, you may as well read something drag-related. To that end, below is a starter reading list for Drag Race fans, from foundational theoretical texts on gender to great recent fabulist novels. After all, as we all know, say it with me: reading is fundamental.
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble
Despite the fact that it was published almost 30 years ago, Butler’s Gender Trouble is still an essential text when it comes to understanding gender—and particularly gender as performance, which is at the very heart of drag. If you don’t at least know the bare bones of Butler’s argument, you’re missing half of the subtext here.
Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers
Genet wrote this novel, his first, from prison—twice. The first manuscript was confiscated and burned, but Genet persisted, rewriting the hallucinatory tale of the Parisian drag queen Divine (from whom the now-more-famous Divine got her name), “holy and murdered—by consumption” and her attendant lovers and leavers. It is a strange, opaque novel, but deeply rewarding, and almost certainly one of the best works of fiction written expressly to aid its author’s own jail-cell masturbation.
Laurence Senelick, The Changing Room
A history of cross-dressing practices and rituals from ancient Tibetan shamans to David Bowie, with particular emphasis on theatrical performance, with all its inherent costuming, and what Senelick refers to as “the inherent sexuality of all performance, the ability of the live theatre to construct gender variants unencountered anywhere else, and an abiding ‘queerness’ in the most authentic types of theatre and its antecedents.”
Joseph Cassara, The House of Impossible Beauties
Cassara’s visceral debut novel (whose book cover required quite a journey), is set in Harlem’s underground ballroom scene of the 1980s, and tells a fictionalized version of the origins of the all-Latinx House of Extravaganza, in which there is beauty, excitement, belonging—and lots of tragedy.
bell hooks, Black Looks
One important text among many by hooks (and one that continues to be relevant despite its age), this book investigates representations of blackness in American culture. It also includes a chapter in which hooks criticizes the racial politics of the classic film Paris is Burning. “Gender bending and blending on the part of black males has always been a critique of phallo-centric masculinity in traditional black experience,” she writes. “Yet the subversive power of those images is radically altered when informed by a racialized fictional construction of the ‘feminine’ that suddenly makes the representation of whiteness as crucial to the experience of female impersonation as gender, that is to say when the idealized notion of the female/feminine is really a sexist idealization of white womanhood.”
Andrea Lawlor, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl
A new fabulist take on gender-bending—it’s not drag that Paul engages in, but true shapeshifting: from boy to girl and back again, at will. In the ’90s, no less. It’s ridiculous and moving and edgy and I won’t say what that reminds me of because you are reading this list and so you already know.
Ed Wood, Killer in Drag
What’s more deliciously camp than Ed Wood? An Ed Wood novel about a drag queen who moonlights as a contract killer! I can’t say for sure, because I myself only just found out that Ed Wood even wrote novels (apparently tons of them), but it sounds an awful lot like pulp paradise.
Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth
The bestselling feminist classic about how beauty is used against women is a little dated, but still essential reading for anyone interested in performance and presentation of gender in modern culture. Plus, it will give you many more convincing reasons not to rest on “pretty.” Ahem, Courtney.
Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare
To be fair, all of Shakespeare’s plays involve some amount of drag-like performance, considering all the roles were written to be played by men. And, the bard being a lover of plots involving disguises and mistaken identities, quite a number have further blurring of gender presentation. I think the most convoluted is Twelfth Night, in which, at one point, a man would be playing a woman playing a man, who loves a man and is loved by a woman. “What you will,” indeed.
No list of books for Drag Race lovers would be complete without a plug for RuPaul’s forthcoming book, which he has called “a talisman, a guidebook for living.” You’ll have to wait until October, though—so in the meantime, you may as well catch up with Lettin’ It All Hang Out and Workin’ It!, both available on iTunes. (Just kidding—available wherever books are sold.)