Before last night, every episode of the drag competition show began with the contestants filing into the work room and watching a punny video message, in which RuPaul vaguely outlined the upcoming challenge. "Oooh girl, you got She-Mail!" went RuPaul's voice notification. The clip above is the revision—Logo's response to accusations of transphobia—and below is the way things used to be.
Of course, Ru's been saying, "Ooh, girl! You got She-Mail!" for years now—Drag Race is now in its sixth season. It wasn't until a challenge earlier this season, in which the contestants were shown isolated body parts of people on red carpets and had to guess "female or shemale" (the latter category referring not to trans people, but drag queens), that the outcry grew loud.
RuPaul, who previously said that he hated that Lance Bass apologized for using the word "tranny" ("I wish he would have said, 'Fuck you, you tranny jerk!"), issued a rare apology with producers at Drag Race's production company, World of Wonder:
We delight in celebrating every color in the LGBT rainbow. When it comes to the movement of our trans sisters and trans brothers, we are newly sensitized and more committed than ever to help spread love, acceptance and understanding.
Logo issued the following statement on its corrective steps:
We wanted to thank the community for sharing their concerns around a recent segment and the use of the term 'she-mail' on Drag Race.
Logo has pulled the episode from all of our platforms and that challenge will not appear again.
Furthermore, 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.
There's distinct triumph in this moment—at last, the concerns of trans people are being taken seriously enough to make for change.
A leading voice in this matter has been that of trans activist Parker Marie Molloy, who wrote an op-ed on The Advocate's website after the "Female or Shemale" challenge. Molloy wrote:
"Shemale" is a word that historically refers to transgender women, most prominent in pornography. The word originated with transgender porn and doesn't have roots in "drag culture," as some have argued is the case with the word "tranny."
Respectability politics will always be in conflict with drag, an art form with countercultural subversion at its heart. When these parvenus create new taboos around language, they're practically begging drag queens and kings to violate these taboos. If it's a choice between siding with the language police and siding with offensive artists, I'll always side with the artist willing to risk the consequences of making an offensive joke. The right to offend people is a cornerstone of the LGBT movement, and I will always defend anyone who offends our community's finger-wagging schoolmarms. Every movement and community needs jesters.
The outrage cycle continued, with a petition, supposedly signed by over 200 trans people, stating "We believe that these pieces should not have been published, and that they are not representative of the views of trans women as a community. Calpernia Addams and Andrea James do not speak for us." Sure. But retroactive censorship won't change those opinions, or solve what is a legitimate and fundamental disagreement.
If we understand that—as transgender artist Our Lady J wrote yesterday on the Huffington Post—RuPaul has long been supportive of "every shade of queerness within our community, no matter the class," and that Drag Race is one of the few shows on any channel that consistently features transgender people (Season 2's Sonique, Season 3's Carmen Carrera, Season 4's Kenya Michaels, and Season 5's Monica Beverly Hillz are all out trans people; Chaz Bono was a guest judge on last night's very episode) and discuses trans issues, then what this boils down to is largely an argument over semantics. That's important, because language is so closely tied to how groups are treated, but it's more a symptom than a cause. Focusing so much on the consciously irreverent words of an ally of queer people is like focusing on litter while the globe becomes intolerably warm.
But, look: an ideal in civilized society is to defer to the most sensitive person in the room, and that's not just PR. You have to speak to be heard, and if your manner of saying things is getting in the way of your overall message of inclusiveness, it's better for everyone that you change things, even if it means risking looking like you're bowing to pressure. Chaz Bono's presence wasn't the only element of last night's episode that proved Drag Race is more nuanced than its detractors let on; check out the following exchange between RuPaul and contestant Joslyn Fox on offensiveness versus entertainment. As Bianca Del Rio points out, "You don't want to be that queen that upset Cher's family." None of us do.