LOS ANGELES – A professor set to teach a course next semester focused entirely on a reality television show about men who dress up as women defended his class in an email to The College Fix on Tuesday, saying it’s a modern way for students to study queer and feminist theories.
“I normally teach literature, but a television show is also a cultural text,” the professor, Daniel Williford, stated in his email. “We read it not just for the entertainment value of storytelling, but also in the context of social history and as an art form.”
Williford, who teaches at Occidental College, made national headlines in recent days after news of his pending course, called “Reading RuPaul: Camp Culture, Gender Insubordination, and the Politics of Performance,” prompted a wave of criticism.
The class will watch “RuPaul’s Drag Race” show, as well as read the book “Workin’ It,” written by RuPaul, who over the last two decades helped pave the way for cross-dressing to be considered acceptable, even normal.
“RuPaul’s Drag Race” is a reality competition television program during which cross-dressed contestants go through fashion designing challenges, musical performances, and an audience favorite – getting drenched in water while dressed in drag.
According to its Wikipedia entry, “RuPaul’s Drag Race has been criticized for appearing to favor glamorous drag queens over comedic or camp queens (and) … has been accused numerous times of keeping some of the more unpleasant but feminine queens in the competition for the sake of keeping the drama high.”
Clips of the show on YouTube also illustrate it’s laced with profanity and vulgar humor.
Williford, in his email, said the show is worth studying.
“RuPaul’s Drag Race is impressively citational,” he stated. “It gives viewers a subtle history lesson in the social movements and identity politics of the twentieth-century. In the past century art has been useful as a mode of social critique and in communicating political resistance to social injustice.”
The course will give students credit within the “core requirement” subject of “U.S. diversity,” joining a long list of other courses in the “Critical Theory & Social Justice” emphasis offered at the private university, where President Barack Obama launched his college career.
Other classes listed under the emphasis include: Immigration and Education; Critical Theories of Sexuality; Stupidity; Mother Goose to Mash-Ups: Children’s Literature and Popular Texts; Critical Pedagogy; Body Politics; Fundamentals of Queer Theory; Queer Literature and Culture; Materialist Feminism; Women of Color; Rasatafari; Whiteness; Psychic Life of Violence; The Queer Novel; The Queer of Color Critique; and Critical Blackness.
The online course description for the RuPaul class states:
As the show brings the art of drag performance and issues attendant to contemporary queer subcultures to a wide audience, the course will consider how it addresses histories of drag and U.S. gay culture, as well as a broad range of issues such as transgender identity, HIV/AIDS, bullying and violence, racial identity, gender identity, body size, and LGBT political activism. Students will consider claims about the transformative, recuperative, and empowering art of drag performance. The course will draw from readings on the history of sexuality, feminist critiques of gender identity, transgender affect and embodiment, the history of race and racial identity, and drag and the politics of camp.
“Drag is a parody, and parody is very often tied to social critique,” Williford said in his email. “The theatrical art form of drag is often a critique of gender norms, so it can be understood through feminism, which intended to call out the myths of ideal femininity that often reinforced women’s lower social status. But contemporary drag also comes out of the Harlem Renaissance, where artistic expression was a way of galvanizing communities in New York City.”
Essentially, the show provides a pop culture platform for an academic study on theories of gender and sexual identity, Williford stated.
“It is one thing to say that the show is a critique of the way that social norms harm and exclude people, but it will take us an entire semester to do the work of articulating what that means,” he stated.
Williford told The College Fix students are showing a lot of enthusiasm for his course, “and when college students are enthusiastic there is a palpable energy that is very productive in the classroom.”
“At times, recourse to pop culture is really useful in giving students a way to understand difficult abstract theories. It is nonetheless a rigorous academic challenge – perhaps all the more so because of the seeming contrast between high culture and low culture.”
Fix contributor Samantha Watkins is a student at Point Loma Nazarene University.