Queer Identities and Neoliberal Human Capital

SOSC 4002

Gender and Social Change

Header Image: Karl Bewick. 2019. https://unsplash.com/photos/RAaRpOadzgU
Leon Hsu

Neoliberalism attributes the way an individual is seen as a commodity object because neoliberal capitalistic logic sees relations in terms of exchange values. Meredith Heller argues that “neoliberal identity politics contextualizes certain capacities of self as valuable ‘cards’ in a commercial market,” whereby the exploitation of one’s identity and the performance of one’s identity or identities are translatable as financial gains or cultural capitals.1The success of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the RuPaul-led drag queen competition television programme, and subsequent proliferation of drag-related content entering into mainstream popular culture demonstrates the exchange value of performative queerness. It is, however, a particular kind of queerness that gains exchange value. One that entertains mass consumer audiences without complicating existing social structures and assumptions of dominant heteronormativity. The spectacle of drag performance, such as the one seen on RuPaul’s Drag Race, is created by queer subjects and produced for mass consumption, thus supporting Heller’s argument that queer identities are rendered into valuable attributes for the market.2

This essay explores queer identities and their relation to the market by analyzing the varied use of the word “realness” as a descriptor in drag performances.3 The semiotic phenomenon of realness as described in Heller’s text “RuPaul realness: the neoliberal resignification of ballroom discourse,” changes its signification from underground ballroom culture, a predominately African-American space for queer expression that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, to drag as entertainment through the commercialization of queer identities in drag queen performances. By discussing drag performances in RuPaul’s Drag Race in relation to their community roots in ballroom culture, this essay explores the paradoxical relationship of drag performances in various cultural contexts to neoliberal human capital. After discussing realness in the context of ballroom culture and RuPaul’s Drag Race, I consider the relationship between the globalization of queer identities and neoliberal capital through case studies of the Samoan fa’afafine and field research of a Toronto drag performance.

In her article, “RuPaul realness: the neoliberal resignification of ballroom discourse,” Heller uses two examples to outline the linguistic use of “realness” in two different contexts – ballroom discourse and drag race discourse.4 Realness enters into the lexicon of queer identities through the underground queer ballroom culture in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States. In ballroom culture, as documented in the film Paris is Burning (1990), each participant performs an identity according to the category of realness. When performing an identity, realness becomes a form of drag beyond manipulating one’s look to adapting a different set of behaviours or attitudes according to the category, for example, body builder, business executive, femme queen, and Ivy League student, to only name a few. Within the ballroom, performing an identity becomes a way for queer bodies to subvert heteronormative and oppressive hegemonic ideals of gendered and racialized identities.

The performance of identities within the ballroom is often described as “looking fabulous.” Madison Moore argues that fabulousness, or rather the currency attached to the term, comes from black queer spaces such as the ballroom to describe spectacular looks.5 It is an aesthetic embodiment of an expression that connects with realness. Heller argues that realness in the ballroom discourse “critically contextualizes the value of performance skills that mimic identities ballroom performers do not have access to,” for example, to temporarily masquerade as cisgender or heterosexual.6 It becomes a way that social outcasts can trespass into the territory of cisgender socially-acceptable identity. If a femme realness queen could pass as a cisgender woman on the streets without being assaulted, then the ability to go undetected demonstrates the success of the performance.

For Heller, “realness is a drag act because it visibly challenges a heteronormative cultural imperative, or the presumption that heterosexual and cisgender behaviours are a non-performative natural default.”7 The way realness plays out as ballroom drag performance demonstrates the false presumption that heteronormative and hegemonic ideas are natural. In actively doing gender or doing identities of realness, participants of ballroom discourse question the stability of the dominant social structure. The performance of realness is to create fabulousness, which for Moore is “the linguistic proof that people forced to the margins invest in looking fabulous as an expressive need when living under socioculturally induced states of duress.”8 They enact the slippage between normality and otherness to demonstrate the negative discourse that prohibits them from being seen or valued without prejudice and discrimination. As Heller points out “realness is an important minoritarian discourse on the constructed nature of identity and its relationship to power.”9 Realness then becomes a tactic in which the minority population could insert themselves in a narrative that is overwhelmed with racism, sexism, and homophobia.

By deconstructing the stability of mainstream identity upheld by the social institutions such as family, school, religion- realness in the ballroom discourse challenges the false notion of normality and asserts their individual identities as valid as their cisgender heterosexual counterparts. This underscores Judith Butler’s theory that gender is performative, whereby fixed notions of gender or identity are arbitrary and performed through the embodiment of a set of socially constructed rules.10 As Butler argues “what constitutes through division the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ worlds of the subject is a border and boundary tenuously maintained for the purposes of social regulation and control.”11 The division of subjects—namely, between heterosexual and homosexual—creates a hierarchy that ballroom discourse attempts to destabilize. Through the performing of identities, each person who walks down the runway in a ballroom highlights how homonormative identity can be performed and at the same time destabilized. Realness in this sense is an articulation of power that subverts the hegemony of heteronormativity. Ballroom realness effectively uses the technique of drag to question the validity of fixed identity, reflecting queer identities’ non-conformism through ballroom performance. Realness as ballroom identity politics for Heller thus demonstrates “a minoritarian form of agency,” where realness becomes a strategy for thriving on adversity.12

Realness, however, takes on a different meaning when it is adapted by mainstream media discourse, such as in RuPaul’s Drag Race. As Heller argues, “realness encapsulates a minoritarian ‘politics or positionality that has been rendered unthinkably by dominant culture’ (Muñoz 1999, 31).”13 Realness becomes a term that is no longer charged with the power to resist or challenge the dominant discourse, but reduced to a signifying term of achieving visual likeness to a specific category. In RuPaul’s Drag Race, Heller observes that realness is consistently used in two categories: as a contest title or a description of a performer’s aesthetic.14 When realness is incorporated into a contest title such as “Supreme Court realness,” the contestants who perform the category do not demonstrate the value of ballroom realness. In ballroom realness, realness quite literally signifies reality. In other words, to be as closely aligned to the category’s real identity as possible. In contrast, Heller argues that in RuPaul’s Drag Race “the small ratio of ballroom usage in its overall deployment indicates that participants and producer feel compelled to transform realness to a product with more commercial appeal.”15

Heller’s description of the “Supreme Court realness” mini-challenge on RuPaul’s Drag Race on March 22, 2016 demonstrates the detachment of realness from the ballroom discourse. The winner of the challenge, Naomi Smalls, does not in fact realistically reflect Supreme Court realness. Rather, Smalls “transforms a basic [judge] robe into a legless body suit,” which lacks concerns for passing as a supreme court judge.16 The primary concern of the contestant is to create a spectacular outfit that minimally alludes to supreme court realness. Smalls’ success in this challenge demonstrates RuPaul and the panel of judges are looking for unique interpretations of theatricality rather than realness. Here, realness can no longer function as a performance to subvert heteronormative ideology, because it becomes outside of the reality as a spectacle that successfully entertains the audience.

Realness in RuPaul’s Drag Race, as Heller suggests, conveys a “good” product that provides entertaining theatrical spectacle to a mass audience, and therefore a successful product with beneficial economic outcome.17 As exemplified by Smalls’ unrealistic but visually striking and unique interpretation of a supreme court judge, realness no longer denotes real or passing but a form of drag that exceeds realness. Smalls delivers a successful product by exploiting drag queen essentialism, which means to be visually striking, extremely fabricated, and unapologetically queer. The combination of these essentialisms cultivates a successful commercial product, which in the case of the Drag Race communicates realness. In other words, this form of realness becomes a signifier of itself as an exaggerated queer identity that utilizes superfluous essentialisms to create a realness of its own. This is where the linguistic difference in the usage of realness occurs in opposition to one another. As Heller argues, realness in the context of the Drag Race linguistically signifies successful exploitation of the performer’s own “human capital”.18 The theatricality of RuPaul’s realness provides an immediate point of identification for the viewer to understand the contestant’s gestures as performative, whereas ballroom realness has the potential to confuse the reality with the staging of an identity. Realness as a way to mask and resist the mainstream conception of queerness in the ballroom discourse is transposed in the drag race discourse, which by entertaining and circulating in mass media as entertainment demonstrates how identity is constructed by and for neoliberalism.

While Drag Race’s audience is primarily North American and European, the ways in which queer identity are influenced by neoliberalism are global in reach. For example, in Samoa, the shift in which fa’afafine fashion themselves is equally influenced by neoliberal identity politics. Fa’afafine in Samoa refers to “biologically males who express feminine gender identities,” which is initially identified through their preference for feminine labour at a young age.19 Fa’afafine traditionally carry out feminine tasks to support their family.20 This in-between identity does not fit into the category of homosexuality or transsexuality, but rather exists as a more fluid term – fa’afafine. The effect of globalization has changed the way fa’afafine identity functions, which was to support a community-oriented society. The adaptation of a wage-based economy and Western liberal ideology creates a different interpretation of what fa’afafine identity constitutes for Samoa’s local population. Previously, fa’afafine, void of the binary designation of femininity and masculinity, becomes equated with homosexuality or transsexuality. Their traditional social and labour functions are deemphasized because of the proliferation of Western culture in Samoa. Sexuality as a result is foregrounded through the categories of homosexuality and transsexuality, but the social role that fa’afafine played previously in fact had very little to do with sexuality. It has nothing to do with a Western idea of homosexuality, although some fa’afafine do have sex with other men. Fa’afafine as Schmidt points out could also marry women in many cases.21 Along with globalization, fa’afafine now face challenges of gender and identity expression as Western terms.

Contemporary fa’afafine are frequently misunderstood as male homosexuals or transsexuals. The emergence of urban fa’afafine who fashion themselves with Western signifiers of femininity demonstrates the difficulty in articulating the in-between. As Schmidt suggests “to be fa’afafine entails what Bourdieu (1977:72-3) referred to as a disposition towards relating to other males who act in feminine ways, such as the drag queens of popular film, the gay couples of American dramas and the transsexual of medical discourses.”22 To be fa’afafine is contradictory melange of identities, much like drag queens who perform in opposition to their biological sex. In the documentary film, Paradise Bent: Gender Diversity in Samoa (1999), many urban fa’afafine featured in the film make a living as performers in drag bars in downtown Samoa. Similarly, fa’afafine who travel overseas to Australia also take up the same occupation as drag queens.

In the contemporary context, perhaps fa’afafine to a degree perform RuPaul realness as means of self-expression and at the same time as a means of survival. By performing as drag queens, fa’afafine subvert the misconception of their fluid identity by using tropes of Western identity politics. As contemporary Samoans “seek to ‘disown’ fa’afafine” through internalizing Western morality which privileges cisgender heteronormative identity and denounces homosexuality, fa’afafine perform as a way of surviving.23 To perform as drag queens on stage, they resist and reclaim a new identity that renegotiates tradition in the present. Furthermore, it rewards them with independence that grants them a certain freedom of self-expression.

The ways in which some fa’afafine Samoans capitalize on their diverse identities evoke similarities with Western queer individuals whose drag performances are met with positive financial outcomes. In the neoliberal context of celebrity culture, RuPaul’s Drag Race demonstrates that expression of queer pride, which Heller associates with sexual essentialism, becomes an “authentic” expression that holds currency in popular culture.24 Through exploiting one’s difference in terms of sexual orientation, gender identity, or racial difference, a drag queen’s career is made.25 This reveals the paradoxical nature of neoliberal ideology that both oppresses and liberates the individual within the capitalist machine. Freedom of expression, to be queer or fa’afafine by performing drag, becomes a way that one is rendered human capital as a commodity. The economic benefit accrued by having a successful career as a drag queen is an important component of the neoliberal paradigm, as drag queens previously did not enjoy either economic or social mainstream status. At the same time, queer expression of drag creates a new cultural currency that previously thrived underground. Fa’afafine who choose to perform as drag queens gain economic power that they previously could not access. Fa’afafine Samoans’ participation grants them more mobility in economic structures; however, they continue to experience social marginalization similar to Western queer counterparts.

Heller argues “a public discourse of identity difference will inevitably be interpreted as a brave act of authenticity, and that such a quality is a capital commodity in a variety of mass public arenas.”26 For my field site visit, I attended a drag performance at Crews and Tangos, a LGBTQ+ drag bar in downtown Toronto’s Gay Village on a Friday night to observe how the spectacle of realness is taken up in a local context. Upon entering Crews & Tangos, a small elevated stage with drag queen performance is the first thing that is spotted. On the stage, a drag queen whose face is covered with thick layers of foundation, heavily contoured and highlighted cheek bones, dramatic smoky eyeliner and eyeshadow, and matte-finishing lipstick drawn slightly over the lip line, wears a voluminous dark brunette wig. The queen, later identified as Queen Priyanka, is dressed in a cropped yellow jersey and a pair of extremely short and destroyed denim shorts that barely covers her lower body. Underneath the shorts, she wears a pair of mesh tights with thigh-high white latex knee-high boots. In a fabulous manner, she lip-syncs and dances to Beyoncé’s track “Formation”. In front of her, a sea of audience members cheer for her performance. In an exaggerated manner, like those seen on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Queen Priyanka highlights the sensuality of performed sexuality attributed to femininity.

As the performance extends further into the night, the audience can approach the stage if they extend their hands towards the performer with cash in hand. Usually as a response, the drag queen places the bill into her bra or her underwear in order to perform a sexually suggestive gesture. On the night when I observed Queen Priyanka as an audience member, she invited a member of the audience to the stage to dance with her. She directed the male audience member to go behind her as she performed the submissive position in gay sexual intercourse. At the end of this episode of the performance, verbal interaction with the crowd took place, with Queen Priyanka referring to her performance as “feeling Beyoncé’s soul entering her body.”

Through this field visit, I identified what Heller refers to as RuPaul realness in Queen Priyanka’s performance. Queen Priyanka effectively explores the potential of his queerness to perform and entertain the public as a biological male dressed in a feminine manner. The drag queen performance of Beyoncé realness through mimicking the way Beyoncé dresses and the way Beyoncé brings stamina and fabulousness to the stage. The Beyoncé realness that he achieves could be interpreted as a successful drag performance because this realness is a performative act to liberate himself from the expectation of gender stereotypes. In this spectacle, the drag queen on stage markets himself through a drag queen essentialism that reflects the idea of human capital much like drag queens seen on RuPaul’s Drag Race. This by no means is a critique of queer expressionism of drag performance, but an attempt to question the universal code of conduct in drag queen performance globally from Canada to Samoa. The commercial success of drag queen performances reveals the paradox of neoliberalism where an alternative expression of identity is encouraged, but only to the extent that it benefits the structure of neoliberal capitalism. It both liberates and oppresses the individual at the same time.

Following Heller’s framework, I have placed drag in ballroom culture in opposition to drag in popular culture today. At the same time, my discussion of various forms of drag performance points to how an underlying theme of survival unites them. Priya Elan suggests that the political importance of being fabulous is that it “has come to define survival in the face of privilege.”27 The concept of fabulousness comes from ballroom culture where queer people could find a place of belonging by performing identities. Elan cites Moore’s four traits that define fabulousness: (i) it does not take a lot of money; (ii) it requires a high level of creativity; (iii) it is dangerous, political, confrontational, risky and largely (but not exclusively) practised by queer or transgender people of colour and other marginalized groups; (iv) it is about “making a spectacle of yourself because your body is constantly suppressed and undervalued.”28 Following these traits, the fabulousness of the spectacle at any given LGBTQ+ space where drag performance is held speaks to the way marginalized people resist conforming to social norms. As commercial as the intention might be, the neoliberal expression of drag performance serves to cultivate a safe space and provide real economic outcome for those who aspire to be drag queens. Although realness can no longer be politically charged or act as a form of resistance, it maintains its fabulousness. Whether it be a passing performance that challenges heteronormative privileges or a theatrical performance that commercializes queer identities, the expression of fabulousness nonetheless acts as a way of survival and resistance for people who do not fit into a dominant discourse. 


Leon Hsu

Leon Hsu is an emerging Taiwanese-Canadian art historian and writer. His research explores the intersection of semiotics, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and queer theory in post-war and contemporary photo-based art. His writing also considers the implication of contemporary culture in relation to the art market.

He is a recent Visual and Critical Studies graduate from OCAD University, and currently a graduate student at Sciences Po, The Paris Institute of Political Studies.

  1. Meredith Heller, “RuPual realness: the neoliberal resignification of ballroom discourse,” Social Semiotics 30, no.1 (2020): 134.
  2. Heller, 137.
  3. Ibid, 133.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Madison Moore, Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 24.
  6. Heller, 136.
  7. Heller, 136.
  8. Moore, 24.
  9. Heller, 135.
  10. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 139.
  11. Butler, 133.
  12. Heller, 137.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid, 139.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid, 140.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid, 141.
  19. Johanna Schmidt, “Paradise Lost? Social Change and Fa’afafine,” Current Sociology 51, no. 3 (2003): 417.
  20. Schmidt, 419.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid, 425.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Heller, 142.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid, 144.
  27. Priya Elan, “Yas kweens: the political importance of being fabulous,” The Guardian, March 11, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2020/mar/11/yas-kweens-the-political-importance-of-being-fabulous.
  28. Ibid.

Header Image: Karl Bewick. 2019. https://unsplash.com/photos/RAaRpOadzgU