India is slowly but steadily starting to give its drag queens recognition. While the West has come to know and love its drag queens with Ru Paul pioneering the rise of drag queens in media through his famous show - Rupaul's drag race, India's drag scene is still in its infancy. Since it’s not as popular here, people tend to assume drag queens must be gay or transgender to intentionally dress up so flamboyantly as, for them, it's unimaginable for a heterosexual man to appear feminine or glamorous.
Fortunately, the spread of drag culture in niches across cities that come alive at night is creating more awareness. In Mumbai, Keshav Suri, executive director of The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group and an ardent supporter of the LGBTQ community has created a stage for drag performers to whip out there shiniest outfits and glitter-filled eye-shadow where they can showcase their art. Kitty Su, at The Lalit Hotel, has become a growing hub of the Indian drag community. For this, many drag queens and the sisterhood are greatly appreciative of Suri's undying efforts to uplift drag performers' careers.
But being an Indian drag queen isn't a piece of cake. Like most members of the LGBTQ community, they come across people staring at them disgustingly or inquisitively - both coming from lack of understanding and exposure. A drag artist's art seems to be lost in translation as people make their own inferences about what drag shows mean. Certain advertisers in India are using this knowledge gap and creating ads that give a peek into the life of a drag performer to create awareness among people.
This phenomenon is often called "Dragvertising" and it's becoming more prominent in India but is it as inclusive as it portrays itself to be? Bingedaily spoke to several Indian drag queens to tell us what they think the corporates are up to and to what extent their efforts are genuine. Before diving into that, let's briefly understand what it means to be a drag queen and the phenomenon of "Dragvertising".
What does it mean to be a drag queen?
Living legend RuPaul once famously said: “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag”. A quote pointing at the different identities we adopt and are allowed to choose to be considering we're all naked beneath the outfit. Like a doctor donning a white coat is expressing his identity, drag queens adopt a drag persona, dress up and perform in stylized ways to express their creativity.
Many men have an alternative persona where they present themselves in exaggerated feminine ways in defiance of a conventional heterosexual male is supposed to look like - a key feature of drag. While straight men can have drag personas, people of any gender and sexual orientation can be drag queens. For their drag performance, they use cosmetics, clothing and jewellery to craft a persona and it's up to them how to get that across on stage. A long-time Indian drag queen, Miss Bhenji tells Bingedaily, "There are different types of drag queens - dancing queen, singing queen, acting queen, etc. It depends on what they enjoy doing."
What is "dragvertising"?
While it is nice to watch ads featuring drag queens, critics often wonder if drag in advertising is a step forward for the LGBTQ community or just a form of corporate pinkwashing. Pride month has become an opportunity to simply slap a rainbow flag on its logo and take credit for inclusivity. This year, around Pride month, Tinder had released a Pride anthem - Raahi, to stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ community.
But members of the queer community felt it was more of a charade rather than actual inclusivity and representation. Queer artists felt that the song should've been sung by an LGBTQ singer rather than Ritviz, a cisgender heterosexual man. As posted on Twitter by a person from the queer community – “if Ritviz really cared about being an ally to the LGBT community, he would use his and Tinder’s platform to promote queer artists”
The community also critiqued the music video, stating that representation of queen people on-screen is superficial, limited to the 'glam and glitz' of the communities. A Twitter handle called Artwalahoe said, “there was no representation of the struggles we face each & every day. We don’t live glamorous privileged lives as they showed in the advertisement. I myself as a queer individual can’t relate to that.” They'd rather want, “an honest representation of narratives around dysmorphia, discrimination, insecurity and even joy, that the queer community may authentically feel.”
Even internationally, drag queens feel that brands, along with representation, should also deliver on their commitments to the LGBTQ community. In an interview with Campaign Live, Ibiza drag queen Raven Mandella says, "It’s not just about campaigns and being a sign of the times – you have to be an active part of our community. We need to know you’re an ally to make sure your campaign is not just a play for Pride season. You earn that respect."
The Shoppers Stop and Nykaa campaign featuring drag queens
In October, Shoppers Stop released a series of videos challenging the ideals of beauty. One of the videos featured, Sushant Divgikar or Rani KoHEnur, a drag icon in India - it was centred around normalising make-up for men. Divgikar's video sees him transforming into his beguiling drag avatar - Rani KoHEnur and while doing so, speaking about the nasty slurs and comments that often come his way. However, he says, they've stopped hurting him as much as he realized that it was the people who needed to change their outlook and not him. Divgikar felt that Shoppers Stop as a brand has been very vocal about inclusivity and thus, agreed to be associated with the brand.
There’s less to no content or public information on if they've associated with the LGBTQ community before this campaign. Unfortunately, earlier this year, the brand was accused of discrimination by a trans woman - as she was denied the right to use the changing room at the shopping centre. The Nykaa campaign - #Wearyourpride which was a part of the brand's Pride Month campaign this year was more subtle. It featured Surooj or Glorious Luna (his drag persona) and a description of what drag meant to Surooj posted on Facebook and featured in an article on their website.
Indian drag queens speak about representation in Media
Bingedaily spoke to prominent drag queens in India about what they think of Indian brands waking up to the concept of drag queens and trying to be inclusive. When asked if brands are genuinely inclusive, Miss Bhenji, a drag queen and host of the show All About Me, said, "It depends on the ad, if it's an ad where the drag queen is merely following a script and performing an act, people don't know if it's a man dressed up as a woman."
"But there are some ads where they show the process that a man is turning into an exaggerated version of a woman. I think those kinds of ads are knowledgable because they show the reality. If you're just showing a drag queen without telling us where she's coming from and what she does, it’s meaningless. Even if you mention it on text, it helps people understand and satisfy their curiosity," she continued.
Prashant or Bahaar, a Bangalore-based drag queen agrees with this point of view and says that it can be tokenism or inclusivity, depends on the ad. He said, "Sometimes, it's just tokenism, brands just do it just for marketing. You better have a meaningful campaign and not just a logo change or a simple photoshoot. Goldman Sachs and Lipton are good examples of proper representation. Changing logos is also symbolic but it's hard to read their intentions then".
Alex Mathews, popularly known as Maya the drag queen says that even when there is inclusivity, it is only of drag queens from Mumbai and not the rest of India. He said, "I feel they are missing a lot in terms of diversity with different drag queens and not the cookie-cutter versions of what's acceptable to the industry."
The "stop the bias" campaign by Shoppers Stop ironically doesn't change bias in society, says Mathews. Rather, it repeats the same old story of "I am looking fabulous and beautiful" and doesn't create any meaningful change. "It's more like a passing trend. At the moment, the crucial thing to do is educate people about sexuality and gender. Society is clueless about it," he explained.
Now that big brands are speaking about the LGBTQ community, specifically, drag queens, will this mean more representation of LGBTQ members in the mainstream media such as movies and TV shows? Miss Bhenji believes that currently, movie producers think transgender people are the "most trending" in our country. Hence, they receive more representation even if it's problematic sometimes, such as in the movie “Laxmii” starring Akshay Kumar.
"We are lacking in movies. I think on TV they haven't reached the drag queen, it's focussed on transwomen who look a lot like women. They aren't even inclusive of trans people who have male features. For example, in Sacred Games, Cuckoo was a trans person, but her character was played by a cis-woman. People aren't giving LGBTQ members roles in movies. I think having people who are actually gay or into drag can bring their real emotions and experiences in the movie," she elaborated.
Mathews thinks that ads are a gateway to mainstream movies and shows but need to do more than stating the obvious. "Ads need to be more educating but of course, people think education is boring. That's where creativity needs to be smartly played," he suggested.
A place where education and fun diverges is social media shows by independent creators such as Miss Bhenji's show called “All About Me”. "Through my new show - All About Me, I'm interviewing real drag queens and I know about different drag styles in the theme that I give you. The show is more authentic than these ads as I have a fair understanding of drag whereas marketers only learn about it on the internet superficially," she said.
However, Miss Bhenji believes that brands do have a larger budget and ability to reach wider audiences. Thus, they could do much more if they wanted, especially on the ground level. Mathews touches upon this and leaves us wondering whether brands will rise above arm-chair activism. He said, "When will brands be inclusive in their stores? When will online stores ensure easy access to drag supplies? or that the stores have gender-neutral changing areas? Instead of spending money on ads, why not start doing change around them".