Serving Fish: This One’s A Snapper!

By Guest Contributor Andreana Clay; originally published at Queer Black Feminist

I watch RuPaul’s Drag Race pretty religiously and have written about what I love about it here. I even watched the contrived–let’s just give Chad Micheals the crown and some prize money since, apparently, it was difficult to give Sharon Needles the crown outright–Drag Race All Stars this summer. So, when Season 5 started three weeks ago, I had my DVR ready and happily watched after a long first day of classes.

So, it’s clear I have a little bit of love for RuPaul (P.S. Part of the title comes from her). No, I don’t listen to her music, but I feel like I’ve been a champion (never gonna stop) of her work for quite some time. She’s pretty mainstream, what José Muñoz might call, “sanitized, assimilated” drag, but I just love seeing a 6-foot-tall Black man doing a pretty standard drag performance. And he’s made a mainstream career out of it. Now, I don’t know RuPaul: she may be the most fame-hungry, celebrity-grubbing, will-never-stop-using-the-pejorative-“tr***y (!)” and supporting-Shirley-Q.-Liquor (!) drag queen out there, but I have to hand it to her. She has managed to produce and maintain one of the gayest shows on television right now. In a moment when all things are gay or gay-loving, we love the gays!–she and her writers have managed to make it just a little bit gayer. Not only is it a show about drag queens from all around the world, L.A., New York, Florida, and Puerto Rico, but it is a show almost entirely made up of challenges. And I love the challenges. As others have noted, this is where the real, un-assimilated gayness comes out: the “get on your knees and put your lips in this hole” challenge; “reading is fundamental” challenges; “make videos  where you lip synch to all of RuPaul’s songs, available on iTunes” challenges; and then, there are the requisite “pit boys” with muscles and fully stuffed briefs. Just crass. Gay. Lovely. Plus, there are regular references to ball culture past and present with phrases like, “Extravaganza,” the aforementioned “reading” challenges, etc. I love it! Sometimes I squeek with glee at each offering. It’s refreshing in a moment of increasingly assimilated gay television (“Queers–regardless of race, gender, or class–are just. like. you, everybody!” so sayeth the stock gay characters on current shows).

Drag RaceSo, back to Season Five. I was all ready to fall in love with some of the queens and RuPaul again this season, as I have in seasons past, especially when Monica Beverly Hillz came on: “I’m Monica Beverly Hillz, with a Z.” My heart and eyelashes fluttered. Plus, her lip-synch-for-your-life performance of Rihanna’s “Only Girl in the World,” made me grapple, in a good way, with my complicated frustrations with Rihanna at the moment. Mostly, in the form of a download of the song–not revolutionary, but I’m working it out.

Still, my love has been short-lived. Beginning with the first episode and in every episode since, the queens and RuPaul herself, have made it clear that they are “serving fish.” As in, “I’m serving Rodeo Drive fish (Alyssa Williams)” or, as one of the queens said when she walked in to meet the others, “It’s awfully fishy up in here,” or, RuPaul’s question before a recent episode of the behind-the-scenes Untucked (come on, that is a straight up fabulous name for a backstage show!), “Which one of these fish will surface to the top?” Ok, record scratch, dammit.

What’s up with all the “fish” references?

I know I’m about to step off into something I know very little about, like the use of the phrase “serving fish” in drag-queen culture. If we could’ve talked about RuPaul’s Drag Race and “terrorist drag” last night in my graduate class, believe me I would’ve, and I’d have a better understanding of the use of “fish” from several experts in the room. Still, my base understanding is that “serving fish” is performing an ultra-feminine, standard version of drag. Essentially what RuPaul has been serving for two or three decades, no? That’s all well and good. It may not always be the most exciting form of drag, but I can get down with it. I love a good, standard queen–even pageant queens–who can bring it. But, really, “serving fish”? Do I have to hear this every time I watch, in or out of context? You want me to watch your show, support you, when you can’t problematize that shit a little bit? Like, I think it’s about 2013, can’t we can throw out the female + vagina = fish reference? You know, like this more-than-reliable–and yes I’m being sarcastic–Urban Dictionary entry:

If you can’t read it, the first definition is the “feminine drag” definition. But then, #2, whose definition reads, “A term used when someone’s vajayjay smells like it hasn’t been washed for the past few days” gets creative and paints a scenario, “John: ‘Oh my! I could tell you’re serving fish from two corners away. Mariah: Shut up! I’ve been begging you to fix the shower for 5 days!”

Isn’t that sweet. Let me paint you a picture, just in case you didn’t understand the first time.

I guess it’s refreshing (like Summer’s Eve) to note the number of folks who have given this a “thumbs down” outnumber those who give it a “thumbs up.” Or, at least I thought it was refreshing until I did a little Internet search on fish and vagina–I know, the ways I fill my time–and there are several medical websites and numerous products to help women address our inevitable “fishy odor” or “odour.”

With you from A to Z for your V

You know, because, ultimately, we’re just a bunch of gross, smelly, dirty bitches–it’s been medically and pharmaceutically proven. And, try as you may, those of you who protest–that’s not what that means, you’re going too far with, etc., etc.–to prove me wrong, but I cough bullshit if you think this is not what gets evoked for every cis woman who is sitting and watching your show. And, it’s a dire time for women–all women–right now in that our rights, our dignity, our humanity are being called into question this week with the (non)passage and reconstruction of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) by Congress. That might feel like a stretch to you, but I can’t separate out these throw-away, harmless, not-really-intended-to-mean-what-you-think-it-means references–fishy, serving fish, fishiest–words that ultimately objectify, dehumanize, and dismiss women from the lack of governmental protections extended to Native American, lesbian, queer and transgender women, undocumented women, and teenagers. Can’t separate it from the Republican-led efforts to ensure that women in these groups (which includes me, my partner, my nieces, students, and friends) are not treated like human beings under the law and are actually, actively denied the right to services offered to normalized, acceptable women–which includes, who? It’s a small number. And, don’t get it twisted, those of you who use this language, while I’m holding you accountable, yes (I’m not saying you’re the cause of this)–we live in a misogynist culture that already hates women. That’s the way this shit has been set up. But for you to want me to continue to support this “innocent,” used in another context language, is no different. And, you know, I’m just one fan: it may not make a difference if I turn the TV off on Monday nights–that might not matter. Still, you gotta complicate that shit a little bit more for me to stay engaged, to stay down, to hang in there with the queens and others who make up this “community” that I align myself with. Really, it’s all or nothing at this point. We are moving into, I fear, dangerous times of assimilation where we cut out the ones we don’t want (yes, students in my graduate class, I’m biting off our amazing discussion last night) to appear more acceptable. And, don’t think you’re not in that line -up. I’m never one to cut anybody out, but you gotta step it up a bit and study up on this solidarity business for me to stick around.

Peek-a-Ru, Ru. I see you.

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  • Samantha May

    From Michelle Visage’s mouth to my ears to your comments section, this was really good to hear. Came up in a recent interview. Maybe they will address it on the show soon enough? (FYI for those who don’t know, Michelle is a lifetime friend of RuPauls and a permanent judge on the show).

    “What is this about fish? This season was NEVER about fish. First of all the term is super insulting to women, I’m just going to say that my vagina does NOT smell like fish. (The way it’s used) is just gross.”

  •!/laurakeet laurakeet

    [Spoiler…I suppose? Talk of current and past season RDPR contestants]

    The cisgender normativity of “fish” is also insensitive in the wake of Monica Beverly Hillz saying she is a transgender woman while on the show (episode 3, which is also when she was eliminated). I’m neither an expert on drag or on trans* identity, but I’m guessing that it’s kind of a no-no to be a contestant if you identify as a trans person – even though there have been two other transgender women/people (not sure what terms they prefer) on RPDR, season 2’s Sonique (who also said she is trans on-camera and I think left because of it) and season 3’s Carmen Carrera (who I think didn’t say anything while on the show and/or transitioned after). The whole “fishy” thing, combined with the complicated issues of “passing” if you are trans*, sounds like Big Stuff to Talk About to me, especially when it leads to contestants going home. There’s a lot more to say here by people wiser than I am, but Carmen was kind of punished for relying on her “body,” and both Sonique and Monica Beverly Hillz went home right after saying they were trans* – one by choice and one by judges’ decision. (By the way, this is meant to add to, not replace, the discussion of misogyny and othering leveled at cis women and other folks with vulvas, in case that’s not clear.)

    • belladonnalin

      This was also central to my discomfort – the ways in which fishy seems to refer to “looking just like a real girl,” which is both really fucking reductive as to who “real girls” are and cissexist as hell. Particularly when there are trans* women in this competition (and combined with Ru’s INSISTENCE on using t****y and “She-Mail”), it seems to be setting a very transphobic tone.

  • Cade DeBois

    I once had a very liberal, open-minded friend confide in me that she didn’t feel comfortable with drag culture because to her it seems femininity was being reduced to a costume. I wasn’t sure how to respond to that at the time. I was younger and very naive, and I in fact had friends who were drag queens, including a past roommate. I just thought it was fun and that it helped these people express a part of themelves that they couldn’t in other parts of society. But I’ve also never be exactly OK with old-style comedy, like Eddy Izzard, where if a man dresses up as a woman it was automatically something to laugh about. Previously I chalked that kind of lazy comedy all up to transphobia but more recently I have been wondering whether also my friend had a point about drag culture and whether it does reduce femininity to a costume and whether all those hee-haws that male comedians dressed in drag over the years have gotten aren’t simply about a society that’s uncomfortable with transgenderism but also thinks femininity itself is something to be mocked. And we all know, our society thinks just that.

    As I got older and more savvy in the world of feminism, I realized something: we feminists get pretty upset when someone dresses up in black face (“Black people aren’t costumes!”) or dons a Native American headdress (“Native Americans aren’t costumes!”) or fetishizes people of other cultures and ethnicities in any way. And rightly so. Whatever a person is, it’s their personhood and identity, not our toys. But where does this leave us with drag culture? On one hand we want to be inclusionary and accepting to people who don’t fit into rigid patriarchal norms, but how exacty do we say drag culture is Ok while denouncing Gwen Stefani or Dov Hikind? At what point do we say “OK, my femininity isn’t your toy”? Because frankly, I think I have a right to draw that line. Additionally, simply saying drag culture is just all camp and fun sounds wildly similar to some of the defenses of that Onion tweet and many other similiarly hostile misogynist things that people think we have no right to object to.

    I think drag culture has to ask itself some tough questions here. I personally do see a line: I am not gowns, sequins, rhinestones, big hair or makeup–drag queens can have all of that, frankly–and I would love to see fashion throw out the gender binary completely. But my breasts, my genitalia, the way my body is shaped due to genetics, chromosomes and hormones, anything relating to my reproductive health,and my own gender expression are all part of who I am.They heavily impact how I interact with the world around me and how others interact with me. And other people ought not think those things are fair game to treat as toys and to reduce to a joke or snarky phrase, because that too plays a part in how the world interacts with me. And if you reinforce ideas that my body or gender is a joke, and thus helping to perpetuate societial norms that say it’s OK to treat me like a joke, you’re hurting me. And I’m not OK with that no matter how camp and fabulous you dress it up.

    One final thing: I spent much of my teen and young adult years (the late 80’s and early 90’s) hanging out with gay men and drag queens, and I thought I was being so very progressive and countercultural in doing so. My desire to see myself as this radical, inclusive person made me overlook some problematic things in gay and drag communities that genuinely made me uncomfortable. While it took a few years for me to call this particular spade a spade, I know first hand that *misogyny* is a problem among these communtiies, and either we femininists haven’t really confronted it or we simply are scared to talk about it out of fear of being critical of people whom we out of good faith want to see as our allies. But truthfully, such misogyny is a big part of why I don’t hang around those scenes anymore. One too many jokes about my breast size or about my vagina or about PMS/PMDD. One too many jokes about my weight or my body hair or whatever I’m eating. One too many jokes that were essentially old-fashion patriarchal policing of my own gender expression and sexuality. And it’s hardly an issue of that particular time and place in gay and drag cultures either–I would estimate of all the gay or camp guys I’ve followed on Twitter, about half of them I’ve eventually unfollowed because of RTing misogynist things they thought were funny. It’s a real problem, and we really need to be talking to our gay and drag allies about it more openly and more often.