Spencer Kornhaber 「The Fierceness of ‘Femme, Fat, and Asian’」

Posted on May 19, 2016

C. Winter Han, the author of a book on Asian American gay men, analyzes the 「RuPaul’s Drag Race」 fan favorite Kim Chi.

Few 「RuPaul’s Drag Race」 fans could have been surprised Monday night when the show crowned as champion the 29-year-old New Yorker who goes by the name Bob the Drag Queen. Over the course of Logo’s cult-beloved competition’s eighth season, the personable and funny Bob so skillfully met the expectations for what a Drag Race winner should be that, during the finale, RuPaul asked her just how much she’d studied the show before joining it.

But the most memorable moments of the night belonged to a runner-up, Kim Chi, as had many of the most memorable moments of the season. A 28-year-old Chicagoan and first-generation Korean American, Kim Chi’s fantastical outfits had frequently impressed the judges even while her physical clumsiness had become a running joke.

In the finale, Kim Chi’s original song, 「Fat, Femme, and Asian」, performed partially in Korean, took direct aim at three labels frequently treated as undesirable in the gay male mainstream. Breaking with a typical narrative of the show – “Drag Race: bringing families together,” RuPaul likes to say – Kim Chi revealed she still hadn’t told her mom she does drag and doesn’t plan on doing so. And when asked about which of the chiseled male models in the show’s “Pit Crew” she’d like to lose her virginity to, she deadpanned, “I’m not trying to catch anything, so I’m going to say none of them,” sending the theater into shocked laughter. Moments like these contributed to the sense that Kim Chi was doing something novel on Drag Race, even though the show has long been concerned with self-love, non-conformity, and playing with stereotypes.


Kim Chi 「Fat, Fem & Asian」 (「RuPaul's Drag Race」 Season 8 Finale Performance) - posted on May 19, 2016.

Interested in the wider context of Kim Chi’s performance, I spoke with C. Winter Han, an associate professor of sociology at Middlebury College. His book『Geisha of a Different Kind: Race and Sexuality in Gaysian America』features a chapter about Asian American drag queens, including past RuPaul contestants Manila Luzon and Jujubee. While Han hadn’t watched Season 8 in its entirety, he had kept up on Kim Chi.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Spencer Kornhaber: What did you make of Kim Chi?

C. Winter Han: My previous thoughts on the show were actually pretty critical of the way it presented the Asian contestants. Particularly it was problematic in the sense that Asian men in general are presented in the gay community as being more feminine in order to present white men as being more normative and acceptable to the mainstream audience.

Now the whole purpose of 「RuPaul’s Drag Race」, of course, is present yourself as more feminized; it’s a little difficult to say, “Well, the Asian contestants are being more feminized than others.” But until this season, the Asian characters were heavily racialized in ways that the other contestants weren’t, and more importantly, the show rewarded the Asian contestants the more they Orientalized themselves, particularly with [Season 3’s] Manila Luzon.

In that season, all the contestants were told to be newscasters for a challenge, and Manila Luzon did this incredibly racist performance where she spoke with a really thick stereotypically Asian accent and suggested that the guest star for that show should marry her brother because her brother needed a green card. She won that challenge. And when [the contestants] had to make over a straight jock, Manila Luzon put chopsticks in the jock’s hair and had them walk with a little tiny shuffle steps, like this bad version of the Mikado. And the judges again rewarded her for that.

Embedded in that is the trope of the East being feminized, which has a long history. Part of it is this larger narrative of what we think about when we think about Asian men in general.『Details』magazine used to have a column that said “gay or something else.” Usually it was like, “gay or firefighter,” “gay or socialite husband,” “gay or boy-band member.” They had one where it was “gay or Asian.” Asians were the only group that were ever marked racially as easily mistaken for being gay.

The joke of it is that it’s a dichotomy where you’re either gay or Asian – you’re not both, even though you are easily mistaken for both. So it’s not surprising that gay Asian men are not just marginalized in the gay community but in the Asian community. The drag queens that I talked to for my book were actively challenging that notion, making sure that they were embedding themselves in both Asian America and gay America. They were marking what it meant to be gay and marking what it meant to be Asian as not being peripheral to their identities, but essential to them.

That’s what Kim Chi does. The show does follow a larger racial trope of this quiet Asian guy who also happens to be a virgin who also has a lisp. It’s almost an immigrant story that unfolds in this 10-episode arc where she goes from being this very quiet, insecure, relatively submissive person into clawing her way to the top without complaint. But she does it in this way that she doesn’t marginalize herself.

Instead of relying on orientalist tropes, like the previous contestants who would wear cheongsams and have these red fans and mark themselves as being foreign, she takes these cultural cues that are contemporarily popular in Asia and then fuses it into the gay community. She uses a lot of Anime, and she uses a lot of K-pop references. The dress she wore in the finale is this contemporary version of a Hanbok, which is a traditional Korean costume. I remember thinking I could totally see some sort of self-described avant-garde designer in Korea putting that on their runway.

More importantly, she confronts these very political things. In the presidential commercial [challenge], all the other drag queens are presenting things like “I’m going to give everybody Botox injections” or “I’m going to share makeup for everyone.” And Kim Chi is the only one who actually, a roundabout way, confronts a problem with the way that people are racialized in the gay community. And not only racialized: marginalized along issues of gender, around issues of body.

I was really impressed in the finale when she takes that theme and turns it on its head. Something that is seen as being a deficient within the gay community – being fat, femme, and Asian – becomes just the thing she uses in order to propel herself forward. Some of the comments I’ve read online say they respect her because she takes a weakness and then overcomes that. But that’s really a misinterpretation of what she’s doing. She’s not “rising above” being fat or femme or Asian. She’s saying, “fat, femme, and Asian is in fact attractive. I’m going to prove to you that it’s attractive because I’m going to perform and all of you are going to love it. And in loving it you have to question what is it means when we go into the gay world and mark these things as unattractive – when clearly someone has demonstrated to you that it is something that you actually love.”

Kornhaber: You mentioned the trope of the immigrant story. There was a lot of discussion of how Kim Chi hasn’t come out to her mother because her mother is a Korean immigrant. It seemed like RuPaul thought that it was holding Kim Chi back to have not come out. What do you make of that?

Han: A long time ago I wrote an article that was published in a book called『First Person Queer』where I noted that we needed to rethink this idea of [everyone] coming out in the way that Westerners come out. That there are multiple ways of being gay and proclaiming ourselves to be gay. I’ve never had that conversation with my mother either; I’ve never sat my mom down and said, “Guess what, mom: I’m gay.” But she knows I’m gay. Everybody in my family knows I’m gay. And yet no one talks about it.

I remember one newspaper review of the book specifically pointed out my chapter and saying I was advocating for people to stay in the closet. What that review told me is that there’s a large idea of what it means to be gay in our country, and that idea is largely based on gay white male experiences and all other experiences are invalid.

A study looked at gay white men and Latino men and found that Latino men who come out in the traditional way that white people come out actually become less happy. They’re happier when they come out in much more subtle ways like bringing a boyfriend to family events, where nobody publicly says “I’m gay,” and no one says “this is my partner,” but that’s the implication.

I would be really surprised if Kim Chi’s mother didn’t know. But you have to understand that in Asian American culture, it’s a very interesting relationship with sexuality. It would be one thing if Asian parents had discussions about sex and love with their straight kids, but not talking about sexuality, whether you’re straight or gay, is an entirely common thing for Asian families. Asian kids don’t normally go around telling their parents, “Oh, I went on this date and this is how it’s going.” It’s more subtle. I think about my siblings and how they introduced their boyfriends and girlfriends to my mother. It wasn’t like they said, “Mom, I’m dating this person.” The person just one day showed up.

So I don’t think it’s fair to say Kim Chi is not living an authentic life if she hasn’t told her mother, because for the most part I think that she is living a very authentic life as the child of an Asian immigrant.

Kornhaber: It might not be tied to race, but I’d be interested in your thoughts on the virginity issue. She doesn’t seem particularly ashamed of being a virgin, and then the best moment of the finale was her turning down the Pit Crew.

Han: I think people will interpret that as being related to her being Asian. Because there are these stereotypes of Asian people being sexually naïve, sexually repressed. Someone once said to me, a long time ago when we were talking about HIV prevention efforts and the funding that wasn’t coming to gay Asian men, “Asian people don’t have sex.” I was really taken aback and made some really snotty comment, like, “You know, there are a billion Chinese people who disagree.”

So I don’t think [Kim Chi’s virginity] has as much to do with her being Asian per se as it does with her having internalized things about what it means to be Asian, what it means to be fat, what it means to be femme. When you’re constantly bombarded with personal ads and Grindr profiles specifically saying “no Asians,” it is a big hit to your sense of worth.

One drag queen told me that drag is like an armor, where she can go from being an ugly Asian boy to being a beautiful Asian woman. When marginalized groups look for social status and power they look at the areas that are open to them. And the stereotypes of Asian men being feminine work to their advantage in drag. But more importantly, they know it works to their advantage. They realize that this is one way that they can translate what is seen as negative into a positive in the same way that Kim Chi has done.

I think that’s a very common theme among Asian drag queens that the show hadn’t captured before. Drag becomes a very political space where gay Asian men can claim their senses of worth. And they use the stereotypes that already exist to their advantage.

Kornhaber: Do you have any favorite looks for Kim Chi?

Han: My favorite one, which I think if you asked my friends they would say that it shouldn’t have been, was the one that she did with the little person. That was the most, quote, “Orientalized” look she had this season, but I think for that particular challenge it was very empowering. She takes what is seen as being submissive and controllable and uses that to reinterpret what power and control means. I think that’s what a lot of people of color do, not just in the gay community or in the drag community.

Kim Chi is incredibly insightful about race and sexuality and gender, and yet she comes off as this sort of naïve person. I think of the episode with the throwing-the-shade competition. And even [in the finale] where she’s asked which [Pit Crew member] would you take – it’s a very important moment. We expect her to jump up and down and say, “I would love to have one of these Pit Crew members.” Yet even in that small tiny moment, she makes it political, saying, “Clearly someone like me is supposed to be lusting after someone like that. But I’m going to not just reject it, but I’m also going to throw some shade at it. And I’m going to redefine what it means to be desirable because I’m the one up here with all the attention. I’m the one that they should want.”

Kornhaber: Throughout this conversation, you’ve referred to the idea of white gay standards. I think some people reading this will say, well, “RuPaul’s black, the winner is black, the contestants are very diverse.” But you’re referring more to the culture that Drag Race exists in, right?

Han: I think it’s a mistake that when we say “whiteness,” we equate it with just white people. Those two things are not the same. We’ve made this investment in a stereotype of what one should be that, to be quite frank, most white people also don’t meet. This type of a body that’s attractive, these types of physical features that are attractive.

When people of color are considered desirable, they’re only considered desirable because they meet that image of whiteness. We see this narrative all the time, even with Prince: Everybody said they loved him because he transcended race. When was the last time a white artist died and people said they loved him because he transcended race? Blackness and Asian-ness and Latino-ness only become acceptable if they leave those things behind.

William Hung sang with this heavy accent and he was an engineering student from Berkley and 「American Idol」 made him into a big joke. And Asian people [were] upset because this is a stereotype. Well, what we’re saying is that that image is not only unacceptable to white people but it’s unacceptable to us as well, and in the process we’re throwing people under the bus so that we can be more like white people. William Hung is a real person who speaks that way, as a significant percent of our population does. We’re only ashamed of them because somebody else told us we should be.

Even this notion of Kim Chi lisping – every time someone comments on that it irritates me a little bit. We need to think, “Well, why is this a problem?” It’s only a problem because we consider it a problem. Kim Chi doesn’t hide these things, she doesn’t overcome these things, she uses these things. And that makes her an incredibly powerful performer and someone pushing the dialogue in a more positive direction than it’s been before.


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