A few weeks ago, Outward contributor Rafi D’Angelo channeled the collective discomfort of a lot of RuPaul’s Drag Race viewers (including this one) when he criticized a poorly conceived “mini-challenge” segment called “Female or She-male?” The eyebrow-raising game had the show’s drag queen competitors look at details of various celeb photographs and guess if the portrait was of a “biological” or “psychological” woman, the latter choice being signified by waving a “She-male” sign in the air.
While no trans women were actually included in the segment, the use of the offensive term did not go over well with fans. D’Angelo explains:
I was over this stupid game from the moment it started. While I’m not a trans person, it’s pretty clear that using a derogatory term like “shemale” to directly refer to a human being is a no-go. Society has come a long way in respecting difference, and the queer community especially has become more open about gender identity and expression. But we are far from the day when a trans woman will be able to walk down the street without fear of hearing insults or worse, and suggesting that “shemale” is an acceptable word—even as a joke—is not helpful in getting us there.
Apparently, RuPaul was listening: In a Friday afternoon news dump some two weeks after the broadcast in question, Drag Race producers (including RuPaul Charles) released a sort-of apology via Logo pop culture blog NewNowNext:
We delight in celebrating every color in the LGBT rainbow. When it comes to the movement of our trans sisters and trans brothers, we are newly sensitized and more committed than ever to help spread love, acceptance and understanding.
While the statement does not directly apologize for “She-male,” even a tacit acknowledgement that something was amiss is notable, especially given RuPaul’s intransigence on the issue in the past. One has to imagine that there was some pressure from the network helping drive the shift in tone; Logo offered its own take in the same post: “We have heard the concerns around this segment. We are committed to sharing a diverse range of trans stories across all of our screens and look forward to featuring positive and groundbreaking stories of trans people in the future.”
Hopefully, “She-male” will remain one of the few missteps in a show that, by my reckoning, is largely a force for good in the world. If nothing else, Drag Race’s creators should have learned from this episode that you don’t need to draw on overtly hurtful language to be funny.