Katya is a hilarious character. She is sassy, sexy, over the top. Although really funny at times, McCook's performances of Russian femininity, style, and womanhood often slip into classist, and orientalist mockery of the same. I read this slipage as "racial commodification." To do so, I understand race as not necessarily connected to skin color, but, with Stuart Hall, to essentialized bodily attributes, mindsets and cultural aspects. Moreover, I understand race as interconnected with ideas about time, and development. McCook embodies Katya as a little backward, a little 'simple' and developmentally delayed. Moreover, and importantly, these aspects are connoted as Russian.
Of course, I am well aware of the genre of comedy and drag, which are both taking up social stereotypes, gesturing towards critique and appreciation. However, I think the line between devaluation and appreciative mockery is thin. Through the lack of a critical discourse on the orientalization and racialization of Russianness within liberal progressive and anti-racist discourses, the comedy and drag can take up and confirm derogatory discourses about Russian women, without being questioned or criticized.
My intuition towards Katya and other comical figurations of Russian feminity is that there is a connection between the emergence of Russian women, we can laugh about and core ideas of queer liberalism—that their co-appearance is not coincidental, but a consequence of queer liberalism's unwillingness to deal with racial and class-based inequalitiesRuPaul's Drag Race is a place, where race becomes negotiated
RuPaul's Drag Race is a space that signifies American national belonging, as well as queer neoliberalism. Additionally, it is a space where race and racialization, and American racial politics are negotiated. Many have publicly criticized the racist and classist baseline of RuPaul's Drag Race, which confines contestants of color to a limited set of 'queens' they are allowed to impersonate as well as the blunt racism of the gay fan community. Feminist media theorists such as Sabrina Strings and Long T. Bui further argue that RuPaul's Drag Race has in the past fashioned racialized and class-based caricatures to satisfy market demands and expand the brand. RuPaul and the other judges were called out for pushing contestants into "stereotypical racial identities" under the innocent label of "giving 'personality'".5 This policing of racial identity for minority performers re-inscribes them as fundamentally Other
and "re-instating race as 'natural' or 'real' at the same moment as it undermines gender's 'realness.," so Strings and Bui. Thus, Drag Race contributes to the naturalization of stereotypes.How does Katya's Russianness fit into this arena of essentialized racialized figures on the one hand and white individualism on the other?
McCook's trans-ethnic or trans-cultural embodiment of a Russian sex-worker is allowed because he and his Drag persona are perceived as white. Given the progressive liberal audience of the show, blackface or any other clearly racist racial impersonations would be forbidden. Katya embodies every Americans stereotype about Russian women: she came to the USA in the 1990s in search of a better life, she works as a sex-worker—has no problem to sell her body for money—, she has no body shame, she loves money and decadence, she wears fur hats and diamonds, she is ruthless, yet sees no future and has no fear of dying.
Three significant features seem to construct her Russianness in such a way that it cannot be missed: her over the top style and make up, which includes her blond big hair, her dark, disillusioned, slightly depressed, yet ruthless character, and of course, her thick Russian accent. These characteristics signify: her low class status, expressed through her choice of kitschy, over-the-top costumes, assessors and make-up, her whiteness, including her blond hair and thick rolling R, and her dark moody little sad character. Additionally, Katya is defined as Russian through her wish or aspiration to the American Dream, a dream she does not and will never reach in her lifetime. This aspects relates to the idea of Russia as almost modern, almost progressive, almost, but not quite yet western, or liberal. All of Katya's characteristics can, in one way or the other, be related to the Enlightenment's orientalist ideas about Russia. Even the stereotypical aggressive sexuality and cliché we see represented in Katya can be traced back to the era of the German Philosopher Fichte.
Larry Wolff, Iver Neumann6 and many researcher following their approach have analyzed the ambivalence of the Western structural enclosing of the Eastern body as in-between, or not-quite modern through the usage of the methodology of orientalism. Enlightenment philosophers invented the notion of Eastern Europe and Russia as a cultural and intellectual construction in order to establish and stabilize western superiority and hegemony. They assigned Eastern Europe, including Russia, to the position of the paradox of difference and similarity, and situated it in between western European civilization and the 'barbarian Orient'. Building on Wolff and Neumann, as well as the queer theorists Robert Kulpa and Joanna Mizielińska7 allows to account for the signification of Russian female bodies such as Katya's fictional body as old-fashioned, developmentally delayed, overtly sexualized and commodified. Yet, the methodology of orientalism does not allow for the analysis of the specific constructions of Russian bodies. It identifies the Russian body as the similar Other to the white European (American), but does not provide any further language to describe its specific demarcation.
Placing Orientalisms understanding of the Russian body as racialized as "not-quite-modern" within critiques of current liberal US-American sexual politics as well as discourses that address the construction of American races on the intersection of class and gender might help to understand Katya as embodiment of Russianness.
Matthew Goldmark analyzes Drag Race as cultural form that occasionally "displaces the evocation of racial inequality in the United States by turning to a global question of sexuality. Contestants perform for a "world" that looks to the United States as a social trendsetter."5 Although he does not refer to the well-known critical race studies scholar Jasbir Puar, his description is a very good example of what she defines as homonationalism, a nationalism that includes some gay identities, and excludes black and brown people as the other.8 Puar developed the conceptual framework of "homonationalism" to narrate how '"acceptance" and "tolerance" for gay and lesbian subjects have become a barometer by which the West evaluates the Rest
of the world. Within homonationalism, gays and lesbians are put forth as visible signs of modernity and progress. The inclusion of gay subjects into the idea of the nation and their construction as signs of modernity, however, comes along with the exclusion of racialized others, who were once seen as progressive and are now viewed as backward.
Puar developed her concept to understand how US xenophobia and Islamophobia structure racialized Muslim subjects as terrorist subjects in the wake of 9/11, and a shift in the US-discourses on the Israel-Palestine conflict, which increasingly used to delegitimize Palestinian cultural and territorial claims, through identifying and rejecting Palestinian homophobia. Researcher working on discourses concerning Russia, such as myself, however, have long used the framework of homonationalism to signify the current evaluation of Russia as backward and anti-modern through western discourses. The critical framework of homonationalism can explain, why Katya's body and personality emerged through the liberal, homonationalistic discoursive field of RuPaul's Drag Race. To understand the racialized bodily and personality aspects of Katya, howerver, Puar's point that homonationalistic western superiority rests on a racialized othered body needs to be reconsidered.
Katya brings Russia and its homophobia to the fore of reality TV. In comparison to a homophobic Russia, which btw. also hates Drag Queens such as the bearded lady Conchita Wurst, the USA, here represented by this national drag contest, looks superior, progressive, modern and tolerant. This usage of Katya in such a homonationalistic way, is possible only through the unnamed orientalization or maybe even racialization of Russianness in liberal discourses in general. To put it differently, homonationalism depends not only on the racialization and othering of Muslims, people of color or black people, but also of (homophobic, conservative, backward) Russians and Russianness.
We would not understand that Katya is Russian, if she wouldn't be so blond, so over-the-top, so 'cheap', so ruthless, so sad, in short, so different. Yet, because this form of othering and racialization does not manifest itself in discourses around color, since it is commonly agreed that Russians are white, orientalist and racist impersonations of Russian figures, and especially Russian women are not seen as hateful, even in anti-racist and decolonial contexts. The usage of Puar's concept of homonationalism for the US-view on Russian runs the risk of making the brown bodies, which have to face the violence of white US-homonationlism in the era of terrorism and increasing Islamophobia invisible, if the racial aspects of homonationalism are ignored. But if we understand that homonationalism does not work without the racialization of multiple and different racial others, we can adapt the concept to analyze the construction of the abject Russian female bodies. These white, but nevertheless racialized, bodies are constructed in relation to brown and black bodies. The orientalism within current neoliberal homonationalism signifies white developmentally delayed Russian bodies and brown Chechen bodies on a scale between the white superior (American) people and the utterly barbaric brown and black oriental others, whose developmental location is even further removed from the western hegemonic centers.
These white Russian bodies become visible in this framework through gender, sexuality, racialization and class. Gender Studies scholars such as Anca Parvulescu highlight the economic factors involved in determining the racialized hierarchy of migrants from the global south and Eastern Europe within the global West.9
I would go as far as to argue that economic factors do not only determine the hierarchy but rather significantly shape who becomes racialized in the first place. Related to the economic potency of migrants is the factor of class. Arguably, even if the economic status is high, migrants and especially Eastern European and Russian migrants are always defined as somehow from a lower class in the global West. According to Parvulescu, women with white skin color, such as Russian or Ukrainian women become racialized in the context of migration through their low class status and vice versa. Katya is a good example for this. She is constructed as white, yet, through her low class status as sex worker, her sexualization and her stlye she appears as developmentally delayed, pre-modern, pre-enlightened body.
Because Katya is Russian, and Russia is understood as backward within homonationalistic formats such as RuPaul's Drag Race, her derogatory bodily construction does not raise eyebrows. Katya appears as racialized Slavic women, with a strong Russian accent, a cheap under-class style that looks old-fashioned, of the 1990s, and McCook can get away with it. Moreover, Katya can speak "up about the underlying racism on the show, and fans and other queens applaud her voice."10
Within Drag Race's
homonationalistic discourses Katya's racialized body and character emerge, to preserve the narrative of a progressive American gay-positive culture and negate racial and class-based inequality. Her racialization is only understandable in consideration of the negation of racial and class-based inequality within US-liberal discourses, that exclude brown and black queers from the narrative of the American Dream. To put it very bluntly, caring for the victims of Russian homophobia makes Americans and other Westerners feel good about their national belonging. Katya embodies the developmental delay of Russia in a comical way, to emphasize everything that is good about the US of A.
1. Oliver, Maria (April 29, 2011). "Night Watch: Perestroika". Boston Globe. http://archive.boston.com/ae/music/articles/2011/0...
2. "Katya Gets To Work." RuPaul's Drag Race S7 E1. Video Clip. LOGOTV.com http://www.logotv.com/video-clips/b84pew/rupauls-d...
3. Akimov, Andre. "His name is Katya". Russian Chicago Magazine. Issue 125, 29. May 2015. https://russianchicagomag.com/katya_zamo_eng/
4. Lee, Stephan. "'RuPaul's Drag Race:' Miss Congeniality winner Katya speaks!" Entertainment Weekly's EW.com. June 02, 2015 http://www.ew.com/article/2015/06/02/rupauls-drag-...
5. Strings, Sabrina and Long T. Bui. "'She Is Not Acting, She Is:' The conflict between gender and racial realness on RuPaul's Drag Race." Feminist Media Studies 14.5 (2014), 822–836; Goldmark, Matthew. "NATIONAL DRAG: The Language of Inclusion in RuPaul's Drag Race." GLQ 21.4 (2015): 501-520.
6. Neumann, I. 1996. Russia and the Idea of Europe
; Wolff, L. 1994. Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenmen
7. Kulpa, R., Mizielińska, J. 2011. De-Centring Western Sexualities
8. Puar, J. 2007. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times
9. Parvulescu, A. 2014. The Traffic in Women's Work: Eastern European Migration and the Making of Europe.
10. John, Grace. (2018). "RuPaul"s Drag Race' Often Displays Racial Bias to Favor White Queens. https://studybreaks.com/tvfilm/rupauls-drag-race/