Reading is Fundamental: The Role of Ritual Insults in Ru Paul’s Drag Race

Olivia Heiner

Insults are sometimes regarded as negative or impolite; however, they can also be a playful ritual among various communities.  Consider, for example, the exaggerated “Yo Mama” jokes told between young school children.  Such insults are entertaining, performative, and unlikely to cause much harm.

This article explores the practice of mock ritual insults in the drag queen community, where such insults are referred to as “reads”.  In particular, this study looks at conversations from episodes of Ru Paul’s Drag Race—a reality television show where drag queens compete against each other—in order to analyze the content and linguistic aspects of reads.  Like other communities who practice ritual insults, queens display wit and humor in their reads.  Unlike insults in other male communities, however, reads use drag language and focus on content that is particularly relevant to the gendered performance of drag; this includes high pitched voice, feminine pronouns and addresses, as well as insults focused on fashion, makeup, and physical characteristics.  Despite the fact that reads usually involve insults against real traits in the addressee, surrounding queens and addressees usually respond to reads in a positive manner. This demonstrates how reading is a playful practice that not only entertains queens, but also helps them build a “thicker skin” against the real, non-playful criticism that they experience as a marginalized group.

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