Whether you’re a drag performer or a college student putting on an outfit to go out to a bar on a low budget – nobody wants to be called “cheap.” “It means you look tacky, like a cheap prostitute,” as one outdated answer from an online user on mumsnet.com in 2011 defined it. In popular culture, the consensus is that looking “cheap” is synonymous with having bad taste. But in recent years, we’ve moved towards an era of post-ironic aesthetics – which I would define as “looking cheap, but with intention.” Consider this: a woman in Vietnam wears a t-shirt that says “Supromo,” a near-missed spelling of the brand Supreme; a traveller captures an image of it as she drives past on her motorbike and puts it online; people love it.
Awareness sets the distinction between “trendy” and “tacky.” Like most post-ironic fashion trends, it is considered ground-breaking when executed by people with means and “cheap” when executed by people who can’t afford effortless classiness.
In drag, the idea of “realness” has reigned supreme. The term derives from the ballroom scene at its height in New York in the 1960s. It is a space where queer people of colour express themselves and find community. It is a source of radical freedom from the oppression of mainstream society – an area where people get to be whoever they want to be and believe that it’s possible.
If you were walking a category at these balls, you needed to be “real” or “believable” to get high scores. But for all its creativity and freedom, realness is also a complicated category because it upholds heteronormative standards.
If the goal is to look believable as a cis-gender straight person, two sources of privilege may help afford this: the ability to be “passing,” not to be questioned of your gender expression – and wealth. Wealth in this sense means richness in resources, experience, and cultural capital.
The ballroom scene centres on defying social norms, but it can also get tricky to consider how internal policing of a safe space can be detrimental. “Art from drag queens born into wealth doesn’t hit at all. Honestly, any art from rich people is gross. Your expression means nothing, and I don’t want to see any of it,” said Miss Pangaea Kitty in a tweet. While I can’t fully resonate with this message because all art should be valid, regardless of background, it touches on a meaningful sentiment that is at the core of drag culture. To some, art is not just a passion but also a means of survival. When art is a necessary form of expression that helps a person reconcile with their identity, they will pursue it at whatever cost.
In 2019, Mikaela Straus, known by her stage name King Princess, released an album that included “Cheap Queen.” In the song, she talks about “doing the same shit [she’s] always liked.” In an interview with BAZAAR.com, she said: “When I do makeup, it’s performative. I don’t wear makeup, but I use it as a tool to talk about gender and sexuality.”
How “successful” one’s expression is seems difficult to measure – especially on the spectrum of “cheap” or “real.”
While drag’s primary purpose has been for performance, competition, or entertainment, it is also a source of celebration and pride. I think it’s time we put the power back into being “cheap.” Ask ourselves: what does it mean to be cheap when the word “cheap” in the context of a “cheap queen” is only synonymous with “resourceful”?