Saturday, May 2, 2015

Research, RuPaul, and Affectation

When I was twelve or so, I first ran across the term “affectation” as a somewhat pejorative description of a girl putting on linguistic or gestural airs to Act a Certain way. As my reading widened, the term came to apply to affecting habits by men or women, with a little less insult freighting the description, but still generally seeming to indicate artificial behavior as a negative. “She affected a girlish lisp but seemed no younger for it” or “He affected to carry a walking stick” were the broad-stroked outlines of affectation.

Many of us today, especially Americans today, despise affectation – and yet, for all my own history of Valspeak and its signature (incredibly irritating) rising inflection, as a crotchety old lady, I find younger women and girls now no less affected, and just as irritating. The current iteration, in spoken language, favors either wildly raspy voices or nasal and juvenile sounding voices which remain immature in sound and vocabulary well past the sell-by date on “I’m a liddle gurl” pretension. This was plenty common in my own generation, and earlier in the twentieth century, but as a prejudiced old bat, it FEELS like it’s worse now, and “women today have lost all concept of the allure of a lower and modulated voice.”

My generation, of course, entertains the delusional affectation that we’re not getting old, rendering the concept of ageing gracefully all but risible (and I include myself). Every generation has its elaborate fictional lifelong scripts they live by, destinies shaped by prevailing assumptions, and those shaped by rebellion against them too.

Anyway. So affectation is considerably awful, in this day and age. Its reflection of artificial values, and empty aspirations *blah blah blah blah and so on*, pathetic pop culture, distended market interest in body image, consumer *blather blather blather ad nauseum* and … you get the point.

Behavior other than the authentic = bad.

But. Has any one of us ever in life met an ‘authentic’ person? Honest, sure. Even trustworthy. But almost every human for something north of six THOUSAND years now has been subject to some influence or other that has little to do with the natural world. Civilization – and animal behavior – are incompatible and always have been, and what people have ever succumbed to unfettered expression with their words, behaviors, and bodies, have ALWAYS been punished for it, even as we view artificiality with suspicion.

So most of us agree: crapping in public is Not Done. But eating is acceptable. And yet you can’t have one without the other. Looked at for more than five minutes, the standards we’ve cemented over the millennia begin to appear arbitrary, even as we can’t imagine (quite) letting go of them.

We judge the affectation of, say, a monarch so rarefied that for them to scratch their knee is unthinkable, as almost embarrasingly inhuman. Ironically: unworthy, by dint of the very centuries’ sanctioning of overweening position and antiquated political systems. Embarrassing.

And so, we snort, we wipe our noses, we move on with life, glad we’re not stuck in royal protocol … yet ever-fantasizing about silly constructs like “fairy tales” and obessing over Kate Middleton’s dresses.

Affectation is awful. And *aspirational*.

It’s difficult to even comprehend the idea of a world in which touching the ear is offensive, or speaking above the most rigidly-learned modulation. To imagine trying to live without sneezing, yawning, sighing in boredom – unthinkable. Who trains themselves out of these simple things? How can it even be done?

There are few of us living today who can stop and imagine living without the presumption that human feeling is universal. The presumption that a living, feeling person will act in X way given Y to endure, or suffer, or enjoy, is unfathomably deep in us, and yet a moment’s study betrays how wrong modern assumptions can be. Even the concept of individuality is not fundamental.

And it’s the job of a historical fiction author to convey, even in compromised terms, worlds like this. Minds without modern expectations. Relationships, communities, homes, and landscapes not framed by Norman Rockwell or even Titian or Picasso. To completely reframe character within different contexts.

This is where RuPaul comes in.

Here’s a guy who’s made quite a career in affectation, and people only love him for it. He has stated pointblank more than once, wearing a dress really isn’t his favorite thing in the world. Yet few of us – men or women – do it a whole lot “better” (modern presumptions firmly in place). The transformation of which he’s capable, and for which he’s made megabucks, is arresting.

And completely affected. You knew that would be coming, so it’s out of the way. Done.

The year I was so sick I missed New Year’s, I stayed home for days on my couch, so dizzy I could not read nor walk nor focus on anything closer to me that at least ten feet away, and I watched TV. Specifically, RuPaul’s Drag Race on Netflix (sadly, they don’t carry the show anymore). At first, I thought it would be light and funny and get my mind off the illness – with pretty colors and things to look at I wouldn’t have to contemplate in any depth.

I’ve seen every single season, and most of them several times over, thanks to the magic of cable TV’s perpetual reruns. It never gets old (and the editing is the most hilarious on TV).

Image: Wikipedia

RuPaul presides over this show, decidedly NOT taped in HD, and filtered on top of that – and so sits in the shining, golden haze of her wigs, cool, alluring, and utterly remote. Topping seven feet no doubt in those shoes, airbrushed to imaginary, unattainable perfection, she is packaged and presented as a goddess of transformations, and the dozens of minions over the past several years are a panoply of breathtaking talents, all offering up to her their charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent (one of the show’s million catch phrases – and it spells a word, y’all).

RuPaul HIMself appears at least once every episode decidedly out of drag, and each one ends with a judging, a ceremonial in which SHE makes a new appearance each week, magnificent and made-up, glittering and … “perfect” … There is a runway walk to showcase the week’s eye-popping dress and wig and makeup, then a few minutes’ marvelously Hollywood-fake-nice emceeing where she introduces the judges du jour, and then she takes her seat at the center of the panel and rules with an iron fist, a tongue in cheek, and the most eerily polished personal deportment this side of a royal court, seriously. Even on the rare occasion she takes a queen to task for something, the flare-up presented has the sheen of protocol, the fairy-tale monarch enacting the off-with-their-heads archness that does not so much as crack the heavily shellacked shell of the persona; indeed, only adds to the …


The more I watch RuPaul, the less I see the human, the private life, the man for whom this is decidedly a living, and for whom life is lived on a farm with a longtime partner, a private life beautifully and blankly unavailable to millions of viewers. It’s a work of art, and it’s kind of magnificent, thinking about all the unseen-ness or not.

As Marilyn Monroe was a persona worn, perhaps almost to excess, by a woman with intelligence and agency of her own, and deep vulnerabilities she actually used to fuel the machine of a career centered on affectation … so is RuPaul the product of the collective gaze, more than the real reflection of a man making a hell of a living looking like few women in the world can even aspire to.

(My apologies for the preceding sentence; this blog is largely unedited, and certainly not beta-read.)

Over the past couple of weeks, watching Rusie Q in her magisterial grandness, the very carriage of her head a lesson in imperiousness and royal dignity, the more I am thinking of the rarefied nature of affectation, and how IMPORTANT it is for certain characters. How it informs an entire existence – where animal humanity is locked away and hidden – where protocol’s demands are met, and with aplomb, but life as lived is a separate thing; and not, perhaps, a greater one.

Writing a world in which no voice should ever be raised, where bells are not rung to get attention, in which religious and court demands come above all things, the example of RuPaul in drag is perhaps hardly obvious, and yet I am inspired by the vision, by the transformative nature of the demands of the Supermodel of the World’s role. Watching the performance, the work, the absolute dedication is instructive, even if I will never directly use an ounce of it. The very angle of that sculpted chin is evocative. And that is enough.

Creative artists, writers, and those we work with, are fond of saying you never know where inspiration lies.

It’s impossible to convey in toto just how random, and true, that really is.


angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

You have beautifully explained affectation. It's exaclty the word I needed to describe a certain person whose affected good manners are their blatant failure. Their attempt to be.

I would have called them a poser.

DLM said...

Hi, Angie! I'm so glad to provide the term; it was fairly common once, but I'm not sure I've seen it much lately. By the time I was coming along, it had that distinctly pejorative ring to it, but in earlier 20th and 19th century lit, it was not necessarily an insult. Hercule Poirot, for instance, was perhaps one of the most affected characters ever written, but we still love him and his little grey cells!

It's been amusing to me, having RuPaul occur to me as a source of inspiration quite like this. My own characters in the current WIP are decidedly unlike him in any sense but behavioral; and yet, when behavior is so calculated and utterly modulated by control, the similarities are almost as stark as the contrasts!