Who would have thought the “Free the Nipple” movement would apply to not just women but drag queens as well? On the Dec. 21 episode of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars, Season 4 (tagged “Super Girl Groups, Henny”), the show decided to do something a bit odd: Censor the male nipple multiple times on one of the drag queen contestants, Valentina.
It happened twice in the episode: the first time in her Selena-inspired red outfit for her group number when her nipple popped out a bit and the second time in her lip-sync when she was wearing a loose mini slip dress. Neither time was she wearing any undergarments like a bra or any female breast prosthetics. She was literally a man in a dress whose male nipples were blurred. It's also noteworthy that during her lip-sync performance, her nether regions were blurred as well. For the purpose of this article, however, we'll be focusing on the censorship of the nipple.
While Valentina's nipple was blurred when she was in full drag, in the episode that aired the following week, she is seen on camera topless getting ready. She has a wig on but is not yet in full makeup or in female clothing. This time the nipple was not blurred and was shown uncensored. So where is the line drawn? As a culture, are we so uncomfortable with a woman's nipple that we even have to censor a man's nipple when he looks like a woman? If that's the case, in this modern age of gender-nonbinary, gender-nonconforming and even transgender identifications, then what classifies as a woman? If it's just presenting as a woman, wearing full makeup and “women's clothing,” as was the case with Valentina, then that doesn't seem right.
It seems as if the minute society starts seeing you as a woman (based on the clothes you wear or the makeup on your face), it objectifies you and starts to police your body. But what about those who identify as transgender? There's even a trans contestant on this season, Gia Gunn. If she's pre-op but identifies as a woman, would her bare nipples be blurred if she was getting ready topless but not wearing makeup or women's clothing (since she identifies as a woman)? Or does it only go by your physical body parts (which is what the trans community is fighting against), or even worse, by what society dictates as female?
Both VH1, the network that airs the show, and World of Wonder, the production company behind it, declined to comment. However, we spoke to a program standards manager at one of the major broadcast networks. Broadcast networks have even stricter standards to adhere to because they are overseen by the Federal Communications Commission, whereas VH1 as a cable network is not. According to the source, the network standards team, along with legal, created a manual that is sent out to all productions. The manual does not have anything specific in writing about regulations concerning a man dressed as a woman. The only clear standard is that female breasts are considered sexual organs and are required to be censored whereas male breasts are not considered sexual organs and therefore are not required to be blurred (which is why Valentina's was not when she was getting ready and not yet in full drag).
This ties in with the Free the Nipple movement: Why are female breasts viewed as sexual organs but male breasts aren't? Is it because some men decided this was the case hundreds of years ago? Or because women's breasts make milk but men's don't, even though breastfeeding is not sexual (but is also heavily policed)? Both seem like ambiguous and silly reasons to sexualize one while the other is uncensored. Free the Nipple is all about women trying to fight society policing and sexualizing their bodies, and now that censorship is getting extended to male bodies in female-presenting clothes? Just because he's giving a female illusion doesn't mean his breasts suddenly make milk or are any different than when he's presenting as a man. Valentina's nipples are not seen as sexual objects when he's topless but they are when he's in a dress.
It's also worthwhile to note that, if customers choose to pay for the episode to download on platforms like Vudu or iTunes, the nipple censorship is still there, whereas profanity is not bleeped out as it is on VH1. How this can be the case when iTunes is selling the content as “RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars, Season 4 (Uncensored)” is beyond me.
While drag queens may not be the best poster children for Free the Nipple — it is a women's rights movement, after all — the issue unearthed by Drag Race's censorship is no less an important commentary on gender and sexuality. If the only indication of whether or not to censor a nipple is society-made gender identifiers such as dresses and makeup, then maybe we're not as far along as a society as we should be. Especially if this is even adhered to on one of the most LGBTQ-friendly shows on television. If anything, RuPaul's Drag Race should be helping to break down these arbitrary heteronormative boxes we're being put in, rather than blindly conforming to them.