Sharon Needles Fumbles On Line Between Art & Shock Value

The minute anybody started paying attention to Sharon “The Fucking Future of Drag” Needles, girlfriend was in some hot water. It turned out she occasionally liked to perform wearing blackface and swastikas, brag on Facebook/Twitter about how she’s sooooo edgy, she “[doesn’t] say n-word..i say nigger…” and associate her employers and all their countrymen with mass murder.

After a near-perfect run on drag race (having only fallen into the bottom two when it didn’t matter, as Willam was disqualified that episode anyway), Needles was finally told to sashay away this May the instant her spiked heel hit the airport runway in Vienna, Austria. Needles was booked to perform at the Life Ball, a schmancy international AIDS fundraiser (we’re assuming there was no distasteful punning with her name intended). Upon arrival, Needles, apparently drunk but probably in total control of her image and artistry as she is at all times because she’s obviously a genius, proclaimed she was happy to be in Vienna, the birthplace of Hitler.

That carefully planned performance piece must have gone over my head, because I thought Hitler was born in Braunau am Inn.

According to other passengers on the flight, Needles also told this joke: “Did you hear the one about the baby with AIDS? It never gets old.”

I was disturbed to hear all this. I’d liked her on RuPaul’s Drag Race. She’d been so witty, endearing and freaky. I thought, surely if I look into these seemingly racist statements and see what Sharon has to say for herself, I’ll find she was taken out of context, that it’s all part of some greater artistic gesture I hadn’t fully seen yet.

So I read this response to the Vienna incident:

“I will always use off-putting humor in my work. What Life Ball did was try to censor me from the media, cut me out of the show, and make it seem like I wasn’t there, which is media manipulation and creating propaganda.

The only regret I have is not being able to perform in front of my Austrian fans, which are some of the best in the world. Let’s face it, Sharon Needles is more suited at a Death Ball.

After speaking to several Austrian locals, young and old, gay and straight, I realized there was nothing done wrong on my part—Life Ball was just trying to protect their sponsors. I was raised on such great transgressive artists as Divine, Lady Bunny, Shirley Q. Liquor, and the queen herself RuPaul, who taught me that boundaries have to be pushed, and history should not be forgotten.”

Um, ok. She’s comparing herself to some pretty influential acts there. The names Needles drops were using crude sex and bathroom humour at a time when the conservatism of Reagan and Thatcher was shaping society. But…go on.

Oh.

Sharon Needles not only fails to justify her actions intelligently, but fall back on all the same cheap, ignorant, facile, half-baked defenses as everyone else who’s in denial about the racist things they do.

Sharon Needles has no entitlement to be a race provocateur; no evident knowledge of the impact she’s having; and displays no interest in considering it when practically begged by media or distressed audience members (this article pretty much includes all she’s said on the matter). I’m not writing a hit piece here, but if Needles is going to keep claiming she’s a brilliant artist, then it’s fair to critique her as an example of what’s wrong with hiding behind bad, lazy art as an excuse to both express and deny ignorance.

I’m an artist. I hold a mirror up to society.

Oh, right. Obviously I don’t get it. I’m a prude and a philistine and a bourgeoisie and too stupid for that high brow stuff about n-words and AIDS babies. I said what you did was offensive because you’re keeping it way too real for me.

When Sharon defends herself by crying censorship, she makes it clear she has not a single sweet clue when racial commentary works in art, and when it doesn’t. Or, for that matter, who gets to be a social commentator in the first place (hint: not drag queens). It doesn’t seem to have even occurred to her to attempt to hide the racism under a veil of satire. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it is probably a racist-ass drag queen.

I can’t say it better than Lindy West:

People in positions of power simply cannot make jokes at the expense of the powerless. That’s why, at a company party, you never have a roast where the CEO is roasting the janitor (“Isn’t it funny how Steve can barely feed his family? This guy knows what I’m talking about!” [points to other janitor]). Because that would be GROSS, and both janitors would have to work late to clean up everyone’s barf.

The library is closed.

I don’t care what you think. If you don’t like it, don’t come to my show.

Yeah, no, I totally won’t, we’re on the same page about that. But I can’t unsee the shit I already saw. So the fact that you so easily dismiss the audience’s feelings proves you’re a lot more concerned about the cheap reaction you’re getting than trying to foster intellectual dialogue.

I’m not afraid of language/I’m not PC because it’s lame for some reason/racism is over.

Call the waaaaaaahmbulance. This response is a method of self-victimization. It’s an attempt to position oneself as a rebel against the evils of a “political correctness” straw man. It implies the user is anti-establishment, so advanced beyond the time when racism was relevant that they don’t even think about it before opening their mouths because they’re so 3008 like that. But you better be sure nobody else thinks about it, either. From where I’m standing, that swastika looks ignorant.

Ever notice how the only people who seem to be constantly decrying some supposed oppressive climate of political correctness also seem to always be loudmouthed douchebags who get in trouble a lot? Free speech still has consequences.

Plus, when you say some racist shit, you actually just sound like a hillbilly’s grandparents. That’s not punk rock.

I’m not racist because I don’t want to hurt anyone.

Then you seriously need to address the disconnect between what you want and what you’re doing. I suggest you start by not throwing up crappy defenses when someone wants to talk about it and acknowledging that maybe you need to hear where they’re coming from. Then actually change your behaviour.

I assume the tribe of tranimals and genderfuck performers Sharon Needles apparently runs around with in PARTY CITY feel their queerness needs to also be transgressive, and I’m sure some of them are expressing things they’re actually informed about. Wherever Needles got her crass inspirations, it was probably clever when it was original. But I get the impression Ms. Needles saw other people being provocative, was impressed by the reaction it got, and decided she wanted some attention too. The fact that she finds racist language and imagery the easiest outlet for that is telling of her true ability as an artist. Sorry, hunty. But your rich, white ass can’t pretend to be an outsider while making so-called art that enforces the outsiderness actual people of colour feel all the time.

P.S. In anticipation of commenters finding out I’m white and acting like it precludes me from making points about how other race groups feel: a) it doesn’t, b) I’m not, I’m saying white people can’t understand those feelings and generally need to leave racial commentary the hell alone unless they can make it poignant, funny, and/or generally elevate it beyond shock value.

Submitted By: Derek Bedry
Derek Bedry is a Vancouver writer and journalist. Tweet praise and flames @dbedry.

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  • Ryan

    The Russian government is explicitly imposing a gay propaganda law, and plans to enforce it on athletes who attempt to support gay rights during the Olympic games next year. Yet, Derek, a “journalist” only takes the time to write a superfluous article about how Sharon Needles vaguely affects society.

  • Paul

    Well said Ryan.

    Sharon is a doll. She’s never once acted inappropriately or out of line any of times I’ve seen her or met her.

  • psymcdingo

    I think that drag queens can get away with a lot of things and that’s fine with me. At the end of the day, it’s a guy in a dress.

  • bjohn

    Drag itself is a sort of shock value. If you don’t like what Sharon is doing then don’t watch it. Let people be people, there is no need for this hatred, just ignore it if it offends you.

  • Evan

    From my observations, Sharon loves to take dark moments in history and make jokes about them, perhaps for shock value, or perhaps because that is her drag character. Although I can somewhat see where the author is coming from, it appears he really has it in for Sharon — almost to the point of a personal vendetta. Breathe, man. Breathe.

  • Alex

    This writer was obviously a Phi Phi (No Talent) Ohara supporter.
    And to be quite honest, this is old news if you check the date on the video. If you don’t like what Sharon is doing just step aside and don’t watch it. This isn’t some family Paula Dean cooking show you’re watching, it’s drag hunty. Get over it.

  • jay

    Seems like other reader/commentators already covered the basics and I certainly agree. It’s drag.

    Oh… And the AIDS baby joke is funny sh¡t

  • Porter

    I can’t stand Sharon needles, as a black person who has seen her racist performances, I can tell you it’s not art it’s not shock value it’s a white guy in a dress who’s a racist asshole. His explanation on the video above is bullshit and the same thing every racist white performer says when they get called out. Fuck him and his talentless boyfriend. And I can only assume that the other post were written by white men who wouldn’t know what it feels like to be racially discriminated against.

  • JP

    Art is all about shock value. If we took every form of media that had some form of offensive material out of the world, we wouldn’t have much. The biggest issue about this whole interview, and why it went wrong, is that they demanded an apology, and they demanded it their way. They came in fighting and weren’t going to let him try to explain why he does what he does. They pretty much said “we want an apology this way. We want it now.” That’s why he said “I will do it in my own way.” Those interviewers came in fighting and wanted to argue. They weren’t going to have a civilized conversation. I’m an art student and have created things that offended people, but they would come to me in a civilized way and asked “This hurt me, and here’s why.” And I would respond “I didn’t mean for that to happen, but here’s why I did it.” After we both speak and see each other’s point of view. All in all, the world is offensive. I can count a thousand different things a day that could be offensive to someone. If I do it myself, and you want to have a real conversation about it biggest it hurt you, that’s fine, but don’t come at someone and demand shit. That never works. Those two were young, naive, and immature. I was that way, too, when I was younger, and I saw the errors in my ways. There’s a difference in arguing and communicating. Those two need to realize why he responded how he did, and how they are at fault for that response. No one likes being backed into a corner. No one puts Baby in the corner. (yes, I just said that)

  • RFD

    It’s called some sort of sensitivity and Sharon has little to none. Never thought he should have won that season. It also shows some immaturity. I have not yet seen the above video and therefore maybe he learns more in it. But bottom line is he is no Jinkx Monsoon!

  • Chrishan

    I really don’t give a rat’s ass about this article. Like any other Sharon Needles fan, I read it because Sharon’s name is in it. Look who’s tryin’ to ride coattails…

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