Season 15 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is currently airing and because of that, this article has been at the bottom of my to-do list. But, now that Aura Mayari has won a challenge and Marcia Marcia Marcia has put on some makeup, I can rest easy and talk about the franchise as a whole. Despite bringing what was once a crime onto the cultural mainstage, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has veered from representation and education into the commodification of queer culture for the mainstream, in turn, illustrating how the media machine as whole lacks nuance in its representation of queer culture.
For all of you normies who aren’t aware of what drag is or why it matters so much, pull your head out of the sand and get on Twitter. Or Instagram. Even Reddit, at this point. First, drag is an art form that started as primarily gay men dressing up as women and exaggerating feminine gender signifiers through padding and makeup. Drag has evolved into a way for people to explore different aspects of gender or completely deconstruct the binary and is now a form of artistic self expression more than anything else. At its core, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is a weekly reality competition show where drag queens compete in maxi challenges and a runway. Each episode’s loser is decided by a Lip Sync For Your Life, and the queen that does not objectively slay harder sashays away. In terms of reach, 1.3 million people tuned into MTV to watch the season 15 premiere.
The parts of drag race that really resonate with viewers, however, are the scenes that take place in the Werk Room. While the queens get ready for the runway or sew dresses out of recyclables, some of the most memorable banter (“Go back to party city where you belong!”), shady confessionals (“This is sad. Kim Chi has two left feet and vertigo.”) and teary moments take place. Queens talk about their experiences with HIV positivity, moments in queer history like the Stonewall riots, their personal battles with religion and growing up with homophobic parents. On the surface, these vignettes seem like poignant insights into the lives of queer people, and in some sense, they are.
However, it’s important to take a step back: This is a reality TV show. As many of the queens say, the real drag happens in the off-air dressing room, not the Werk Room. These experiences, genuine and authentic as they may be, are being commodified for the mainstream.
At the end of the day, this isn’t the queens being real.
Instead, it’s a combination of the authentic representation of the queer experience and the repackaging and smoothing that mass media puts on uncomfortable topics like homophobia and HIV. The degree of authenticity is limited by the fact that this is a TV show, not a conversation.
The degree of authenticity is limited by the fact that this is a TV show, not a conversation.
Commercialization rears its ugly, wigless head in another aspect of drag race: the language. Drag queens have a specific vernacular that is part of drag culture and queer culture as a whole. Famous terms like “shade,” “read,” “hunty” and “werk” come from spaces in the queer community like ballroom culture, a space that is primarily Black as well as queer. Ballrooms were started in the late 1970s by Black and Latinx people as a way for the queer community to have safe spaces and be their authentic selves without fear of judgment from the world at large. Within the queer community, many use these terms without knowing the history and meaning behind them. The appropriation often extends beyond the queer community, as seen in the literal commodification of these terms through merchandise: shirts, hoodies, hats and tumblers bedecked with “slay” and “the shade.”
There is a difference between appreciation and appropriation. Appreciation might include watching the show, while appropriation is walking around in a tank top that says “gagged them a bit, for sure,” without knowing all three of Luxx Noir London’s names.
The excessive merchandising is representative of the show’s inability to find the balance between representation and exploitation. Drag race is a way for a fringe art form, a marginalized group and their experiences to be put center stage. However, when being thrust into the mainstream, what does the show sacrifice when it comes to representing the true, authentic queer experience?
While one can argue that “RuPaul’s Drag Race” makes people more comfortable with queer people, perhaps that happens because drag race packages queer people into an entertaining, stereotypical image that society is more comfortable with. Justin Bengry writes, “There are obviously connections and networks between people based on understandings and shared histories or trauma. All of these things can be part of a culture. But they’re profoundly complicated factors and it’s hard to tie them all up in a neat little box and bow.”
Even the concept of the monolithic queer culture is an example of the reductive nature of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” There is no one queer experience, and there is no one queer culture. Drag is only a small part of queer history and queer culture, and it should act as a starting point, not the end-all be-all.
At the end of the day, why does this matter? Why should anyone care about a bunch of people in wigs and dresses? Well, first of all, they look great. Take notes.
Second of all, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” reaches a massive audience of people of different demographics, psychographics and geographical placements. A lot of straight people learn about drag culture through this wildly popular show, which is not to say that “RuPaul’s Drag Race” should act as an interface for queer culture as a whole or that the show represents all aspects of queer culture. It is important to have authentic, diverse representations of queer that extends beyond a single television show or a single aspect of that culture. Drag is only a small part of the queer experience, and we have to endeavor to represent all the diverse and varied aspects of queer culture.
From a queer perspective, it is harmful to have a reductive, widespread representation of what it’s like to be queer. Not only do straight people appropriate the culture because it is mainstream, but every time you walk into a room, people have a misinformed preconceived notion of who you are because of the media representation of your culture. A lot of young gay people also are inspired by drag race, and in that sense, it does good. Some people are inspired to come out because of the queens, and others become more acclimated to the concept of being queer. However, the more serious and educational media does exist out there but doesn’t get nearly as much awareness because of consumer taste. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is arguably the best solution under the current constraints of having to make money and represent the culture.
We must critically evaluate the steps we took to get here and how the media landscape as a whole can reconcile the concepts of making something mainstream and marketable while keeping it authentic.
The fact that queer culture is considered mainstream is an accomplishment in and of itself and should not be denied. At the same time, we must critically evaluate the steps we took to get here and how the media landscape as a whole can reconcile the concepts of making something mainstream and marketable while keeping it authentic. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” should act as a jumping off point, and if someone finds it interesting, I encourage them to dig deeper. Queer culture is vast and varied, and media like “Pose” or “Legendary” can help people understand the history through a more educational, documentarian lens. And if you just want to watch the queens do what queens do, I recommend the many, many podcasts that are more open and less censored. “Sibling Rivalry,” by Bob the Drag Queen and Monét X Change, and “Give it to Me Straight,” hosted by Maddy Morphosis, are also great places to delve deeper into queer culture and the individual experiences of the queens.
“RuPaul’s Drag Race” should not be anyone’s only interface with queer culture, but it’s a great first.
Suryaansh Dongre is, for legal reasons, not gay in the slightest, hunty.
A version of this article appeared on pg. 14 of the Feb. 23, 2023 edition of the Daily Nexus.