Is Drag Race dragging itself down?

Laramie Hevland discusses Drag culture and how Drag Race needs to catch up.

Laramie Hevland
24th November 2019
credit: IMDb
When RuPaul’s Drag Race premiered in 2009, the US still was more than 5 years away from legalizing same sex marriage, and discussions about queer culture and identity in popular media were few and far between.

Now, here was a show which was not only hosted by a gay black man, but actively lifted up and celebrated other gay performers, and treated drag as an activity and art-form which was worthy of respect. It’s no surprise then that early seasons of the show, while often campy and severely lacking in production value, felt groundbreaking. However, recent seasons have caused many to wonder whether the show has lost its edge, and if it accurately represents drag and the broader LGBTQ+ community.

The way Drag Race presents issues of gender identity, particularly regarding the inclusion of trans women and nonbinary drag performers, has often been criticized for being simplistic and insensitive. While the stereotypical image of a drag queen may still be a cis man in a dress and a wig, drag is a broad and encompassing art that includes performers who don’t identify with conventional binary genders. With that in mind, it’s disappointing to note that in 11 seasons of Drag Race, not one openly trans contestant has been chosen. Several queens have come out as trans during the course of their respective seasons or after appearing, including Peppermint from season 9 and Sonique from season 2. But many have since admitted that they hid their identity during the audition process out of fear that they wouldn’t be allowed to compete. This attitude was seemingly confirmed in 2018, when RuPaul said that he probably wouldn’t allow any trans women who had started gender affirming surgery, and compared that to allowing athletes to take performance enhancing drugs. Although Ru apologised shortly afterward, this incident coupled with a continuing lack of representation has led many to wonder whether the program is really as radical as it claims and wants to be.

RuPaul said he probably wouldn't allow any trans women who had started gender affirming surgery

When a UK based version of the show was first announced, many questioned how well the aesthetic and attitudes championed by RuPaul really fit with the reality of British drag culture. The show’s emphasis on transformation and being “fishy” (or appearing stereotypically female) is firmly rooted in the influence of balls and pageant drag in American culture. However, the British drag scene is notably more countercultural, with more of a focus on offbeat comedy and dismantling societal norms. These cultural differences have been apparent throughout the first season of Drag Race UK, with Ru often appearing confused by queen’s references and needing translations of the slang used by contestants. Although this is often amusing, and certainly makes the program more accessible to international audiences, it can lead to Drag Race feeling less like a celebration of performers talent and more like an invitation to gawk at the queens.

It's lack of evolution across the last decade is becoming increasingly apparent

While Drag Race has been undeniably effective in bringing drag and queer culture to mainstream audiences, its lack of evolution across the last decade is becoming increasingly apparent. Though both the main show and UK spin-off are widely viewed and commercially successful they no longer feel as fresh or challenging as early seasons did. Both RuPaul and the program will have to rethink their limited views on gender and drag culture for Drag Race to regain its status as a truly revolutionary force.

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