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Understanding the Cultural Phenomenon of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’

Understanding the Cultural Phenomenon of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’

Legendary international drag queen superstar and pop culture icon, RuPaul Charles, just snatched his third Emmy nomination for Outstanding Host for a Reality Program for RuPaul’s Drag Race, which is arguably the best show on television.  Maybe ever.  Hear me out.  The concept of a reality contest TV show about a bunch of men dressing up like women is revolutionary in its subversion of the cultural norms of our society.  Imagine just a few years back the possibility of such a program becoming popular with mainstream audiences.  It would have been inconceivable.  But, now everyone watches Drag Race.  Gays and straights, young and old, men and women.  Even my mom watches Drag Race!

Irreverently campy and fun

Why?  Because it’s fun.  It’s fun to watch adults – grown men, no less – play with colors and fabric.  It’s fun to openly celebrate music, art, comedy, performance, dancing, and fashion.  There is a freedom on display here that is wildly intoxicating – as if someone had let all the old, stale air out the room and let in the breeze from outside.  Gone are the deadly serious sexual mores that define the popular culture.  For the entirety of the show’s weekly 42-minute runtime, viewers get to depart from the mainstream to tumble down the rabbit hole – and what a gloriously irreverent and campy journey it is!

As these drag queens subvert the mainstream culture – which always adheres to such rigid views of gender, identity, and expression – they also manage to tackle some heavy thematic material: bullying, body image, homophobia, transphobia, AIDS, and trauma.  Contestants discuss coming out to their families, their transition as a transperson, financial stresses, and battling depression.  All this through the structure of a cheesy reality contest format.

The format of the show

Here’s how it works.  Contestants are assigned challenges.  There is a mini-challenge and then there is the main challenge, which usually involves fashion design or a performance of some sort, capped off with a runway walk showcasing an assigned fashion theme.  The drag queens are then critiqued by the judges, including RuPaul, and a challenge winner is announced along with two bottom performers.  Each episode finishes off with a lip synch battle between the two bottom queens.  The winner gets to move on to the next episode while the loser gets sent home.  It’s good fun.

Some of the most valuable and poignant scenes take place backstage in the workroom, where the contestants get dressed up and apply makeup.  Watching them get ready allows us to appreciate the difficulty of the transformation and the artistry behind the glitz and sparkle.  Apart from the disruption of gender norms, there’s also an element of social and economic transcendence as each contestant, usually, a small-time club performer in his hometown is given a national platform and is raised to the raised to the iconic status of having a recognizable brand.  Without this outlet, these men – many of them still in their early twenties – might never be able to rise so prominently and with such swiftness within the entertainment industry.

Something else – the phenomenon of the show

There’s something else about the show, too – something less easy to define.  The phenomenon of Drag Race is something few could have anticipated.  Can you imagine the pitch to the network (initially, it was Logo; the show has since moved to VH1)?  No show like it had ever been done.  It was surely a financial gamble but look what happened.  The timing was just right in the sense that the culture presented a window of opportunity for Drag Race to take root and expand in the public consciousness.  Part of that was undoubtedly due to Obama and the reaction against the conservativism of the Bush years.

The pendulum swung in the other direction.  Now, with Trump in office and the state of politics being what it is, the show feels more necessary than ever.  Drag Race gives people the permission to step outside the confines of their socially programmed way of thinking to derive pleasure from watching people flout convention.  Our guard comes down.  We get to live vicariously through the contestants.  In its purest sense, this is the supreme joy of drag.

Corrupting forces

However, a corrupting force has infiltrated and crashed the party.  The fandom surrounding the show has taken a dark turn in the form of viciousness on social media and cyberbullying.  Disliked contestants are met with vitriol and scorn.  On a macro level, perhaps this is the pendulum swinging back the other way.  Freedom and the tearing down of barriers lead people to instinctively seek out methods of classification and division.  It feels safer that way. I’m on his side, and not yours.  I’m rooting for him, and not him.  I hope he fails.  It’s as if the human psyche gets intimidated by freedom and love – yes, love – and we revert to our baser nature.

The show is plenty culpable.  The competitive nature of the program makes it ripe for this kind of rotten fandom.  It’s simple marketing.  In their effort to produce a compelling drama, the show encourages identification and classification.  So-and-so is the good guy; so-and-so is the villain, etc.  Contestants who go on the show and self-produce their image also encourage this kind of identification and classification.

Essentially, these marketing tactics serve to strip away the humanity and complexity of these contestants, so it becomes easier to direct our animus (and fanatic devotion) at them.  Drag queens, who have always had thick skins, can banter and battle amongst themselves.  The problem arises when the fans watching at home, most of whom are not part of that subculture, feel inclined to participate in the bitchiness by taking sides.  It’s vicarious living, yes, but it’s also somewhat presumptuous in much the same way that outsider involvement in family disputes is presumptuous.  It just isn’t right.  I can argue with my sister and curse at her; I’m allowed to do that.  It’s a thing between us. You, however, are not allowed to do that.

The price of mainstream success

This is all a double-edged sword.  Certainly, there is a lot of fun to this set-up.  Fans of the show get bite-sized morsels of easily digestible drama, and that contributes to the ease of the show’s rise in popularity.  At the same time, it’s not a good look when LGBT fans – presumably the core audience demographic – who are supposed to know better than to be divisive and judgmental, then go out and enact some of the same transgressions against the contestants that the equal rights movement as a whole would protest against.

Perhaps this is the unanticipated price of mainstream commercial success – the result of taking a marginalized aspect of the culture and catapulting it into the national spotlight during the age of social media.  Life’s a trade-off, and there are always growing pains to be endured.  I’m not entirely sure that the show can effectively quash this unintended consequence.  They’ve tried to address it on the show by making cyberbullying a featured topic of discussion.  But will it ever go away completely?

Unified voices of inclusivity and love

It should be recognized that we need a show like this now more than ever.  People talk of an ongoing culture war.  I don’t know if that’s true.  It certainly feels true.  We need all the voices of inclusivity, freedom, and humor to be on deck, and that’s what this show is. A voice for progress.  Hostility and divisiveness threaten to hamper the power of that voice and possibly silence it.  Fans of the show, who are integral participants in the Drag Race phenomenon, have a responsibility to assess their attitudes and actions and realize that we are all on the same side here.  We are all part of that voice of inclusivity and love, and as such, we have a very real interest in making sure that voice remains pure.

Drag Race is a show to be celebrated.  RuPaul (along with the executive producers and main judges who make the show possible, including the amazing Michelle Visage, Carson Kressley, and Ross Mathews) fully deserves this Emmy nomination.  The future looks bright for this program, which is revolutionary and will be recognized as a pivotal point in television history.  How long the show will last and what becomes of it is really anyone’s guess, but, in a sense, isn’t that up to us?


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