RuPaul’s Drag Race has ruined Drag

Trixie Mattel is the winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars 3. There is a certain irony that Brian Firkus’ perfectly executed parody of plastic, mass-produced womanhood (Barbie) seized the crown in a reality TV-show franchise that has “Barbie”-fied the art of drag: taking a staple of underground queer nightlife and turning it into a basic cable commodity perfectly positioned for the all-important suburban white girl market.

It is an irony that one cannot help but think that Firkus must see. His website proudly proclaims “Keep out of Reach of Children.” His non-Drag Race work, including a one-woman show (Ages 3 and Up) and a folk album (Two Birds) reveal a dark and brilliant talent, with an inordinately keen awareness of the ways of the world. (“Mama Don’t Make Me Put on the Dress Again” is a painfully beautiful reflection on show business worthy of Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton.)

Drag is, ultimately, about knowing who you are, what society thinks of that and making humor, beauty and art from the mess of it.

There is a certain justice to this winner: In this heist of American culture, outsiders can suddenly claim their pop culture-beating heart and the real financial rewards that come with it. It is the ultimate triumph for the art of drag: the creation of an illusion that is satire and yet shockingly real. It is a beautiful homage to mainstream values and norms that shamelessly and hilariously repudiates them in a way that is clear to the knowing. It is an inside joke with glitter and sequins.

And yet, like any private pleasure suddenly elevated for public consumption, drag is experiencing not a few growing pains. Earlier this month, RuPaul, the grande dame of drag’s mainstreaming success, sparked controversy when he told The Guardian that he would “probably not” allow transgender women who had taken steps to medically transition to participate on his show. That interview was just one of a series of missteps for the show and its host concerning trans issues. The Guardian interview also dug up other long-term resentments and disagreements fluttering under the surface of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the mainstream success of drag, including the place (or lack thereof) of cis women in the show and the larger world of drag and racism in the show’s fandom.

While it would seem that the approval of a VH1 reality show probably should not matter to what is ultimately an artistic pursuit, the fact is that the economics of RuPaul’s Drag Race matters in a big way. A coveted spot on the show’s lineup is, for all practical purposes, the only way to turn drag into a full-time occupation. You can’t keep anyone from doing drag, but if someone wants to pay rent with drag, Drag Race is the only game in town.

The (Ru Paul) backlash might just be the best thing that’s happened to the art of drag since Drag Race sashayed on to the scene.

The economics of modern drag is something not lost on any queen existentially barred from the hallowed workroom. This includes Courtney Conquers, a Toronto-based hyper-queen (that’s a cis woman in drag), whose transformation from Lady Gaga fan to drag queen charts much of the path of contemporary drag. In her case, it includes a Masters thesis on Lady Gaga and, through social media, a keen awareness of how the gender revolution is playing out in the general population.

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Hyper-Queen Courtney Conquers, via her Instagram.

She told me the message of drag is, “You can literally be anything you want to be regardless of your physical being on this earth.” Yet she readily admits that the show and its success have created a two-tiered drag world. Bridging this divide is a huge part of the work that Conquers does with collaborator Ja’mie Queen West through their popular “Drag Coven,” a sort of Youtube– and Instagram-supported Dead Heads of Drag.

But Conquers and Drag Coven are not just bridge builders. They are part of what might be seen as a revolt against the Drag Race empire from drag’s inner core. One that could not just save drag, but maybe save us all. RuPaul’s Guardian comments were met with not a little opposition from “her girls.” A number of former contestants who have later come out as trans women spoke out against their former judge. They were joined by their cis counterparts, among them last year’s winner, Sasha Velour, who used the opening of her sold out Brooklyn “Nightgowns” show to yet again repudiate RuPaul’s remarks. Velour said:

“Trans women, trans men, AFAB — which is Assigned Female At Birth — and non-binary performers, but especially trans women of color, have been doing drag for literal centuries and deserve to be equally represented and celebrated alongside cis men.”

You know who would not have done great on RuPaul’s Drag Race? Leigh Bowery, (who) is among the greatest drag artists of all time.

A chorus of voices, both from the show and its fandom and beyond, took to social media to denounce “Mama Ru” in a sort of reclamation. One man did not own drag. One show could not and would not define it.

The backlash might just be the best thing that’s happened to the art of drag since Drag Race sashayed on to the scene. Because you know who would not have done great on RuPaul’s Drag Race? Leigh Bowery. You know who is among the greatest drag artists of all time, perhaps the greatest? Leigh Bowery. That is not to say that Drag Race has not had a plethora of talented performers, even revolutionary ones, not just among its contestants, but among its winners as well (Mattel and Velour, for example). But it also is not good for drag to be commercially dominated by a single brand.

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Leigh Bowery: too brilliant for “Drag Race.” Photo: Werner Pawlok.

Our historical epoch is one of chaos. The climate is collapsing along with liberal democracy. Fearful old ideologies, once thought entirely defeated, are re-emerging from Poland to Tennessee. At the same time, old categories of identity and belonging make increasingly little sense. While it might seem ridiculous that a TV show about makeup and costumes could have anything to do with this, the art form it features absolutely does.

Drag is, ultimately, about knowing who you are, what society thinks of that and making humor, beauty and art from the mess of it. It’s a radical form of self-naming and self-reclaiming that has been brought to the masses in the surprising form of reality TV. But if drag is going to give its fullest gift to the world, it has to grow bigger than the show that elevated it to basic cable. That means knowing when the guru is wrong and saying it. It also means that everyone else, the vast majority of us who neither contour nor sparkle, should get out there and find and support drag beyond the TV show. To help you (as part of my ongoing efforts to improve all your lives), here are five places to start. (And note: I tried to write those two-line hypes, but it sounded insincere. Really, just go to the links. These are brilliant artists you have to see. No catchy praise from me necessary.)

  1. Courtney Conquers
  2. Krystal Summers
  3. Lucy Stoole
  4. Lady Boi
  5. Imp Queen


4 responses to “RuPaul’s Drag Race has ruined Drag

  1. This kind of ‘analysis’ really does irk me. Originally I wasn’t going to comment but after seeing a drag show last night, and talking with the performers, I kept coming back to this article and just how idiotic it is.

    Firstly, lets do something the author here has failed to do. Without Ru Paul’s decades of hard work, this article would never have made it to press in any form, let alone in a national / international arts forum. The author both publicly hates on someone and attempts to intellectualise a niche of academia that comes *directly* from the hard work and advocacy of a gay PoC (Ru Paul). That takes a certain type of both chutzpah but also seems to neglect a fair bit of insight. Or is it just ironic?

    Secondly, as a gay kid, drag queens saved my life. I don’t do drag. I’d probably be a horrendous artist. But as a 14 year old gay kid, the old school drag queens of the 1990s showed me (and taught me) that there are *many* ways to be gay and each one is okay. Even Lady Bunny has recently commented on how the lgbtiq community seems intent on eating its own and tearing down people who have helped us gain acceptance and put shows like Drag Race on tv. Yes, Leigh Bowery may not have been on drag race. But Leigh is unlikely to have ever *wanted* to be on drag race. Drag Race serves numerous purposes but over its 10 seasons and interations the core messages have remained the same: positivity (particularly for the HIV+ community), self acceptance, acceptance of others and at the end of the day – fun, humour and a nod and a wink. Remember when the token gay character on a tv show ended up dead, with HIV/AIDS, suiciding or being gay bashed? I do. I grew up with it on tv. At least Ru Paul and Drag Race are sending out some positive messages and challenges for the community.

    I’m not going to question the author’s background. But I do get very antsy at the current crop of commentators telling us drag is ‘boring’ or needs to be done ‘better’ and ‘more inclusive’. If you don’t understand the history, or even appreciate the history and importance to the community, please step off and keep your recommendations for white cis women in drag for a more appropriate forum (drag kings do excellent work – perhaps talking their community up would have been a great option?). And before I get called a misogynist for the last comment, I’m sure your friend is a very good artist. But the concept of a ‘Hyper Queen’, to me as a gay man, is offensive.

  2. Very interesting piece. Enjoyed its insights. I have been a bit “bored” with drag for many years especially how it seems to define Gay etc. However everyone loves a talented performer. So its complex. This article brings out a lot of this complexity. Great writing.

  3. A Masters on Lady Gaga! I’ll save you the time. She sucks! She has a great voice but so what? “Born This Way” = reactionary rubbish


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