Mainstream drag culture in 2018 could not be further removed from the art form’s roots. How did we get here?
How Did We Get Here?
Walking around DragCon is a surreal experience in a multitude of ways. People of all genders walking around in ten-inch heels, enormous wigs, couture costumes made of anything from pure glitter to cans of LaCroix, and so much makeup that you can never be sure if you actually recognize someone unless you have their facial structure down by heart. Music blasts through the convention center with some MC (probably someone at least vaguely famous within the drag world) booming into a microphone and a crowd packed around the stage in the corner of the convention hall. The rest of the hall is filled with aisles of vendors selling wigs, jewelry, makeup, acrylic nails, fashion accessories, and handmade garments, and booths set up for queens to meet their fans. Over the course of the weekend, one is bound to experience sensory overload at least once.
With lines of fans queued up for hours to meet drag legends like Alyssa Edwards, Kim Chi, Katya, and Trixie Mattel, and entire floors reserved for VIPs to meet the most elite queens (usually including the most recent winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race—this year’s being Aquaria—and RuPaul herself,1 mainstream drag culture in 2018 could not be further removed from the art form’s roots. Much of drag’s history can be traced back to queer and trans people of color who used the performative art form to blur the lines of gender and defy the gender binary imposed by society. It was an underground political art form and a form of resistance, especially in times when LGBTQ identities were criminalized. RuPaul’s Drag Race has created a tame, inoffensive image of drag fit for mainstream consumerism, making it palatable to audiences who would not have accepted its earlier incarnation. The show’s exponential growth over its ten years on air has been celebrated as a sign of progress, indicating general acceptance of drag. While mainstream drag’s popularity has expanded normative standards, there are drag subcultures that continue to push against restrictive norms.
The drag world is so broad that to lump it all together as “drag culture” would be misleading. There are hundreds of different subcultures within the drag world (even within one city, you could probably find five to ten distinct drag subcultures.) In this paper, I focus specifically on what I think of as “Pop Drag,” or the subculture surrounding RuPaul’s Drag Race, and emphasize that this should in no way be taken as a full or comprehensive representation of drag. Before we go into Pop Drag culture today, let’s look a bit into RuPaul as a figure, where she came from, and how she built her drag empire.
According to many of her oldest friends, RuPaul was destined for stardom from the very beginning. Even before she was born, a psychic told her mother that the child she was carrying would be famous. RuPaul knew that she couldn’t go directly to Los Angeles to make it big, so she left her hometown of San Diego and headed to New York City with the intention of becoming a “downtown superstar,”2 using drag as a medium for her talents. Although the path she first set out on was toward mainstream stardom, upon arriving to New York, RuPaul found the city to be a “mecca for drag queens,” and she became interested in using drag as a political statement. Highly contrasting the refined, polished, picture-perfect RuPaul we recognize today, 1980s RuPaul sported a sloppy and rebellious style, and was known briefly by the name of “gender-fuck.”3 Watching videos of Ru from this era—stumbling around dingy grocery stores, wearing ratty, teased wigs and half-finished makeup, complaining about having to let men touch her to pay rent, and fumbling to find her lipstick—is truly shocking. It’s a completely different person. Watching these videos for the first time turned my concept of RuPaul upside down. I had never seen her so raw and real. On the show, every reaction and every display of emotion—even every laugh—feels filtered, almost performed. Witnessing RuPaul emoting authentically with no filter or guard up felt like I was truly seeing her for the first time.
There is a video of RuPaul’s first performance at the Pyramid Club in the East Village in 1984. She comes onstage in an oversized leopard print jacket, black mini-skirt, leopard print leggings, and sporting her own hair in a teased punk-rock undercut updo. She begins addressing the audience with the same raw authenticity seen in the previously described videos, easing into the performance—monologuing, dancing, singing live into a mic, and obviously charming the crowd.
Lady Bunny, a close friend of RuPaul and famous drag queen that frequented the same venues, described her style as “new-wave drag”; “Ru was a little bit different because he didn’t always do drag. He really pushed it with a Mohawk and his own hair shaved on the sides.”[4.Snetiker, “The Oral History of RuPaul.”] RuPaul and Lady Bunny were often scoffed at by more refined “glamor queens” for their radical, punk-rock influenced, “gender-fucking” drag. This RuPaul is much more closely aligned with drag’s radical roots. So how did Drag Race become the normative, mainstream-appeasing spectacle that it is today?
To gain some context, I interviewed a veteran Drag Race fan, Agustin Fuentes. He said the show “has definitely become a lot more catering to mainstream audiences during its time on air.”4 During the first few seasons, the RuPaul on the show was much closer to the RuPaul seen in videos from her club days. She was much more warm and personable, and the show felt more like a platform with the purpose of giving talented drag performers a voice. As the show went on and the audience grew, RuPaul began pushing it in a direction that made drag more palatable to a mainstream audience. As she became more airbrushed and refined, she also became less authentic and raw. Fuentes thinks that this was a conscious decision because ultimately, her goal was to reach the highest level of acceptance possible, even if that meant sacrificing the art form’s integrity. Most recently, the extent of RuPaul’s censorship of contestants’ true artistic intent became obvious after the airing of season 4, episode 4 of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars, when Manila Luzon posted an image of the dress she had intended to wear for the “curves and swerves” runway. Rather than the shapely pink and black mini dress that appeared on the show, Manila had planned to wear a gown modeled after a maxi-pad with bright red “blood” running from the middle of the pad, down to what turned into the train of the gown. In the caption, she wrote that RuPaul said that the look was “in bad taste,” and that production asked her to wear her backup dress. In the comments, one user wrote, ““In bad taste”?? Whatever happened to transgressive drag giving the big finger to the system? Well . . .” Thinking back to the early days of the show, I could totally see this dress appearing on season 1 with no problem at all. But now that the show is on such a grand stage, RuPaul is evidently less willing to take risks. Fuentes speculates that in the early seasons, RuPaul had a lot less to lose, so she was much less cautious about the boundaries she pushed. Now, she seems to have essentially sold out. “That’s part of why it’s been so hard for me to watch the last two seasons. It’s just so different from how it was at the beginning, and I’ve been avoiding thinking about that.”5
The Drag Race that Fuentes knew was an open platform for a variety of drag artists to express themselves and gain recognition. Now, with the obvious catering to mainstream audiences, there seems to be an unspoken formula for the type of queens that are cast on the show. There’s a certain look: flawlessly defined contouring, blinding highlights, crisply drawn eyebrows, large lustrous pastel-colored wigs, and one or two shiny gemstones glued somewhere around the eyes. A large number of these queens are pageant queens whose focus is on the technicality of the drag (the makeup, persona, and ability to look “fishy.6”) rather than the artistic statements they are making. Even the more radical queens that are allowed on the show are the most palatable of their genre. Even if they have a look or message that is out of the ordinary (such as Sasha Velour many times going bald and blurring gender norms, or Nina BoNina Brown showcasing outlandish, costume-like looks), they still fit into the aforementioned Drag Race formula, being crisp and polished to a certain extent, and not pushing boundaries so far that they might unsettle too many viewers. For example, there has never been a bearded queen on the show—something that is quite common within the drag world, but would perhaps be a step too far outside the comfort zone of the average viewer. The winner of the season is almost always one of the most mainstream-appeasing queens of the bunch.7 This may be in part because even the queens whose focus is more on performance or artistic statement are judged on the aesthetics and technicality of their drag. For purposes of the show being a competition, this makes sense as it is easier to impose objective measures on technical aspects. The problem, however, is that these criteria for judgement send the message that the aesthetics and “correct” performance of a gender is what drag is all about, when in reality, this is only just a sliver of one type of drag out of the many things that drag can be and do.
Possibly the most harmful message that RuPaul has perpetuated about drag is that drag is defined by a man dressing up as a woman. In reality, drag can be done by anyone regardless of gender or expression, and has no limits to what it can look like. It is simply the art of performance through self-expression, often in a manner that is larger-than-life, and challenges norms enforced by society. In fact, more often than not, drag artists are trans, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming in some capacity. RuPaul caused outrage in the trans community when she said that she would probably not allow trans women onto the show anymore, comparing gender-affirming treatments such as Hormone Replacement Therapy to performance-enhancing drugs, and saying that drag “loses its edge” when it is not a man dressing as a woman. Even former contestants of the show expressed deep disappointment and hurt at these remarks, and she eventually tweeted a public apology.8. The most shocking thing about RuPaul invalidating the existence of trans people in drag is that her words do not line up with her actions. Is she really so far removed from her days as “gender-fuck” that she has lost sight of her original artistic vision? But at the same time, after issuing these seemingly transphobic statements, she continues to support trans artists by giving them space on the show. This contradiction is part of what makes it so hard for me to hate or villainize her as many other trans individuals (somewhat understandably) do. I interviewed Charlie Dodge, another fan of the show, who said, “I think she just hasn’t taken the time to educate herself on what’s new in the trans community. Like, I don’t think she’s transphobic—because she does support trans artists, and [the trans community is] where she came from. I think she’s just not thinking about what she’s saying. She’s just kind of stuck in a different time.”9
The typical Drag Race fan religiously follows all of their favorite queens on Instagram and Twitter. They echo quotes and catch phrases popularized by the show such as “henny,” “okuRRRR,” and “gurl, you betta work!” They tongue-pop every other sentence and death-drop for daily entertainment. Many phrases that RuPaul popularized came from the club scene culture that she started in. There would be no problem with her using these phrases and introducing them to the world, but because the show has evolved into such a pop culture format that focuses on consumability rather than content, these phrases have now been completely taken out of context, and their lineage ignored. The fans who are obsessed with the show, who love repeating these phrases and spreading them into their own slang in their daily lives, have no concept of the history behind any of these terms or the communities in which they originated. But how can they be expected to know when the information is not available? The more these phrases become popularized, the less accessible their history becomes, and the more people will have to dig to learn the history as it gets buried further under a packaged-up, consumer-ready image. RuPaul’s intention may have been to gain acceptance for these underground communities by commodifying the culture, but by using and popularizing these phrases out of context, RuPaul and RuPaul’s Drag Race have inadvertently facilitated the erasure of these communities’ histories.
Drag Race fans are notorious for their intensity—watching the show, they become so invested in the challenges and in the drama between contestants that they become unconditionally loyal to their favorite queen, and will go as far as to verbally attack and harass other queens online in reaction to something that happens on the show. The most famous example of this is the reaction of Valentina’s fans to her elimination in episode 9 of season 9 by losing “Lip-Sync for Your Life.” “Lip-Sync For Your Life” is a segment at the end of each episode—after the overall judging of all the week’s challenges, the queens who ended up in the bottom two perform in a lip-sync battle to determine who stays and who “sashays away,” or gets sent home. At that point in the season, Valentina hadn’t landed in the bottom two yet, so this lip sync battle to “Greedy” by Ariana Grande against Nina Bonina Brown was her first (and last) lip-sync of the show. She began the performance with a veil covering her mouth, and attempted to perform the entire song with it on until RuPaul stopped the song to make her take it off.10 When it was revealed that Valentina had not learned the words at all, she was naturally eliminated.11 Online, her fans went into a rage. They defended her and mercilessly attacked Nina to the point that the incident was brought up at the end of the season during the reunion. When confronted about her fans’ behavior and why she did not tell them to back down, Valentina explained that her fans are very protective of her because she represents a fan base that is “very underrepresented in the media,” so they will fight anyone that they feel has threatened her.12 This behavior repeats itself throughout every season. The show is formatted in a way that cultivates a vulnerable relationship between the queens and the viewers, so although it has been said that “it’s not personal, it’s just drag,” it does become personal for the fans.
The way the show breeds such vicious passion from the fans is yet another tactic to make the show as mainstream as possible. Viewers are there to get high off the drama. It has the same effect as reality TV like Real Housewives or Keeping Up with the Kardashians. The spectacular nature of the show—combined with fans developing personal emotional connections to the contestants’ personalities, stories, and what they represent—is what has made the show so successful. The stars of the show often fuel this culture by working references to the show’s drama into YouTube segments, comedy bits, and original music. Again, this makes highly consumable Drag Race content even after a season ends. But watching through a screen, the drama gets amplified, and the full picture is lost through dramatized editing.
In interviews and on social media, the queens say that at the end of the day, Drag Race is a family, and the other queens are their sisters.13 The concept of family is an essential component of drag culture, and queer culture in general. A drag family is like a chosen family, and for so many, this family is crucial because they receive love and acceptance that they may not receive from the family they were raised by. My first time entering a real-life drag space, I was extremely intimidated walking in, but I was greeted by warm hugs and loving greetings from people I had never met before. I felt so loved and full. This felt like the smallest taste of the kind of sisterhood that I’ve heard the Drag Race queens refer to so many times, but I never really seemed to witness on the show. Although the show does try to show some tender moments, these are often overshadowed by the drama and competition that the show focuses on. And for a viewer whose only exposure to the dynamics of drag communities is from Drag Race, the family component may be completely lost. I myself only really see it now after hearing it described by queens who have been on the show after the fact, and having been able to briefly experience it in a drag space myself. This component of the culture is a lot more subtle, and there may not be a good way to accurately convey it to mainstream audiences, especially through the format of a competition reality show.
Although a majority of the queens coming through Drag Race are normative in that they fit the mainstream image of drag that RuPaul has created, a number of drag artists emerging from the show are starting a movement to connect representation of drag back to its roots, shifting the focus back to drag’s history and what the art form really means. Aja, who appeared on both season 9 of RuPaul’s Drag Race and season 3 of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars, spoke on this topic in an interview with Now This News. They talk about how drag has been a tool to connect with their community while pushing the boundaries of gender norms and exploring their own relationship to gender.14 When they issued a statement saying that they do not identify as a drag queen but rather as a queer non-binary artist who uses drag as a medium, there was an uproar, as many misinterpreted Aja’s statement to mean that they disrespected or thought that they were above drag. This, however, was never their intention. They merely wanted to expand the public’s understanding of what drag can be, because “there’s always been millions of different ways to use drag.”15 Aja and several of her peers (another prominent voice being Sasha Velour, the winner of season 9) are among the first to use the platform that they gained from Drag Race to continue to expand, push, and challenge boundaries. RuPaul created the massive platform that will most likely continue to spiral further into the realm of the mainstream. Now, it is up to new voices like Aja to take that platform and revolutionize and re-radicalize it, and shed light on the scope and significance of the art form of drag.
- RuPaul has repeatedly expressed indifference toward what pronouns people use to refer to her. Many articles and informational sites refer to RuPaul as “he,” while on the show, she is mainly referred to as “she.” For the purpose of this piece, I will refer to RuPaul using she/her pronouns.
- Mark Snetiker, “The Oral History of RuPaul,” Rupaul.ew.com, 2016, http://rupaul.ew.com/.
- Snetiker, “The Oral History of RuPaul.”
- Agustin Fuentes interviewed by Milenka Bermanova by phone call, December 15, 2018.
- Agustin Fuentes interviewed by Milenka Bermanova by phone call, 15 December 2018.
- A term used to describe drag queens that look traditionally feminine.
- This complaint especially circulated the winner of season 10, Aquaria. Many complained that her win was predictable (given that she was already Instagram-famous coming onto the show and was known for her slightly subversive yet highly polished drag) even though other contestants were extremely competitive and had important statements to make.
- Sam Levin, “Who Can Be a Drag Queen? RuPaul’s Trans Comments Fuel Calls for Inclusion,” The Guardian, March 08, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/mar/08/rupaul-drag-race-transgender-performers-diversity
- Charlie Dodge interviewed by Milenka Bermanova, December 12, 2018, New York, NY.
- This was unprecedented in the history of the show, because the point of a lip sync in drag is to see how convincingly and entertainingly the performer can “sing” the song. The judges had to see her lips to see how well she lip-synced.
- RuPaul’s Drag Race, season 9, episode 9, “Your Pilot’s On Fire,” aired May 19, 2017, VH1.
- RuPaul’s Drag Race, season 9, episode 13, “Reunited,” aired June 16, 2017, VH1.
- Christopher Rudolph, “Peppermint on The ‘Drag Race’ Sisterhood: ‘I Felt Loved And Accepted,’” LOGO News, March 7, 2017, http://www.newnownext.com/peppermint-rupauls-drag-race-interview/03/2017/; VH1, “The Sisterhood of the Queens,” March 24, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xx5tj2T4vDY.
- Hunter Lacey, “Aja Is Changing How People Think about Drag Performers,” December 5, 2018, https://nowthisnews.com/videos/pop/aja-is-changing-how-people-think-about-drag-performers.
- Lacey, “Aja Is Changing How People Think about Drag Performers.”