If you’ve filled out your personal details online recently, you’ll have noticed the sudden increase in options when it comes to selecting your ‘gender’ – female, male, transgender, gender fluid, gender non-conforming, bigender – the possibilities are endless! We’re in an age of gender fluidity and freedom of sexuality. Gender is in the spotlight.
Queue RuPaul’s Drag Race: a reality competition series in the search for America’s next drag superstar. Each week, contestants compete in various challenges, from underwater photo shoots to performing in telenovelas, where they’re judged on their all-round ability as drag queens. At the end of each episode, the bottom two queens must “lip-sync for their life” in order to avoid being sent home.
Hosted by actor, drag queen and television personality, RuPaul, the show prides itself on its role as an advocate for self-love and of drag as a respectable art form. “Remember, if you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”, RuPaul asks the remaining drag queens at the end of each episode, “can I get an amen up in here?”
But is the show a refreshing and inspiring celebration of self-expression and drag culture or is it simply another product of cultural junk food?
Of course, the drag queen is not a new concept. Since the birth of theatre, men have been performing as women as women were not allowed to perform on stage. And even after women were allowed, men continued to dress as women for comedic effect: drag queens.
Although drag has a long history, RuPaul’s Drag Race is arguably the first time drag culture has been viewed and enjoyed by the masses, proving its popularity with the season 9 premiere reaching almost 1 million viewers.
The show’s relatively recent convergence into mainstream popular culture has enabled public access to a culture that most are unfamiliar with. By introducing viewers to what many would consider to be an alien concept (a homosexual man impersonating a heterosexual woman) the show bridges the gap between the otherwise misunderstood drag community and the typical reality TV consumer.
Through the medium of entertainment television, viewers are able to appreciate drag as an art: singing, dancing, modeling, acting, fashion and makeup – not to mention the dynamic female personas that must be kept up throughout the series.
However, because of the light-hearted nature of RuPaul’s Drag Race and its ludicrous weekly challenges, we may begin to question the show’s cultural value.
TV critics would likely brand the show yet another product of ‘low culture’ in an industry already saturated with simpleminded reality shows. The show’s format resembles America’s Next Top Model: a purely entertainment-based series that arguably provides a template indicating a product of low ‘quality’ television.
So perhaps RuPaul’s Drag Race isn’t going to raise any IQs but by adopting this formulaic structure, the show allows the drag community to be understood and appreciated by the typical popular culture consumer.
Whilst the show uses humour to engage its audience, this has not always been translated effectively and some argue the show is problematic in regards to race and has even been labelled ‘incredibly transphobic.’
But with its overriding themes of self-acceptance, self-love and self-expression, the show does ultimately promote diversity. And as one of the few mainstream representations of the LGBTQ+ community, the show clearly recognises the responsibility it holds.
Most of the girls taking part in the competition have had difficult lives. Many have been disowned by their families and one contestant came out as HIV positive during season six. As RuPaul explains, “their parents don’t approve. Society doesn’t approve.”
For many, the show will remain to be a guilty pleasure and for some, problematic. But by rejecting society’s rules, RuPaul’s Drag Race offers a much needed insight into the drag community and serves as an advocate for self-love in an all too judgmental society.