Commentary: Where Has ‘Drag Race’ Taken Drag, and Where Will It Go?

I’ve always enjoyed referring to “RuPaul’s Drag Race” as “gay sports.”

As a closeted kid in football-obsessed Oklahoma, I was fascinated by how sports provided the prompt for conversation between straight men with otherwise nothing in common. Liberal or conservative, blue collar or white collar, these differences could be briefly transcended with an idle reference to the teams, the players and the stats.

"RuPaul's Drag Race" All-Stars Tatiana, Alaska Thunderfvck, Phi Phi O'Hara, Alyssa Edwards and Ginger Minj perform at the 2016 Logo's Trailblazer Honors at Cathedral of St. John the Divine on June 23, 2016 in New York City. Gary Gershoff / Getty Images for Logo

If you’ll indulge an imperfect analogy, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” occupies a similar role for a significant number of LGBTQ people, particularly gay men. Navigating the boozy, crowded milieu of gay nightlife can be anxiety inducing, but where two “Drag Race” fans meet, there is a built-in set of references, in-jokes, and debates: Who are your favorite queens? What’s the best lip-sync? Do you think Katya was robbed?

Stats also figure heavily into these conversations. Queens are compared based on their aesthetics, how many challenges they won, what they’ve accomplished since leaving “Drag Race” and which ones deserve a second chance.

These perennial conversations have long been a staple for “Drag Race” fans. Only now, they are expanding beyond the realm of gay bars and the show’s LGBTQ fan base into the mainstream.

Recently, it was announced that “RuPaul’s Drag Race” snatched up eight Emmy nominations, including one for Best Reality Program. The tea is, of course, that the show has always been the best reality program, simultaneously spoofing and drawing from popular shows like “America’s Next Top Model” and “Project Runway.”

Image: RuPaul Charles
RuPaul Charles with the award for outstanding host for a reality or reality-competition program for "RuPaul's Drag Race" on Sept. 11, 2016, in Los Angeles. Richard Shotwell / Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

Over the course of 11 seasons, Drag Race went without a nomination in any category until last year, when RuPaul won a Creative Arts Emmy, or, pejoratively, a “Shmemmy,” in the category of Best Host.

The show didn’t suddenly become great this year. What did change, however, was a move from Viacom’s LGBTQ media property LOGO over to VH1. The demographics of the audience, too, have shifted. Caroline Franke has a great write-up at Vox about the show’s burgeoning teen fan base. But with that massive influx of fans and popularity comes renewed discussion on who drag culture is “for.”

The debate isn’t so cut and dry as being between LGBTQ people and cisgender, heterosexual audiences. Drag culture in the United States began as an underground scene predominated by people of color, and was a hub for the transgender community. The same can hardly be said about the majority cisgender gay spaces that eagerly partake in “Drag Race” viewing parties.

Either way, the LGBTQ community is understandably protective. There is a long history of mainstream culture marginalizing LGBTQ artists while profiting off of their aesthetics. Madonna’s “Vogue,” which borrowed heavily from underground ballroom culture, is one prominent example. Some, including RuPaul himself, say the immensely popular “Lip Sync Battle” is another.

The finalists of "RuPaul's Drag Race" season 9. Courtesy of Logo

But on the other hand, “Drag Race” has provided queer artists with a viable, albeit limited, channel through which to achieve cultural and economic recognition. Without “Drag Race,” many of the queens who are touring the world today would still be at their local gay bar and working for tips. In that sense, it is doing the opposite of appropriating. It is amplifying and compensating.

No matter which side of the debate one might fall on, the reckoning with “Drag Race’s” place in mainstream culture is part of a wider discussion on the LGBTQ community’s place in dominant society. Some say we ought to strive to prove how similar we are to our cisgender, heterosexual counterparts, while others say liberation lies in defining ourselves apart from the mainstream and its conventions.

Related: Native America 'Two Spirit' Uses Drag to Connect to His Roots

For now, “Drag Race” straddles that razor-thin line. It is host to a blossoming ecosystem of queer artists and the fans who are eager to support them. This phenomenon is taking place in an age where more and more people are willing to challenge gender norms, perhaps due in part to the kind of messages “Drag Race” represents.

But these things happen in cycles. RuPaul himself proliferated mainstream culture in the '90s with a MAC cosmetics campaign, a talk show on VH1 and multiple major movie appearances, only for the conservative Bush era to take hold and tighten the spaces for queer representation in media.

And so, “Drag Race” and drag culture teeters on a precipice. Whether it tips back to its radical roots or all the way into the mainstream largely depends on which way the winds blow.

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