What does the dominance of RuPaul’s Drag Race say about our culture?

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What does the dominance of RuPaul’s Drag Race say about our culture?

Credit: Gay Star News

Credit: Gay Star News

Credit: Gay Star News

Credit: Gay Star News

Drue Cappawana, Opinion Editor

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“Gentlemen, start your engines. And may the best woman win!”

When RuPaul Charles started RuPaul’s Drag Race back in 2009, on its very first pitch to television network Logo, as well, the world-famous drag star did not expect it to rise to the pedestal on which it is set today. The first three seasons are considered lackluster by many, largely because the show did not have the large budget it now has today, and many more feel as though the first three winners of RuPaul’s Drag RaceBeBe Zahara BenetTyra Sanchez, and Raja, respectively, were undeserving of the title of “America’s Next Drag Superstar.” Many have pointed out that the latter of the three had a personal relationship with the host prior to the show’s taping, and despite competitor Manila Luzon having an identical track record during the competition, some fans suggest RuPaul chose Raja as the winner solely based on that personal relationship. Disclaimer: none of the aforementioned fan theory has been confirmed to be true.

Despite its early struggles, RuPaul’s Drag Race has now become one of the most popular television shows in the world, let alone just in the United States. Recently, Drag Race overtook ultra-popular HBO mega-series Game of Thrones as social media site Reddit’s number one discussed television show. Drag Race has also moved on from the somewhat exclusive network Logo to the VH1 network, where it has become one of the latter network’s most popular shows, alongside Love and Hip Hop: New York and Black Ink Crew

However, the dominance of RuPaul’s Drag Race shows more than just society’s growing appreciation for the art of drag. The dominance of the show exemplifies a shifting dynamic in the way Americans view issues such as race and transgender rights. Although five of the ten winners of RuPaul’s Drag Race and all three winners of spinoff series RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars are white, there have been an extraordinary amount of contestants who are people of colour. And these contestants are some of the most recognisable drag queens in the world, including three-time contestants Latrice Royale and Shangela, the latter of whom has starred in roles on top television shows and in movies, including Two Broke Girls and A Star is Born. Many queens have also come out as transgender at some point during or after the show, including Sonique from the second season and Peppermint from the ninth season of the show. In a world where minorities do not often experience proportional representation, RuPaul’s Drag Race provides that to many marginalised fans throughout the world.

But these conversations do not come without controversy, of course. Back in March, RuPaul himself came under fire after comments that he would “probably not” allow a transgender woman who had already begun transitioning on his show. His interview before the 2018 Emmy’s included another very controversial statement where he stated “Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it, because at its core it’s a social statement and a big f-you to male-dominated culture. So for men to do it, it’s really punk rock, because it’s a real rejection of masculinity.” This created a backlash from many fans and contestants, leading to RuPaul’s apology sometime later. Since then, RuPaul has invited openly transgender contestant Gia Gunn onto RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars season four, which premiered on Friday, December 14. Gunn had been a loud critic of RuPaul’s comments, stating in a tweet “Although I do feel the separation from being a drag queen and now a trans woman, there should not be any reason to be “not accepted” when it comes to the art of drag.  If you are a fierce artist, your [sic] a fierce artist & should be judged based on your art. NOT your gender identity!” Season nine winner Sasha Velour chimed in as well, stating also in a tweet “My drag was born in a community full of trans women, trans men, and gender non-conforming folks doing drag. That’s the real world of drag, like it or not. I thinks [sic] it’s fabulous and I will fight my entire life to protect and uplift it.” RuPaul finally apologised after originally doubling down on his statement in one final tweet, saying “Each morning I pray to set aside everything I THINK I know, so I may have an open mind and a new experience. I understand and regret the hurt I have caused. The trans community are heroes of our shared LGBTQ movement. You are my teachers.”

With the upcoming season of All Stars premiering on Friday and the eleventh season of the original show premiering sometime in early 2019, it is logical to believe that the conversation will only continue to be had, and representation for these marginalised communities will continue to flourish on reality television competition’s largest platform, thanks largely to the fierce competitors who bring their life experiences and opinions to the forefront of the show’s public response.